Israel to cease enforcing measures seen as targeting Arab illegal building

Attorney general announces a ‘change in enforcement’ of 2017 law that significantly raised fines for illegal construction; Arab MKs hail de facto freeze of home demolitions

Arab Israelis protest against home demolitions in the northern town of Arara on January 21, 2017. (Courtesy)
Arab Israelis protest against home demolitions in the northern town of Arara on January 21, 2017. (Courtesy)

Significant parts of a controversial law which imposed high penalties on illegal construction will not be enforced for the next two years, the attorney general announced on Wednesday.

Arab Israelis have fought hard against the 2017 legislation that they say disproportionately targets them.

Known as the Kaminitz Law, after Deputy State Attorney Erez Kaminitz, the 2017 amendment to Israel’s Building and Planning law gave the government increased enforcement powers including on demolition and eviction orders, and substantially increased the use of financial penalties against offenders.

“Meetings took place between representatives of Arab and Druze society, as well as with the agricultural sector… and an easing of rules will be issued for old, populated houses which do not endanger planning. It has been agreed that [the law] will go to the bottom of the list of enforcement priorities,” Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office announced.

Hebrew media reports indicated Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn was also closely involved in the decision.

At the time the amendment was passed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We want to integrate Israeli Arabs into the State of Israel. That means integration into the laws of the State of Israel. We are making a historic correction here and increasing enforcement throughout the country.”

Opponents of the legislation argue that it disproportionately impacts Arab Israeli towns and cities, where illegal building is common due to a lack of government-granted permits and few detailed plans approved by Israeli authorities.

Arab Israeli lawmakers and protesters demonstrate against home demolitions outside the Knesset on January 23, 2017. (Joint List)

“It is impossible to get a roof over your head without a permit,” said Moran Aviv, an urban planner at Sikkuy, an organization which advances Arab-Jewish partnerships in Israel. “And if there is no detailed plan for those towns — Arab Israeli towns — then it is impossible to get a permit,.”

The Kaminitz law increased fines substantially; violators can be handed fines of hundreds of thousands of shekels. It also limited the opportunity to appeal those fines in court, while raising the maximum prison sentence for illegal construction from two to three years.

“We’re talking about extremely high fines, applied to an already disadvantaged sector of society. And remember, as long as there is no planning or development, there’s nowhere for you to legally live in your town,” Aviv said.

Last November, then justice minister Amir Ohana told the Knesset that the high penalties leveled by the legislation had lowered the number of construction offenses by 45 percent. Ohana held up the statistic as proof that the law was effective.

The vast majority of land in Israel, around 93%, is in the public domain: owned by the state, the Jewish National Fund, or the Development Authority.

But the majority of illegal construction in Arab towns and cities takes place on private land, Aviv said. The central issue there is not trespassing, but zoning: While existing plans zone private land as intended for agricultural use, residents often make use of it for “non-agricultural purposes.”

“People say, ‘I own some land inside the borders of my town, I’ll build on it,” Aviv said.

In addition to residents of Arab towns, farmers in small Israeli agricultural communities known as moshavim have found themselves 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.

Ayelet Shaked, who supported the amendment, has professed herself to be surprised that the law was being enforced against Jewish Israelis.

“When we passed the Kaminitz Law, the aim was to tighten enforcement on illegal construction, especially in the Arab sector,” Shaked said in November 2019. “Authorities have also applied the law to Jewish farmers, and it is very burdensome for them. We did not expect this.”

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset as the 35th government of Israel is presented on May 17, 2020. (Knesset/Adina Veldman)

In the statement on Wednesday, the attorney general specifically said that zoning violations for misuse of lands for “non-agricultural purposes” would be kicked to the bottom of state enforcement priorities. But the statement shied away from deeming the change in enforcement a freeze.

“This is not a freeze of [the Kaminitz Law] or a freeze in general enforcement. Rather, it is a shift in the policy of enforcement,” it said.

By overlooking illegally built “old populated houses…whose illegal use began in 2018,” and by seemingly not enforcing zoning violations, the attorney general seemed to indicate that a wide range of construction would be given a respite. But as opposed to a freeze, some new construction will continue to be subject to high penalties.

The change in enforcement does not seem to apply to East Jerusalem, either, where the Kaminitz Law has had a dramatic effect. Residents can now be charged large fees for the demolition work, leading many to take apart their homes themselves when ordered to do so by the state. Around 58 so-called “self-demolitions” were reported between January and the end of August, according to the Ir Amim non-profit organization.

Freezing the law has been a major priority for Arab voters since its enactment in 2017.  Joint List leader Ayman Odeh hailed the change in policy as “a de facto freeze” in the law.

“Good news for thousands of Arab families with demolition orders on their homes: you can breathe easily now,” Odeh wrote on Twitter.

Right-wing politicians, including some of the construction amendment’s most prominent supporters, were harshly critical of Wednesday’s decision.

“You elected Bibi, you got [Joint List MK Ahmad] Tibi,” Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich wrote dismissively on Twitter, a reference to one of Netanyahu’s campaign slogans, “It’s either Bibi or Tibi.”

The pro-settlement organization Regavim said the change in policy “sets the State of Israel hurtling back toward chaos.”

“The government, led by Avi Nissenkorn, has capitulated to pressure, and has been blackmailed by the Arab members of Knesset into granting a virtual seal of approval for illegal construction,” Regavim said.

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