Analysis

Judaizing the Galilee? Land Reform Marks an About-face

The government is encouraging home building in the Arab sector by granting ex-post facto legal recognition to illegal building and transferring state land for Arab construction to solve the sector’s housing shortage

FILE Photo: A view of the Israeli Arab town of Shfaram, Israel, 2016.
Gil Eliyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu won the 2015 election by appealing to racist voters with a warning on election day that “Arabs are flocking to the polling places in droves.” In 2019, the prime minister will find it difficult to employ the same kind of rhetoric – and not because he has become less cynical. Rather, it’s because his government in the intervening four years has done more than any other in Israel’s history for the country’s Arab citizens.

It began with the report of the 120-Days Committee, which dealt with the problems of planning and building in Arab towns and for the first time offered wide-ranging proposals to address it. They included granting ex-post facto legal recognition to illegal building and transferring state land for Arab construction to solve the sector’s housing shortage.

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It didn’t end there. It was followed up by Government Resolution 922 that allocated 10 billion shekels ($2.8 billion) to rectify the chronic discrimination Arab communities suffered in government spending.

One of the cabinet’s recent meetings, in December, was dedicated to the problem of construction in Arab towns. Ministers were shown figures, in a way never done before, that showed how serious the problem is and how it is being addressed.

Among other things, they learned that since 2012, plans for 120,000 housing units have been approved but that in 2019 alone the figure would grow by another 63,000, or by 50%. Over the last five years, planning approvals in Arab communities have accounted for between 15% and 25% of all approvals in Israel, about in proportion to the Arabs’ share of the population.

More than anything else, the change is seen in the state’s generosity at allocating land for development. For a country that was founded on the slogan of “Judaizing the Galilee” and which established in sin a city like Upper Nazareth for the sole purpose of blocking the expansion of Arab Nazareth, Israel has undertaken a 180-degree turn on the issue of land.

According to data obtained by TheMarker, 58 of the master plans for Arab municipalities call for adding a total of some 75,000 dunams (19,000 acres) within their boundaries – 18,000 of that state lands, including areas like forests and nature reserves whose zoning has been redesignated for residential construction.

It has even gone as far as to return land once taken for Jewish settlement back to Arab communities, like the planned expansion of the Arab town of Kafr Kana that will include taking land from Upper Nazareth. All this has occurred under an extreme-right government that hasn’t refrained from expressions of anti-Arab racism.

The tool that has proven the most effective in this revolution is the National Committee for Planning and Construction of Preferred Housing Areas, which was formed as a way of cutting away the red tape that often slows massive residential construction projects.

During last summer’s debate over whether to extend the committee’s mandate, it was the heads of the Arab local authorities who were at the forefront of the fight to keep it in operation another year.

To help the process along, the government is giving Arab local authorities help that Jewish authorities don’t get. These include covering planning costs for privately held land, special budgets for municipal engineering departments that don’t have adequate resources, other budgets for solving problems with land registry and grants to pay for consultants who help Arab authorities conduct long-term planning.

Sources in the Arab sector say they sense a new, positive attitude from government ministries – for instance, with Machir L’Mishtaken (Buyer’s Price), the government’s flagship program for bringing down housing prices.

The lotteries held under the program to qualify for the right to join the program are normally limited to married couples. But in Arab society, men commonly have to show they own a home or land before they get married. In response, the Housing and Construction Ministry issued a waiver for couples that can show they are engaged.

The problem remains that much of the new good will remains on paper, like the plans that call for 120,000 new homes in Arab towns. The reality is that only a fraction of them will actually be built, according to data from the Israel Lands Authority.

They show that in 2016 only 28% of the land covered by official plans was actually sold to builders or homeowners in Arab communities (the figure may show a big increase for 2017, depending on the results of a single giant tender).

Against the state’s good intentions, there remains the problems that officials are often ignorant of Arab society’s needs and have to deal with Arab local authorities that are poorly managed. Many Israeli Arabs remain suspicious of governrment intentions. All that has made the breakthroughs less powerful than they could be.