The Jaffa Convention, one of the only forums that regularly brings together Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel to discuss some of the most pressing issues in the relationship between the two populations, always touches on something controversial.

But on Sunday for the first time since the annual Jaffa Convention began in 2005, the organizers focused on the issue of land, ratcheting up the relevance of the forum as Arab politicians, academics and lawyers slammed the limitations being put on the growth of communities in the Arab sector.

MK Hanna Swaid (Hadash) condemned the recent demolition of Arab homes by Israeli authorities and said that increased activity – including thousands of homes under the threat of demolition – could soon to boil over into a confrontation against the government and its various branches, such as the police and the Israel Lands Authority.

But Prof. Rassem Khamaisi, an urban and regional planner and geography professor at the University of Haifa, said part of the problem was that too few Arabs get involved in the planning process and learn to use the system to serve their needs.

“We need to know how to do lobbying,” Khamaisi told the conference, held at the Arab- Jewish Community Center in Jaffa. “This is the game today in the State of Israel. We can learn how to do it and achieve our goals. We should behave as a community and not as a minority. I tell people, stop saying we’re weak. Say I’m strong and you’re blocking me.”

He gave an example of Maghar, a village of Beduin, Druse and Christians in the Upper Galilee, where four homeowners recently received demolition orders. There, he said, even involvement in local planning committees was not enough to stop homes from being threatened with imminent demolition. “Sure, most of the people on the committee in the area of Maghar are Arabs, but the head of the committee, is [from] Shas.”

Most of the decisions are made by the Construction and Housing Ministry, Khamaisi suggested, which is headed by Ariel Attias of the Shas Party.

“Even when we do participate, the power relationships are asymmetrical,” he added.

Dr. Swaid, who has a Phd in civil engineering and urban planning, told the audience that last week he went to Bir al-Maksur, a Beduin village near Shfaram, to visit someone who was about to have his home demolished because it had been deemed illegal. It had been built about seven years ago, and was just beyond the official village line. Israeli-Arab leaders have for many years complained that their cities, towns and villages have not been allowed to expand despite soaring birthrates, and that many Arab locales lack plans for state-sanctioned development.

“Last week I got caught between the police and the youths who wanted to oppose the destruction of the house. They wanted to stop it, and in the end it was destroyed,” Swaid said. “I’m not talking about the unrecognized villages. I want to emphasize the damage that results from the destruction of a house. Destruction of a home is the most obvious crisis you can create in the connection between man and his land. It destroys all his rights. There plenty of illegal building in Jewish areas, even more than in Arab ones, but it is under the table and people don’t talk about it.”

The Housing Ministry says that both Jewish and Arab houses, when built illegally, face demolition or heavy fines.

Swaid compared the housing crisis faced by Israelis in general to that of Israeli Arabs in particular.

“All across the country, there’s an issue of building affordability. But in the Arabs areas, it’s building accessibility. Even though the solution is very easy, no one has tried to solve this problem, because they don’t let Arabs put up their own planning committees and find ways to plan for new building.”

Swaid said that the current government seemed to be demolishing more illegally built structures than previous ones, and that many people feared for their homes and were angry at the lack of options. He estimated that about 1 to 2 percent of the people on local planning committees are Arab, despite being almost 20 percent of the population.

“When we raise these issues in the Knesset, they answer us, ‘Oh, but one of you – meaning any Arab, it doesn’t matter who – was on the committee, so you were part of it. You have to swallow it.

Thousands of Arab houses are under threat of demolition. It’s an explosive issue and it could blow up in the face of the government, especially because what we see is that the authorities are not serious in dealing with it.”

Ron Gerlitz, the co-director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, argued that while things are changing too slowly, they are changing.

“I think there’s more willingness than before on the part of the Ministry of Housing to engage in a discussion about this with the Arab community. It has to happen more, but it’s happening, as I see it,” he said. “The pressure of the Arab parties and the Arab organizations is effective, and there is a recognition that outright discrimination is less acceptable than before.”

Still, Gerlitz added, the government needs to show it is solving the housing crisis in the Arab sector. “We need to ask from the government not just to make efforts, but also to show results. We need to ask for dramatic change on the issue of land acquisition and development.”

The conference also explored many other, cultural aspects of “land” in the Jewish and Arab narratives.

It kicked off with a look at how the issue has been treated, recently and historically, in poetry, song and film. But, said Ibrahim Abu Shindi, the co-director of the Citizens Accord Forum, which sponsors the Jaffa Conference, the organizers did not want to avoid the “hot potato” of land use today.

“This is the first time we dealt with land, and we split it off into different issues. The problem is that the government doesn’t give the opportunity to Arabs to be involved in the decision-making process,” Abu Shindi told The Jerusalem Post.

“But there are also problems from our point of view. When an Arab is involved in the government on this issue, people will look at him skeptically and say, ‘Oh, he’s probably a collaborator.’ So while things need to change in the government, on the other hand, it’s important to change our society so we can be more involved in making the decisions. It’s not enough to sit around and say, ‘We’re neglected.’”

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