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Israel offers its Palestinian citizens development without decolonisation

Hundreds of Jewish Israelis demonstrated on Saturday in the northern city of Afula, after construction tenders issued for new housing were won by Palestinian citizens from nearby villages.

The demonstrators, who are calling for the tenders to be revoked, included “senior officials” from the Afula city council, as well as David Suissa, chief of staff to Israel’s Housing Minister. “The fight in Afula has set off many warning bells”, said Suissa, adding that the protest was on behalf of “anyone who grew up in the city and wants to safeguard its character.”

Bentzi Gopstein, head of the anti-assimilationist Lehava group, arrived late – but was still given a platform by organisers (and “was greeted with cheers and chants”). The crowd held placards with slogans such as ‘Afula is in danger’ – at a previous rally, signs read ‘Arabs out’. One protest organiser put it plainly: “The city of Afula is a Jewish city and we wish to maintain the status quo.”

The Afula episode is indicative of a wider trend recently reported on by Israeli business newspaper The Marker. In the paper’s words, “middle class Arabs” are leaving their villages “and settling in Jewish cities, which are ill-prepared for their absorption.”

Around 6 percent of Israel’s Palestinian citizens – more than 100,000 – live in seven so-called ‘mixed cities’ (defined as such when at least 10 percent of residents are Arab): Acre, Haifa, Ramle, Lod, Ma’alot-Tarshiha, Upper Nazareth and Jaffa. Most of these cities had a much bigger Palestinian population prior to the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, but Upper Nazareth is a different case.

Upper Nazareth and Carmiel were established in the 1950s-1960s, as part of historical efforts by the Israeli government and bodies like the Jewish Agency to ‘Judaize’ the Galilee. In recent years, however, things have been changing, as a direct – and ironic – consequence of decades of systematic discrimination in land and housing policy.

Upper Nazareth covers 30.2 square kilometres, for a population of some 40,000 residents; Nazareth, meanwhile, has a population of more than 70,000 – in an area of 14.1 square kilometres. With no space, and sky-high prices, Palestinians have sought property in the development town originally built on land expropriated from Nazareth.

According to 2012 statistics, 19.2 percent of Upper Nazareth’s residents are Palestinian, “though unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 30%.” In Carmiel, the official Palestinian population is 2.5 percent – but experts say the real figure could 10-15 percent. Overall, 16,000 Palestinian citizens “are estimated to be living in 16 cities not officially defined as mixed, or in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods of big cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

This process has been met with opposition from many Jewish Israelis – including elected officials – who are unhappy with the phenomenon, but who also do not wish to end the systematic discrimination that has contributed towards it. Both Upper Nazareth and Carmiel have seen explicit expressions of racist incitement, often in the context of election campaigns.

Events in Afula seem to be following a similar pattern; a resident quoted in Ha’aretzdescribed the “prospective Arab homeowners” as “well-off families of doctors, lawyers, engineers and high-tech people who were looking to leave the choked neighbourhood in their communities and build a modern home in a modern neighbourhood at a reasonable price.”

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), in 2014, Afula’s population was 43,832. There was no data entered for the Arab population (and yes, CBS records each city’s Jewish and non-Jewish populations). The tender won by Palestinian citizens amounts to just a few dozen units – but for Afula Mayor Yitzhak Meron, “forty-eight families is not a drop in the ocean.”

Israel’s representatives, diplomats, and international supporters greet claims that the state discriminates against its Palestinian citizens with incredulity and anger. Talk about segregation or systematic racism, and you will be reassured that ‘Arabs vote’, ‘there are Arabs in the Knesset’, and that ‘there is even an Arab judge on the Supreme Court’.

However, Israeli media coverage of the issues facing ‘mixed cities’ and the housing crisis facing Palestinian citizens makes no bones about the facts of decades-long discrimination. As The Marker put it: “Discrimination against Arabs in the housing sector is an issue which this population has faced since the establishment of the State.” For example:

members of the Arab sector have no land to build on and to reside in, within the Arab towns and villages, due to the long-standing policy of discrimination by the Jewish establishment regarding planning and construction in the sector, and also due to other problems, such as private land on which private single-family houses have been built over the years rather than the dense construction of high rise buildings.

Meanwhile, in the words of The Marker, living in so-called “community settlements” or kibbutzim is “off limits” to Palestinian citizens, “due to the Admission Committees Law approved in 2011, which allows the filtering out of people in admission to the communities according to their ‘incompatibility with the social and cultural fabric’.”

In fact, the role of the admission committees – which act as a filter for who can live in around 70 percent of all the communities in Israel – goes back further than 2011. These communities come under the jurisdiction of 52 regional councils, which together cover 80 percent of the state’s territory; Human Rights Watch noted in 2008 how these committees “have notoriously been used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities.”

As I wrote in my book, ‘Palestinians in Israel’, “they are a means by which a small number of people – about 5 percent of the population – can exercise control over a significant amount of land.” But admissions committees are only part of the story.

While Palestinian citizens constitute around 20 percent of Israel’s population, an analysis of Israel Lands Authority tenders in 2014 by legal rights organisation Adalah show that a mere 4.6 percent of the total housing units marketed were in Arab towns (1,844). Indeed, Israeli settlements in the West Bank had 72 percent more housing units marketed than Arab towns inside the Green Line (3,163).

Furthermore, while the number of tenders published for industrial and commercial zones in Jewish towns in 2014 were 36, the number for Arab towns was precisely zero. Arab local authorities “encompass about 15 percent of Israel’s population”, yet their share of industrial zones – “areas that generate corporate tax, creating economic growth for the local authority” – is just 3.8 percent.

The areas of jurisdiction of 139 Arab towns in Israel comprise only 2.5 percent of ​​the territory of the state. As Israel has neither “established a single new Arab community since 1948” (outside of the Negev), nor “expanded the existing communities’ jurisdictional areas”, the end result has been “an 11-fold increase in the population density of Arab localities.” Of the 139 Arab localities, only 41 have up to date master plans, severely hampering development. In addition, out of 126 local and regional planning committees in Israel, “onlyfour are controlled by Arab local authorities.”

But is there now a change afoot? In December 2014, as part of a package intended to further the “economic development of minorities”, the Israeli government commissioned a panel chaired by Finance Ministry Budget Director Amir Levi to “formulate construction and housing solutions.” In March 2014, interestingly, Levi had acknowledged “that the state systematically discriminated against Arab towns with regard to budget allocations for education, public transportation, employment initiatives and the planning of industrial parks.”

The committee’s report, published in June 2015, was, according to Ha’aretz, “the first time ever” that an Israeli government team had “documented the extent of the land and housing shortage in Israel’s Arab communities and proposed recommendations for ending it”, including “tax breaks, the retroactive approval of illegal building and better organizing land registration and ownership.”

The panel also recommended “the enlargement of the area of jurisdiction of Arab communities, the introduction of subsidized training for city planners in the Arab sector, the extension of zoning variances to developers who are prepared to begin building immediately and the construction of more housing that is meant to be rented out.”

When the Levi panel released its recommendations, they were described by one commentator as “a revolution in land discrimination policy” and a “historic turning point.” Note, however, that in 2010 the same journalist hailed a different plan for investing in Arab towns as “the first time” that the state would “address the serious housing shortage in Arab communities and take action to end it.”

As MK Ayman Odeh commented in response to the Levi panel, “the report may be excellent, but what still remains is the reality-test of its implementation.” Just this week, MK Yousef Jabareen criticised yet another new proposal for financial assistance for the Arab community as inadequate. “We have a sour history with Israeli governments that declared plans that are not implemented on the ground”, Jabareen said, “and we hope that this will not be more of the same.”

This Wednesday, that new $3.86 billion plan goes to the Israeli cabinet for approval, an initiative that would see investment in “infrastructure, industry, education and healthcare” in Arab communities. As Ha’aretz noted, however, “Arab lawmakers and public figures have expressed doubts about the likelihood of the plan being implemented.” A different plan, formulated by the heads of Arab municipalities themselves, with MKs from the Joint Arab List, was “rejected” by the Finance Ministry.

Whether, and to what extent, these various economic and housing initiatives come to fruition, an Israeli government led by the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett has not suddenly discovered a passion for civil rights. The motivation to boost the economic potential of Palestinian citizens is simple: “the realisation…that the levels of poverty in the Arab sector have been holding back the economic development of the entire country.”

At a March 2011 conference, then-governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer declared that “reversing the relatively low rate of Arab participation in the labour force will increasingly be one of the keys to the success of the Israeli economy in the coming years.” At the same gathering, an OECD official urged Israel to “assign a higher priority for the employment and working conditions for Arabs and minority groups”, adding that “resources to support this objective need to scale up and be sustained over time if they are to become more effective.”

The ugly Afula protests thus speak to a much larger set of questions, including the sometimes contradictory nature of the relationship between Israel’s neoliberal economy on the one hand, and its ethnocratic legal framework and settler-colonial impulse on the other.

In April, Adalah responded to the State Comptroller’s report on the housing crisis by arguing that “the housing shortage in Arab communities is not the result of ‘failures’ or ‘deficiencies,’ but is a product of a deliberate, consistent, and systematic state policy, which excludes Arab citizens and sets many barriers to development in their way.”

As long as the policy persists under which ‘one hand confiscates and destroys and the other hand builds,’ and as long as the state views the Arab minority’s interest as conflicting head-on with the Israeli Jewish majority’s interest, the State Comptroller’s recommendations will not be able to solve the housing crisis for Arab citizens.

Ultimately, the challenges facing Arab communities – issues of housing, land, education, and development – cannot be satisfactorily solved without a revolution in the state’s current relationship to its Palestinian citizens as that of a settler-colonial state to an indigenous population. This, in turn, is inseparable from the violently ongoing colonisation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the suffering of blockaded and battered Gaza, and the enforced exile of Palestinian refugees.

This is not a recipe for inaction, but rather a recognition that systematic discrimination and segregation are not undone by budget supplements, just as the solution to the apartheid military regime in the West Bank is not internationally-funded industrial zones. Development without decolonisation is destined to fail.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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