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Israel: Grant Status Long Denied to Arab Village in Central Israel

Discriminatory Planning Procedures Prevent Access to Basic Services; Court to Rule on Demolition Orders

(Jerusalem) - The Israeli government should grant legal status to a 60-year-old village with a population of about 600 Palestinian-Israeli citizens, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities have refused to recognize the village as residential, even as they approved an immediately adjacent residential development for Jewish Israelis. The authorities have given no justification for the difference in treatment.

Dahmash, approximately 20 kilometers from Tel Aviv between the cities of Ramle and Lod in central Israel, has been inhabited since at least 1951, and its residents are Israeli citizens. The authorities refuse to rezone the land as residential - although they have done so in neighboring areas - and refuse to provide basic services such as paved roads, sewage, health facilities, kindergartens, and schools, despite numerous petitions by residents. Instead, the authorities consider almost every one of the 70 houses "illegal," and 13 are under threat of demolition. A court is to decide the issue on October 11, 2010.

"The 600 people of Dahmash are treated as if they don't exist, while Jewish towns are developed nearby in a way that threatens Dahmash residents' access to their homes and lands," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Planning authorities should end this discriminatory treatment, immediately recognize Dahmash's residential status, and provide the basic services denied for decades."

The prohibition of discrimination, which includes any unjustified differential treatment that has the effect of impairing the equal recognition of human rights on the grounds of race, ethnicity, or religion, is one of the most fundamental prohibitions under international human rights law.

Plans for a highway interchange in the area and construction plans that local officials say are intended for residential developments for Jewish Israelis in the area would block almost all existing entrances to Dahmash.

The lack of basic services such as drainage and sewage systems leads to persistent flooding of Dahmash's unpaved roads in winter. The main entrance to Dahmash is a gravel road from Ramle, where Dahmash residents receive some services and where the 200 Dahmash children attend schools. Residents told Human Rights Watch that when it rains the children have to walk through knee-high water on their way to the school bus. The village has no waste disposal services, despite residents' petitions to the Lod Valley Regional Council, the local government with jurisdiction over Dahmash.

The village has no green space or outdoor playgrounds. In 2006, a nongovernmental organization donated playground equipment, but once it was erected the Israeli Land Administration issued demolition orders on the grounds that the playground was constructed without a permit. On February 10, 2007, the Ramle District Court rejected a petition by Dahmash residents to cancel the demolition order, although the authorities have not yet removed the equipment.

The 70 homes in Dahmash are built on 160 dunams (40 acres), most of which the Israeli government granted to Palestinians in the early 1950s as compensation for lands from which they had been displaced during the 1948 armed conflict, and to which the Israeli government prohibited them from returning. But the lands are officially designated for agricultural use only, and the planning authorities have refused to zone Dahmash for residential construction.

Many towns and neighborhoods in central Israel, including the new residential development bordering Dahmash, were also originally zoned for agricultural use, but authorities rezoned those lands to allow them to expand and created plans that permitted residential construction. Neither regional nor national authorities have provided such a plan for Dahmash. In the last few years both Ramle and Lod have constructed residential complexes restricted to military career personnel and religious Jews.

Dahmash residents paid for a plan and submitted it to the relevant planning committees in 2006, but the authorities shelved the plan until a 2008 court ruling obligated them to discuss it. On July 5, 2010, the Central Regional Committee for Planning and Construction rejected the plan, saying that it "sees no justification for the creation of a new village in central Israel." The planning body said that only the Interior Ministry could create a new village, and that it did not want to "legitimize illegal construction."

Since 1948, more than 900 Jewish villages and cities have been established in Israel, while the only new Arab towns allowed in 60 years have been seven towns that the government planned and constructed for Bedouin residents of the Negev. Many Palestinian-Israelis face restrictions in planning. Shatil's Mixed Cities Project, a nongovernmental organization, estimates that more than 70 percent of Arab homes in Ramle and Lod have no legal status. Official figures are not readily available.

Discrimination is prohibited by international human rights law, notably the Convention on the Elimination on All forms of Racial Discrimination, ratified by Israel in 1979. The Convention defines discrimination as any "distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights." The committee of experts that monitors and interprets this convention has stated that differential treatment will be considered discrimination if it is not justified, taking into account the purposes of the Convention.

"Israel should finally make good on its grant of land ownership to Dahmash residents by ceasing its discriminatory refusal to recognize their right to live on it," Stork said.

Access to the Village Blocked

A plan to build 888 housing units at the entrance to Ramle would block the main access road to Dahmash. The 145-dunam (35 acre) Maccabi District, which the Ramle mayor, Yoel Lavi, has promoted as Ramle's "flagship new neighborhood," would border Dahmash. It was also originally zoned for agricultural use but was re-designated in July 2006 for residential use.

Lavi, who sits on the planning committee that rejected Dahmash's plan, told Israeli television in 2004 that the Maccabi District was not meant for Arabs because allowing Palestinian-Israeli citizens to live there would "harm the ability to market the project since people won't want to live there." He said in the same interview that "93 percent of the Jewish population clearly prefers not to live in a mixed building." The project has not begun to advertise the homes, as it is not yet complete.

Dahmash residents petitioned the planning body to halt the construction, but the committee rejected the petition in 2006, and the courts upheld the planning body's decision in 2007 and again in 2010.

The Maccabi District would cut Dahmash off from the city of Ramle, where Dahmash residents receive services. It would leave open only one roadway into Dahmash, through Lod, which would lengthen the drive into the village and require crossing traffic and eight railroad tracks. A professional opinion submitted by a transportation expert to the court during the 2007 challenge to the Maccabi District maintained that the Lod road, which is unpaved and passes through fields, is unfit for emergency vehicles. The legal adviser to the Lod Valley regional council told a Knesset Internal Affairs committee meeting in January 2007 that the national master plan for Lod had designated the Dahmash area to become a highway interchange.

Addresses Denied

 Israeli citizens receive services such as education, welfare, health, and postal services in the municipality where they are registered. But Dahmash residents are not permitted to list their actual address on their Israeli identification cards, since their village does not exist in the population registry.

Dahmash is in the area covered by the Lod Valley Regional Council, which oversees nine Jewish towns but has no registered Arab residents. It has no Arab-Israeli schools, which follow a separate curriculum from Jewish schools.

Thus, Dahmash residents have registered in nearby Ramle, a separate municipality in which 22.5 percent of the residents are Arab Israelis, according to official figures. Most Dahmash residents have been obliged to list their official addresses on Ha'Heshmonaim Street, Ramle, which borders Dahmash, even though they do not live on that street.

"What are we asking for?" Arafat Ismayil, the village spokesman, told Human Rights Watch. "An identity, an address, a life of dignity. You can see the discrimination with your eyes. They are allowed, we are not."

Barring Children From Schools

Ramle has tried to stop providing Dahmash residents some services, especially education. In 2005, Ramle refused to continue providing transportation from Dahmash to its schools; in 2006, the city tried to bar Dahmash children entering first grade from registering at its schools; and in 2009, Ramle ended a disabled two-year-old Dahmash resident's placement in a school and halted the child's transportation. Each time, Dahmash residents petitioned the courts, which ruled in favor of the children. Human Rights Watch documented in 2001 the discrimination in the Israeli education system between Palestinian-Israeli citizens and Jewish-Israeli citizens.

After Ramle discontinued transportation to its schools in September 2005, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled in November in favor of Dahmash residents and obligated the Lod Valley Regional Council to finance the transportation, a decision later backed by the Supreme Court. The court also ruled in 2009 that the regional council had to re-assume educational responsibility for a

two-year-old, who had been provided for by the city of Ramle up to that point, and to provide transportation for a 14-year-old disabled child to a special education facility in the city of Rishon Le'Zion and register him as a Lod Valley Regional Council resident. He remains the only Dahmash resident whose Israeli identification card officially lists him as a Lod Valley Regional Council resident, although Dahmash is not mentioned.

After Ramle tried to keep Dahmash children from registering for first grade in 2006, even though their siblings had been attending the schools for at least 10 years, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled in May that the municipality must allow the children's continued registration.

Zoning and Demolition Orders

In 2004, Israeli authorities ordered the demolition of 17 houses in Dahmash on the grounds that they were built on "agricultural" lands and thus illegal. Most of the other 53 homes in the village had been built in the 1950s, when the area was still zoned under a regional plan, "R/6", from the time of the British mandate. Three were built before 1948 and thus maintain a "legal" status. Subsequently the Israeli government replaced R/6 with a master plan that designated the area as agricultural land on which residential construction was prohibited. According to the National Unit for Construction Oversight, the village now has 120 illegal structures, including the 70 homes.

In March 2006, Israeli police demolished four "illegal" homes in Dahmash. The owners of the other 13 homes are still contesting the demolition orders in court.

In 2005, Menashe Moshe, head of the Lod Valley Regional Council, told Israel's business paper, Globes, that while "the land does belong to the residents," Dahmash "does not exist" as a residential community because the land was zoned for agricultural use. Moshe said he rejected the residents' request to become an agricultural town, similar to the nine other towns in his council, because "the residents are not farmers and their land is not suited for agriculture." However, Moshe accepts Dahmash residents' agricultural taxes, which are submitted for "fields near Nir-Zvi," the nearest Jewish town. He refuses to accept payment of residential taxes, residents told Human Rights Watch.

After the demolitions in 2006, residents paid for the "detailed plan" required for residential construction that planning authorities had provided to neighboring Jewish communities but not to Dahmash. It included a request to change Dahmash's zoning designation to permit residential building. Residents submitted it for approval to the district planning authorities in Ramle on July 17, 2006, but the authorities ignored the submission for more than 18 months. A planner from the regional planning committee told a Knesset committee hearing on Dahmash in January 2007 that plans usually receive a response within two to three weeks.

On January 30, 2008, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa District Court for Procedural Affairs found that the committee had "abstained from discussing the plan" and ordered the committee to discuss it. The judgment reminded the regional planning authorities that the definition of the village's land as agricultural land "is not a decree from heaven" and that "the Israel planning and construction law allows for rezoning land and changing its designation."

The planning committee finally discussed the plan on July 5, 2010, but rejected it on the grounds that authorization would imply the creation of a new town, which only the Interior Ministry can do. On August 9, 2010, the Interior Ministry approved the residents' request to appeal the rejection to the national planning committee.

The regional committee also rejected an alternative option that would have allowed Dahmash residents to own their homes "legally" by including Dahmash as a neighborhood of Ramle or Lod. Lavi, Ramle's mayor, told a journalist in 2006 that his solution to the illegal building in Dahmash was to "take two D10 bulldozers, the kind the IDF uses in the Golan Heights, two border police units to secure the area, and go from one side to the other [...] when you give the first shock with the crane everyone runs from their houses, don't worry."

In January 2007, while planning authorities were supposed to be considering the residents' submission of the plan, the Lod police tried to demolish some of the 13 other homes. Residents prevented the demolitions by locking themselves inside their homes. On April 11, 2010, board inspectors from the central region and the Lod Valley Regional Council, accompanied by police, informed Dahmash residents that the demolition orders against the 13 homes would be executed within days. The Central District Court later ordered a suspension of the demolitions, saying that it would decide the fate of the buildings on October 11.

"We live in constant fear that tomorrow we will no longer have a home," Ismayil said.

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