Adalah: “Israeli plan to demolish Palestinian homes in Negev, the Galilee and the ‘Triangle’ is illegal”

Adalah submitted a letter, dated 2 October 2003, to Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Minister of Internal Security Tzachi Hanegbi, and Minister of Industry and Trade Ehud Olmert, challenging the legality of a recent government plan, as reported in the Hebrew press, to increase the demolition of homes throughout the country belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Adalah demanded that the government (1) cancel the plan; (2) cease the discriminatory implementation of home demolition orders; and (3) initiate a comprehensive planning process, based on the principles of equality and fairness, with the full participation of the Palestinian minority in Israel, including experts, affected residents, and housing rights activists. Adalah Attorney Marwan Dalal prepared the letter.

On 29 September 2003, Ma’ariv reported that:

In a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for the Non-Jewish Sector which convened two weeks ago, the Prime Minister said that: ‘we are losing the land that we are not settling.’ Sharon even hit his hand on the desk and demanded that the ministers increase the momentum [to halt] the illegal building in the Arab sector. Pursuant to that, Ministers Olmert and Hanegbi met and decided to establish a bureau, the purpose of which will be to implement home demolition orders of illegal buildings in the Arab sector. The bureau is supposed to focus on three centers where the phenomenon of illegal building and breach of building permits is most pronounced: the villages of the Bedouin in the Negev and the villages of the Arabs in the Galilee and in the Triangle …major sources in the government also mentioned that ‘every new building which will be built in the Arab sector will immediately be demolished, and then hundreds of buildings will also be demolished which were built on state land illegally.’

In the letter, Adalah argued that if the press report is correct, the government’s plan is illegal for three main reasons:

Lack of Plans and the Inherent Problems in the Planning and Building Law (1965)

A major problem confronting Arab towns and villages, as well as the unrecognized Arab villages in Israel, is the lack of state-approved plans for development. Under the Planning and Building Law, such a plan must exist in order to acquire building permits. Thus, in many Arab municipalities and in all of the unrecognized villages, permits are de facto impossible to obtain. The government characterizes Arab-owned homes built without a permit as “illegal.”

If implemented, the government’s decision to demolish these “illegal homes” would constitute a clear violation of the right to housing, as enumerated in several international human rights treaties ratified by Israel. These include: the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 27(3) (state responsibility to ensure that all children have adequate living standards, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing, and housing); the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Article 14(2)(h) (the right of women in rural areas to enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in regard to housing); and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Article 11 (the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing).

As recently as May 2003, after hearing the state’s arguments, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) emphasized in its Concluding Observations that the Committee continues to be concerned about “the quality of living and housing conditions” of the approximately 70,000 Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel living in the unrecognized villages, including “limited or no access to water, electricity and sanitation,” and that the Arab Bedouin “continue to be subjected on a regular basis to land confiscations, house demolitions, fines for building ‘illegally,’ destruction of agricultural crops, fields and trees, and systematic harassment and persecution by the Green Patrol, in order to force Bedouins to resettle in ‘townships.’” The Committee urged Israel “to recognize all existing Bedouin villages, their property rights and their right to basic services, in particular water, and to desist from the destruction and damaging of agricultural crops and fields.” (See CESCR E/C.12/1/Add.90, 23 May 2003, paras. 27 and 43).

Discriminatory Approach

The government’s plan is discriminatory in that the plan targets only so-called “illegal homes” in Arab towns and villages, and completely ignores this phenomenon in Jewish communities, such as the building of commercial enterprises on land designated as agricultural in kibbutzes and moshavs. In these communities, residents have the opportunity to obtain permits and often simply just do not do so. Individual Jewish ranchers in the Naqab have even been supplied with basic services for buildings constructed without proper permits. In his “Annual Report 50B” (2000), the State Comptroller critiques the Israel Lands Administration for not taking any measures against illegal buildings on ranches leased from by Jewish citizens from the state.

The so-called “illegal building” problem in Arab towns and villages, as well as in the unrecognized villages, is a result of ongoing discriminatory state policies. The state planning authorities have failed to set forth and/or approve plans in Arab towns and villages, and have systematically excluded the unrecognized Arab villages from all local and national infrastructure development plans. Again, a building permit may only be issued if there is a plan; as there are no plans for these towns and villages, Arab citizens of Israel cannot obtain permits to build.

Regarding the state’s discriminatory approach toward Palestinian citizens of Israel in general and in matters of housing in particular, the UN CESCR, in its May 2003 Concluding Observations, noted that “this discriminatory attitude is apparent in the continuing lower standard of living of Israeli Arabs as a result, inter alia, of …lack of access to housing, water, electricity …,” and reiterated its recommendation (also made in 1998) that Israel “undertake steps to ensure equality of treatment for all Israeli citizens in relation to all Covenant rights.” (See paras. 16 and 32).

Unjustly Perpetuating Historical State Policies of Dispossession and Displacement

The government’s plan to demolish Arab homes throughout the country follows persistent patterns of unjust policies and laws that have dispossessed Palestinian citizens of Israel from their lands and displaced them from their homes since the establishment of the state in 1948. Examples of such laws by which the state has confiscated Arab-owned land include the Absentee Property Law (1950), the Law of State Property (1951), the Law of Land Purchases (Confirming Actions and Compensation) (1953), and the Land Ordinance (Purchasing for Public Interest) (1943). Arab Bedouin citizens of Israel have been particularly disadvantaged as a result of historic and contemporary state policies. During the military regime imposed on all Palestinians in Israel (1948-1966), many of the remaining Arab Bedouin had their land confiscated, were displaced from their homes, and were re-located to other areas by the state.

The government, including the Prime Minister, should not only acknowledge the injustices committed against the Arab minority in Israel through a long process of dispossession, but should also work to change the situation. It is not unreasonable to assume that the government’s obsessive engagement in increasing home demolitions, such as this policy, will not achieve anything except public protest.