Adalah petitions Supreme Court to cancel discriminatory land distribution

Yesterday, 19 October 2003, Adalah submitted a petition and a motion for an injunction to the Supreme Court of Israel on behalf the National Committee of Arab Mayors and in its own name against the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), the Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Industry and Trade.

The petition challenges the legality of the ILA’s decision regarding the massive distribution of land in the Galilee in the north and in the Naqab (Negev) in the south. Specifically, the petitioners request that the Supreme Court cancel ILA decision #952 that awards a 90% discount on the price of leasing lands managed by the ILA to discharged Israeli soldiers and individuals who have completed one year of national service. This decision applies to 141 small towns and villages in the Galilee and 157 in the Naqab, none of which are Arab. The petition and the motion for an injunction were filed by Adalah Attorney Suhad Bishara.

Based on a governmental decision made by the Ministerial Committee for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee in November 2002, the ILA passed decision #952 in January 2003. The aim of the ILA decision is to bring residents to the Galilee and the Naqab. The decision applies to towns and villages in the Galilee and the Naqab regions in Israel with fewer than 500 residential units that also have been designated by the government as National Priority Areas “A” and “B”. Selected towns classified as “A” or “B” priority areas receive substantial and lucrative benefits such as extra educational funding, additional mortgage grants and tax exemptions to residents, and tax breaks to local industries. The government assigns priority status almost exclusively to Jewish development and border towns, and to settlements in the 1967 Occupied Territories. Almost all severely socio-economically depressed Arab towns are excluded from “A” priority areas. The ILA decision came into effect in August 2003.

In the petition, Adalah argued that the ILA’s decision discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel on the basis of national belonging. Palestinian citizens of Israel are exempt from and who do not serve in the army or perform national service, and thus, they are completely excluded from the group who would enjoy this extremely valuable benefit - the ability to purchase leasing rights to state-controlled land for a fraction of its value. As such, the decision violates their rights to equality and housing. Further, there is no clear link between the qualifying criteria of military or national service and the aim of the decision to bring residents to the Galilee and the Naqab. Rather, by conditioning this benefit on military or national service, it appears that the aim of this decision is to direct more Jewish citizens of the state to these regions. As stated in the petition: “Upon review of the stated aim of the decision and when comparing it with the set criteria, one discovers that there is no rational or probable link between the stated aim and the criteria. Thus, there is no justification for the decision, which basically amounts to handing-out land almost for free, failing to adhere to basic principles of fairness, justice and equality between the different population groups and communities within the same geographical area.”

Adalah also argued that the ILA’s decision is discriminatory as it applies exclusively to Jewish towns and villages; no Arab villages or towns in the north or the south were included in the decision. While very few Arab villages in the Galilee and in the Naqab fall with National Priority Areas “A” and “B” and have less than 500 residential units, even these were excluded from the decision - for example, Ein El-Asad, Aramshe, El-Azier, Rumana, Wadi Hamam, Suad Hamira, Manshit Zbada, and Nien.

Further, Adalah argued that the ILA decision is arbitrary, as it fails to consider the severe land and housing problems faced by Arab citizens of Israel. Discriminatory governmental policies and land laws have resulted in an extreme lack of housing, overcrowding, and insufficient land available for building in Arab towns and villages. The decision also fails to consider relevant socio-economic factors in affording such a benefit. Thus, the decision does nothing to alleviate these unacceptable land and housing conditions.

Adalah also emphasized in the petition that the decision-making process leading to the adoption of the ILA decision contradicted basic principles of administrative law. There is no competent, factual basis for the decision. For example, no relevant professional, expert opinions on land allocation, the housing situation in these regions, or the effect of this decision on these issues were heard or submitted prior to the approval of the ILA decision.

The Supreme Court has ordered the respondents to reply to the motion for an injunction within 15 days and to the request for an order nisi (order to show cause) within 45 days.