Taibeh, Palestine (NI) – The two elderly ladies sit in the shade of a tent. Their eyes are tired, their spirits broken. Four apartment buildings and two houses are nearby on the dusty land. There are signs of life everywhere: entrances brightened by colourful flowers, a dog growling in his kennel, blankets hanging out to dry, a wheelchair. But on this spring day, the tent, which was set up as a form of support and protest, is ironically also a sign of death – the death of the homes. For each one of them is subject to demolition.
Um Saleem and Um Eyad live in Taibeh. With a population of 50,000, it is the third-largest Arab city in Israel.
Escaping overcrowded living quarters in a nearby town, their families purchased the land with the hopes of creating a better future. Three applications for building permits were turned down. In spite of this, the first house was built in 2003. Two years ago, they received demolition orders. It was not until last week that the final court order with a possible date of demolition was handed to them – by 15 May, they were told, their homes would be nothing but rubble.
Currently, 6,500 homes in Arab towns in Israel are subject to demolition. Should they be demolished, approximately 50,000 people, all Israeli citizens, will become homeless.
The ladies, talking at the same time, ask emotionally: ‘Where will we go if they demolish our homes?’ The residents, they say, are sick or handicapped, pregnant, schoolchildren, teenagers, newly engaged and newborn babies.
‘See that garbage dump there? We’re being treated like that,’ Um Eyad says, with tears rolling down her cheeks, as she points to a landfill in the distance. ‘The only difference is that it has a permit.’
Their concerns are valid. On 12 April, the home of Tareq Khatib in Kafr Kanna, an Arab village in northern Israel, was demolished. The following day, 5 buildings owned by the Asaf family from Dahamesh, an unrecognized village near Tel Aviv, were also torn down.
Eleven families in Ramle, also near Tel Aviv, received demolition orders. And following a 10-year-long legal battle, the Supreme Court ruled just 2 days ago that the unrecognized Bedouin village Umm el-Hieran, population 1,000, will be destroyed, and a Jewish town called Hiran built in its place.
The Arab community in Israel, now numbering 1.3 million (20 per cent) of Israel’s population, are the descendants of the approximately 160,000 Palestinians who remained on their land during Israel’s creation in 1948.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel often complain about discriminatory practices by the government.
According to the EU and the Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel, ‘Arab citizens of Israel are subject to discrimination at the economic, social and cultural levels. A principal aspect of socio-economic discrimination concerns land and property expropriations.’
The report continues: ‘Today, 93 per cent of all land in Israel is under direct state control, 13 per cent of which is owned by the Jewish National Fund, which sees its mandate as leasing and settling land solely for Jews.’
In February 2015, the Israeli State Comptroller released a 295- page report about Israel’s housing crisis – mostly about the rising cost of housing in the Jewish sector, but failed to include details about the severe shortage of housing in the Arab sector.
In Israel’s 67 years of existence, new Arab communities have not been built, nor have the existing ones been expanded to accommodate the growing Arab population
In response to the State Comptroller’s report, Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – compiled its own report.
‘Deliberate Obstacles, Not Failures’ states that ‘the housing shortage in Arab communities is not the result of “failures” or “deficiencies” that the Comptroller identifies with respect to the housing crisis in Jewish Israeli communities, but rather is the result of deliberate, consistent, and systematic government policy that places obstacles before Arab citizens.’
Arab towns currently comprise only 2.5 per cent of Israel. In Israel’s 67 years of existence, new Arab communities have not been built, nor have the existing ones been expanded to accommodate the growing Arab population. The result has been overcrowding and housing shortages.
The National Master Plan was designed to meet the construction needs for the whole country. However, most the options for development in Arab communities are limited. Only 41 of 139 Arab communities have up-to-date master plans. Regional committees make plans for Arab towns, often ignoring the unique needs of the residents.
The approval of building permits often takes years, forcing people to build illegally. In 2014, bids for construction of housing units in the Jewish sector numbered 38,261, compared to 1,844 in the Arab communities. This translates to only 4.6 per cent of new housing units being designated to the Arab community.
Arab homes in the West Bank area also subject to demolition. According to B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, between 2006 and Feb 2015 at least 847 Palestinian residential units in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) were demolished. The homeless numbered 4,015 people (including 1,957 minors).
Last year, 3,163 housing units were marketed in Israeli settlements in the West Bank for the approximately 500,000 Israelis who have illegally taken up residence there.
The West Bank village of Susiya is the latest up for demolition, and up to 350 people will be homeless should it take place.
B’tselem states that ‘Israeli settlers in the area have already taken over almost 300 hectares of the villagers’ land. Past experience indicates that if the Israeli authorities succeed in expelling the villagers from Khirbet Susiya, either the settlers will directly take over the land or the authorities will take control of it and allocate it to settlers.’
The night before Um Saleem and Um Eyad voiced their complaints, Knesset members and locals gathered at the protest tent in Taibeh.
‘See that garbage dump there? We’re being treated like that. The only difference is that it has a permit’
A speaker described the situation as very dangerous. Any minute, he said, without warning, they can start the demolitions. Imagine waking to the knock on your door at 2:00 in the morning, he continued, and your home and dreams becoming a pile of rocks an hour later.
Ushruf, Um Saleem’s son, pleaded for help from the lawmakers. ‘No-one can understand the feelings of those whose houses will be demolished,’ he said. ‘Should the demolition crew come, I am prepared to stay on the roof of my house,’ he stated defiantly.
Little did he know that two days later a temporary freeze would be put on the demolition orders. As of now, the houses remain standing. Time will tell about the fate of the thousands of other houses.
Written by Noreen Sadik for the New Internationalist.