A collapsing infrastructure is a starting point in most Arab cities, and the government is not managing to find the means or cultural sensitivity to address it, new study finds

The Arab city of Umm al Fahm, in Israel, October 6, 2019.
The Arab city of Umm al Fahm, in Israel, October 6, 2019.Credit: Amir Levy

Gili Melnitcki 19.01.2021

How do you say urban renewal in Arabic? You don’t. That’s the glum main conclusion of a study by Sikkuy, The Association for the Advancement of Equal Opportunity; the Israel Affordable Housing Center, part of the Tel Aviv University law school; and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning. Their report, which has been sent to the relevant government ministries, cites failures and obstacles to planning and development in the oldest Arab neighborhoods that highlight the poor state of infrastructure and public institutions in Israel’s Arab communities.

Tama 38 [the Hebrew acronym for a national master plan in which contractors make improvements to an older building that include earthquake reinforcement, in exchange for the right to build and sell additional apartments] and teardowns aren’t happening in Arab locales, even towns in the center that are close to Jewish communities and where urban renewal would be financially worthwhile, and also not in communities in the north or south,” states Noga Shani, one of the researchers, who worked with the National Planning Authority and the Arab local governments.

“Some 80 percent of construction in Arab areas is old, most of the infrastructure is improvised, the sewers don’t function, there’s a serious shortage of public and educational facilities, the roads are old, parking is unregulated and the electricity and sewage hookups are old,” says Shani. “All this characterizes the old neighborhoods, and that’s before you take into account the illegal, improvised construction built as an attempt to deal with the housing crisis. Ramat Gan has halted urban renewal because the city’s infrastructure is collapsing; in Arab communities that’s the starting point, and it stems from years of discrimination in the allocation of funding and resources for building, improving and maintaining infrastructure and expanding the housing supply.”

The report found that residents of Arab-majority areas and their local authorities don’t have legal tools to add apartments to existing buildings or to renew public spaces via use of public land. Land is cheap and most is privately owned. Ownership is often split among several people, old land registrations don’t list who owns which parcel and the national government doesn’t own any land inside towns. All these create significant impediments for urban renewal and new construction in Israel’s Arab towns.

These challenges encourage construction anarchy, such as illegal additions, which add to the stress on infrastructure and further increase population density. The so-called Kaminitz Law tried to address this by offering Arab communities proper planning to enable development and accommodate population growth.

The ruins of a house destroyed after being built without a permit in the Arab town of Ar'ara, central Israel, July 24, 2019.
The ruins of a house destroyed after being built without a permit in the Arab town of Ar’ara, central Israel, July 24, 2019.Credit: Amir Levy

Despite these attempts in recent years, the researchers say the National Planning Authority hasn’t done enough to meet the community’s needs. Plans take so long to approve that they often become irrelevant, incapable of meeting growing demand or renewing old neighborhoods. Residents surveyed for the study complained of narrow streets; a lack of sidewalks, parking and access to public transportation; and a severe shortage of schools and public open space.

Arab communities have had little success adopting mechanisms used in Jewish communities to resolve land use issues, such as the transfer of development rights and offering easements in exchange for the construction of public facilities. The main reasons are the cultural role of land in Arab society, mistrust of the establishment and an overriding sense that decisions are made for the community without its involvement.

The researchers also say current urban renewal strategies are based on contractors’ profit motive. That, they say, doesn’t work so well within the Arab community, which doesn’t really have a real estate market, but rather is characterized by families’ desire to preserve their land and homes within the family for their children.

The Justice Ministry came to similar conclusions in a study by Carmit Yulis and Erez Kaminitz. That report, published in September, addressed solving problems and standardizing planning while ensuring that the government’s five-year plan for building new homes in the Arab sector would be carried out. It failed, however, to conduct an in-depth discussion of urban renewal within Arab communities.

“Arab local authority heads see it as crucial to advance urban renewal in old areas, as these centers could become slums and centers of crime,” the new report states. “Urban renewal is complicated, and on top of this is the issue of doing it in places with low land prices,” it states, adding that the issue demands further consideration as a result.

Israel’s most recent government, an emergency government that has since disbanded, sending the country to its fourth election in two years, has not addressed this matter, needless to say, and it’s unlikely that the government that forms after the elections as well will be able to tackle substantive matters. Likewise, measures drafted to replace Tama 38, which is being phased out, do not cover Arab municipalities.

For instance, in the call to draft a new master plan for urban renewal, the Government Authority for Urban Renewal excluded Arab cities from the baseline requirements. By conditioning inclusion on having minimum apartment prices of 13,500 shekels ($4,156) per square meter and at least 100 buildings suited for renewal, the authority essentially blocked most Arab municipalities from participating and from receiving assistance and budgets for planning renewal.

The urban renewal agency conducted pilots in Arab communities including Sakhnin, Taibeh, Arara, Jisr al-Zarqa and Kafr Qasem, to serve as a basis for planning and budgeting policy. The pilots focused on main roads with major employment and commerce centers, with the goal of improving mixed-use areas.

A street in the Arab fishing village of Jisr a-Zarka, Israel, December 31, 2015.
A street in the Arab fishing village of Jisr a-Zarka, Israel, December 31, 2015.Credit: Nimrod Glickman

“Arab municipalities are home to some 15 percent of Israel’s population, and we cannot only think about building new neighborhoods or regulating illegal construction, and worry about urban renewal afterward. To bridge gaps, create a narrative of success and offer basic services to everyone, we need both,” Shani says.

The report cites four measures that could be implemented quickly. These include the local authority leasing private land for public use such as parks, parking or buildings; offering an equivalent lot in a newer area to the owners of land in old areas; creating an urban renewal plan with incentives for places where it’s not financially worthwhile and allowing local governments temporary use of empty lots for parks or parking, for limited periods of five to 10 years. They recognize that some of these may raise resistance.

“High-rise building isn’t taboo, and Kfar Qasem and Tira have 12-13 story buildings planned in new neighborhoods,” says Shani. “But just as you can’t treat Tel Aviv and Binyamina the same, here too you need cultural sensitivity.”