Unrecognized Arab Communities Languish in North Without Israeli Authorization

Some of these 3,000 individuals in Israel's north have been there for generations, but without building permits or official recognition of their communities, the future often looks grimmer than the past

The Kobsi community in April, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

Some 3,000 people, mostly Bedouin, live in unrecognized communities in northern Israel without infrastructure or basic services like roads, water or electricity, according to recently completed mapping of unregulated settlements.

The area in question has 30 such unregulated settlements, many of which existed before Jewish residents moved in. Some are located in open areas while others have gradually been surrounded by Jewish communities.

Some families have Ottoman or British-era documents proving that they have lived here for generations. Others have papers from the Land Registry office in the Justice Ministry. But as far as the state is concerned, these communities are unplanned and unauthorized.

In the absence of required permits, the structures – tin shacks, wooden huts, a few stone houses – are illegal. They may not be expanded or renovated, and the residents have no basic services.

Some communities managed to get access to roads, water or electricity after lengthy struggles with the authorities, but many others depend on makeshift connections to the water or power grids of an adjacent community.

The mapping project was carried out by the nongovernmental organizations Dugrinet and Bimkom and photographer Adi Segal.

Aziz Suwad lives in a tin shack with two medium-sized rooms in a community called Kobsi. His residence and other structures housing some 150 to 200 people are located on the hillside above the city of Carmiel in the Galilee.

Mussa Shchada at his home near the community of Kamon. All of his attempts to acquire building permits have been denied
Gil Eliahu

He gets water from a rubber pipe stretching from another unregulated community some two kilometers away. Suwad says sometimes wild pigs chew through the pipe and the water supply is cut off.

About a year ago the family installed two small solar panels on the roof, providing enough power for a refrigerator, television, a few light bulbs and a washing machine (which washes the clothes but doesn't dry them). There are eight people living in the house, some of them with special needs. A nearby house has a small wind turbine on the roof. A steep path winds up from the road below. In the winter the path to the school turns to mud and is almost impossible to walk on.

Suwad says his family has lived here for about 100 years. His house falls under the jurisdiction of the Misgav Regional Council, while the community’s other structures are located on the farming lands of the adjacent Bedouin community Nahaf.

“My father was born here, we didn’t take over anything,” he says. “We’re cut off, as though we don’t belong to Israel. We did everything ourselves. A few years ago we tried to pave an easier way to the road, but the administration [now the Israel Land Authority] blocked it.”

The view from Kobsi is magnificent. “I look at the view and breathe the air and it hurts me even more in my heart,” says Suwad. “I’m 27 and have nowhere to live. If we have no water and cannot build, how long can we stay here?”

Some of the people want to stay but others are willing to move to Nahaf in exchange for plots there, he says. However, the residents in Nahaf object since they want the vacant plots for themselves.

Suwad studied architecture and knows what illegal construction is. “But we’ve been here before many other communities, before the state made the master plan that we don’t even appear in. When someone tries to build they demolish it and say he’s acting against the state. That’s nonsense. All we want is to live.”

Last October Suwad sent all the relevant authorities a letter with government maps, photographs and the number of his plot. “As one who was born here and dreams of integrating into Israel, it’s important for me to understand our legal situation and how we can develop the community and turn it into a regulated settlement,” he wrote.

He asked if there was an option to regulate Kobsi or find a housing solution in another community.

He received a reply from Interior Minister Arye Dery’s advisor saying, “The letter was passed on to the authorized officials for further examination.” The Treasury’s planning administration replied that “upon examination we found that the construction wasn’t in keeping with legally issued permits” and referred Suwad to the Cabinet Secretary.

Unlike Kobsi, which sits on a rocky hillside far from any other community, the 70-odd members of the Shchada family live close to Kamon, a small community about five kilometers east of Carmiel. The entrance to the family’s compound, which consists of 15 homes, is from Kamon’s Hamitzpor Street, about 20 meters from their Jewish neighbors.

Mussa Shchada, 40, says the family has been living there since the middle of the previous century. The land is registered in the family’s name, but all his requests for building permits were rejected and the houses remain “illegal.”

Kamon was founded in 1981 as part of a plan to bring more Jewish residents to the Galilee. Urban planner Cesar Yahudkin of Bimkom says the 1984 plan for Kamon included the area belonging to the Shchada family and allocated it for residence. But as Kamon expanded, a correction made in the plan in 1995 left the family outside the community with no possibility of building legally. Only in recent years have the authorities drafted a plan for legalizing access to the compound and laying down infrastructure, but it has yet to receive final approval.

"There used to be nothing here, only forest,” Shchada says. "Slowly things changed. They built fences that blocked our herds’ access.”

The compound was linked to the power grid last decade and to water two years ago. There is still no sewage system and “for services Kamon sends us to the nearby Bedouin community Kamana. They say we don’t belong to them,” says Jihad, Mussa's brother.

Ron Shani, the head of the Misgav Regional Council, says the solution is for the Bedouin families to move to permanent settlements. “We can’t give every isolated family community the conditions for a settlement,” he says. The Bedouin themselves are responsible for the unregulated settlements, “not the state, which is trying to regulate the issue,” he says.