Photo: Hassan Shaalan
Demolition of an illegal structure in Tayibe
Photo: Hassan Shaalan

Illegal construction in Arab sector continues unhindered

Near Umm al-Fahm stands a monument to the weakness of the rule of law in the State of Israel: A giant house, whose illegal construction began 13 years ago and which despite demolition orders and a series of judicial decisions remains standing.

Three lots are gleaming white on a mountain range peppered with olive trees. Several weeks ago, a power shovel disrupted the pastoral quiet as it worked to prepare the ground near Umm al-Fahm for farming. But while the land has now been deemed fit for agricultural use, it has not been qualified by law.



The development of these lots was done without the proper planning and permits. After all, why does one need building permits when no one enforces the law?


A large house stands next to the three new lots, 600 square meters (some 6,500 square feet) in size, whose illegal construction began in 2003. 13 years later and despite demolition orders and a series of judicial decisions, the house remains standing—for the glory of the State of Israel. As stones do, the house built by Sheikh Abed Aghbariyya remains silent, but its walls laugh in scorn at the police, the court and the State Attorney's Office.


It was State Attorney Shai Nitzan who put the house in the spotlight. "You cannot overstate the importance of carrying out the (demolition) order in a case that has become a touchstone for our ability to maintain and protect the rule of law and enforce the law without fear or bias," Nitzan wrote to former Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino in December 2014 in a long letter titled "Police assistance in carrying out a demolition order in Umm al-Fahm, Abed Aghbariya."


Abed Aghbariya's illegal house near Umm al-Fahm (Photo: Regavim NGO)
Abed Aghbariya's illegal house near Umm al-Fahm (Photo: Regavim NGO)


The order Niztan is referring to is a judicial demolition order issued back in 2007. Not only was it not executed, but Aghbariya has since built a second floor and even populated the house despite a court order prohibiting the use of the building.


The District Court rejected Aghbariya's appeal against the demolition order, determining that "It is impossible not to marvel at the audacity of the petitioners on the one hand, and the inadequacy—or perhaps weakness—of state authorities on the other, which has resulted in a public and open violation, for many years, of both the prohibitions set out in the Planning and Building Law and of judicial decisions."


The problem is that authorities have continued exhibiting laxness and repeatedly asked for a postponement in the execution of the demolition, to the point where the courts had to intervene: "One must remember that failing to carry out the judicial demolition order for years constitutes a violation of the rule of law and is tantamount to contempt of court orders. The longer it takes to execute the judicial order, the bigger the damage done to the rule of law."


The criminal is rewarded 

So what prevents law enforcement authorities from carrying out the demolition order? Nitzan's letter clearly points to this—the lack of police assistance.


"I ask, therefore, that you instruct the relevant bodies to provide police assistance as soon as possible ... if the order is not carried out, it would be a disgrace to the rule of law!" the state attorney wrote to the police commissioner.


What kind of police assistance is needed? When there is concern that the demolition of an illegal structure could deteriorate to violence, the inspectors need to be accompanied by police. The police, low on manpower and wary of setting the area aflame, is not keen on providing assistance for the demolition of illegal structures. Over the years, this has gradually led to the chaotic situation that exists today.


According to Yishai Hemo of the NGO Regavim (The National Land Protection Trust), which tracks illegal constructions in the Arab sector, the situation in northern Israel and especially in Wadi Ara is rather grave. Hemo claims that over 50,000 illegal structures have been built in northern Israel, 10,000 of which in Wadi Ara alone. Every year, the construction of some 3,000 illegal structures begins.


Regavim even petitioned the High Court of Justice in early 2015 against Haifa's District Planning and Building Committee, demanding that the demolition order against Aghbariyya be enforced, but the court decided not to intervene.


And it's not just right-wing organizations that are worried about the lack of enforcement. "For several years now, illegal structures have not been demolished in our area," says an Arab member of another District Planning and Building Committee in northern Israel. "When there are no demolitions, there is no deterrence, and when there is no deterrence, dozens of new illegal structures are built every year." It's the general Arab population that pays the price for this.


"In recent years, there has been a significant attempt to advance construction in our sector, but by the time the plans were approved, they were no longer relevant, because illegal structures had already been built on that land. This reality left authorities with no choice but to prepare new plans, at the expense of taxpayers. This means that a criminal who built his home illegally, for example where a road was planned to serve all residents, is being rewarded. We have to resolve this issue. Unfortunately, most of the chairpersons of the District Planning and Building committees are politicians afraid of confronting (those who build illegally) who refrain from signing demolition orders. And when they do sign these orders, the police doesn't help carry them out."


Israel's governments throughout the years have also tried to combat the phenomenon with a series of decisions meant to give the Israel Police the tools it needs to assist in the enforcement of these orders. A government decision from 2004 titled "Increasing Enforcement of the Planning and Building Law" instructed the Israel Police to form a special unit called the Coordination Directorate of Land Law Enforcement. The unit was allocated a generous budget of 26 million shekels a year and manned with 114 police officers. According to the government decision, the unit's police officers were to deal strictly with land law enforcement.


The government also set clear objectives for the unit, namely, "Aiding in structure demolition operations by providing the required police force to carry out the demolition, with no less than 501 demolitions a year."


In 2007, the State Comptroller examined the implementation of the decision. The comptroller found that in certain areas in the north, particularly in Wadi Ara, "most of the requests made by supervisory bodies for police assistance remained unanswered and as a result the demolitions were not carried out."


In general, the comptroller determined, "the Coordination Directorate of Land Law Enforcement was not meeting its objectives."


The comptroller, however, did not put the blame on the unit, but on the various police districts that failed to grant the necessary approvals for the operations.


In light of the comptroller report, the government increased the unit's required amount of demolitions, further requiring the police to file a report every quarter detailing the demolitions that were carried out and threatening to close down the unit should it continue failing to meet its objectives.


And then, like magic, reports with imaginary numbers appeared on the government's desk. For example, a letter submitted on behalf of the police commissioner to the Public Security Ministry claimed that in 2012, Israel Police was tasked with demolishing 666 structures but demolished 1,671—meaning, a 251 percent execution rate.


"These numbers do not conform to reality—and I know what happens on the ground well," said a building supervisor in the north. "The police count every pillar in a building, or every little shed as an illegal structure."


The unit, meanwhile, claims the numbers are not inflated and that every structure that was demolished was only counted once.


Over the years, the unit presented the following numbers: In 2013, police were required to demolish 732 structures but managed to demolish 2,906. In 2014, police were required to demolish 805 structures and demolished 2,481. In 2015, the police were required to demolish 886 structures and demolished 1,904.


The police refused to provide information on how many structures were demolished in each district or sector, and so the data presented included all the demolitions carried out throughout the country.


At a directorate conference, however, entirely different numbers were presented. A screenshot obtained by Yedioth Ahronoth, Ynet's sister publication, from a PowerPoint presentation shows that in 2014, for example, only 19 demolitions were carried out with the assistance of the Israel Police. What could be behind this gap?


For one, the reports that the unit produced for the police commissioner specifically stated that the numbers released publicly included demolitions carried out by the owners of the illegal structures themselves. In 2014, for example, 59 percent of the demolitions were done by the illegal home owners. But somewhere along the journey from the police commissioner's desk to the Public Security Ministry and from there to the government, the distinction between demolitions carried out by the home owners and those done with assistance from the police disappeared.


The bottom line is that the Israeli government, which receives inflated data, continues investing 26 million shekels every year in the unit in return for police assistance in less than 20 demolitions a year. This while documents obtained by Yedioth Ahronoth show that in 2015, the government also received a report claiming the unit's success rate stood at hundreds of percents.


Zero demolitions

The Coordination Directorate claims that the demolitions done by the illegal home owners are included in the report because the Israel Police invests resources in negotiating and encouraging them to carry out the demolitions themselves.


To examine the validity of this claim, we look again to Abed Aghbariyya. On May 5, 2015, after Shai Nitzan's scathing letter and after court orders ruled the house must be demolished, a meeting was held in secret, kept from the State Attorney's Office.


Evidence of this meeting can be found in an internal document that leaked and was obtained by the Regavim NGO. Abed Aghbariyya and the commander of the Umm al-Fahm police station were both present at the meeting.


"The Umm al-Fahm station commander, Chief Superintendent Rami Yadaan, agrees to refrain from carrying out the demolition before May 30, 2015," the document summarizing the meeting stated. "On the other hand, the gentlemen, on behalf of the entire family, commit to demolishing the house themselves if the legal procedure is not successful by the aforementioned date, without the involvement of police or other authorities."


The agreement signed between the Umm al-Fahm police commander and Aghbariyya.
The agreement signed between the Umm al-Fahm police commander and Aghbariyya.


Had this agreement been honored, it would have been a wonderful example of how police force encourages illegal home owners to carry out the demolitions themselves. Except that May 30, 2015, has come and gone, and for over a year now the police has been avoiding enforcing its part of the agreement by demolishing the house.


Some are angry not just about the violation of the agreement, but about the very fact such a meeting took place.


"It's very serious that the police are holding meetings that are being kept from us," an official from the State Attorney's Office said. "This meeting constitutes negotiations with a criminal after the court has already ruled on the case. We demanded that the police clarify the matter, but have yet to receive a response."


According to officials in the supervisory bodies, police are not involved in most of the demolitions done by the illegal home owners.


"The police call us asking for information on demolitions by illegal home owners because not only do they not know the process, they don't even have a clue as to how many such demolitions have happened," a senior official said. "It's really easy to count every farming shed or balcony in Ra'anana that were demolished without police assistance. Of course, demolitions by the home owners are preferable to a confrontation and cost the state a lot less, but the numbers point to a considerable drop in such demolitions. Demolitions by illegal home owners don't happen where there is no enforcement."


"In Umm al-Fahm, it's been three years now with not a single demolition. Zero demolitions. Why? Because there are planning and building committees that don't function and there is no police assistance. That's what the Coordination Directorate was created for. And the problem is not necessarily the unit—which is trying to meet its objectives—but the police district commanders. They're the ones who need to authorize the demolition operations and command over them. But a district commander wants peace and quiet, not to set the area ablaze. We've had instances where a large-scale demolition operation was organized, bulldozers were rented for hundreds of thousands of shekels, but the information about the impending operation leaked and the police canceled it at the last moment."


Nabil Dahar, the Chairperson of the Lev HaGalil Planning and Construction Committee, has given up on receiving police assistance. Several months ago, Dahar decided to carry out demolitions without police assistance. He hired the services of a private security company and demolished several illegal structures. During one of these demolitions, matters deteriorated to serious violence and police had to intervene.


Following that incident, and after Dahar insisted he will not stop carrying out the demolition orders, the local police started fully cooperating with him.


"Today we have excellent cooperation with the police and we can already see the results on the ground. Take, for example, Arraba—every month we'd find 10 new illegal structures there. Today, it's barely one a month," he said.


A team appointed by the Attorney General to examine solutions to the problem of illegal construction filed its report in January 2016. The team, led by Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminski, was asked to examine the issue of police assistance, among other things.


"The State Attorney's Office, the Coordination Directorate of Land Law Enforcement, and the Israel Land Authority have repeatedly emphasized the difficulty in receiving police assistance ... the information presented did indeed point to requests for police assistance that received no response, mostly in the non-Jewish sector ... the team was unable to bridge the gap between claims on the lack of proper assistance from the police in the execution of the orders, and the Israel Police's claims that it provides optimal assistance in accordance with requirements. Furthermore, the team had difficulty obtaining accurate information on the issue."


"This is a conciliatory report," said one of the members of that team. "We realized there was no point in reprimanding the police for inflating the numbers because we have to keep working with them."


"Yes, the information from the different bodies did not match," Kaminski confirmed. "Everyone realizes there is a problem and everyone wants to change things. Our goal is to point to cases in which there is a systematic violation of the law, to which the police will commit at the beginning of every year to demolish under the supervision of a special team made up of representatives of all enforcement authorities. We've started working under this framework and we can already see the difference."


Is Aghbariya seen as a sort of symbol?


"Aghbariya's house symbolizes the bad reputation of the Planning and Building Law, which turned into the 'Building and Planning Law.' First, illegal structures are built, and then the planning is done around them. Eventually, the aggressive conduct of that gentleman, as a systematic violator of orders, made the planning and building committee lean in his favor. Unfortunately, the Umm al-Fahm planning authorities have already recommended authorizing a plan that would legalize his house."


With this recommendation, Aghbariya turned to the Hadera Magistrate's Court last March and demanded to freeze the demolition order because, he claimed, there is a chance his house will receive legal status. Unlike the district court, the Magistrate's Court judge accepted the request and froze the demolition order for a year.


The State Attorney's Office was quick to appeal the decision to the Haifa District Court, which then overruled the decision and determined the house must be demolished. Law enforcement authorities have been trying to carry out the demolition, but once again the police force prevented it. This led the Regavim NGO to send a harsh letter to the police.


Meanwhile, Aghbariya has been pressuring the District Planning and Building Committee to legalize the house.


Kaminski sent a letter to the committee, urging it not to legalize the structure. "However, I fear that in the end it will," said Kaminski. "And I want to tell planning authorities that they too should safeguard the rule of law. It is particularly acute in Aghbariya's case, as he became a symbol of undermining the rule of law."


The Israel Police has responded by saying, "The Coordination Directorate of Land Law Enforcement combines activities in the field of planning and building and land offenses all over the country, including carrying out demolition orders alongside encouraging illegal home owners to carry out the demolitions themselves. The results of these activities indicate the unit is meeting its objectives, even beyond the objectives set in its work plan by the government. Any attempt to distort the work and create gaps in information by presenting partial data from one body or another while leaving out the Israel Police's professional cooperation with all of its partners and especially its encouraging illegal house owners to carry out the demolitions, sins against the truth and presents a false display that should be rejected out of hand."


פרסום ראשון: 07.30.16, 16:09
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