Building a Case Against Illegal Construction

The latest state comptroller's report shows that Israel is unable to stop the erection of illegal structures, proving that it is not always easier to tear down than build up.

The Mount Carmel ridge isn't part of Israel proper. At least that is how it seems as far as law enforcement is concerned. The state comptroller's report published earlier this month devoted an entire chapter to the enforcement of Israel's land laws. It quotes a top Interior Ministry source who says that when it comes to the ridge of Mount Carmel, the law simply doesn't exist. "We're on the brink of bankruptcy in Wadi Ara, too," he said, referring to enforcement, not finances.

The public and press have long lamented the lax enforcement of planning and building law in Israel. Committees have been formed and have handed down recommendations. Yet in his last report, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss reveals an utter collapse of policy. He shows that if anything, illegal construction has picked up pace. The report reveals cases of the police being afraid to help raze illegally constructed edifices, for fear of violent reaction. This applies mainly to the Arab and Druze towns.

Lindenstrauss reports that there are approximately 100,000 illegally constructed buildings in Israel, almost two-thirds of which belong to Bedouin in the Negev. From the year 2002 to 2008, Bedouins doubled their construction. During that time, the comptroller says, the number of fixed buildings (as opposed to flimsy huts that could go up or down in no time) slated for demolishing in the Negev, on the grounds of having been constructed illegally, increased by 160%.

The Bedouins of the Negev have built entire unrecognized villages. In so going, they are creating a humanitarian sinkhole of problems because there's no infrastructure in place. Their actions also greatly harm nature and landscape, and contradict planning policy for the greater Be'er Sheva metropolitan area. The result is that it's all the harder to replan and legalize the illegal villages, and make them habitable.

But make no mistake about it - the Jewish towns are replete with building offenders, too, who the state comptroller also discusses. The Interior Ministry has been focusing on one specific aspect: illegal event venues, which it has set out to systematically demolish.

However, right alongside an illegal event garden or hall you may well find great sprawling shopping centers that are no more virtuous, full of edifices that went up without permits in place. There are thousands of illegal buildings for employment or commerce in moshavim, some of which were only legitimized ex post facto.

Ironically, the very project supposed to stop the Bedouins from encroaching on state land and erecting buildings illegally is also ridden with problems of - you guessed it - illegal construction. The project in question is called Derech Hayayin, or the Wine Route.

Two years ago, says the state comptroller, given the mounting incidence of law violations by isolated farms in the Negev, the attorney general advised the government to crack down - on both the civil and criminal fronts. But the attorney general's advice was not heeded, says Lindenstrauss. Only in recent months have the supervisors of southern Israel begun to do something about it.

Lindenstrauss found that the different enforcement bodies at the different institutions and ministries operate independently, with no coordination between them. They have no working plan and no common policy. They lack organized databases, and don't follow up to see whether a court's order to demolish an illegal building has in fact been carried out.

The police has an administration to coordinate enforcement, but only half its positions have been manned and its budget has been used for other purposes, the comptroller says.

The police's "policy" of not assisting in enforcing the law in Arab and Druze towns is system-wide. Lindenstrauss notes the case of an injunction to raze a building going up in the town of Ibtin, in northern Israel. An injunction was handed down no less than three times, but it was never carried out because the police never allocated officers to back up the ministry inspectors.

In another case involving a Druze village, police said that any help would have to involve thousands of policemen, and was thus impossible.

The degree of apprehension law-enforcement officers feel is obvious from a document the legal counsel to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Sara Shalom, sent to the government a few weeks ago. She wrote the paper ahead of a government debate on land reform, and enforcement.

Regarding the problems of illegal construction and encroachment onto state land, Shalom wrote that entire swathes of the nation are being lost to illegal construction because of the helplessness of the authorities to enforce the law, including through the police. "Every day the inspectors of the INPA, the Green Patrol and the construction supervisors of the Housing and Construction Ministry encounter acts of violence, which are growing worse," she wrote.

The state comptroller barely touches on the deeper flaws of the planning and government authorities in Israel. It doesn't all begin and end with enforcement. A more profound issue is the political echelon's reluctance to formulate solutions for whole sectors, be they agricultural or Arab towns.

In the case of agricultural towns, including moshavim and kibbutzim in central Israel, the state actually encouraged, or studiously ignored, zoning deviations. In the case of the Arab towns, one of the worst problem is the lack of master plans. In recent years the Interior Ministry has been working on such plans for many of the towns, but for the meantime, housing is scarce and families continue to build without permits, lacking alternatives.

The police are well aware of the reasons underlying the deep frustration in these towns. Explaining why they don't help in the vicinity of the Mount Carmel ridge, police stated that what the area needs is a system-wide solution: this isn't a problem for the police to solve. As things stand, the local population feels deeply deprived, because of delays in drawing up a master plan for the area versus the urgent need to find housing solutions for people, the police went on to say. "Any attempt to demolish the area would lead to riots and spilled blood."

The worst failure touches on the Bedouins, who have seen quite a number of committees come and go, each of which was supposed to replan their living quarters. The latest effort was a panel headed by former High Court justice Eliezer Goldenberg. That panel filed its recommendations half a year ago, including recommendations to legitimize some of the illegal construction. But the government has yet to make any decisions.

At least on this matter. The government has made a number of decisions about planning and construction, for instance to provide more assistance in demolishing illegal buildings, as it told the state comptroller.