BRIEFING PAPER: Urban Planning in Israel's Arab Communities

BRIEFING PAPER: Urban Planning in Israel's Arab Communities

March 3, 2020

URBAN PLANNING IN ISRAEL'S ARAB COMMUNITIES
ESSENTIAL AND COMPLEX CHALLENGE FOR ECONOMIC AND RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT 

February 2020

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SECTION 1: OVERVIEW

Introduction

Urban planning, the processes that determine land use and zoning in towns and cities, is central to municipal development in Israel. Up-to-code master and detailed local plans are the regulatory basis for all construction—public and private, large and small, and are therefore the prerequisite to quality of life via housing, public facilities, industry, and municipal income generation.

For most of Israel’s municipalities, which are situated on state-owned land and developed within the scope of national and regional plans, Israel’s centralized planning processes present a functional—if at times cumbersome—framework for addressing development needs and providing a modern standard of living. Arab municipalities,[1],[2],[3],[4] however, which sit mostly on private land in towns that predate the existence of the state, were mostly left out of Israel’s planning processes and thus experienced decades of unplanned, organic development and population growth. The result has been ever-widening gaps between local realities and needs and national planning regulations, standards and practices.

Today, crowded conditions, a shortage of available land for residential and economic development and significant levels of unauthorized[5] construction are just some of the challenges that make professional urban planning one of the most persistent and complex barriers to socio-economic development in Arab society, as well as one of the most sensitive sources of tension in state-minority relations.[6]

In 2003, planning and housing disparities were referenced as a major national priority in the watershed Or Commission Report.[7] They have since gained wider recognition within the growing government focus on closing economic gaps for Arab society and in the context of Israel’s overall housing crisis. In 2011, social justice protests sparked the general housing shortage led to large-scale planning reforms and interim measures to simplify and fast-track residential development nationally. But efforts to address the cumulated needs in Arab communities had limited success.

In 2014, a special 120-day government committee was created to formally map and recommend solutions for urban planning in Arab localities. Its far-reaching recommendations are widely viewed as a paradigm shift in identifying that existing planning processes and policies were not meeting needs and realities in Arab communities, and in recognizing the need to adapt as well as enforce planning regulations. Aspects of the 120 Days Committee recommendations were adopted into several government decisions and form the basis for the chapter on housing and planning in Government Resolution 922 (GR-922), the historic five-year economic development plan for Arab society approved in December 2015 and entering its final year in 2020.

As a result, the past five years have seen unprecedented budgets and concerted efforts to advance planning, residential and commercial development in Arab society. While these have led to some significant achievements—not least of which are greater awareness and coordination among local and state actors—most of the budgets and initiatives have stalled on the level of planning. Little new construction has taken place nor has there been significant resolution of existing unauthorized construction. This lag, in turn, affects the ability of other economic development budgets and programs that rely on planning and construction to advance (i.e. public transportation, construction of public facilities, building industrial areas).

With the clock ticking on GR-922, pressure is mounting within Arab society and among government officials to use the historic opportunity to address planning challenges, mitigate the housing crisis, and advance economic development projects. Meanwhile, parallel pressure is being exerted by enforcement advocates to crack down on unauthorized construction. As a result, this past year has seen greater urgency among government, planners, civil society leaders and Arab municipalities to understand and tackle barriers to implementation of recent budgets and planning efforts

This paper is thus divided into three sections. The first provides an overview of urban planning in Israel as a priority and complex challenge for Arab localities and introduces the major government developments in recent years that accelerated efforts to address them. The second section then looks at the impact of these recent efforts, their current status of implementation, and takes a more detailed look at barriers to implementation of planning—even when supported by budgets and revised policies. Finally, the last section looks at lessons learned from the last few years of concerted efforts, and recommendations from government and the field going forward.

The appendices cover new government pilots, a success case study focused on Sakhnin, and a mapping of civil society organizations involved in planning issues.

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[1]  According to recent government statistics, most Arab citizens live in Arab-only localities, with more than 70% living in the Negev and Galilee. It is estimated that a little more than 20% of Arab citizens live in mixed cities (Jerusalem, Lod, Ramle, Haifa, Acre, Nof Hagalil etc.), and only 1-2% live in predominantly Jewish localities. Thus, it is relatively easy to distinguish between an Arab locality and a Jewish locality.

[2] The paper does not address the situation of Negev Bedouin localities, East Jerusalem, nor mixed cities which face additional circumstances beyond the scope of this paper.  

[3] There are 133 recognized Arab localities in Israel, 85 of them are larger communities where approximately 76% of Arab citizens reside. The localities include 11 cities, 70 Local Councils and 4 Regional Councils. An additional 25 localities are Arab communities inside Jewish regional councils. Most of these communities are small and medium-sized, up to 20,000 inhabitants. Rassem Khamaisi, Planning and Development of Arab Communities in Israel: A New Approach for both the Local Authorities and the State, The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), 2019, p. 52). 

[4] For purposes of this paper, “Arab citizens” includes Muslim, Bedouin, Druze, Christian and Circassian citizens.

[5] Since the establishment of the state, any construction without a building permit is illegal according to Israeli law. However, due to the circumstances described in this paper, such construction is widespread in Arab towns and cities, reflecting tens of thousands of structures and even entire neighborhoods and is one of the greatest sources of state-minority tensions. Thus, related terminology is controversial, ranging from “illegal,” to “unauthorized,” “unregulated” and “unpermitted.” In an effort to use neutral terminology, in this paper such structures are referred to as “unauthorized” or “unregulated” unless specifically referring to government efforts to enforce planning law, in which case “illegal” may be used.

[6] Home Demolitions and State-Minority Relations: The Events in Qalansawe and Umm Al HiranInter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, January 2017.

[7] Israeli Arabs: The Official Summation of The Or Commission Report, Jewish Virtual Library, September 2, 2003, paragraph 25.

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