When inhabitants, their homes, their language are just not 'recognised' by the state

December 19, 2012
Sarah Benton

To read the full annual report from ACRI click on the headline below.

Many Palestinian homes are subject to summary demolition, either because the owners have no access to planning laws or because the Israeli state deems them an obstacle to security. Here Israeli soldiers watch an Israeli using a mechanical shovel to demolish Palestinian houses at the village of Nazlat Eisa near the West Bank city of Tulkarem in the area where the Israeli security fence is being built, August 21, 2003. Photo by Nir Elias/Reuters

The State of Human Rights in Israel and in the Occupied Territories 2012

Annual Situation Report from Association for Civil Rights in Israel
December 2012

Arab Minority Rights
Planning and Building

Spatial planning affects communities, societies and basic human rights. Planning procedures determine how space will be utilized, where infrastructures will be built, including transportation, water and sewage; where public buildings will be constructed, such as schools and clinics; the quantity permitted to be built in a specific area; how tall these structures can be, how wide the roads will be; and which territories will remain green, open areas. The distribution of land resources, planning policies and the approach to planning, or lack thereof, largely determine the quality of life and the range of opportunities offered to populations and communities – often in an unequal manner.

Poor planning can infringe on various basic human rights, beyond the right to housing: accessibility to health services and education, the right to employment, the right to equality and the right to dignity. In contrast, thoughtful planning, especially planning that takes demographic and cultural issues into consideration, can be the central means with which to manage societal issues, promoting social values, basic principles of justice, and advancing the rights of various communities.

The Arab minority in Israel has been subject to systematic discrimination for years when it comes to lands and planning. For decades, the State of Israel has refused to advance master plans in most Arab communities that would regulate existing construction and facilitate legal residential construction in accordance to the communities’ specific needs and unique characteristics. Most residents of Arab communities are barred from attaining permits to build legally. With no other choice, and lacking any residential alternatives, many Arab citizens of Israel are forced to build their homes without permits, which leaves them under constant duress, fearing their homes will be demolished.

Sustainable and egalitarian planning must not be detached from past injustices and the large gaps in conditions between Arab and Jewish communities. Historic discrimination against the Arab population in the allocation of land and housing should compel the government to assume even greater responsibility for the Arab population every time it promotes a housing plan, in order to rectify years upon years of discrimination. However, the government and the planning authorities continue to perpetuate the gaps. The unwillingness to take the Arab community’s unique cultural needs into account further widens the gaps and the inequality between Arabs and Jews when it comes to planning.

At the start of 2000, the head of planning in the Interior Ministry launched a wide-ranging initiative to “advance master plans in the non-Jewish sector.” A report published by Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning closely examined the project and its results. According to the report, this is the first comprehensive government plan designed for the Arab sector since the establishment of Israel, which has led to the approval of more than 30 master plans. The Interior Ministry’s decision to allocate financial and planning resources is in and of itself deserving of recognition. The report also specifies that throughout the process, the discourse about planning and the concept of rights to planning assumed a central role in public debates among Arab citizens, and that a noteworthy number of Arab professionals became part of the staff of planners that prepared the local master plans.

Despite this fact, the organizations determine that “it is difficult to point to a planning breakthrough in Arab communities in the wake of the Interior Ministry’s project. The problems and distress that existed before remain, and are even more acute.” The initiative was supposed to be concluded within a few years, but even after 12 years, the process is still continuing, and until now, updated master plans have only been approved for half the communities. Despite the expedited planning processes and the additional allocation of residential areas in many Arab communities, thousands of existing residential units still lack appropriate planning solutions – and without being able to regulate their legal status, they remain exposed to the threat of demolition. In addition, most updated master plans still lack the crucial addition of industrial and commercial zones, and no significant changes have been made within the municipal boundaries of the local Arab authorities.

The report raises an important point of comparison between master plans of five pairs of communities, Arab and Jewish, which are similar in location, size and other features. The differences in approach to planning are obvious: Master plans for Jewish communities are conducted out of a “generative planning” approach, which utilizes the maximum resources at its disposal in the space it is developing, and with the prospect of a significant expansion of that population, among other things, due to migration from other communities. When it comes to master plans for Arab communities, the approach is “regulative planning,” which offers basic solutions for the population according to its growth rate, and at times, even below – failing to take into consideration the option that the population will grow even more as a result of migration; and without allocating sufficient land provisions or providing opportunities for local development in the space surrounding the community. Likewise, in all the cases examined (except for small communities within the boundaries of regional councils), the scope of the industrial and commercial zones per capita in Arab communities is less than in Jewish ones – sometimes as much as half of the area, and the building percentages are also low. The result: Arab communities face a shortage of sources of income and the absence of a suitable economic infrastructure.

Even those Arab communities in mixed Arab-Jewish cities, such as Ramla, Lod, Acre, Haifa and Jaffa are discriminated against, as the government has neglected their planning for decades. Valid master plans for these communities are partial and outdated, and usually do not permit for their expansion, such that many residents suffer from a crisis in housing: residential density, low quality housing and building without permits. Since investment in infrastructure is insufficient, it is common to see dilapidated buildings and neglected roads in these neighborhoods, as well as a shortage of public institutions, public parks, a weak education system, and a lack of health and welfare services. Some of the Arab neighborhoods are not even recognized by the government and thus get no mention in urban plans.

Thus, for example, the Gan Hekal neighborhood in Ramla has over 2,000 residents, but no banks, no post offices and no government or municipal offices. There are no national insurance branches, community centers or commercial centers; no green areas, playgrounds or parks; no family health center branches or clinics, except for one tiny HMO branch that only operates a few hours a day.

There are over 1,000 residents in the Kerem Eltoufah neighborhood in Lod living in severe residential density, but the planning authorities ignore their existence. The city’s master plan designates the neighborhood’s land, among other things, for residential units, and conditions development and construction on the preparation of a detailed plan for the neighborhood – but unlike the Jewish neighborhoods in the city, no such plan was drafted for over 20 years. The void in planning forced residents to build unregulated residential units. The neighborhood is neglected and lacks basic urban infrastructures, services and public buildings. The only public plot that could have been utilized for construction of a community center or public park is slated to be appropriated to make way for construction of the city’s police station.

The shortage of services and public buildings in Arab towns increases the need for accessible and frequent public transportation, since residents are forced to leave the boundaries of their neighborhood or town in order to meet their basic needs: getting to school, work, health clinics, the post office, national insurance branch, or to their community center. The planning oversight and minimal investment in infrastructures means that public transportation is meager and inadequate. Some Arab towns have not had any public transportation services for years on end.

According to an investigation by Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, 82 percent of Arab towns with over 10,000 residents (not including mixed cities) do not have internal bus lines. While most of these towns do have intercity lines that pass through the main highway at the entrance to the town, or intercity bus lines that stop inside the town, in both cases there are less than five buses serving the town, and they only provide partial accessibility. Those most affected by this situation are residents who do not own private cars: women, children, the elderly, and low-income families. Sikkuy points optimistically to the efforts and the budget allocations made in the last five years by the Ministry of Transport: Its annual budgetary investment for public transport in Arab towns, including East Jerusalem, amounts to NIS 250 million. Likewise, the ministry has invested NIS 100 million in development of public transportation in 13 Arab towns, within the framework of the Prime Minister’s five-year plan. The Ministry of Transport has announced that in the last three years, investment in public transportation services in Arab towns is greater than in Jewish towns, in an effort to narrow the gap that developed over many years.

At the same time, Sikkuy notes that a significant gap still exists in accessibility to public transportation in Arab towns when compared to Jewish towns. The organization also notes objective difficulties such as infrastructure problems, narrow roads and preventing public transportation from passing through the towns. “After years of neglect and the government’s failure in this field,” the organization concludes, “significant change in the field demands a massive undertaking by the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Interior and local Arab authorities.”

Exclusion of Arabic language from the Public Sphere
Arab citizens of Israel are a national, cultural and lingual minority. One of the main facets of their unique cultural identity is Arabic. It is the state’s responsibility to honor its usage, based on the right to dignity, and the right of the Arab minority to preserve its national identity and its distinct cultural features. The fact that Arabic is one of Israel’s official national languages reflects the recognition of this right. The High Court affirmed the state’s obligation in this matter, ruling that the municipalities of all mixed cities are obligated to ensure all city signs are written in both Hebrew and Arabic.

It is important to note that Arab-Israelis are not only a national minority, but also an indigenous minority that lived here before Israel was established. This status was recognized, inter alia, by the Or Commission report.

International law anchors the rights of minorities in general, and the rights of indigenous minorities in particular – chief among them the right to equality, to property and to preserving one’s cultural character – in a series of treaties and declarations that Israel has undertaken.

Despite this obligation, Arabic is absent from many public spaces in the country, and there are attempts to “erase” the language from some communities. The eradication of Arabic from the public space violates the rights of Arab citizens of Israel to equality and dignity, as well as their right to benefit from public services and facilities like their fellow citizens. Following are several examples from recent years:

The previously mentioned ruling regarding signs in mixed cities took place in 2002, however it is still not being implemented fully in all cities, especially in Upper Nazareth. In January 2011, the ACRI and Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, submitted a contempt of court order after several of its appeals to the municipality went unheeded. As a result, the municipality started developing a plan for implementing the court ruling.

Over the years, several bills requesting to annul Arabic’s status as an official language were submitted to the Knesset. Some of them called for Hebrew to be the only official language in Israel, attributing a special status to other languages, but denying them official status. The Tel Aviv Municipal Council recently rejected a proposal by one of its members to add Arabic captioning to the city’s logo. According to reports, the mayor objected due to concerns of growing “ethnic polarization.” It is important to note that Haifa and Acre are the only mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel whose municipalities include Arabic in the city logo.

In another case, the University of Haifa was accused of omitting Arabic captions from the institution’s newly designed ogo. The university claims its logo was always solely in Hebrew, and that individuals interested in adding captions in Arabic or English are free to do so. In many public transportation facilities, Arabic does not exist, or is not sufficiently displayed. For example, Israel Railways provides the names of stations in Hebrew, Arabic in English, but the announcements are only made in Hebrew (with the exception of an announcement in English ahead of the airport stop). Even the regular signs and the electronic signs in the train stations and inside the trains – which help travelers to orient themselves with the routes, travel times and options to switch trains – are written solely in Hebrew (and sometimes in English). It is important to remember that many of the train stations are located in mixed and Arab cities, so the need for Arabic is obvious.

A directive by “e-government” determines that government websites must cater to Hebrew, Arabic and English speakers, but many are not accessible in Arabic. For example, the Welfare Ministry’s website only exists in Hebrew. According to the Mossawa Center, 17 out of 43 government websites are listed solely in Hebrew. Aside from the violation of Arab citizens’ right to equality, their lack of access to services, and the discomfort inflicted on them, the exclusion of Arabic from the public space infringes on the dignity of a fifth of Israel’s population and generates a feeling of discrimination and alienation, testifying to their inferior status and damaging their feeling of belonging in Israeli society. On the symbolic level, the absence of Arabic delegitimizes the presence of Arabs in the public space. This sets a precedent for additional ways of eliminating the presence and visibility of Arabic, such as prohibiting coworkers from speaking to each other in Arabic in a workplace, or barring Arabs from entry into clubs and other entertainment spots.

The Unrecognised Villages
The basic rights of tens of thousands of Israeli citizens to health, education, housing, dignity and equality are violated every day. These citizens, Bedouin Arabs, live in over 30 unrecognized villages in the Negev. The state refuses to recognize them, to regulate their municipal services and planning, or to provide them with most basic infrastructures and services, such as providing water and sewage, roads, telephone lines and electricity. Educational, welfare, health and employment services in these unrecognized villages are extremely limited.

In the absence of planning, all construction in unrecognized villages is done without permit, so these residents live under constant threat of their homes being destroyed. In 2011, more than 1,000 homes in unrecognized villages were demolished, and such demolitions continued in 2012. In two different incidents, demolition orders issued for Bir Hadaj ended in police brutality against residents: police shot tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, and in one of the incidents even live ammunition. This was apparently the first case of severe police violence against Israeli citizens since the events of October 2000, when police killed 12 Arab-Israelis.

The history of Israel’s treatment of Bedouin citizens of Israel and of unrecognized villages is characterized by the proliferation of authorities, committees, bodies, decisions and plans, none of which have brought about the change necessary in Israel’s policy on Bedouins in the Negev. There has been some progress in planning policies geared towards recognition of several villages since the end of the 1990’s, such as, inter alia, the 2008 Goldberg Commission’s call to “recognize as many villages as possible.”

However, the Prawer Plan approved by the government in September 2011 and the 2012 Memorandum of Law to Regulate the Bedouin Settlement of the Negev currently on the table impose a unilateral solution that perpetuates the policy of discrimination, ignores the reality on the ground and disregards the rights of tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens who have a historic connection to the land. The Memorandum’s stated goal is to regulate the issue of property ownership in the Negev, but in fact it is designed to concentrate the Bedouin in a restricted and predetermined area. The practical consequences are the uprooting of dozens of Bedouin communities and the evacuation of over 40,000 residents. The destroyed Bedouin communities are to be replaced by industrial zones, a military base and a Jewish settlement.

The Memorandum addresses two central issues: Forced evacuation of unrecognized villages and the transfer of tens of thousands of residents to recognized towns, as well as imposed regulations regarding the land. In the handling of both issues, the government is ignoring the facts on the ground and failing to seriously consider alternatives, especially the recognition of unrecognized villages, out of a clear intention to expel the residents. The plan’s implementation deprives the residents of their constitutional rights to property, equality and dignity.

The Memorandum’s working assumption is that 70,000 residents living in unrecognized villages are intruders without any rights to the land. The government is ignoring the fact that most of these villages have historic significance, and existed years before the Israeli state was established, as well as the fact that the other villages are home to displaced Bedouin who were forced off their lands by the Israeli military rule in the 1950’s. The government also ignores the countless legal precedents, reports and studies that point to the Bedouin’s intrinsic connection to the land and their ownership of the lands in question, as well as their status and rights an indigenous minority.

The majority of the Bedouin community objects to the arrangements proposed by the Prawer Plan and the Memorandum, an objection echoed by international bodies as well. In March 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination for Racial Discrimination called on Israel to cancel its plan to legislate the Prawer Plan. In July 2012, the European Parliament called on Israel to stop the Prawer Plan and the policy of displacement and expulsion. Alongside the promotion of the Prawer Plan, the government is also advancing other planning procedures in the Negev with the same dismissive approach to Bedouin rights, adding a new layer to its disregard for the community: Forced demolition of Bedouin towns to make way for the establishment of new Jewish towns in the same geographical space. In October 2011, the government decided to build seven Jewish villages in the Mevo’ot Arad area. The plan translates into the destruction of five Bedouin towns and the expulsion of their residents.

In September 2012, the Subcommittee on Appeals rejected the petition filed by Adalah and Bimkom on behalf of the residents of Umm al-Hiran against the decision to demolish the village’s homes and replace it with the establishment of a Jewish town called Hiran.

The government should shelve the Prawer Plan, recognize the unrecognized villages, and affirm the Bedouin community’s right to property in the Negev as a binding measure that leads to the implementation of a historically just solution for this population. Honest communication should be conducted on the basis of this recognition with the intent of working toward a solution that advances these principles.

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