Arab neighborhood fights for legal recognition

Kafr Damish unsure whether new children's playground will be torn down by the State.

druze arab woman 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
druze arab woman 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The residents of the neighborhood known as Kafr Damish, on the outskirts of Ramle and Lod, were on tenterhooks Thursday, unsure whether their recently erected children's playground would be torn down by an Israel Lands Administration order issued earlier this week calling for its immediate demolition or whether they would succeed in freezing the move. "We built the playground with the aim of improving the residents' immediate environment," said Buthayna Dabit, director of the Mixed Cities Project, a New Israel Fund program aiming to provide equal access to housing rights for Arab citizens. "There are 200 dunams of open space around the village and the playground uses up only 150 square meters; it is only two seesaws, a slide and a bench, but it helps to put a little color in the neighborhood." The village of 800 people is surrounded by railway tracks on one side and a garbage dump on the other. Although it existed before the creation of the state, it has never been claimed as belonging to either adjacent municipality, and residents have been forced to build illegal structures as their numbers increased. "We hope this case will send a message to the public that since the creation of the State of Israel, no Israeli government has made an effort to even build a playground in these areas," Dabit told The Jerusalem Post, highlighting that one of the Mixed Cities Project's main goals is to find a legal solution for numerous Arab neighborhoods that are not officially recognized by the state and are therefore not planned, developed or provided with basic municipal services. She said many Israeli Arab citizens live under constant threat of demolitions from the authorities and estimated that in Ramle and Lod alone close to 150 illegal structures have been pulled down in the past two years. "This is the fifth playground we have built in Ramle and Lod, and it is not the first time they've threatened demolition," said Dabit. "There are children in these neighborhoods, and it is their basic right to have somewhere to play." Arafat Ismail, the head of the Kafr Damish council who also serves as the Lod coordinator for the Mixed Cities Project, told the Post that the situation for the neighborhood's 200 young children was intolerable. "The playground has given the children an alternative to playing among the piles of garbage, pools of mud and other danger spots such as next to the railway tracks," he said, adding, "this situation is absurd. We never expected that the ILA would try something like this, that they would destroy a children's playground." What makes the order even more mystifying, said Ismail, is that earlier this month the Tel Aviv District Court issued an order for demolitions of properties in Damish to be frozen until a decision is reached on how to make the village legal. Plus, the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee discussed the situation on January 11 and decided to that a permanent solution was needed. In its response, the ILA called the building of the playground an "invasion of land zoned for agricultural purposes" and said it was not meant to be used for a playground. The ILA issued the demolition in accordance with the law and is now waiting to carry out the order. It also highlighted that the court order to freeze the demolition of property in Damish was applicable to the Ramle Municipality and not connected to its own rights. "Whether this structure is legal or illegal, I hope that the Israeli justice system will make the right decision not to destroy a children's playground," said Durgham Sais, a lawyer for the human rights organization Karamah, which is representing the residents of Damish in their legal struggle. "I also want to believe that the moment the ILA sits down with us and we explain to them that the children here are forced to play in the mud, then they will cancel the order to demolish the playground and perhaps we can avoid another day in court. "We are hoping to change the status of the whole village," he continued. "The residents want to have their own recognizable municipality, they want to be independent, but even if they become part of Ramle or Lod it is better than the present situation is now." "We will go on fighting," said Dabit. "We want all of this town and others like it to be legal and become part of the State of Israel."