A Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday alleges that Israeli government land use policy discriminates against Israeli-Arabs in favor of its Jewish citizens.
Israeli policy on both sides of the Green Line restricts Palestinians to densely populated centers while maximizing the land available for Jewish communities,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East executive director at Human Rights Watch. “These practices are well-known when it comes to the occupied West Bank, but Israeli authorities are also enforcing discriminatory land practices inside Israel.”
HRW refers to Arabs citizens of Israel as Palestinians whereas some from that community identify as Israeli-Arabs, some as Palestinians and some as both.
The report says that the government sharply restricts Arabs’ access to land for housing to accommodate natural population growth.
Further, it says that decades of land confiscations and discriminatory planning policies have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely populated towns and villages that have little room to expand.
At the same time, HRW says “the Israeli government nurtures the growth and expansion of neighboring predominantly Jewish communities, many built on the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948.”
As part of its evidence, the HRW report said that under the Israel Land Authority (ILA), the 21% of Israel’s population which is Arab only has jurisdiction over 3% of the land.
While HRW acknowledges that there are Arabs living in mixed cities like Haifa and Acre, it says that around 90% of the Arabs who are citizens in Israel live in these Arab towns, which are on 3% of the land.
In preparing the report, HRW states it compared the treatment of neighboring Arab towns to Jewish or Jewish-majority communities in three of Israel’s six districts, interviewing 25 current and former local officials involved.
While the report acknowledges that much of the confiscation took place after the 1948 War in which both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict seized disputed areas, HRW argues that little has changed even since the 1970s when Israel brought Arab villages into its centralized planning system.
According to the report, the ILA zoned large sections of Arab villages “for ‘agricultural’ use or as ‘green’ areas, prohibited residential building in them and built roads and other infrastructure projects that impede expansion.”
The Arab Center for Alternative Planning, based in Israel, told Human Rights Watch that it estimates that 15-20% of homes in Arab towns lack permits, “some because owners’ applications were rejected and others because they did not apply, knowing that authorities would reject their requests.”
Moreover, the report said that since 2015, there has been a singular focus on demolishing Arab or Beduin housing built without permits, especially in politically sensitive areas, while illegal Jewish building is ignored or is less of a factor because the ILA is much more likely to approve new Jewish housing.
A senior official in the Israel Planning Administration (IPA) disputed that Israel hems in Arab towns and villages.
The IPA, she said, “has approved or is currently preparing master plans for 119 of the 132 Palestinian [referencing Arab citizens of Israel] localities in Israel.”
Based on these plans, authorities approved 160,000 housing units in these areas between 2012 and 2019, including 42,000 in 2019, and “legaliz[ed] thousands of existing structures,” she said.
It notes that it has “put a great deal of effort… to advance and strengthen Arab communities” and has created “tremendous planning momentum in these communities.”
The IPA attributes the challenges of planning in these communities to the high percentage of privately owned land as well as “a short supply of land for public use… large-scale unregulated building… challenging topographical conditions” and the prevalence of spread-out single-family dwellings.
In December 2015, the authorities approved a 5-year, more than NIS 10 billion “economic development plan for the Arab sector.” Assessing progress in 2019, “Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights” noted an increase in planning activity in Palestinian towns, but observed that the housing shortage in Arab municipalities would continue without the state allocating them more state land.
HRW added the progress has “done little to date to change the reality of hemmed-in Palestinian towns and villages.”
Another major issue is in the report is that “Israeli law permits towns in the Negev and Galilee… with up to 400 households to maintain admissions committees that can reject applicants from living there for being ‘not suitable for the social life of the community’ or for incompatibility with the ‘social-cultural fabric.’”
HRW said that the law effectively permits the exclusion of Arabs from small Jewish towns, a concern that the High Court of Justice dismissed in a 5-4 decision in 2014.
However, when the High Court ruled in 2014, it was before the law permitting exclusion due to being “not suitable” had gone into effect. Some justices said they might relook at the issue if discrimination could be proven going forward.
Adalah, which filed the 2014 case, said that it is tracking a number of alleged cases of discrimination by the towns’ admissions committees, but is still waiting for responses from the state before returning to the High Court.A spokesperson for Adalah also noted that it was sometimes hard to convince Arabs who had been discriminated against to come forward and sue in court, such that most of its data came from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.NGO Monitor Chief of Staff Naftali Balanson responded saying, “Tellingly, HRW peppers their publication with allegations from 50 and 70 years ago, while ignoring the current policies which address housing shortages - a problem that acutely affects all of Israel, Arab and Jewish alike.”“But if they focus on the present, how would HRW promote their ‘return to 1948’ and no-Israel agenda? This report demonstrates that, contrary to the claims during the long Omar Shakir visa drama, HRW plays a central and obsessive part in campaigns to delegitimizing Israel's existence -- the rhetoric about the West Bank is merely a cover,” he said.Balanson added, “Indeed, the timing of the report, is not accidental -- a few days before anti-Israel activists mark ‘Nakba Day,’ when they mourn the survival and success of the Jewish state.”