Illegal construction on public and private land is a national epidemic that has been ravaging the Israeli landscape for far too long. Each year, thousands of structures spring up in violation of Israel’s Planning and Construction Law; current estimates number them in the hundreds of thousands.
This wildcat construction threatens the prospects for planned, organized construction and development, stymies formulation of long-range planning policy, and stunts efforts to develop modern national and local infrastructure, but first and foremost, it endangers the resolution of Israel’s housing crisis, which is particularly acute in the minority sector.
Despite often-repeated claims to the contrary, the majority of Arab settlements in Israel have municipal masterplans that enable legal construction and development. On the other hand, most of the land in these communities is privately owned, and illegal construction is both widespread and unenforced, resulting in a supply-demand imbalance that prevents the implementation of existing development plans.
A special committee, headed by Deputy Attorney General (Civil Affairs) Erez Kaminitz, presented a comprehensive, in-depth analysis of the phenomenon of illegal construction and its devastating impact to the Knesset in January 2016, and proposed a series of legislative amendments that would vastly improve the state’s ability to address the problems and more efficiently enforce Israel’s Planning and Construction Law.
These proposed amendments, known collectively as Amendment 116 but commonly referred to as the Kaminitz Law, were ratified by the 20th Knesset in 2017 and incorporated in Chapter 10 (“Oversight, Enforcement and Penalties”) of Israel’s Planning and Construction Law.
Amendment 116 mandates stiff penalties for illegal construction and places efficient enforcement tools and significantly enhanced authority in the hands of inspectors, including the authority to issue work-stop and administrative demolition orders that cut through lengthy, complex legal procedures that had been required in the past. Hefty administrative fines were instituted as a deterrent to new illegal construction, and municipalities were empowered to act swiftly and decisively against offenders. In addition, the Kaminitz Law required the relevant authorities to revamp demolition priorities, carry out more efficient mapping and reporting of construction violations, and more.
According to data presented to the Knesset in December 2019, in the two years following the Kaminitz Law’s implementation, common construction offenses were reduced by 41%, and serious construction offenses were slashed by 75%.
Since the Kaminitz Law’s ratification, the United Arab List has waged an unrelenting battle to repeal it: In 2019, they conditioned their recommendation to the president of a candidate to form the government on the law’s repeal. In another attempt in late 2019, they conditioned their vote on the dissolution of the Knesset upon the repeal of the Kaminitz Law. In October 2020, an attempt by MK Gadeer Mreeh (Yesh Atid-Telem) to legislate a “suspension” of the law pending approval of masterplans for Arab municipalities, was defeated.
Bowing to this incessant political pressure, in November 2020 then-justice minister Avi Nissenkorn announced that the attorney general had reached an agreement with the Ministry of Justice, the Treasury and the United Arab List to institute a two-year enforcement moratorium against existing residential structures in Arab and Druze municipalities and structures in the agricultural sector eligible for legalization. The agreement also calls for expedited planning and registration activity during the moratorium period.
Nissenkorn’s “agreement” amounts to a severe limitation of the provisions of the law and a dangerous circumvention of the Knesset’s authority. It undermines the basic concepts of legislative democracy and the rule of law, protects construction offenders and encourages construction offenses. But that is apparently not enough: Left-wing parties, in an attempt to garner the support of the Arab parties for the coalition-building mandate, are now seeking the total repeal of the law.
This would restore the status quo ante, resulting in a complete reversal of the progress that has been made since 2017 against illegal construction. It would once again deprive municipal authorities of the ability to act effectively against construction criminals, making it difficult to promote stable, long-term planning policy for responsible utilization of Israel’s limited land reserves and severely impairing the state’s ability to develop national and local construction and infrastructure plans – particularly in the minority communities that suffer most from development inequity.
The Zionist parties must act in every way to prevent the repeal of the Kaminitz Law, and work to strengthen the rule of law in general. Israel’s Planning and Construction Law, including Amendment 116, was designed to create rational land-use policy that will ensure a healthy future for all citizens of Israel.
The writer is the director general of Regavim, an Israeli non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Israel’s land resources.