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Efforts to reform Israel’s discriminatory land allocation has met with failure, because mayors of impoverished Jewish communities are loath to cooperate with the mayors of Palestinian and Bedouin towns and villages.

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SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Land allocation to municipalities and regional councils in Israel are once again a cause of strife among mayors and officials. These struggles offer a rare glimpse into the deep injustice in land allocation in Israel, which perpetuates generations-long social inequality.

Efforts to reform the location of land have been repeatedly met with failure, because the Israeli government and even some of the mayors of underprivileged municipalities are afraid that altering the status quo could benefit Palestinian and Bedouin-Israeli citizens.

The origin of Israel’s land allocation policies lie in the efforts of the Israeli government in the 1940s and the 1950s to take over as much land as possible, preventing Palestinian refugees from the 1948 mass deportation from returning to their lands and using Jewish immigrants from Arab countries to create a working class in Israel in order to leave no role for Palestinians in the Israeli economy.

The state founded in the 1950s so-called development towns, in which Jewish immigrants from Arab countries were housed in dense residential projects. Most of the open areas between these towns was entrusted to the kibbutzim and to villages. These lands were granted on lease, but for free, because the kibbutzim and the villages were seen as representatives of the Zionist movement and as pioneers.

Throughout the development of Israel’s economy, agriculture declined in economic importance. Industrial zones, quarries, military bases, commercial and residential zones have been gradually developed in areas that used to be fields and orchards, although these areas remained in the jurisdiction of the kibbutzim and the villages.

Mayors of Palestinian villages and cities within Israel, as well as the Jewish mayors of developing towns, found themselves in a similar predicament. Plagued by unemployment, substandard education services, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread social problems, municipalities in such communities could not find the money to invest in infrastructure and public services. Their only source of income is municipal taxes, which are already an almost unbearable burden on an impoverished urban population.

Meanwhile, the rural communities surrounding these urban areas were able to collect municipal taxes from the industrial zones, quarries, and military bases within their jurisdictions. These large revenues were accumulated to serve the relatively small population of these communities. They therefore had the resources to develop better schools and better infrastructure and to maintain a powerful lobby in the Israeli parliament.

Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit, the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, is an organization founded in 1996 to try to rectify this injustice. Although it mostly consisted of Jews of Arab descent, the organization called for a comprehensive land reform that would benefit not only the development towns, but also many Palestinians and Bedouin communities who suffer even more severe discrimination in land allocation.

The regional councils developed a tactic to defeat the call for a land reform. They pointed out that the reform proposed by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition would benefit Palestinians and came out with a slogan: the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition supports the right of return–the right of return of Palestinian refugees from 1948, that is.

By appealing to nationalistic and racist sentiments in the Israeli public, the regional councils were able to draw support away from the reform. When the Israel Land Administration in the year 2000 gave permission to agricultural communities to convert much of their lands to commercial or residential use, they effectively granted another boon to those agricultural communities who received these lands on lease from the state, lands whose value was predicted to increase dramatically.

The Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition appealed the decision in the Israeli High Court. The Court decided in 2002 that the profits from changing the use of these lands should be divided in a more egalitarian fashion. But the Court reached that decision only when the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition agreed that the history of these lands would not be part of the discussion. And the fact that much of them used to belong to Palestinians, who had their property confiscated without compensation, was not mentioned by the Court.

Despite the Court’s ruling, the situation today remains one of extreme inequality. Although 90 percent of Israel’s population is urban, over 80 percent of the country’s lands are within the jurisdiction of regional councils who continue to benefit from the municipal taxes. Michael Bitton, mayor of Yeruham, a developing town surrounded by military bases who pay their municipal taxes to the nearby regional council Ramat Negev rather than to Yeruham has tried in the past 18 months to convince the Israeli parliament to reallocate the jurisdiction of these military bases. His efforts failed, and he now plans to appeal to the Israel High Court.

The chairman of Ramat Negev regional council, commanding 20 percent of Israel’s territory, is Shmulik Rifman. Rifman’s response to the demand for a fair allocation of land was to say that these demands are driven by Bedouins trying to take over state lands, thereby bringing the nationalistic and racist argument into what began as a social justice debate. Indeed, the Bedouins are among the most discriminated group in Israel. In 2011, over 1,000 homes of Bedouins were demolished by the state of Israel, which is planning the deportation of 53,000 additional Bedouins from their homes.

The state refuses to recognize the villages in which the Bedouins live, even though most of them existed before the state of Israel was founded. The residents of these villages are considered to be intruders by the state. They therefore lack access to public services, adequate education, roads, and hospitals. They suffer from large-scale house demolitions and the spraying of agricultural fields and livestock with herbicides such as Roundup.

The unjust land allocation demonstrates the complex layers of discrimination in Israeli society and how the Israeli state uses divide-and-conquer policies to turn minority groups against each other in order to maintain the status quo.

This is Shir Hever for The Real News.


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