Arabs in Israel fight for right to build homes in Jewish developments

Land agencies say they are sticking to settlement `mandate'

September 12, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KATZIR, Israel -- When the residents committee of Katzir accepted Uri Davis' application to build a house in this tidy suburban community, it thought it was getting an articulate Jewish professor as its neighbor.

But the man who moved into the yellow stucco house with the view was neither a professor nor a Jew. The second man was Fathi Mahamid, an Israeli Arab contractor from the neighboring village of Umm al Fahm. He built and paid for the house in a legal switch that challenges the exclusivity of government-sponsored, Jewish-only housing developments in Israel.

The Katzir council says it has been defrauded by Davis, 56, who is no ordinary Israeli. The balding and bespectacled native of Jerusalem is an academic with an activist's soul. He joined the then-outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization in 1984, lived as a political exile in England and returned to Israel in 1994 after the country made peace with the Palestinians.

Davis says what he's after in this case is simple: "a basic right of a citizen to a house of his or her choice."

At the center of the challenge is the question of whether Israel's Arab citizens, Arabs who live within the 1948 boundaries of Israel, are to have the same rights as Jewish citizens, as Israel says they do.

In their quest, Davis, Mahamid and their Israeli Arab attorney, Tawfiq Jabareen, are taking on two of the country's most powerful institutions -- the Israel Lands Authority and the Jewish Agency for Israel -- and their mission to develop and settle the Jewish state.

The state-run land authority has leased thousands of acres to the Jewish

Agency. The Jewish Agency, a quasi-public organization that existed before the 1948 founding of Israel, develops housing settlements for Jews -- and Jews only.

Their decades-old relationship is under attack on two fronts in Katzir, a community of 700 families built 16 years ago in northern Israel.

Four years ago, Adil and Iman Qaadan decided they wanted a better life for their three daughters. The couple live in Baqa al-Gharbiyya, an Israeli Arab village with poor roads, run-down schools and a neglected sewage system. They decided to apply for a building lot in nearby Katzir. But Qaadan, a Hebrew-speaking nurse who works in a Tel Aviv hospital, said he was told by a community council member that Arabs weren't allowed.

"You accept me to protect your life day and night in the hospital, but you won't accept me to be your neighbor," he said. "Because I'm an Arab, you won't accept me?"

With the help of Israel's Civil Rights Association, Qaadan sued the community, the Israel Lands Authority and the Jewish Agency. Israel's Supreme Court ordered land in Katzir set aside for Qaadan until the case is decided.

"We are saying the Israel Lands Authority, as a public entity, cannot lease land to a discriminatory body when it is undisputed that the ILA cannot discriminate on any ground," said Dan Yakir, Qaadan's attorney.

The Israel Lands Authority argued to the court that its lease with the Jewish Agency, which developed Katzir, is legal. The Jewish Agency makes no apologies for excluding non-Jews.

Its purpose is, "by definition, bringing Jews to Israel and helping in their resettlement," the group said. "Arab settlement is not included in JAFI's mandate it sees nothing amiss in conducting activities for Israel's Jewish citizens."

In December, the Israeli Supreme Court supported Qaadan's claim. But rather than issue a potentially landmark decision in his favor, the court told the parties to work it out.

Qaadan was offered a plot on the outskirts of the community near an Arab village. He declined. He is waiting for a court ruling.

"The question is: Am I a citizen of this country or not? Maybe I wouldn't think of going to Katzir if my city here had services," Qaadan said, sitting in his home in Baqa al-Gharbiyya.

While Qaadan's case chugged through the court system, Davis, Jabareen and Mahamid opted for a less conventional route. They decided to use a 1965 law that allows an individual, acting as an undeclared delegate, to make a purchase on behalf of another citizen. In this case, Davis served as Mahamid's undeclared representative. The two signed a contract to that effect.

Davis applied for land in Katzir. Davis wasn't asked whether he is Jewish, he said, but his Israeli identity card clearly states that he is a Jew. He passed the first screening by the housing council, paid the $20,000 development fee, signed the contracts and received plot 1026.

Mahamid, who as a young construction worker helped build the villas in Katzir, set out to build the house that everyone assumed was for Davis. During construction, rumors started that the Arab contractor and not the Jewish professor would move into the house. Davis told his neighbors that "most rumors are untrue."

In May, the yellow stucco ranch-style house was finished just as Mahamid had designed it. On move-in day, Davis held an open house and apologized to those gathered for misleading them.

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