x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israeli court backs Arab residents in land dispute

Judge sets important precedent by allowing local case to be taken to the national planning council.

The disputed plot in the town of Lod where the Arab-Israeli community is opposing plans to build a police station. Youval Hal for The National
The disputed plot in the town of Lod where the Arab-Israeli community is opposing plans to build a police station. Youval Hal for The National

LOD, ISRAEL // The two-acre lot in the city of Lod is unpaved and barren save for mounds of cardboard boxes, empty water bottles, plastic bags and other rubbish.

But the long-neglected land is the coveted prize in a months-long battle between Israeli planning authorities, who want it for a police station, and residents of the overcrowded adjacent Arab-Israeli neighbourhood of Kerem Al Tufaah, who say they desperately need the space for new homes.

Late last week, the neighbourhood achieved a significant victory in a legal challenge to the police-station plan that lawyers said could help to fight widespread discrimination against Arabs on construction issues.

In a ruling described by an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Acri) as a "significant achievement" for Israeli-Arabs, a district court judge in Lod ruled in favour of a petition filed by two rights groups and three Kerem Al Tufaah activists.

The petitioners had asked the court to allow them to present their claims to Israel's national planning and building council. That demand came after a regional planning body rejected their objections and denied their request for an appeal.

The ruling is a rare instance of an Israeli court allowing Arabs to advance their challenge to construction plans after being overruled by local authorities, said Auni Banna, a lawyer for Acri.

The victory, though far from ensuring that the national council will cancel the plan, could still spur officials to take more heed of Arab citizens' interests when approving building plans, Mr Banna said.

The ruling could also advance other petitions against plans that discriminate against Arabs, he said. As an example, he cited the anticipated approval for construction of Jewish towns in the Negev desert while in parallel refusing to recognise - and therefore connect to electricity, water or sewerage systems - the area's Bedouin villages.

"This is only the start, but we need a mass of such rulings to show Israeli planning authorities that they have to take Arab interests into consideration," Mr Banna said.

Israel's Arab citizens, who account for a fifth of the population, have long faced discrimination in areas such as construction. Planning authorities have for years neglected to update building plans for many Arab communities across Israel, in effect preventing officials from issuing new construction approvals or legalising housing that had already been built for growing families without legal permits.

Kerem Al Tufaah in Lod, a town about 20 kilometres from Tel Aviv, does not exist officially. It is not included in any building plan because the last plan for the area in which it is located was drafted in the 1970s, which is when the community began to grow significantly.

As a result, streets in the 1,000-strong rundown neighbourhood are unpaved, unlit and lack names, houses have no numbers, and rubbish collection is infrequent. Residents say the disputed lot is the only space available for them to build more homes and facilities such as playgrounds and youth centres that would ease their crowded living conditions.

One 56-year-old resident, who gave only his first name, Esa, said that he, his five brothers and their families - altogether 35 people - lived together in a house that they had doubled in size in recent years by constructing more rooms illegally for lack of official permits.

Their home and backyard are surrounded by graffiti-covered tin panels because the city refuses permission to build concrete walls.

Esa said his seven grandchildren slept on mattresses spread out on the floor throughout the house and spent much of their time indoors because the nearest playground was 2km away. "We need playgrounds and soccer fields, not a police station," he said.

Despite the court's favourable ruling, some residents said they doubted the police station plan would be scrapped. Mohammed Abu Shrekey, 58, an activist for Arab rights since the age of 15, said: "We have long lost our confidence in the legal system. Courts typically don't help us out with housing problems."

Nevertheless, he said the neighbourhood's residents might tap other legal or public-relations venues to block the station's construction.

"We won't stop fighting to prevent the police station from being posted here like a thorn in our throat."