Israeli-Arabs and Building Permits: How Israel’s Permitting Policy Perpetuates the Conflict

Modern discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict largely focuses on two groups: Israelis and Palestinians. A third major demographic, fundamental to the conflict, however, is often ignored: Israeli-Arabs, the Arab non-Jewish citizens of Israel. A google search of ‘Palestinians’ yields 219 million results. In contrast, a search of ‘Israeli-Arabs’, yields only 15 millions results. Though this distinction may seem arbitrary, only 15% of Israeli Arabs identify as Palestinian and the challenges they face are fundamentally different from those living in the West Bank or Gaza. As such, understanding the perspectives of Israeli-Arabs is critical to study of the the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There are 1,837,000 Arab citizens of Israel, composing 21% of Israel’s population and 15% of Israel’s Knesset, or parliament. This diverse group includes ethnic Arabs of Muslim, Christian, and Druze faiths. Israeli-Arabs are granted full rights under Israel’s Declaration of Establishment, no different from any other Israeli. These include “complete equality of social and political rights… irrespective of religion, race or sex” and guaranteed “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Statistically, Israeli-Arabs live extremely well compared to the rest of the Arab world — Israeli-Arabs have the highest life expectancy and highest literacy of any Arab group in the Middle East. There is no enforced segregation of Israeli Arabs and Jews and, in many instances, Jewish and Arab populations coexist in mixed towns. Israeli-Arabs make up 32% of Jerusalem, 25% of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, and 53% of Israel’s Northern District. Despite these examples of coexistence, up to 70% of Israeli-Arabs live in predominantly Arab towns and villages. With Israeli-Arabs often living in separate communities for cultural and historic reasons, Israeli policies can affect Jewish and Arab communities differently, causing both social and economic issues.


These problems can be broken into three areas, all with the same root cause: building permits. First, Israeli-Arabs face difficulty in expanding their communities. Compared to other regions, Israel issues relatively few building permits. In June 2018, Israel issued 336.5 building permits per million people. In contrast, similarly sized New Jersey issued 434.4 building permits per million people, nearly 30% more. Further, disproportionate number of these permits are issued to non-Arab neighborhoods. Between 2010 and 2015, 7.5% of building permits issued in Jerusalem went to Israeli-Arab neighborhoods, despite Israeli Arabs applying for 15% of permits. This lack of building permits leads to a shortage in available housing in Israeli-Arab communities and, consequently, illegal construction. Though Israel, as a whole, faces a severe housing crisis, the lack of building permits exacerbates this crisis in Israeli-Arab neighborhoods, resulting in rampant unpermitted construction. In East Jerusalem, alone, 39% of houses are built illegally.


This illegal construction leads to the second major issue facing Israeli-Arabs, lack of services. While the vast majority of Israeli-Arabs are properly connected to the electrical and water grid, those living in unpermitted buildings face the risk of have their electricity or water cut off. This threat has lead nearly all Israeli-Arab homes to have water reservoirs on their roofs. These tanks are essential for maintaining a reliable supply of water in unpermitted homes that are not legally connected to Israel’s water system. Even those in legally constructed homes still have water tanks out of an abundance of caution. Lack of services becomes a greater problem in Israeli-Arab communities where illegal construction is more prevalent. In East Jerusalem, the municipal water and sewage company HaGihon reports having 192,281 residents connected to the water system. This means that only 59% of East Jerusalem residents are legally connected to the water grid. With these numbers, much of the Israeli-Arab population is left with no water access or is vulnerable to having their illegal access shut off.


The third major issue facing Israeli-Arab communities is demolitions by the Israeli government, which take several forms. As a method of deterring terrorists, Israel enforces a policy of demolishing the unpermitted homes of individuals that carry out terrorist attacks. During the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005, the Israeli military demolished the homes of over 600 terrorists. This practice, however, largely does not affect Israeli-Arabs; rather, it is typically aimed at Palestinian non-citizens who live in the West Bank. However, development demolitions, the result of an overlap between expansion and illegal building, often have a greater impact. Throughout Israel, there are 92 unrecognized villages, or villages built without permitting. When these unrecognized villages conflict with planned development, the government often issues permits to demolish the village and then compensate and relocate the inhabitants. A notable example of this policy was in Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village in Southern Israel. In April 2018, the residents of the unrecognized village were each compensated $46,000 and relocated to the city of Hura in order to clear the land for the construction of a new city. This form of demolition and relocation is not exclusive to Israeli-Arabs. Notably, 8,000 Jewish Israelis were relocated and 21 towns were demolished in Gaza as part of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. And in February 2017, the Israeli military demolished Amona, an illegally constructed settlettlement, and relocated its 250 Jewish residents. Though demolition does not solely affect Israeli-Arabs, the majority of unrecognized villages in Israel are Israeli-Arab. Thus, they face the brunt of Israel’s ‘demolish to develop’ policy.


Building permits, themselves, are also used by the Israeli Government as a political tool. This is seen exceptionally well with the Israeli government’s recently announced plan to develop the E1 corridor, a zone which lies between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim. On October 30, Israel’s Construction Ministry approved a 750 million dollar plan to build 20,000 new homes in E1, tripling the size of Ma’ale Adumim. Ma’ale Adumim is an Israeli settlement located in Area C of the West Bank, built 2 miles from Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. With a population of 38,000, it is Israel’s third largest West Bank settlement. For this reason, Israel has a significant motivation to keep Ma’ale Adumim in any future peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. By building up the 4.6 square miles between Jerusalem, Israel’s Capital, and Ma’aleh Adumim, its third largest settlement, the two would become one contiguous, inseparable entity. They would inevitably remain part of Israel in any future peace deal. The demolitions of unrecognized villages also come into play in the E1 corridor. In May 2018, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the demolition of Khan al Ahmar, the only unrecognized village in the E1 corridor. This village of 180 is one of the few roadblocks remaining stopping Ma’ale Adumim from being physically joined with Jerusalem. However, facing international pressure, Israel postponed the demolition. Despite this setback, the recently announced housing plan indicates Israel’s continued desire to push ahead with E1 development.

Israeli-Arabs are a vital part of Israel. They give it diversity of religion, culture, and thought. They demonstrate that it is possible to have a Jewish democratic state that ensures the freedom of religion. However, a divide remains in Israel’s community. Akiva Gersh, a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, describes the situation of Israel Arabs quite aptly:

“Every now and then I think about the fact that I myself have never stepped foot inside one of the Arab villages in our area and don’t really have a desire to. Partly out of fear and partly out of disinterest. But today, for the first time, I did. And I am so glad for that. I entered another world, a world of Arabic everywhere: on the storefronts and on the street signs, on the mayoral campaign posters and coming out of the people’s mouths. Some spoke beautiful Hebrew as well. Some barely at all. I drove down narrow streets that would never be allowed where I live and past schools that look like they were built while the British were still here (which might be true), past women in colorful hijabs and men drinking dark coffee and laughing. I visited the last remaining fishing village on Israel’s coast and watched the fishermen spread out their nets in hopes of a good catch today. For 2 hours I was in a different country, a different land, just 12 minutes down the road from me.”

Despite all the rights that Israeli-Arabs enjoy and the equal status they hold, Israel’s building permit policy remains problematic. It divides Israeli society and is at the heart of the societal issues which Israeli-Arabs face today. A small change in this policy could create a significant impact on the Israeli Arabs. By allowing for greater free market influence in where building occurs, lack of housing, lack of services, and demolitions would sharply decline. In Hebrew, the word for ‘policy’ is מדיניות, the abstract noun form of ‘state’. This is demonstrative of the fact that a nation’s policies are inextricably linked to the abstract values of that state. If Israel is to continue existing as an equal and free state, so must its policy. Building permit policies that are used for a political agenda and which disproportionately place stress on one ethnic community have no place in a democratic, free, and equal Israel.

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