For Israeli Arabs, There Is No Choice but to Build Illegally

Blame the lack of land and bank credit, blame weak local governments and the lack of planning autonomy — and hope that a new state initiative can be part of the solution.

This home, of an Arab family in Lod, was demolished in 2014 because it was built illegally. In the picture, two children stand on the rubble of a house.
Yuval Tebol

It’s very easy for Israel’s Jewish majority to blame the Arab minority for its poverty. Three main claims are used to support the argument that the Israeli Arab poor are to blame for their poverty: that they don’t pay taxes, that the local governments of the Arab communities are corrupt and in the hands of clans and that Arabs build illegally, without permits.

There is some truth to these arguments. Tax collection rates are lower in Arab communities. They are rising, however, especially when it comes to the local property tax. Local government is indeed weak, their elections clan-based, though there has been some improvement here as well. And yes, Israeli Arabs build illegally.

How many illegal houses are there in the Arab towns? No one knows. A committee was appointed a year ago to study the issue, headed by Deputy Attorney General for Civil Law Erez Kaminitz. In January the panel issued recommendations for ways to combat the problem, but it did not try to quantify it. All we have is the number of demolition orders issued, which presumably is only a fraction of the number of buildings built illegally.

Whatever the real number, it’s clear there’s a lot of illegal construction. The problem is actually worse in Druze communities, due to lousy local management and a sense that the state is less likely to demolish illegally built homes in their towns because it “owes” the Druze, who serve in the army and support the state.

Nor is there any dispute that the illegal construction hurts mainly the Arabs themselves. The Kaminitz report states as much too. “Illegal construction is usually dense, fails to meet basic planning standards, ignores the needs of the public and proper systems for infrastructure and does not undergo licensing processes to assure construction safety and stability.”

In fact, illegal construction is one of the main reasons for the poor quality of infrastructure in Arab towns. Much of the land slated for roads, schools, parks and even water and sewage systems is instead used for illegal construction.

Absurdly, sometimes the mere publication of a plan for use of a public space leads to somebody building on it illegally. A regional council may announce that it’s expropriating land to build a road, and presto, a house pops up on it, creating a fact on the ground. It’s so bad that some regional councils have stopped publishing their plans.

There is also no dispute that the Arabs are not solely to blame for this disorder. The main reason they build illegally is the near-impossibility of building legally. The Arab towns have very little land available, their local governments are too weak to draw up and implement development plans and, above all, there is no master plan to enable building in accordance with the law.

No planning

A report issued last year by the government-appointed 120-Day Team established to study the issue homed in on the obstacles: Only four Arab towns have their own zoning boards. The remainder are subject to the decisions of the district planning and building committees. Community leaders lack authority and responsibility for building in their towns. In addition, the towns don’t have the money to maintain building and engineering departments capable of proper planning and development, let alone enforcement.

Before 2000, there was no master plan for any Arab town. Since then many have been published, but they do not always meet requirements and many communities are still without.

In any case, in order to implement a master plan the local government must publish a detailed local plan. Few Arab towns are capable of doing so, due to the weakness of their planning bodies.

Also, land in Arab towns is privately owned, so it’s almost impossible to plan public areas. Registration is also a huge problem. Towns have no government-owned land on which public institutions can be erected, or roads built. Nor is there any development of such land, because of the paucity of resources and planning ability.

Finally, it is very hard to obtain credit for construction: Try being an Arab applying for a mortgage from a “Jewish” bank, for a mortgage to build a house, let alone on unregistered land.

In short, Israel’s Arabs build illegally mainly because they live in poor, crowded towns with no land for development, no master plan, no orderly registration of land ownership, where the local authorities are inept at planning, developing and enforcement.

But the main blame must go to the rich Jewish majority that enabled the Arab towns to deteriorate for years.

Finally the Jewish majority has woken up and realized it can’t just keep blaming the poor. The 120-Day Team was the first real step; for the first time, the government took responsibility to make more land available and to help with planning and development.

Reset and start over

Just as importantly, the 120-Day Team acknowledged the problem of illegal construction and suggested a sort of reset. Much existing illegal construction erected on land designated for housing would be retroactively legitimized.

The five-year plan was the second unprecedented step to help the Arab sector, in which the state took responsibility for crass budgetary discrimination and promised to at least reduce it. A key part of reducing discrimination touched on planning and construction — completing the master plan and detailed plans for the Arab towns, helping develop the land and build public institutions and establishing 22 local planning and building committees. All this should cost about a billion shekels ($256 million). It’s a step in the right direction toward making Arab towns look less like the Third World and more like towns in an advanced Western nation.

The only snag is that this welcome initiative has spurred some Likud cabinet ministers, notably Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, to oppose allocating state funds to Arab towns for planning and building unless they first take action against illegal construction.

The fact that the main victims of illegal building are the Arabs themselves, and that there is no similar condition for Israeli Jews matters to Elkin and Levin. You wonder whether they care about the welfare of Arab residents, or if they’re just trying to block the allocations altogether.

Hoping to overcome this snag, a team comprising the directors general of the Prime Minister’s Office, the finance and justice ministries and the city of Jerusalem have proposed a compromise aimed at increasing enforcement of building laws. The approach is carrot-and-stick: measures to help the towns, in keeping with the 120-Day Team’s recommendations and the five-year plan while making them responsibility for combating illegal construction.

Local authorities that meet the challenge would be rewarded with their own planning and building committees, giving the mayors more control and authority over building in their towns. Communities that fail to adequately control illegal construction would not be given their own zoning boards. In addition, the state would assume responsibility for enforcing building laws in these towns, further weakening the authority of their local governments.

Enforcement, whether done locally or nationally, would be stepped up and focus on serious offenses, such as building on public land. People caught doing that would not only face losing the buildings, which would be razed (at present, most demolition orders get ignored), but would also face criminal charges and much heavier financial penalties than are customary now.

The Kaminitz report shows that the state has a lot of difficulty demolishing illegal houses, once they’re up and occupied. In 2014, for instance, 55 demolition orders were issued by the courts but only nine were executed. Of these, by the way, 24 (nearly half) were issued for illegal construction in Jewish towns, but none of these were implemented. The nine demolitions were all in Arab towns.

This very selective enforcement raises serious questions but mainly, it shows that the state finds it hard to enforce demolition orders. That is why the Kaminitz committee recommended reserving demolition for only the gravest cases, using heavy fines for most offenders. In light of the state’s poor success rate in executing demolition orders and its significant responsibility for the illegal construction in Arab towns, that sounds like a reasonable compromise. The question is whether Elkin and Levin will agree, or whether all they want is to take revenge on Israeli Arabs.