The Israeli high court upheld on Wednesday the “Admissions Committees Law,” which allows rural towns in the Negev and Galilee to reject Palestinian citizens of Israel and other marginalized groups from residing in them on the basis that they are “unsuitable” for Jewish communities.
It is a ruling that Israeli civil and human rights organizations have condemned as legalizing the practice of segregation.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed a petition against the law on behalf of several human and civic rights organizations in Israel on 30 March 2011, arguing that the law violated Israel’s prohibition against discrimination.
On 17 September, an expanded panel of judges ruled five-to-four to dismiss the petition.
In a press release, Adalah said: “This law is one of the most racist pieces of legislation enacted in recent years, the primary objective of which is to marginalize Arab citizens and prevent them from accessing housing on ‘state land’ in many communities. The court’s decision upholds one of the most dangerous laws in Israel.”
While there is specific language in the law that nominally bars explicit discrimination in terms of race, religion, gender, nationality, or disability, it nevertheless allows admissions committees to use a vague criteria to reject an applicant who is “not suitable for the social life in the community” or the “candidate’s lack of compatibility with the social-cultural fabric of the community town.”
In its condemnation of the law in 2011, Human Rights Watch pointed to one example in which a kibbutz justified its rejection of a Palestinian couple with Israeli citizenship, citing the town’s criteria that required residents be eligible for the membership in the World Zionist Organization and to have served in the Israeli army, which swiftly disqualifies most Palestinian citizens.
Approximately seven hundred rural communities across Israel have committees made up of town residents and representatives from the Jewish Agency or the World Zionist Organization. Under the regulations of the Israel Land Authority, these communities have admissions committees, but their procedures for admitting new residents had never before been organized under a national law. The law, passed on 22 March 2011, codifies the longtime practice of these committees rejecting applicants who wish to live in the small communities on a discriminatory basis.
As the law was originally drafted, it would have applied to all communities in Israel with fewer than four hundred families, totaling approximately seven hundred communities, but the final version of the bill was restricted to just the Negev and Galilee — two areas in which there have been concerted efforts to Judaize while removing Palestinian inhabitants. There are 434 communities which will fall under its jurisdiction, constituting around 43 percent of towns in Israel.
In 2010, as the bill was making its way through committee readings in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), Knesset members defended the law by arguing that the selection criteria would come under the supervision of the attorney general’s office and therefore unlikely to enable racial discrimination.
However, statements to the media by the bill’s sponsors, documented by Human Rights Watch, betray the racist motivations for the law.
Speaking to the Knesset in December 2009, David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu party said that the law would allow towns to be “established by people who want to live with other Jews.”
The following year, Yisrael Hasson of the Kadima party, another sponsor of the bill, said it “reflects the Knesset’s commitment to work to preserve the ability to realize the Zionist dream in practice in the state of Israel” through “population dispersal.”
Israel has not allowed the establishment of any new Palestinian towns since 1948, save for seven townships in the Negev to which the Bedouin population was relocated. So while Palestinians comprise roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population, only 2.5 percent of the land is under the jurisdiction of Palestinian local governments.
In 2008, Adalah approximated that Palestinians were blocked from living in 80 percent of the land controlled by the state — which is 93 percent of all of present-day Israel.
As a result of the dearth of space for Palestinians in Israel to live, some have attempted to move to these Jewish-majority communities.
And despite a high court ruling in 2000 that was celebrated as paving the way to end the practice of discrimination among admissions committees, no improvement has been detected. In the highly vaunted Kaadan case, in which a Palestinian couple with Israeli citizenship petitioned the high court after being denied the right to live in the Jewish community of Katzir, the high court ruled that allocating land to citizens based solely on their religion was prohibited.
On the failure of the Kaadan ruling to fulfill any of its promise “to end decades of communal segregation of Jewish and Palestinian citizens” or “loosen the oppressive system of ethnic control over Israeli territory,” journalist Jonathan Cook wrote:
the court did nothing substantive to enforce the rights of Palestinian citizens to equal access to land or community membership in the intervening years. And to avert any potential damage from the Kaadan ruling, the Knesset responded in 2011 by changing the law to give legal backing to such committees.
Since 2007, Adalah has been challenging the existence of “admissions committees.” Also in 2007, the United Nations committee that oversees the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that Israel examine the role of admissions committees.
On 25 January 2012, the attorney general asked the high court to dismiss the petitions “on the grounds that they are premature and theoretical, as the law itself has not been used to bar any applicant from these small communities thus far.”
In its Wednesday ruling, the court stated, “We cannot determine at this stage whether the law violates constitutional rights.”
In 2011, Human Rights Watch recorded one village committee requiring applicants “to embrace the values in the village’s charter, including ‘Zionism’ and ‘Jewish tradition.’”
Adalah attorney Suhad Bishara stated: “The law is functioning the same way it did previously as a policy, deterring many segments of the population, especially Palestinian Arab citizens of the state, from applying for housing in these towns for fear of rejection. The law has serious implications now and has had for many years, so it is not possible to say that it is not ripe for judicial ruling.”