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Arab-Israeli town gets development plan at last

Umm al-Fahm became the first Arab-Israeli locality to sign an agreement for 15,000 new housing units and large development projects.

For the first time ever, the State of Israel signed a comprehensive development agreement with a local Arab municipal authority. On Sept. 13, the town of Umm al-Fahm signed an agreement with the Finance Ministry and the Israel Land Authority to add 15,000 new housing units to the town over the next few years, as well as several commercial and employment centers on both state- and privately owned properties. The total cost of the deal is estimated to run to 800 million shekels ($250 million).

The deal is a milestone for the residents of Umm al-Fahm and all of Arab-Israeli society. For years, Arab-Israelis have suffered from a severe housing shortage as well as a sharp rise in violence and crime, issues that state and local authorities have seemed to ignore. The Sept. 13 agreement will expedite the development and growth of Israel’s third-largest Arab town by creating housing solutions for its residents.

As a result of this agreement, the population of Umm al-Fahm, which now stands at 57,000, is expected to double. Development will include the construction of a bridge connecting the different parts of the city, the paving of new roads, repairs to the drainage system and the creation of parks and other public spaces.

Today, many of Israel's Arab towns and villages look like overcrowded local ghettos, suffering from high population density and poor services. Illegal construction is inevitable, given the lack of available options. Not only do an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 homes in the Arab sector lack building permits, but a dearth of land for housing construction can be linked directly to the rise in crime. Families feud over each available piece of land. Without mortgage and construction loan options through local banks, some turn to the black market for loans.

Many Arabs are also relocating to nearby Jewish towns like Afula, Nof Ha-Galil and Harish to improve their quality of life. Former Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant of the Likud was one of the first politicians to publicly raise the issue of Arab immigration to Jewish towns. He told the 2018 annual conference of the Israel Planners Association that it is necessary to advance plans for construction in Arab towns.

He explained, “There is, today, a certain part of the Arab population that is forced to find a place for itself in Jewish towns, even though the two populations don’t necessarily want to live next to each other. We are therefore expanding the ‘blue’ areas and planning for the construction of multi-story buildings on state land.” His words were an admission that the state finally responded to the housing crisis in the Arab society to prevent Arabs from moving to towns and villages intended for the Jewish population and not out of concern for the welfare of the Arab population.

As for last week’s agreement, the mayor of Umm al-Fahm did not hide his excitement. Last Friday he published a lengthy post on Facebook addressed to the people of his city, explaining that the agreement offers new hope to residents of Umm al-Fahm. After years of overcrowding, he went on, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Mayor Samir Mahameed said, “This is a historic step forward after years in which only Jewish towns and villages signed agreements like this. The agreement is good news for young couples, who will no longer have to leave their home towns for another Arab town or even for Jewish towns. It will also expand commercial and employment zones, which will lead to future investment in the city by the local population. And it will reduce the level of violence in Arab society that often results from the housing shortage among the Arab population.”

Minister of Social Equality Meirav Cohen, who participated in the signing of the agreement, has been spending much of her time in office visiting Arab towns and villages to promote equality among the different sectors. Her office told Al-Monitor, “This ‘roof agreement’ may be the first of its kind with a local Arab municipal authority, but it certainly will not be the last. We plan to sign ‘roof agreements’ with other Arab towns in order to respond to the severe housing shortage in those settlements and to put some order into the construction of public buildings and institutions so that the next generation will receive a level of services appropriate to the 21st century.”

In his day, the former mayor of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, Morsi Abu Much, advanced a similar plan, though not on the same scale. He pushed for the approval of 6,000 new housing units in his town, but it was only approved by the District Planning and Construction Committee after he left office. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, he stressed how the agreement signed by the Umm al-Fahm municipality is a positive and vital step forward. However, he also spoke about the need to change the way we think about construction and urban development.

According to Abu Much, “This is a positive step forward and the right solution given the situation of the Arab population. It is time to think about replanning. What we were used to in the past cannot continue today. There really is no choice. The time has come to make a change and to begin building multi-story buildings, which is why it is necessary to approve a program like this. After all, we have reached a situation in which quite a few young couples have nowhere to live.”

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