Electricity controversy addresses only part of elephant in room

INTERNAL AFFAIRS: Controversy surrounded a bill that passed enabling thousands of illegally constructed homes in Arab-Israeli communities to be hooked up to the electricity grid.

An unrecognized Bedouin village around Ramat Hovav in the Negev (photo credit: YANIV NADAV/FLASH90)
An unrecognized Bedouin village around Ramat Hovav in the Negev
(photo credit: YANIV NADAV/FLASH90)

A political crisis developed in the Knesset this week over an issue that seems simple and obvious: people who live in a modern country should have access to electricity.

Use of electricity to light up public areas has been around since the 19th century. However, in Israel it is considered controversial to pass a bill that would address the lack of electric hookups for homes that were built without permits.

The controversy surrounded a bill that passed enabling thousands of illegally constructed homes in Arab-Israeli communities to be hooked up to the electricity grid. It would have also let the company replace illegal and dangerous makeshift power grids prevalent in some areas with regulated legal connections.

The residents cite the lack of updated zoning laws as the reason that buildings were built without the proper licenses, while those who opposed the bill claim the homes represent growing lawlessness in the communities, especially Bedouin communities in the South.

The electricity reform passed 61 to 0, as the opposition, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decided not to vote, in protest.

MK Mansour Abbas during a discussion on the Electricity Law connecting to Arab and Bedouin towns, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)MK Mansour Abbas during a discussion on the Electricity Law connecting to Arab and Bedouin towns, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

Netanyahu called the vote on providing electricity to tens of thousands of homes built without permits a “black day for Zionism and democracy.”

“I will not participate in this farce,” Netanyahu said when it was his turn to vote.

He even toyed with calling for a boycott of the Knesset after the vote, but was talked out of it by other opposition party leaders.

During the debates in the Knesset, an opposition member of Knesset threatened to “disconnect” the Arab homes from electricity, if the Right returns to power.

The mayor of the Rahat municipality, Sheikh Fayez Abu Sahiban, thanked Ra’am for passing the bill, according to reports. “My brothers, you have lit up the darkness of our homes with the Electricity Law,” the mayor said.

Nothing is simple in Israel, and the controversial bill and the issue of hooking up illegally built homes to the electric grid are not without complexity.

There is lack of detail on how many homes may now benefit from the law. One report said it would be only a thousand homes, but others referred to some 130,000 people who are not connected to the grid.

While some said that this bill will benefit the large Bedouin community in the South, where more than 100,000 people live in unrecognized villages, other reports said it applies mostly to major Arab towns where there is a plethora of unregulated construction.

Questions were also raised about unrecognized construction in ultra-Orthodox communities and also in the West Bank, where there are Jewish communities, such as hilltop outposts, that are not recognized.

TO UNDERSTAND how we got here, it’s important to understand a bit of history. The land that became Israel was previously part of the Ottoman Empire and then the British Mandate administration.

Under the Ottomans most of the land was not registered or surveyed. This began to change in 1858 with new Ottoman land codes. However, it took decades in the 19th century for basic things like land registry offices to be opened.

Landowners, some linked to the sultan or powerful wealthy families, acquired tens of thousands of hectares across areas that are now Israel and the West Bank. Later, Jewish immigrants, who formed associations to purchase land, were able to acquire these lands that had been registered. Sometimes they helped locals as well, such as the Rothschild purchases in the area that is now Caesarea which helped also create the modern village of Jisr e-Zarka from swamps that were drained.

The overall story is that by the time of the British Mandate, there was a barely functioning land registry in the country. The British expanded the surveys of the land, and by the time they left, in 1948, large swaths of what is now Israel had been surveyed and registered, so that it was known who owned what land.

The first years of Israel saw the country expropriate a swath of land, either from former Arab villages or areas deemed public property, such that most of Israel’s land is owned by the government or sometimes has long-term leases from other associations.

What this means is that a tiny percent of land is in private hands, and much of that land is in Arab towns and villages.

Israel ignored the planning needs of most Arab areas in the 1950s and 1960s because it was dealing with a wave of Jewish immigration, and at the time many Arabs were kept under military administration, a form of government not that different from how Israel treated the West Bank after 1967.

This had the effect of freezing in place land ownership from the 1950s in Arab areas. New towns and villages wouldn’t be registered or get updated plans for decades, often into the 1980s and 1990s. 

What that means is that areas like the Negev had tens of thousands of Arabs living in unrecognized shacks and burgeoning chaotic towns. Even when Israel planned and recognized new towns in the Negev, such as Rahat, the plans were outdated by the time the houses were built, due to the large birthrates of the locals.

Israel ignored this, leaving the communities to build illegally and ignoring the construction.

This resulted in a large swath of Israel not only living off the grid but basically living in another country, because basic law and order, including public transport, bypassed most Arab areas.

Arab parties didn’t participate in governing coalitions and became increasingly estranged from the country, often drifting toward Palestinian nationalism, communist or Islamist ideologies.

The result is a catch-22. The more the Arab minority was neglected, the more unrecognized homes were built, the harder it became to address all the illegal construction, and any attempt to do so was portrayed as rewarding illegality and encouraging more unrecognized construction.

Various plans, such as the Prawer plan for the Negev, were scrapped. Attempts to dismantle small communities, such as Arakib, led to hundreds of demolitions of the same community.

NOW, AFTER all these years, the government has sought to actually do something. Unfortunately, the challenge is that even when homes are connected to the grid, there will be more unrecognized construction. The difficulty of having Arab communities subjected to the same laws as their Jewish neighbors, creating a property tax-paying base, rewarding legal building by providing permits and hooking up homes to the grid quickly, may be insurmountable.

In the end of the day, the electricity bill addresses a part of the elephant in the room, but decades of neglect, and neither enforcing basic laws nor providing basic services, have added up.

Netanyahu complained about a “dark day” in Israel, but his government was in power for a decade and neglected this issue as well. Each government passed the buck to the next one.

The extraordinary thing is that Israel poses as a modern Start-Up Nation, and yet a quarter of the country has basically lived outside the law since the creation of the state.

That’s a recipe for many problems and the kind of sectarian violence we saw during the May war with Hamas.

The electricity issue is just one piece of the puzzle. If the government can solve it, it might then try to tackle the rest of the elephant.