Israeli Neglect Slows Housing Construction in Arab Towns, Watchdog Says

A deputy attorney general admitted that this 'might be a mistake that we in the Justice Ministry are responsible for'

The northern Arab town of Nazareth.
The northern Arab town of Nazareth. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Government ministries have neglected the Arab community, a further shortcoming in the failure to solve housing problems in Arab towns, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said in his annual report this week.

The government says it has tried to help the Arab community by signing “umbrella agreements” with Arab cities for new construction, but these pacts have not considered the needs of individual towns. In any case, the government has not implemented large sections of the agreements, Shapira said.

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He said the justice, finance and construction ministries have not properly handled the housing shortage in the Arab community, adding that proposals have not been implemented due to failures including improper planning.

In 2016, the Construction and Housing Ministry signed agreements with 56 local governments in Arab and Druze communities; Shapira found problems in 13 of them.

The Israel Land Authority has only partially carried out the sale of land for construction in Arab towns, and in three cases, in towns with tens of thousands of people, no state land was sold to ease the housing shortage, Shapira said.

The development agreements have three stages, but the conditions for each stage are difficult to carry out, making it more likely that the agreements will never be implemented in full, he said.

Obtaining proper licensing for sites built illegally is one of the hardest conditions for reaching an agreement, leaving local governments with less money than promised in budgets and halting development.

The Arab town of Umm al-Fahm.Credit: Rami Shllush

Funds are also allotted without adequately considering how they address a community’s needs – and a budget of only 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) was earmarked to build a large number of public institutions, Shapira said.

The comptroller also found that the law requiring appropriate representation of minorities on district planning and building committees and other local planning committees had not been implemented.

Only two members of the National Planning and Building Council (about 6 percent) are representatives of minority groups, and only four of the 54 members of the regional planning bodies in Haifa and northern and central districts are minorities.

In northern districts minorities make up 54 percent of the population but only 6 percent of the regional committee – one out of 17 people.

The decision to establish planning and building committees in Arab towns and let them draw up their own plans was never implemented, Shapira said. The Construction and Housing Ministry only partially implemented the decision to promote planning for construction on privately-owned land in Arab communities.

Shapira said the lack of registration of property in the land registry in Arab communities was a major problem, making it difficult for people to take out a mortgage and further delaying the building-permit process. The Justice Ministry has received a budget to advance such registration, but has failed to solve the problem or even hire anyone to manage records at the registry, Shapira said.

At a conference last week at the initiative of the Justice Ministry, Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminitz admitted negligence of development in Arab communities in conjunction with Resolution 922, a five-year plan passed in 2015 that allocated 10 billion shekels to the Arab community.

“This might be a mistake that we in the Justice Ministry are responsible for. We caused a situation in which only five out of 15 Arab villages passed on to the next stage because the rest did not have enough structures qualified,” Kaminitz said.

“We shouldn’t focus on the past but on the future. If in the past they expropriated land and there was no planning, today we’re talking about taking land from private landlords for public use rather than state use. That land is used to establish schools, kindergartens, sidewalks, roads and so on.”

The nonprofit group Sikkuy that fights to promote an equal and shared society for Arab and Jewish citizens said that only 474 buildings in the Arab community received the necessary legal arrangements in 2018. Sikkuy called this "a drop in the ocean compared with the 50,000 structures that were built over the years without permits in Arab communities as a result of discriminatory policies."

It said that to register illegal structures "and to prevent new construction without permits, there is a need for budget planning in Arab communities and to create procedures that will help local Arab authorities .... Years of planning neglect demand a solution.”

In response, the Interior Ministry's Planning Administration said that in recent years it has striven to advance planning for Arab communities while meeting its planning goals in a strategic plan for 2040. The administration expects to approve around 60,000 housing units, three times the number set in the planning target.

The administration added that establishing a local planning and building committee is not a simple matter, and such a process requires more cooperation from the Arab towns.

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