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Ra’am touts housing wins for unrecognized Negev villages in new deal with government

Party says agreement reached to eliminate fines and threat of demolition for homes up to 70 square meters in size; opposition says coalition selling out for political survival

A view of houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sawaneen in Israel's southern Negev Desert, on June 8, 2021. (Hazem Bader/AFP)
A view of houses in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sawaneen in Israel's southern Negev Desert, on June 8, 2021. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

The Ra’am party said Sunday that it had reached a new agreement with the rest of the coalition regarding unrecognized communities in the southern Negev region of the country that would allow for some illegal construction to remain standing without penalty.

The announcement came after last week Ra’am ended a three-week freeze on its participation in parliament and in the coalition, jeopardizing the stability of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s precarious government. Even with Ra’am’s cooperation, the government holds just 60 seats in the Knesset, equal to the opposition’s number.

In a statement on Sunday, the Islamist party said the government had decided not to demolish buildings of up to 70 square meters (750 square feet) in unrecognized villages, nor fine the owners. The rules will apply to new homes and extensions that bring existing buildings up to that size, as well as to roof replacements, the party said.

Ra’am said the development was just one of several it had secured in a new agreement with the government.

The party said the new arrangement was “like oxygen to the Arab families in those villages in the Negev,” Channel 13 news reported.

The party also published an archived interview with the late MK Said al-Harumi, who died in August last year, in which he mentions that such a deal had already been agreed to in the previous Likud-led government but had not been formally put into writing before the most recent election, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

In February, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen asked the attorney general to allow an increase in the size of illegal buildings in unrecognized villages that would be excluded from enforcement from 50 sq. m. to 70 sq. m., the broadcaster said.

Then-minister of religious affairs Matan Kahana arrives to a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition sources said that the change was merely a small addition in the size of buildings already approved by the previous Likud-led government.

Yamina MK Matan Kahana told Kan on Monday morning that “after many years of neglect and the loss of governance in the Negev,” the government is thoroughly addressing the matter.

“I wouldn’t make a big deal of this,” said Kahana, who on Friday resigned as minister for religious affairs and returned to the Knesset as a rank and file lawmaker in what he said was a move to shore up the teetering coalition.

But opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu released a video statement accusing the government of “being held hostage by the Shura Council.”

Predicting that “it won’t be long” until the current government falls apart, Netanyahu called on right-wing coalition members to join Likud in forming a new nationalist government.

Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to Ra’am’s announcement by saying that “in order to keep his seat, Bennett is continuing to sell off the country in a clearance sale to the Shura Council,” a reference to the Islamic Movement’s Shura Council, which guides Ra’am and was seen as critical in its decision to suspend and then un-suspend its participation in the coalition.

Permitting illegal construction was “the final handover of the Negev,” Likud said.

Opposition leader, head of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the Knesset summer session in Jerusalem on May 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The far-right Religious Zionism party said in a statement said the leadership of Bennett’s Yamina party is “a group of reckless opportunists who began a clearance sale of Israel to the Islamist party for the sake of their own political survival.”

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir said Bennett was “humiliating the state, its citizens and its symbols, and selling the south, following the extortion and threats of the Muslim Brotherhood to whom he surrendered.”

Last year, Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas made the unprecedented choice to bring the first Islamist and independent Arab party into an Israeli coalition, agreeing to set aside the Palestinian national cause in order to focus on civil gains for Arab Israeli society.

Ra’am had made improving the situation of primarily Bedouin unrecognized Negev villages a central plank of its demands in joining the coalition.

In line with a decision from its Shura Council, Ra’am announced a “freeze” in its coalition membership four weeks ago, over dissatisfaction with Israel’s handling of clashes between police and Palestinian protesters on the Temple Mount. After it ended the walkout last week, the opposition parties pulled a planned vote to dissolve the Knesset.

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