Where Can We Live?

In light of the recent  home destruction in Bir al-Maksour – in which the discriminatory zoning measures applied by the Israeli government make it impossible for the Arab Palestinian minority to have adequate housing – it is necessary to take a deeper look at this complicated issue to help us understand why a citizen of a democratic state has to stand idly while bulldozers roll through his home.  Before analyzing the current status of building codes and municipal zoning regulations, it is important to better understand the legal precedent for the odd arrangement that has arisen.  On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion, as head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared the establishment of Israel.  In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the dual-role of the Jewish people as a religion and a national group was codified into the institutions of the state.  Due to this unique distinction, Israel would become a democracy, ostensibly with protection for the existing Arab inhabitants, and a Jewish state.  However, the codification of Judaism into state institutions has, over time, led to a division in the legal system and the development of apartheid.  In 60 years of struggle with Palestinian nationalism and wars with its Arab neighbors, Israeli leaders have sacrificed the integrity of the Declaration of Independence by forgetting this critical clause:

“In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to return to the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship and due representation in its bodies and institutions – provisional or permanent.”

That section, which protected the democratic rights of the Arab Palestinian minority, and should have ensured full and equal human rights for all residents of Israel has been ignored.  The allocation of land, specifically municipal zoning regulations, is one major way this difference is displayed.  The Arab Association for Human Rights is headquartered in Nazareth, specifically the Mary’s Well District.  A twenty-minute walk north from Mary’s Well will take you to al-Safafri, a poor, predominantly Muslim neighborhood.  Al-Safafri is about 60 years old and that is not a coincidence.  The families living there descended from people who were forced from there homes in a town called Safuri in 1948.  During the Nakba, Safuri was bombed and the residents either fled from the devastation or were transferred by the nascent Israeli state.  Though the majority now live in al-Safafri, there are descendents of Safuri refugees living in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Safuri was very close to Nazareth, it would be visible to residents of al-Safafri if its buildings stood today.  These people take their evening meals and gaze out their windows at land they used to own.

Roman mosaic in Zippori

Unfortunately, there is little physical evidence of the Arab town Safuri; itself a permutation of what was once Sepphoris, a Roman village.  The town is gone and in its place is Zippori, an Israeli national park, home to “mosaic floors [that] bespeak the opulence of Roman Sepphoris. The relatively small Roman theater is mute evidence of the cultural life the wealth could support.”  That is how Zippori is described in Fodor’s Travel Guide to Israel in which it is a “Fodor’s Choice” destination in the Lower Galilee.  Needless to say, the travel guides do not mention that today’s residents of al-Safafri are legally considered “absentees” and have no right to the land their families used to own.  Fodor’s recognizes Israel’s protection of the Roman mosaics and its defense of historical tradition, but both Fodor’s and Israel ignore the almost 2000 years of Arab history.  Israel has denied the Palestinian Arab minority basic human rights – in this case the right to own land – since its founding, and there is no sign of change in this policy coming. Almost a third of the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel is living in a situation like Roman ruins in Zipporithis one. These people no longer reside in the traditional homes of their ancestors because of the Kafkaesque, and discriminatory, machinations of the Jewish state.  

This brings us back to Nazareth; in 1953 the Israeli government started a program of Judaization in the Galilee.  Essentially, this campaign was to bring a “demographic balance” to the area of Israel with the highest population density of Arab Palestinians, in other words, it incentivized a massive influx of Jewish inhabitation.  Yosef Weitz, an executive at the Jewish National Fund and proponent of the campaign, described the Judaization in terms of quelling “The Arab threat”.  These new, Jewish, cities were planned and built on confiscated land from Arab families: Karmiel, Maalot, and Nazerat Illit. As the following map shows, Nazerat Illit covers far more ground that Nazareth, the designated Arab municipality.

Nazareth and Surrounding Area: The municipal zones are marked (click for larger view)

What the map above does not show is the population changes and the demographic history of these two municipalities. Nazerat Illit has grown as fast as the government can allocate new areas for Jewish emigrants, but Nazareth has had construction stifled.  In the 49 Arab municipalities in Israel, the land that the government’s central planners designate for construction has increased 1.5% while their populations have increased by 600 times. That is the pressure that the Arab Palestinian minority is under and the motive Hassan Gdir had for building his home in Bir al-Maksour without a permit.  He needed the space and the government was not permitting anyone to build residences to accommodate the natural growth in population.

By refusing to permit the expansion of Arab municipal zones, the Israeli government has forced the hands of men like Hassan Gdir and reneged on the promise of “full and equal citizenship and due representation”for the Arab Palestinian minority.  Additionally, the devolution of Safuri village into the al-Safafri neighborhood of Nazareth and Zippori National Park indicates that this discrimination has been going on since the foundation of the state and, as long as the dual Jewish and democratic definition of Israel hold equal status, it will continue into the future. So, in response to the section of the Declaration of Independence quoted above, if the Arab Palestinian minority is to “return to the ways of peace and play their part”, where can they live?

Paul Karolyi is the current intern of the Arab Association for Human Rights.

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