Israel Bulldozes Democracy
By Ayman Odeh Feb. 11, 2017
HAIFA, Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is expected to visit Washington this week to meet with President Trump, presumably to discuss the political philosophy they share: power through hate and fear.
I know this may sound like overheated hyperbole — after all, whatever Trump’s shortcomings may be, today’s geopolitical challenges are very real, and leave much to discuss, whether during state visits by Jordan’s King Abdullah, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, or Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu.
So to be honest, I realize that “power through hate and fear” won’t exactly be on the agenda in these high level discussions between the US and its close overseas allies. My point, though, is to associate Israel with a president who now has low favorability ratings, particularly among readers of this newspaper. So let me get back to it.
A government that bars refugees and Muslims from entering the United States has much in common with one that permits Israeli settlers to steal land from Palestinians, as a new law that Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition pushed through Parliament last week did.
I mean, yes, Mr. Netanyahu actually criticized candidate Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims. (The following day, Mr. Trump cancelled his planned trip to Israel.) And yes, the United States had sought to ban refugees from Syria, while Israel, remarkably, continues to treat injured Syrians and has even moved to take in 100 orphans from its war-torn neighbor. But I don’t want to confuse readers with nuance.
I should also point out that Netanyahu later apologized directly to Arab leaders for his divisive comments. And, really, I don’t get it. Why would a leader apologize for anything? I never apologized after suggesting Palestinian rock attacks targeting Jews, attacks that have taken innocent lives, are beyond reproach. I didn’t apologize for refusing to enter the offices of an American Jewish organization because it was contaminated by the proximity of Zionists. But I digress. As I said, Netanyahu was elected in 2015.
Since then, he has made discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel central to his agenda. This takes many forms; a particularly painful one is his government’s racist, unjust land use and housing policies.
Arabs make up one-fifth of Israel’s population, yet only 2.5 percent of the state’s land is under Arab jurisdiction.
This reminds me of a similar statistic that’s long been used to attack Israel. It goes something like this: Arab citizens make up 20 percent of the population, but own only three percent of the land.
It sounds like Jewish citizens own all the land, right? That’s the point! What goes unsaid is that Jews, too, own just three percent of the land, although they make up 75 percent of the country’s population. Most of Israel’s territory is owned or managed by the state, and can only be leased, but not bought or sold, by citizens. In other words, Arabs aren’t disproportionally kept from owning land, as those wielding the statistic would have you believe. The opposite is true. They are disproportionately land owners in a country with very little private land.
And I guess I should now admit that my own statistic, the one about 2.5 percent of the state’s land being under “Arab jurisdiction,” is likewise designed to mislead.
Let me explain where that number comes from. Israel’s land can be under one of three types of local jurisdiction: Municipal councils, local councils, and regional councils. Big cities have municipal councils. I can talk about those from personal experience, as I once served on Haifa’s city council. Haifa is a mixed city where roughly 30,000 Arab residents make up 10 percent of the city’s population. As might be expected, about 10 percent of the city council is Arab.
But Haifa has a large Jewish majority, and its city council is mostly Jewish. The mayor is entirely Jewish. So as distasteful as it may sound, according to my way of looking at things Haifa and its Arabs are stuck under “Jewish jurisdiction.” If you’re thinking that this isn’t disenfranchisement, but just democracy, well, I guess you’d be right.
Then there are local councils. They are similar to city councils — they attend to road maintenance, garbage collection, and other services — but this time in medium-sized towns.
And finally, there are regional councils, which govern groups of small villages, including — and take note, because this part is important — the vast empty spaces between them. In the parched, rocky Negev desert, which takes up more than half of Israel’s land area, most of the small-town population is Jewish. Which means the stones and scorpions of the endless desert are largely under “Jewish jurisdiction.”
Consider the specific example of the Negev Heights, a large regional council in the Negev. Although it accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s territory, it is home to only six thousand people — less than a tenth of one percent of Israel’s population. There you have it: A minuscule fraction of desert dwellers control a fifth of the country’s land. Oh, and most of them are Jews. See how this works?
Look, I get it. In the real world, populations aren’t divided across territory with calibrated precision. Sussex County takes up half of Delaware, but is home to less than a quarter of the state’s population. In Utah, Mormons make up about 60 percent of the population. And yet, they are a majority in all but three of the state’s 29 counties, accounting for a whopping 82 percent of Utah’s land.
And so it is with Israel. The country’s isolated small towns, which are spread across the expansive territory of its regional councils, are overwhelmingly Jewish. About 620,000 Jews and fewer than 70,000 Arabs live in territory governed by regional councils.
What if we exclude these small towns and empty spaces? The remaining 2,800 square kilometers of territory is home to roughly 5,234,000 Jews and 1,577,000 Arabs. About 680 square kilometers of that land is under Arab-administered councils. Which is to say the following: Arab Israelis make up 22 percent of the population there. And they administer 24 percent of the land.
So now, dear readers, you can understand how my dramatic stat about 2.5 percent of the state’s land being under “Arab jurisdiction” is meant to inflame, and not to inform in any meaningful way. The statistic would find itself quite at home alongside lies and damned lies.
Why use it, then? I mean, I know as much as anyone that Israel’s Arab minority does face some discrimination. Israel is a real country, and real countries, unfortunately, have real problems. And still, I rely on this contrived number. Why? Because my point isn’t so much to educate about, or advocate for, Israel’s Arab minority. It’s to attack the Jewish state. Which brings me to another tricky statistic.
Since the founding of the state, more than 700 new towns and cities have been built for Jews, while no new cities have been built for Arabs.
You might want to use this stat in your own anti-Israel advocacy, but you should know that it isn’t, well, accurate. Israel has indeed built new towns and cities for its Arab population. There’s Rahat, for example. And Lakiya. And Hura, Kuseife, Tel as-Sabi, Ararat an-Naqab, and Shaqib al-Salam. Then there are Terabin al-Sana, Abu Karinat, Moleda as well as several other new Arab villages that in the process of being built. (But if you don’t tell anybody, I won’t!)
As for those 700 mostly Jewish villages, towns and cities, yes, they were built to house millions of immigrants: Holocaust survivors; Jews forced from their homes in the Arab world; refugees escaping the former Soviet Union; and other Jews who just wanted to take part in the rebuilding of their national home in their ancestral homeland. (And, by the way, Arab citizens can and do live in Jewish cities.)
I criticize the building of these new towns, but to be honest I don’t know what I would’ve had these Jews do. Should they have moved en masse into Arab-majority cities instead? Today, Jewish development in Jerusalem is slurred by some in the Arab world, including members of my own party, as “Judaization” of the city. If there weren’t new towns to take in Jewish immigrants, would my colleagues and I now be protesting the Jewing up of Arab cities instead? Perhaps.
In Arab towns, the government has made building permits so difficult to obtain, and grants them so rarely, that many inhabitants have resorted to constructing new housing units on their properties without permits just to keep up with growing families that have nowhere else to go. As a result, Arab communities have become more and more densely populated, turning pastoral villages into concrete jungles.
To be sure, Arab areas do get building permits, in Jerusalem and beyond. Still, there are real challenges in many Arab towns and neighborhoods, where a lack of town development plans, difficulty proving ownership, high costs, a hesitance among Arab landowners to register their lands, and slow Israeli bureaucracy all hinder the issuing of building permits, contributing to the difficulties. Even NGOs that place most of the responsibility with the government acknowledge that barriers within Arab society contribute to the overall problem.
Belying the idea that Israel seeks to prevent housing in Arab areas, the Israel Lands Administration has begun actively marketing state-owned land for housing in those areas — but has met with little success.
One could reasonably argue that Israel can do more to expedite and approve plans and to accommodate building in the Arab sector. The state has a role in working to minimize damaging discrepancies between communities, and should certainly avoid exacerbating them. But that’s all measured, rational talk. As you know, I prefer to caricature the problem as one of malicious Israeli oppression.
In southern Israel, more than 100,000 Arab citizens face a particular crisis. In the Naqab desert, known in Hebrew as the Negev, there are 35 villages that are officially “unrecognized” by the state. The residents of these unrecognized villages have Israeli citizenship, yet the state has refused to provide even basic services like water, electricity utilities, paved roads and schools.
What the state has done instead is build new, modern towns (yes, with water, electricity and roads) for these Bedouin in the Negev. And it has devoted significant resources to addressing problems that come with sedentism of previously nomadic populations like the Bedouin. Ultimately, it is that transition, from a nomadic to a sedentary society, that is the primary challenge here (though I took care to avoid even mentioning that the discussion is about traditionally nomadic Bedouin!). None of this is easy, especially in so politically charged an environment. And still, most of the Negev’s Bedouin now live in recognized towns.
Worse, because the Israeli government refuses to recognize these villages’ existence, they all live under the shadow of demolition orders from the state. Residents never know when the police will come to evict them and bulldoze their homes.
These policies have existed for decades — forget about the fact that a few years ago Israel retroactively legalized 11 of the unrecognized towns — but Mr. Netanyahu has turned them into a political bludgeon. Several weeks ago, when it became clear that the government would be forced to implement an Israeli High Court ruling to evacuate Amona, an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank built on land stolen from Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu vowed to destroy Arab homes throughout Israel in retribution.
Actually, no. That’s not true. Netanyahu didn’t vow to destroy Arab homes throughout Israel, but rather spoke about removing only illegally built homes, in Arab areas just as in Jewish ones. “One thing must be clear, Israel is a state of law,” Netanyahu said. “But the law must be equal. The same law which requires the evacuation of Amona, also requires the removal of illegal construction in other parts of the country.”
“I will not have double standards on enforcing the law between citizens of Israel, between Jews and Arabs, between one person and the next,” he added.
The prime minister soon made good on his threat. That was why, a few weeks later, a huge force of armed police arrived to destroy homes in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran.
I first visited Umm al-Hiran not long after I had been elected secretary general of the Hadash party. I spent several weeks living in the Naqab and took part in a nonviolent protest against the demolition of another village, Al Araqib. I was beaten by police and arrested. I had to call my wife, Nardin, from jail.
After a long legal battle, the government has moved to destroy Umm al-Hiran so that a religious Jewish community can be built in its place. The way I want people to see it, this new town would erase all traces of Arab presence, even replacing the town’s name with the more Hebrew-sounding Hiran.
The residents suggested a compromise: Create an Arab neighborhood within the new town so that their community could remain intact. The state rejected this idea: Hiran was to be for Jews only.
Okay. Fine. The state didn’t really say the town would be for Jews only. On the contrary, it said Bedouin who lived in Hiran could, if they didn’t want to take a large plot in the nearby town of Hura, continue to live in the newly built, modern town of Hiran.
“This is not expulsion and not expropriation,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, “but the proposed evacuation involves various proposals of moving, construction, compensation and the possibility of homes, whether in the town of Hura where most of the residents of the illegal villages involved will be moved, or in the community of Hiran, which is to be built.”
It isn’t just the court justice who noted Israel’s proposal. In this very newspaper, The New York Times, a news story likewise noted that “The government said Umm al-Hiran’s residents could purchase plots in the future town, but [Hiran community leader Salim] Qian said they wanted to stay together as a community.” …
Back to the real world: CAMERA contacted The New York Times to call for corrections to factual errors in Odeh’s piece. Stay tuned.