Arab MKs and Rights Groups slam amendment cracking down on illegal building

BY BEN LYNFIELD, JPOST

Umm al-Hiran

An amendment to the Planning and Building Law that will increase enforcement and penalties for illegal construction is being ardently opposed by Arab MKs and dovish rights groups on the grounds that it ignores alleged government failures to provide Arabs with the means to build legally.

“We are concerned this will punish people who have no choice and will lead to the criminalizing of people who did not build with the intention of committing a crime or an offense,” said Raghad Jaraisy, head of the Arab minority project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

The amendment, which was discussed Sunday by the Knesset Interior Committee, calls for restricting the discretion of courts regarding the enforcement of construction violations and expanding the powers of administrative entities, especially national planning entities and planning enforcement entities dealing with construction without a permit.

It would also increase fines and prison terms for building offenses.

The explanatory notes for the amendment, drafted by Deputy Attorney- General Erez Kaminitz, speak of the need to create a deterrent against rampant illegal construction.

The notes attribute the problem to a “lack of available and updated information on construction offenses; failure to bring [offenses] to trial; lengthy proceedings; lenient penalization; failure to enforce execution of demolition orders contained in judgments; and the time required to implement judgments containing demolition orders. All of these lead to a serious negative impact on deterrence with respect to both the offenders themselves and others who learn and see with their own eyes how offenders are rewarded and how illegal construction is worthwhile for the offender.”

ACRI’s Jaraisy says the deterrence approach is fundamentally misconceived, and that because state master plans for Arab localities are nonexistent or inadequate, Arab citizens often have no way to obtain the permits that would enable them to build legally on their land.

“In order to enforce planning and building laws, you need to have the possibility to build legally with permits,” she said.

“If you have this opportunity and build without permits, the state is obliged to enforce the law and operate against you. But the situation in Israel in Arab towns and villages is that there is a crucial planning and building problem. The governmental authorities didn’t plan for Arab citizens; they didn’t make master plans, and where there are master plans, they are not up to date. You can’t concentrate on enforcement without finishing the planning procedures,” she explained.

A position paper by ACRI, Bimkom and other rights groups notes that despite population growth, areas of jurisdiction for municipalities and localities have not been expanded, and have even been reduced.

MK Zouheir Bahloul (Zionist Union) warned against the bid to pass the amendment.

“Every home that is destroyed, even if it is illegal, causes shock,” Bahloul said. “Imagine the demolition of tens of homes in one go. This will cause a great rift between the two sides.”

The amendment is in keeping with statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the run-up to the recent evacuation of the illegal Amona outpost in the West Bank, when he said there was a need to strengthen enforcement against illegal building in the Arab sector. It is being supported by the right-wing NGO Regavim.

“This law is a blessing,” said Meir Deutsch, director of policy and government relations for Regavim.

“For tens of years, the state did not deal with what the Supreme Court has defined as a national plague. The illegal construction situation is a catastrophe,” Deutsch said.

“This is the first time the problem is being dealt with at its root,” he continued. “The main problem is in the Arab sector, where there are large numbers of people who build illegally and then seek to have the construction accepted. We hope the law will stop this. It’s a big step forward.”

At Sunday’s meeting of the Interior Committee, chairman David Amsalem (Likud), in an apparent effort to soften the criticism, said the amendment would apply only to construction outside the “blue line” in master plans that demarcate the area of a locality where it is permissible to build.

But Thabet Abu Rass, a regional planner who is co-director of Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit that works toward Jewish-Arab coexistence, said that over 90% of the illegally built homes were outside the blue line and called the amendment “non-implementable.”

“It means the government is going into clashes with the Arab community because we are talking about almost 60,000 such homes [without permits], making up 22% of the total Arab houses in Israel,” Abu Rass said. “We need now to freeze the demolishing of homes and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the Arab mayors and professionals to find a solution to the problem.”

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