Knesset weighs freeze on controversial measure targeting Arab illegal building

Move by Finance Committee to suspend Kaminitz Law for 5 years would be seen as major victory for Joint List, which has claimed the law singles out Arab Israelis

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Illustrative: Israeli police stand near an excavator as it demolishes a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher on April 7, 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli police stand near an excavator as it demolishes a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher on April 7, 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The Knesset’s Finance Committee on Monday was debating placing a five-year freeze on a controversial amendment that stiffened penalties against illegal construction.

A vote in favor of the motion would be seen as a victory for the majority-Arab Joint List party, whose supporters in Arab Israeli towns found themselves disproportionately targeted by the 2017 amendment to the Building and Planning Law.

Known as the Kaminitz Law, the amendment concentrated enforcement powers for planning issues into the hands of a national authority, expanded the use of the state’s administrative powers to carry out demolition and eviction orders, and substantially increased the use of financial penalties against offenders.

Opponents of the legislation say that it disproportionately impacts Arab Israeli towns, where illegal building is common due to a lack of government-granted permits. The Adalah rights group argues that the Kaminitz Law “fails to take into account the decades of systematic discrimination in state land planning and allocation against [Arab Israelis] that has resulted in a severe housing crisis in Arab towns and villages.”

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi speaks during the Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, on December 30, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But in addition to residents of Arab towns, farmers in small Israeli agricultural communities known as moshavim found themselves similarly facing the brunt of the legislation.

In an effort to gain the support of Jewish Israeli farmers, officials in both the Blue and White and Likud parties have vowed to revise the amendment. A week before the September election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made such a pledge, though he walked it back earlier this month amid blowback from right-wing activists who claim the move will allow Arab Israeli towns a free pass on illegal building.

On the night the Knesset voted to dissolve itself last month and initiate the third election within a year, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi threatened to hold up the vote if the Kaminitz Law was not canceled or frozen in keeping with what he said were assurances he had received from senior lawmakers earlier in the year.

While the special committee formed to dissolve the Knesset refused to change the law, it agreed to hold the Finance Committee hearing to discuss the matter in the weeks that followed.

That sparked uproar from right-wing activists, namely the Regavim group, which lobbies against illegal Palestinian construction in Israel and the West Bank.

Likud MK Miki Zohar speaks during the Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset, on December 30, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“This is a cynical, underhanded attempt to destroy one of the most significant accomplishments of the outgoing Netanyahu government by taking advantage of the unstable political situation,” said the group’s director, Meir Deutsch. “I am confident that Likud MKs will have no part in the putsch that the chairman of the Finance Committee [UTJ MK Moshe Gafni] and the [Joint List] are plotting.”

The compromise brought forward by Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn would see the legalization of most of the illegal construction that has gone up until now in Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim along with Arab villages. However, enforcement against illegal building going forward would be stepped up.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who helped found Regavim, similarly came out against the proposed freeze of the Kaminitz Law. “It is possible and necessary to make sure that the law does not serve as a means of discriminatory over-enforcement in the [Jewish] agricultural sector even without repealing it and allowing construction offenders to continue offending,” he said in a statement.

In a Friday interview with the Matzav Haruah national religious pamphlet, New Right MK Ayelet Shaked explained, “When we passed the Kaminitz Law, the aim was to tighten enforcement on illegal construction, especially in the Arab sector.

“Authorities have also applied the law to Jewish farmers, and it is very burdensome for them. We did not expect this,” Shaked said, adding that while she did not want to cancel the law due to its “success” among Arabs, she did want to look into how to “change it” so that it does not overburden Jewish moshav residents.

Responding to a query from The Times of Israel asking whether she was calling for different levels of enforcement for Jews and Arabs, Shaked clarified in a statement that the Kaminitz law was hurting Jewish and Arab farmers alike and therefore should be amended to assist them.

Monday’s Finance Committee meeting quickly turned into a shouting match between Joint List and Likud MKs. In one such altercation, Likud MK Keti Shitrit exploded at Tibi for speaking to her in Arabic.

“This is a Jewish state, what are you talking to me in Arabic for?!” she charged.

“Shut your mouth! What’re you telling me not to speak in Arabic for you piece of trash!” said Tibi as he leaped from his chair to respond. “I’ll speak whatever language I want. Arabic respects you [no less than Hebrew does].”

“You’re a piece of trash! You’re a piece of trash!” Shitrit retorted.

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