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Sukkot and a “Precarious Roof:” The Shame of Arab Housing in Israel

25 August 2006

The Arab-Israeli A. R. family, until recently, lived in a small house in Gan Khakal Aleph, Israel. A neighborhood located in the mixed city of Ramle, Gan Khakal Aleph was built in the early 1950s, but on the master plan that controls all building in Israel, it has been designated as open public space since 1972.

On June 4, 2006, Mr. A. R. demolished his house with his own hands. Neither a martyr nor a lunatic, he had a simple reason for destroying his own home: If he did not do it himself, the Israeli government was about to do it for him, and send him the bill for the cost of the bulldozers and the police.

Mr. A. R. had more to worry about than the cost. His two small children would have awoken at 4 a.m. to the destruction of their home had the government demolition gone forward. To spare them the trauma, he did the work himself.

“Every Person in Israel Will Dwell in Sukkot…”

With the approach of Sukkot, Jewish families around the world celebrate the harvest by erecting flimsy sukkot in our backyards and on our balconies and terraces. It’s fun for small children to eat and sleep in a precarious shelter for a few nights, to look up and see the stars through the branches of the temporary roof. But Jews also use the sukkah to remind us of our transient homelessness of forty years in the desert, and the joy of arriving, in ancient times and 58 years ago, in permanent homes of our own.

As Sukkot approaches, perhaps we can give some thought to the thousands of Arab Israeli citizens whose homes are essentially as precarious and fragile as our temporary sukkot. The issue is not easy, rooted as it is in decades of Israeli government policy, uneasy relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs and cultural traditions that clash with modern planning and administration. But as Mr. A.R’s story reminds us, Israel’s more than one million Arab citizens live a reality quite different from that of their Jewish neighbors, a reality that threatens Israel’s long-term viability as a democratic state.

Planning, Permits and Prejudice

In Israel, 93 percent of the land is owned by the Israeli government or quasi-governmental agencies like the Jewish National Fund. Few Israelis own the land they live on; instead, private dwellings are granted 99-year leases by the government. And, as in most modern countries, building new housing, or adding to existing housing, requires permits from the municipal government. In a country with a growing population, the landscape is filled with construction cranes and bulldozers building houses and apartment blocks where none existed before. With one caveat: Since Israel’s founding, almost every new development, town, neighborhood and even city constructed for the growing population has been reserved for Jews.

The contrast is most obvious in Israel’s five “mixed cities” – Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, Lod and Ramle. More than 90,000 Arab citizens comprise 15 to 20 percent of the population of each of these cities. Jewish neighborhoods expand easily, granted permits for new dwellings. In Lod and Ramle, for example, the new Ganei Aviv Jewish neighborhoods accommodate thousands of Jewish families with all the necessary infrastructure – schools, roads, power lines and water. Meanwhile, Gan Khakal alone contains 80 Arab families in homes unrecognized by the government despite the town’s long history; neither schools nor physical infrastructure are provided, and the inhabitants live with the daily fear of home demolition by the authorities for their “un-permitted” homes.

Why do Arab Israelis build homes without permits? Because for a group with a 3.9 percent birthrate, keeping a growing family under one original roof eventually becomes impossible. Applications by Arab Israelis for permits to build or expand are almost always denied – and moving to a Jewish neighborhood is usually impossible, either because of legal restrictions or outright discrimination against the minority.

“The housing situation in Israel is the single biggest reminder of the second-class citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel,” said Nidal Abed el-Gafer, Legal Advisor to the New Israel Fund’s Mixed Cities Project for the Promotion of Housing Rights. “Without access to building permits, and with our ‘illegal’ dwellings under constant threat of demolition, we are a growing population caged in substandard neighborhoods, without hope of coexistence with our Jewish neighbors.”

Working for Equal Rights

The New Israel Fund’s Mixed Cities Project, founded in 2003 and partially funded by the European Union, is working to change the social realities in the mixed cities, with special attention to housing. SHATIL, NIF’s capacity-building arm, has organized communities to understand their rights, and established housing forums in each city to enable residents to work together to influence the government at the national and municipal levels. Most recently, project staff and housing forum representatives who are local residents of the mixed cities met with the highest echelon of the Planning Authority to implement a process in which government regional planners will work with the mixed cities’ representatives.

Concurrently, key NIF grantees like the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, whose founder is now a Knesset member, “professionalize” community struggle by providing alternative civil engineering and architectural plans to legitimize, expand and improve existing housing. Working from the top down and from the bottom up, NIF and SHATIL have achieved some small but significant victories, including the establishment of two mixed cities lobbies in the Knesset; preparation of research studies in the fields of housing and planning for the five mixed cities; preparation of alternative plans for the village of Dahmash in Lod, the Train neighborhood and the Old City in Ramle and the Barbour neighborhood in Acre; construction of playgrounds for children in the unrecognized neighborhoods; and protests and media events to publicize the plight of Mixed City residents in the other areas of Israel.

“Just as in the United States, housing in Israel is largely dependent on class, income and ethnicity,” said NIF Executive Director Larry Garber. “And, in both countries, the problem is often ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ for the more privileged citizens.

“But Sukkot, the holiday of joy, is also a time of empathy and communal concern,” he added. “Both Diaspora Jews and Jewish Israelis who rejoice in the security of their homes must remember those who are not so fortunate – and who, with changes to government policies and public attitudes, could more fully become members of a multi-cultural Israel.”

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