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Housing shortage and demolitions push Israeli Arabs to brink

Following the destruction of homes built illegally in Arab settlements, some Israeli Arabs are threatening a general strike.
Israeli police officers stand guard as a house belonging to Palestinians is being demolished in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina October 29, 2013. A statement from the Jerusalem Municipality said there was a court order for the demolition of the house, which was built without a permit. REUTERS/Ammar Awad (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS CONSTRUCTION) - RTX14SGL

Just a few hours on April 12 after enforcement authorities demolished the home that Tareq Habib built for himself in Kafr Kanna without receiving the proper permits, his friends and neighbors gathered to rebuild it. It took about an hour to lay the foundations and build the ground level. “We won’t abandon our lands here — over our dead bodies. We deserve to live like human beings,” Habib told journalists, who came to Kafr Kanna to cover the demolition of his home and the outrage of the villagers directed at the State of Israel’s harsh policies toward Israeli Arabs over the housing crisis and illegal construction in their settlements.

One day after the demolitions in Kafr Kanna, bulldozers showed up in the village of Dahamesh near Lod, to tear down illegal buildings erected by the Asaf family. Walid Asaf, the owner of one of the homes that was demolished, told the media, “Anyone familiar with Dahamesh knows that we are doing everything we can to obtain recognition, status and permission to build homes. We’ve taken it as far as the Supreme Court. They tore down some homes today, but I am not giving up. This is our land. We were born here, and we will die here.”

Mazen Ghnaim, the mayor of Sakhnin, who also serves as the chairman of the High Follow-up Committee of Arabs Citizens of Israel, warns that the housing crisis and this policy of demolishing homes could ignite the region and cause an enormous rift in the country. “The problem is that young people can’t get married and start a family because they have no way to build a home in the village or settlement where they live,” he said. “We’re talking about a wait of eight to 10 years just to receive building permits, and nothing happens until then. These young people eventually get so desperate that they build houses illegally. They get fed up waiting. Then after they invested all their money in building a house for themselves, the bulldozers come with the police to tear the house down and toss them into the street.”

The housing crisis in Israel is a national problem. But while young Jews are also unable to buy an apartment, the crisis faced by young couples in the Arab sector is to a certain extent even more severe. For them, the issue is not only the skyrocketing prices of apartments, which place them out of reach, but also how the current housing situation undermines the traditional familial and clan structure within the Arab settlements. Young Jews have seemingly the option of buying or renting a home in the periphery, but this option barely exists among Israeli Arabs.

There is an out-and-out shortage of land in Arab settlements, mainly for bureaucratic and national reasons, but also because of the traditional familial and social structure of the communities, which only intensifies the crisis. Israeli Arabs claim that the state is treating them with an iron fist when dealing with construction permits and is delaying procedures on purpose.

Because of the traditional clan structure of the community, almost no multi-story buildings get built in Arab communities. Most young couples want to build a house of their own near their parents’ home, on village land that, in many cases, is registered as their land in the tabu (land ownership registration). Nevertheless, they are often unable to obtain the building permits they need, even though it is officially their land.

Added to the bureaucratic nightmare is the social component, which turns the housing issue into an existential life crisis for an entire generation. “Without a roof over their heads or a home in which to raise a family, it is impossible to even begin talking about marriage,” Ghnaim said. “I can tell you personally that I have cousins, who are 38 and 40. Their land lies under the jurisdiction of the [Jewish] Misgav Regional Council, and they have absolutely no chance of building [a house]. In our community, no one would let his daughter marry someone who doesn’t have a home. This exacerbates the crisis. Young men in Arab settlements are not only left without a home to call their own, they are also forced to remain single. In our communities, people who don’t own land don’t build.

''Building multi-story homes is unacceptable, but it’s not just a matter of tradition or personal taste. The companies [i.e., contractors] don’t build apartment blocks either. I’ll give you an example from my own town, Sakhnin. We have hundreds of dunams of private land owned by local residents. In 1982, the Misgav Regional Council was created on Sakhnin’s privately owned land, but we were unable to get even 100 dunams [25 acres] for construction. The Misgav Regional Council now has 22,000 residents, while Sakhnin has 30,000. We have jurisdiction over 9,500 dunams [2347.5 acres], while they control 190,000 dunams [46,950 acres]. Most of that land belongs to the towns of Sakhnin, Arraba, Deir Hanna and Eilabun. When we want to develop the land, they tell us to build up. But preparing the requisite urban master plans and obtaining permits takes between eight and 10 years. So what am I supposed to tell all the young people, who want to get married and start a family here? 'Come back in 10 years, and we’ll talk?'”

Ghnaim said that he has no solution to the problem, at least for now. “The hands of all the local council leaders are tied,” he said. “Young people come up to us and say, 'I have no connection to the prime minister, the interior minister or the finance minister. You’re the head of the local council and the mayor of the locality, so you have to provide us with answers and give us the land.' But there is a limit to what I can do in the various planning committees and, in fact, I don’t have the money for planning.”

Al-Monitor asked Ghnaim if he thinks the Israeli policy is intentional. “You tell me! How could I think any differently?” he answered. “Give me one good reason to think that this is not intended to target the Arab population, and that anyone is doing anything to solve the housing crisis faced by young Arabs. Here in Sakhnin, the Ministry of Housing released a tender to build a new neighborhood for young couples. The state sold state-administered land to contractors, and the next day the contractors sold it to another group at a cost of about 1,500 Israeli shekels [about $380] per meter [3.30 feet]. In other words, they got 1.5 million shekels [about $380,000] for a single dunam of land. That’s how the neighborhood got built, without supervision or enforcement of existing laws, and the houses there were priced accordingly. Many of my colleagues want to declare a general strike in all the Arab localities in Israel. We can’t go on like this. We are the ones who have to face the outrage over this distress on a daily basis.”

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