Who Gets the Land?

9 May 2018

Kibbutzim and moshavim have contributed much to Israel over its history. Vast tracts of Israeli land were given over to kibbutz and moshav ownership for farming after the state was established in 1948. For several generations, these collective farms established and maintained the Israeli agricultural sector and provided national political, military, and social leadership.

But Israel has changed in significant ways, and the kibbutzim and moshavim are playing a contested role in the ongoing struggle over Israel’s scarcest and most contested resource: land. With hundreds of thousands of dunams designated for agricultural use under kibbutz and moshav control, arcane systems for land sales skew land distribution for the benefit of the legacy collectives, to the detriment of poorer Israelis living in development towns, of Arab villages, and of those in the crowded center of the country. With more than 80% of Israel’s land publicly owned by the Israel Lands Authority (ILA), division of land often boils down to political clout, economic interests and, an astonishingly complicated set of laws and regulations.

And that’s where the Association for Distributive Justice (ADJ), a tiny Haifa NGO long supported by the New Israel Fund, comes in.

What exactly is distributive justice?
It’s hard to explain just how important equitable distribution of land and resources is in Israel. Unlike the US, almost all natural resources in Israel are publicly owned. Everyone—from large industries to regular homeowners—must lease these resources from the government. The ILA, a powerful government body reporting to the Finance Ministry, was for a long time an opaque institution, authorizing land transfers, sales, and possession out of public view. Too often, those decisions favored the interests of Israel’s most powerful, allowing them land use and sales at bargain prices, while shortchanging Israelis without influence.

In 2004, a group of social activists led by Haifa University law professor Alexandre (Sandy) Kedar established the Association for Distributive Justice (ADJ). Working from a 2003 High Court decision that affirmed that Israel’s land is a public resource, the ADJ quickly became the authoritative civil society voice on land issues—advocating, litigating, and raising public awareness about this key and often-mysterious issue.

With only two full-time staff attorneys, ADJ is still a powerhouse. In 2016, for example, inquiries from the ADJ (and The Lands Forum of which it is a key player) to the State Comptroller brought about the cancelation of Decision 1370 which would have allowed kibbutzim to purchase their land for only 33% of its worth. The cancellation saved the state millions of shekels. ADJ‘s LandWatch project, which distributes information and analysis to Knesset members, lawyers, journalists, government officials, and other NGOs in the field, is the authoritative voice on these issues and is now providing support to Palestinian-Israeli organizations also working for equality and transparency in land distribution. The ILA itself, thanks to ADJ lobbying, is holding internal hearings to reconsider a recent decision allowing kibbutz members to individually purchase their houses on very advantageous terms.

“The biggest problem is conflicts of interest,” said Revital Brelinshtein, one of ADJ‘s two staff attorneys. “The kibbutzim, moshavim, and agrobusinesses have a lot of friends in the Knesset and in the bureaucracy. Our job is to ensure that the ILA doesn’t work by sectors but in the public interest.”

Who seeks out the Association for Distributive Justice?
All sorts of Israelis find their way to the ADJ as they navigate the labyrinth of land issues. One such man bought a nice plot of land from a moshav on the seashore south of Haifa more than 12 years ago. Because he is not a moshav member, he paid a premium price far beyond the cost of the land and its existing infrastructure, and he and 15 other non-member families have been waiting for years for promised gardens, sidewalks, and other amenities to materialize. His interest coincides with the ADJ because both want land to be sold more transparently on the open market, fairly and by public tender, in ways that do not accord special privileges to kibbutz members who in some cases never paid for their land in the first place.

Whole cities have distributive justice problems as well. Nesher, once a factory town on Haifa’s outskirts, is a densely-populated working-class municipality that desperately needs to expand. The land around it, hundreds of valuable acres of green and commercial space, is owned by Kibbutz Yagur. Despite the prohibition on using “agricultural land” commercially, the kibbutz has for-profit ventures ranging from an amusement park and catering hall to an entire, illegally-built shopping center that was ordered demolished by Israel’s High Court.

“We certainly don’t object to strengthening farming in Israel,” Revital said. “But it’s wrong to use land designated for agricultural purposes to enrich only a small sector of the Israeli public.”

An even larger issue is evident in Acre, a mixed Arab-Jewish city north of Haifa. Acre’s old town is encompassed by ancient walls so dilapidated that a section actually fell down this week, barring access to several streets. The old city is populated by Arabs, and most of them are poor tenants who have legal protections and can’t be removed from their homes.

But gentrification is a powerful force, and so is the government-backed push to bring Jews into these areas. Because protected tenants can be charged half the cost of renovations that their landlords want, many end up with debts they cannot pay, resulting in their eviction. Other tenants have been threatened with eviction for “crimes” ranging from hanging laundry outside their houses to placing a table and chairs on their outside stoops for entertaining. And Amidar, the state-owned housing company, has been working with developers caught designating protected tenants as squatters in order to evict them. That’s why many Old City residents turn to ADJ for counseling and legal representation; the organization also has an ongoing dialogue with Amidar.

“We have managed to stop some illegal tenders in Acre,” said ADJ staff attorney Noura Ashkar-Zaher. “But it’s hard to fight the economic potential for gentrification, and the incentives for evicting the people living here are very high.”

What is the impact of the Association for Distributive Justice?
Neither of ADJ‘s attorneys emphasizes the ethnic aspects of land policy in Israel. But Revital, who is Mizrahi, and Palestinian-Israeli Noura themselves represent sectors that are often short-changed by Israel’s policies of land distribution. Since most of the legacy kibbutzim and moshavim were founded by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, their privileged position in terms of land sales and ownership often clashes with less privileged sectors along “tribal” lines.

That’s why ADJ works with other NIF-funded organizations like New Discourse/Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow and Ahuzat Negev in the Lands Forum. The group is currently monitoring a new committee for the Haifa area designed to investigate reforms in distributive justice: boundary unification, allocation of public revenues, and a change of municipal status. This is the first of six regional committees that the Finance Ministry has established, after years of NGO lobbying, to help it further understand and influence distributive reform, and it will set an important precedent for future action.

ADJ is also pressuring Amidar to ensure that its land tenders are offered in Arabic, and has publicized the state policy of “diluting” Ethiopian-Israeli presence in specific neighborhoods by refusing them housing grants to live there. Because ADJ believes that homelessness is officially understated by government statistics, the organization is also lobbying the government to expand the definition, backed up by a research project in 12 Jewish and Arab municipalities.

“With a volunteer director, two staff attorneys, and some volunteer attorneys and interns, the Association for Distributive Justice manages to punch far above its weight for equality and justice,” said Pazit Adjani, NIF Grants Officer for Social and Economic Justice. “Thanks to their advocacy, the issue of distributive justice and the fair allocation of state resources is now high on the agenda of the Knesset and the Housing, Finance, and Interior Ministries.”

“I’m not sure how they do so much with so little, but everyone in Israel should be happy that they do.”

Photo Credit: via flickr