History repeats itself in conflict over land in Israel

Supporters of Arab land rights say the state must address decades of discrimination, but can the bureaucracy and authorities finally see the big picture?

January 28, 2017 02:30
FRIENDS AND RELATIVES carry the body of Yacoub Abu al-Kiyan during his funeral.

FRIENDS AND RELATIVES carry the body of Yacoub Abu al-Kiyan during his funeral in the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran.. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

In recent weeks conflict between the state and Arab citizens over land has led to clashes in the Negev and protests throughout the country.

Whether it is Beduin in the South fighting to stay on lands they were moved to in the 1950s, or in unrecognized villages, or houses in Arab communities built without permits in the Center, Druse demands for more land in the North or the simple request for a better access road to the village of Khawaled near Haifa, a common theme runs through the disputes.

The state, which owns 93% of the land in the country, continues to win court cases against individual communities, but the government is failing to see the forest for the trees, in terms of policy. It is a problem that has its roots in the early days of the state.

On April 9, 1976, a US Embassy employee in Tel Aviv cabled the State Department a confidential memo. “If nothing else the implementation of the Galilee development plan (which was the flashpoint for the demonstrations) will provide constant reminders to Israel’s Arabs of the national policy to Judaicize [sic] the Galilee and will call to mind the emotional issue of land expropriation.” The cable referred to the Land Day protests on March 30 in which thousands of Arabs protested and rioted throughout Israel, responding to calls for a general strike against Israel’s policies.

Six Arabs were killed in the protests.

It bodes ill for the future, the US Embassy thought at the time. Israelis were “shocked” by the protests, since the “enlightened policy of their government over 28 years had brought to the Arab minority in Israel more freedom and greater prosperity than is available in most Arab states,” the cable stated.

At the time the Israel Lands Administration estimated that there were 5,300 illegally built Arab homes on state-owned land. Although the Agriculture Ministry was encouraging evictions and demolitions of the homes, privately officials admitted that enforcement would be difficult.

Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin met with Arab community leaders on May 24, 1976, and the government sought a way for Arabs communities to “develop their lands in the most economical way [possible] for them and, at the same time, in accordance with [the] law.”

“History repeats itself,” says Sanaa Ibn Bari, a member of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel’s Arab Minority Rights Unit and an expert on the problems Beduin face in the Negev. “The issue of planning is a problem throughout the Arab community. The population is growing so they build.”

She draws attention to the Or Commission report that followed riots in October 2000 in which 12 Arab citizens were killed. The commission found that “the issue of land is very important when addressing the Arab sector. This issue increasingly resonates to struggles that have lasted 100 years.” The state had a “duty to treat its Arab citizens according to the worthy principles of distributive justice.” The commission said the state should allocate land with the same principles it does for Jewish communities. Yet in 2006 Judge Hashim Khatib said that “nothing has been accomplished in the area of allocating state land to the state’s Arab citizens,” based on the commission’s criteria. “As a result, the housing shortage in the Arab sector grows more intense.”

The continuing conflict over land came to a head again in the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 18, as police sought to seal off part of the Beduin village of Umm al-Hiran to demolish houses there. Resident Yacoub Abu al-Kiyan and police officer Erez Levi were killed in an incident initially said to be terrorism by the government, but which looks increasingly unclear.

Umm al-Hiran is a particularly “absurd” and symbolic situation, says Ibn Bari.

“The discrimination is the most extreme form here because they want to build a Jewish community in its place.”

The Beduin in Umm al-Hiran moved there in the 1950s at the request of state authorities and the military administration that ran Arab affairs until 1966. For 60 years they remained there, says Ibn Bari, only to be told to move again to the Beduin town of Hura. It is part of a wider effort since the 1980s to concentrate the Beduin into large towns in the Negev.

“A Jew can move to a moshav, a town or a kibbutz, or agricultural area, but the country gives Beduin one solution, which is seven towns built in the ’80s that have the lowest socioeconomic rank, and no one wants to move there,” says Ibn Bari.

Throughout the Negev there are more than 40 unrecognized Beduin villages, consisting often of a myriad of sprawling homesteads, shacks and houses. Out of some 250,000 Beduin, some estimates put the number living in unauthorized houses as 40% of the population, living on more than 60,000 hectares or 5% of the land area of the Negev.

The Negev is only the worst example of the state’s inability to plan for or manage housing for Arabs. It is estimated that throughout the country there are more than 50,000 houses subject to demolition in recognized villages due to being illegally built, in addition to the many thousands in the Negev. In many communities there are few building permits and a lack of planning and infrastructure.

In mid-January authorities razed 11 homes in Kalansuwa, and Arab leaders called for a general strike.

“Where you find the clashes is the process of change,” says Ari Briggs, a senior adviser to Regavim, an organization that seeks to preserve Israel’s national lands and support the rule of law.

He argues that most Arab villages and towns have adequate open space inside what the state calls the “blue line” or planned area of the community. “A lot of the land issues are in the North where there are Arab towns that have zoning to build multistory homes or apartment buildings, but because that is not culturally accepted... they don’t.”

Briggs compares Arab communities with towns next to them such as Karmiel, Upper Nazareth or Omer, and argues that in those mostly Jewish towns, not only is the density higher, the people are willing to live in apartments, and there is available housing for sale. In the Arab sector, many villages consist of one or more large extended families who rarely sell homes but instead seek to build more and more family homes as their community grows. They build without permits on lands zoned for agriculture, and then they build on state land.

Briggs also thinks the state was too generous in the way it founded the seven planned towns for Beduin in the 1970s and 1980s. “They were given free plots of land... a dunam [1,000 square meters] for every man and one for each wife...and you get NIS 100,000 to move [to the towns].”

The problem boils down to the fact that in some communities people don’t want to deal with the state authorities and prefer to live off the grid, and at the same time they demand rezoning for land to build on.

The authorities let them down, Briggs says, but it is due to inadequate national planning and burdensome bureaucracy. He argues for local solutions and for new infrastructure and building to go along with legal enforcement of tax collection and building permits, in line with engineering and safety requirements.

But there is a contradiction in the narratives about the housing struggle. If Arabs are moving to mostly Jewish cities such as Karmiel to live in smaller apartments, then the cultural argument for why Arabs need more space to build doesn’t fit. At the same time, if it is true that Umm al-Hiran is being replaced by a planned community that is not only for Jews, then why didn’t the state provide housing plots in the new Hiran for the residents of Umm al-Hiran. Instead, the state urged them to move to Hura, a Beduin town.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, says that while there are many aspects of Israel that are not apartheid, such as in the Knesset, “in planning and building there is an apartheid.” There are 930 communities with acceptance committees that prevent Arabs from moving to them. Arab communities in the Negev lack electricity and central water.

Throughout Israel there is segregation, he says.

Odeh lays much of the blame at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feet. The prime minister has pointed the finger at Arab citizens for forest fires and accused them of supporting Islamic State. “He sees Arabs as a threat.”

The path forward is for Israeli leaders to recognize that the discrimination in infrastructure harms everyone.

Odeh points to Rabin as an example of a prime minister who helped recognize communities, such as Ein Hawd, that were unrecognized for decades.

Instead, he says, “we see that the government speaks about the Negev and protecting it from Arabs. They say it is a democratic country; so if that’s true, we must all feel we are equal citizens.”

On both sides, the future looks bleak.

Plans over the years to solve housing issues in the Negev have come to naught, and Odeh’s proposals for a two-year moratorium on demolitions have not been approved by the prime minister.

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