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Power struggle: Bill to hook up illegal Arab homes to grid passes in stormy session

PM stands up to confront opposition MKs as they hurl insults over legislation: ‘A bunch of thugs. I’m not afraid of you’; Netanyahu: ‘A dark day for Zionism’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confronts and argues with opposition lawmakers in the Knesset during a vote on the electricity bill, Jerusalem, January 5, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confronts and argues with opposition lawmakers in the Knesset during a vote on the electricity bill, Jerusalem, January 5, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset was the scene of ill-tempered verbal jousting on Wednesday morning as lawmakers deliberated a bill that would allow thousands of illegally built homes, mostly in Arab communities, to connect to the power grid, then passed it in its second and third readings.

At one stage in the proceedings, MKs and Knesset ushers had to intervene and move Prime Minister Naftali Bennett away from the opposition benches as legislators shouted “shame” and banged on the benches.

Proceedings throughout the morning were disrupted by angry heckling at a level rarely seen even in Israel’s fractious parliament.

The debate began with a long speech in Arabic by Ra’am MK Walid Taha, chair of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, in an apparent attempt to buy time for more coalition lawmakers to arrive.

He was attacked by Likud MK David Amsalem, who demanded that he switch to Hebrew.

“Look at what we’ve gotten to: Two Arabs” — Taha and the speaker of the session, Mansour Abbas — “speaking to each other.”

“You are stealing a quarter of the country with this law,” Amsalem said. “You will speak Hebrew here in the Israeli parliament.”

Said fellow Likud MK Miki Zohar: “This is an Israeli parliament, that was established by Jews.”

Added another Likud MK, Ofir Akunis, in a video clip he recorded during the session, “All that’s missing is for the Israeli flag to be replaced by a Palestinian flag.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confronts and argues with opposition lawmakers during a vote on the electricity bill, Jerusalem, January 5, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Taha responded: “Speaking Arabic is my right and no one can tell me otherwise.”

Arabic used to be an official language of the country. However, as part of 2018’s controversial nation-state law, it was demoted to a language “with a special status.”

The opposition then tried to embarrass the coalition by proposing an amendment that would also hook illegal West Bank outposts up to the electricity grid.

MK Nir Orbach, of the right-wing coalition party Yamina, said that the current government was doing far more for settlers that its predecessor did, leading to shouts and heckling from the opposition.

At that stage, Bennett stood up to confront the opposition before he being led away by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy and Yamina MK Abir Kara.

When the amendment failed to pass, the opposition MKs left the plenum and boycotted the final vote on the legislation.

After the passing of the bill, Bennett tweeted an image of the angry scenes, saying: “A bunch of thugs. I’m not afraid of you and I won’t let you burn down the country.”

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu described the passing of the legislation as “a dark day for Zionism and democracy.”

The Electricity Bill, proposed by the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am party, addresses the issue of more than 130,000 Arab Israelis who live in illegally built homes across the country that cannot be connected to the national grid under existing legislation.

MK Walid Taha speaks during a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Arab Israelis have blamed the situation on outdated urban plans that classify open land as “agricultural” rather than residential.

It remains unclear how many homes the legislation applies to. An analysis by the left-wing Sikkuy nonprofit found that only around 1,050 Arab homes fit the criteria under the new law.

Some homes will also likely benefit in ultra-Orthodox communities, where illegal construction is also rampant. Committee members from ultra-Orthodox parties have expressed support for the law.

The bill came to a vote on Wednesday morning after the Knesset agreed to limit the amount of discussion that could be held, angering the opposition by employing a little-used clause to push the vote ahead.

The bill has become the center of an ongoing conflict between coalition and opposition parties.

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