Ben Gvir’s ministry takes over enforcing building violations, sparking racism charges

Activists protest wording that mentions ‘criminality’ in Arab society; Arab Israelis claim they face often insurmountable obstacles to legal construction

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a meeting of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset, on March 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir leads a meeting of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset, on March 18, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The National Security Ministry under Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has assumed responsibility over a unit that enforces building regulations, sparking allegations that the move targets Arabs.

The switch, announced Sunday at a cabinet meeting, moves the Real Estate Enforcement Division from the Finance Ministry to the National Security Ministry.

The move is part of the coalition agreement signed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party when the government took power in late 2022.

Rights groups protested the wording of the agreement, which singled out “criminality” in Israel’s Arab society.

“In recent years, it has become better understood that, in order to curb serious violence in Israel, and especially that which is prevalent in Arab society, a combined and focused effort is required by all relevant enforcement authorities against criminals,” the introduction states.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for Ir Amim, a dovish nonprofit that says it seeks to prepare East Jerusalem to serve the a capital city of a future Palestinian state, told the Calcalist newspaper that the unit’s transfer is part of the “state’s use of… house demolitions not to ensure the rule of law, but as part of its oppression of the Arab population.”

The National Unit for enforcing planning and construction laws demolishes illegal buildings in Qalansawe, January 10, 2017 (National Unit for enforcing planning and construction laws)

The Arab Center for Alternative Planning, a nonprofit that according to its website aims to “empower Arab municipalities,” protested in a letter to Netanyahu the mentioning of criminality in the text about the transfer of the Real Estate Enforcement Division.

“There’s no proof that there’s any firm, causal link between ‘illegal construction’ and violence and criminality in Arab society,” the organization wrote.

Arab municipalities and neighborhoods have a higher prevalence of unauthorized construction, according to a 2022 study by the Sikkuy-Aufoq nonprofit, whose mission statement is to promote equality between Arabs and Jewish citizens of Israel. In the Haifa district, for example, 55% of all illegally constructed structures are concentrated in the predominantly-Arab communities of the Wadi Ara area east of Hadera.

Wadi Ara councilmember Dawwas Zayid points out illegal electrical cables that he laid to connect his son’s home — built without a permit — to his own (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Some advocates of reform in the enforcement of illegal construction in Israel say that many Arab violators build without permits because of a combination of institutional racism and inefficient bureaucracy that makes it harder for Arabs to obtain permits, though other observers of the issue dispute these claims.

Ben Gvir himself is a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who promoted a forceful transfer of Arabs from Israeli territory. Ben Gvir has called for resettling the Gaza Strip with Jewish Israelis and earlier this year invited criticism by the US State Department for saying his right to security in the West Bank trumps Palestinians’ right to move freely in the area.

In its letter, the Arab Center for Alternative Planning said that the assumption of responsibility over the Real Estate Enforcement Division will allow Ben Gvir to “act with racism and discrimination” against Arab Israelis.

In addition to building violations, Ben Gvir’s ministry has also assumed responsibility for the illegal dumping of waste, which was previously under the the Environmental Protection Ministry. This responsibility relates to another activity prevalent in Arab communities: the illegal incineration of trash, as well as the dumping of construction waste in unauthorized locations.

A waste dump visited by Environment Protection Ministry inspectors, June 2023. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

Asked for a comment on the racism allegations, a spokesperson for Ben Gvir pointed to Ben Gvir’s post on X on Monday.

“The media: Ben Gvir isn’t tackling crime in Arab society —  negligence. Ben Gvir tackles crime in Arab society – racism,” reads the post.

In a statement about the switch, Ben Gvir’s office wrote: “The transfer of the Real Estate Enforcement Division is a major milestone on the path to improving the State of Israel’s enforcement against illegal construction violations. As we have done so far, when we doubled enforcement in the Negev, we will restore law and order even more vigorously. Those who break the law will encounter a firm hand and zero tolerance.”

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