Long deprived of power in illegally built homes, Arabs hope change finally near

Around 130,000 are estimated to live in houses connected illicitly to the national grid. Everyone agrees something must be done, but not on what

Illegal electrical cables hang over a neighborhood in Wadi Ara on November 9, 2021. (courtesy)
Illegal electrical cables hang over a neighborhood in Wadi Ara on November 9, 2021. (courtesy)

WADI ARA — Once you start to look for them, they’re everywhere in Arab Israeli cities: improvised electrical cables on stilts strung from house to house, hanging loosely in the air, connecting illegally built homes to Israel’s national power grid.

“When my son was married, we built his house, and we knew of course that we would need to lay some cables, as the national electric company wouldn’t hook up a home without a permit,” said Dawwas Zaid, a former city councilmember in the town of Arara in the northern Wadi Ara region.

To get around the problem, Zaid built a network of fragile cables extending hundreds of meters from his house to his son’s home. In Wadi Ara, perhaps 1,000 homes were built without permits, rendering it impossible for them to legally get electricity, Zaid said.

Zaid and his children do not live in a far-flung unrecognized Negev Bedouin encampment. In the southern desert, fierce legal battles with the state have left the desert pastoralists living lives disconnected from public utilities in hamlets that do not exist in the eyes of the law.

Instead, like tens of thousands of other Arab Israelis, the Zaids live in Israel’s prosperous central district, in legal and recognized cities. They live middle-class lives as teachers or contractors — but they also reside in illegally built homes that by law cannot be connected to the national grid.

Illegal building is rampant in Arab cities and towns. In many cases, Arabs build on land they own privately and within established town boundaries. But outdated urban plans designate much open land as “agricultural” — meaning that building homes on it is illegal, experts say.

“There’s an enormous amount of private land, and government bodies face difficulties in creating updated urban plans for that. It’s a long, exhausting process, and there’s a long list of technical obstacles,” said Moran Aviv, a policy expert at the shared society nonprofit Sikkuy.

Former Arara councilmember Dawwas Zaid 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)

Under Israeli law, illegally built homes cannot be connected to the electrical grid. The result: in entire neighborhoods, power flows through the improvised networks that arch over the illegal houses, sometimes winding for over a mile to their destinations. The dangerous, makeshift pirate grid leads to constant cuts and surges in power.

In a phone call with The Times of Israel, a senior official at the Israel Electric Corporation estimated that as many as 60,000 homes in the country might exist in that twilight zone. Sikkuy researcher Wajdi Khalayleh placed the total number of Arab Israelis impacted at around 130,000.

“You’d wake up in the middle of the night — and there wouldn’t be electricity. Your kid needs to study, but there’s suddenly no light. In the winter, it would be even worse,” said May Wishahi, a cosmetician whose husband, Muanis, has a catering company.

The Wishahis built their home on a private plot of land, which they discovered after the purchase had been zoned as agricultural. They got power from a local wedding hall for over 17 years before eventually receiving a retroactive building permit.

Wishahi’s friend, Rasha Suleiman, laid cables over a kilometer and a half from her home to her in-laws’ house, which is connected to the grid.

“Everything becomes a problem: shortages in the winter, in the rain, in the heat, random cuts. Sometimes, we’ll find ourselves without power in the middle of the night,” she said.

While most Arab Israelis use cables, some connect their homes to generators instead. In 2010, Isfiya resident Naif Kayouf died alongside his wife Rima and young daughter Dalal after inhaling fumes from a generator intended to provide electricity to their home.

“We’ve still got maybe 1,000 homes without power in town, most of them connected with cables. It’s dangerous. We have our electrical fuse boxes exploding from overuse whenever there’s a surge,” said Isfiya council head Bahij Mansour.

May Wishahi stands in front of her Wadi Ara home, which was not connected to electricity for over 17 years, on November 2, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

The Israeli government rarely demolishes illegal homes outside unrecognized Bedouin townships. Demolitions are also expensive, costing the state hundreds of thousands of shekels. 

But urban plans have still yet to catch up with the pace of construction in Arab cities and towns — leaving many without official power.

“These are recognized towns, and there is an expectation that many of these homes will one day be legalized. But it’s a complicated process, and it’s going to take a long time. In the meantime, people won’t wait 20 years, so they hook up their homes,” said Aviv.

The delay sometimes does not lie with the central government, but with local Arab councils.

The national government is responsible for establishing the borders of towns and cities, and it failed to update the so-called “outline plans” for decades. In recent years, spurred by a government decision to invest more in Arab towns, the state changed tack and advanced new outline plans. But now some Arab municipalities — including in Wadi Ara — have failed to submit “detailed plans” that constitute the final step of the zoning process, said Khalayleh.

Whoever is at fault, the situation creates a two-tiered system: some in these cities have electricity and others do not. According to experts, the newly-minted local suppliers sometimes exploit the power imbalance.

“Some people sell their electricity to their neighbors at inflated prices, meaning those without access to electricity can wind up paying more. This is obviously illegal, but people do it anyway,” said Khalayleh.

For others, the cost of living without legal access to electricity can entail a risk that goes beyond money.

Two years ago, Wadi Ara resident Ashraf al-Ajaj suffered a life-changing car accident along Road 65, the main traffic artery that winds past central Israel’s Arab cities and towns.

“I was in a little tractor near the main road. A car glanced against the rear of the tractor and it flipped over,” said al-Ajaj, who lives in a home underneath a bundle of illegal electrical cables.

After lying for weeks in the hospital in critical condition, he was released with a ventilator for home use. But al-Ajaj had built his home without a permit and relied on the fragile so-called “pirate” improvised electrical networks.

A view of Wadi Ara. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“In our neighborhood, even passing trucks can knock over the cables and cause an outage,” al-Ajaj said. The sporadic outages occasionally forced him to run to a neighboring house to work the ventilator for his recovery.

Arguments over reform

Government officials and watchdogs agree that the rogue electrical networks — and the illegal construction that precipitates them — need a solution. But no one can agree on what must change.

The Islamist Ra’am party, the first Arab faction to enter an Israeli governing coalition in decades, has pushed to reform the situation. Their bill would allow those who built homes on territory within a town’s municipal boundaries to receive electricity without submitting “Form 4,” which requires a building permit.

But the proposal immediately drew fire from Israeli right-wingers, many of whom view it as essentially rewarding illegal construction. Ra’am’s law would apply not just to extant houses, but to future building as well.

“Whoever breaks the law is a criminal. If there are overwhelming violations of the law, that’s criminality. There’s now a demand to distort the law so as to adapt it to criminality,” said Orit Struck, a parliamentarian from the hard-right Religious Zionism party.

Others say that by allowing Arab Israelis to simply hook up illegally built homes to electricity, there also will be little incentive for individuals to build legally. While connecting unauthorized homes to power seems like a quick fix, it will actively encourage more illegal construction, they argue.

“One of the key sanctions that the state has here is electricity. The result of this on the ground would be a wave of illegal building,” Meir Deutsch, who directs the right-wing Regavim nonprofit, said in a phone call.

Deutsch argued that illegal construction is not only bad because it violates the law. Unauthorized buildings — erected far from the watchful eye of government agencies — can be shoddily designed, posing a serious threat, he said.

“How can the state know that you’ve built your illegal structure with enough concrete and iron such that it won’t collapse, for example? There are all kinds of approvals you need,” Deutsch added.

Meir Deutsch, director of policy and government relations at Regavim, at the organization’s office in Sha’ar Binyamin, April 29, 2015. (Elhanan Miller/ Times of Israel/File)

Deutsch said he did not oppose hooking up homes that the government was planning to retroactively authorize.

“But it’s not clear how many houses this will be… Even the planning authority doesn’t know,” Deutsch said.

Deutsch’s organization, Regavim, instead proposes far tighter criteria: only structures built before 2018 will be eligible, as well as places where a detailed plan has been submitted by the state. No homes which received demolition orders would be approved either, thus rendering thousands of homes ineligible.

At the same time, the pitch to connect as many homes as possible has found allies in surprising places — including Israel’s state-owned electrical corporation.

“We absolutely support this law, and believe that connecting to electricity shouldn’t be dependent on this form. Our job is to provide electricity, but this requirement — Form 4 — turns us into law enforcement,” Oren Halman, a senior official at the IEC, told The Times of Israel.

According to Halman, tens of thousands of homes illegally connected to the national grid create a serious strain on the system as a whole, as the IEC cannot fully track where to distribute energy.

“We don’t fully understand what’s happening there. It’s as if everyone built their own road to connect their homes to Route 6 — the state wouldn’t be able to properly understand what was going on,” Halman said.

With recurrent outages, worn-down infrastructure, exploding power boxes and overused cables, the state power utility is obligated to spend additional money to constantly replace the worn-down grid, Halman said.

And while the improvised electrical networks mostly exist in poorly-planned Arab cities, the spiderwebbing cables can also be found in ultra-Orthodox cities. The result has been an unusual alliance, with both Arab Israeli and ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians agreeing that the law ought to change.

“Electricity shouldn’t be a tool of punishment. Children get burned, people get hurt… You want to demolish a home? Okay, demolish it. But electricity shouldn’t be used like this,” said United Torah Judaism parliamentarian Yitzhak Pindros, during a Knesset meeting last week.

United Torah Judaism party member Yitzhak Pindros reacts at the House Committee discussion to cancel the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

“The solution can’t be to hold people hostage,” Pindros added.

Ra’am’s proposal is currently waiting at the desk of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee. In the meantime, As’ad Badarneh, a West Bank Palestinian from Ya’abad, a town near Jenin, can only chuckle at what to him is a strange paradox.

Badarneh moved from Ya’abad to Israel to live with his Arab Israeli wife in Wadi Ara nearly 30 years ago, only later realizing his new home could not get official power. In his tiny West Bank village, everyone is connected to the local grid.

“In Ya’abad, we have nothing like this, where people simply aren’t connected to electricity. It’s simply not done,” Badarneh said. “Not in the West Bank, but here in Israel, the mother of innovation.”

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