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Enclaves and Overcrowding: How the Israeli Government’s Discriminatory Land Practices Hinder the Growth of Palestinian Communities

Recent studies regarding the issue helped to uncover why Palestinian communities in Israel have been unable to develop and thrive at the rate of their Jewish counterparts. With respect to the main factors that have inhibited the growth of Palestinian communities, both within the state of Israel and in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the problem is two-fold and interrelated. Firstly, many of these villages and towns have been enclosed in a manner which impedes the ability for them to expand. This has been done through several Israeli government land practice methods including a prohibition on residential building, the designation of these areas for agricultural or green use, and the construction of surrounding neighborhoods, roads, and infrastructure projects. Secondly, as a result of these aforementioned policies, Palestinian communities often suffer from overcrowding and housing shortages which have also negatively impacted their development.

A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the subject found that the Israeli government’s policy of boxing in Palestinian communities did not only take place in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but also inside of Israel as well. HRW’s analysis stated that “decades of land confiscations and discriminatory planning policies have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely-populated towns and villages that have little room to expand.” On the other hand, these land practices support the construction and expansion of neighboring predominantly Jewish communities. Ultimately, according to HRW’s acting Middle East executive director Eric Goldstein, “Israeli land policies treat towns inside its own borders in starkly unequal terms based on whether its inhabitants are Jewish or Palestinian.”

For proof of this clear disparity, one simply has to look at the contrast in the number of newly-created communities. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the government has authorized the creation of around 900 Jewish communities compared to only a few Palestinian townships and villages – the latter of which were not set up to ease massive overcrowding issues but instead to concentrate previously dispersed communities in singular locations. In fact, approximately 90% of the Arab citizens of Israel live in a mere 139 Arab towns or villages, many of which suffer from very severe housing shortages due to the building restrictions placed upon them. This has often resulted in one of two outcomes. These communities either fall short of the adequate housing for their residents, or decide to build ones that lack permits and are therefore at risk of demolition. While conducting research and compiling data for their recent report, HRW discovered that a substantial amount – an estimated 15 to 20 percent – of homes in Palestinian towns and villages lack these required permits. In some of these cases, owners’ applications for them were rejected and in others, they did not apply knowing that authorities would turn down their request because it failed to comply with the existing zoning designation.

In addition to the obstacles of overcrowding and housing shortages, Palestinian communities also face another hindrance to their development: confinement as enclaves. HRW’s latest article examined multiple case studies to demonstrate this point. One such example is the Palestinian town of Jisr Al-Zarqa, which is situated on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Israeli government’s planning and zoning policies there have boxed in residents on all sides, stunting its growth and resulting in the town being one of the nation’s poorest, with about 80 percent of people there living below the poverty line.

To the north of Jisr Al-Zarqa, authorities established the Taninim Stream Nature Reserve. Construction is prohibited around the reserve, and as such, the Palestinian town is prevented from expanding in that direction. East of the town lies Highway 2, which separates it from agricultural lands that once belonged to residents but now fall under the jurisdiction of the nearby Jewish moshav of Bait Hanania. South of Jisr Al-Zarqa is the town of Caesarea, which the government built in 1952 on the site of the Palestinian village of Qisarya. Finally, to the west, sits the Mediterranean Sea. As if the presence of the Mediterranean was not deterrence enough from any potential future expansion for Jisr Al-Zarqa, government authorities also created two nature reserves near the sea and furthermore, Israeli law prevents building within 100 meters of the coastline anyway. Being surrounded by these development hindrances on all four sides has certainly had a detrimental effect on the quality of life for residents of Jisr Al-Zarqa.

Showing that the circumstances of Jisr Al-Zarqa are not a unique and one-off scenario, HRW also looked at the Palestinian towns of Qalansawa and Ein Mahel. In Qalansawa, the Israeli government has developed infrastructure projects, including a water pipeline system and an electricity line, which have limited the land available for the town’s expansion. Local residents are prohibited from building within a certain zone of these, as well as the Alexander River that flows through a significant central portion of the town’s residential area. Additionally, almost all of north Qalansawa (and parts of the east and west) has been zoned for agricultural use, thus also decreasing the space for new housing units. Meanwhile, in Sha’ar Efraim, an all-Jewish moshav on Qalansawa’s eastern border, most of the land there is zoned for residential construction and building on agricultural land is permitted.

In Ein Mahel, the town is surrounded on all sides by the city of Nof HaGalil, restricting the former’s ability to expand and develop. Nof HaGalil not only entirely surrounds Ein Mahel, but it also weaves between five other Palestinian towns and villages as well. Ultimately, government planning policies restrict Ein Mahel residents to building in a roughly 2,000 dunam core sector of the town. As Ein Mahel is confined, Nof HaGalil on the other hand is encouraged to grow, having been designated a priority development area by the Israeli government. The city has become an industrial hub, while its neighbor of Ein Mahel has no such zoning designations and officials there have requested that a new comprehensive plan for the village rezone agricultural land to allow for residential construction.

As highlighted by the preceding examples, there are numerous discriminatory Israeli government land policies that have deterred the growth of Palestinian communities. From being hemmed in by nearby infrastructure projects and neighborhoods to inequitable zoning designations, housing shortages, and limitations on residential construction, Palestinian towns and villages are often subjected to one or more of these expansion restrictions. In the end, it is highly problematic that planning authorities in Israel can determine whether or not to promote the development of a community based on nothing more than the demographic makeup of its residents.


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