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(Jerusalem) - Israel should immediately cease the discriminatory demolition of homes belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Human Rights Watch said today. Israel should ensure equal treatment in planning and zoning procedures for its non-Jewish citizens, and carry out demolitions only as a last resort along with compensation or alternative housing arrangements.

"Israeli authorities allow buildings that will benefit Jewish citizens while demolishing Arab houses next door," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "That obviously discriminates against non-Jewish Israelis, but officials haven't given any justification for this clear difference in treatment between citizens."

On December 13, 2010, Israel Land Administration inspectors and Israeli police demolished six homes belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Abu Tuk neighborhood of Lod, a city near Tel Aviv, displacing 67 members of the extended Abu Eid family, 27 of them children. On March 2, 2011, Israeli police entered the same neighborhood and destroyed the bases for two prefabricated homes the family had planned to erect there; displaced family members are currently staying with neighbors or living in tents. Israeli authorities say the homes lack building permits, but repeatedly refused to grant such permits; they argue that the land is zoned as "agricultural" rather than "residential" but have refused to re-classify the land as residential.

However, Israeli authorities recently rezoned land adjacent to the demolished site from agricultural to residential land, and are planning a housing development there for Israeli security service personnel. Plans for a Jewish religious college have been approved on another nearby site.

Thirty percent of the 70,000 residents of Lod are Palestinian Arabs, according to Israeli government statistics. While official figures are not readily available, more than 70 percent of Palestinian Arab homes in Lod and the nearby city of Ramle have no legal status, according to a project on Israeli cities with mixed populations run by Shatil, an Israeli nongovernmental group.

Hundreds of homes in Lod are under immediate demolition orders, virtually all of them in Palestinian Arab neighborhoods, according to the Shatil project. In addition, approximately 1,600 housing units in Lod are currently designated as "illegal," and thus subject to demolition orders, because they lack proper building permits, according to a government statement.

According to residents who are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, however, planning authorities repeatedly rejected their applications for permits. Israeli planning authorities by contrast recently approved plans for a seven-hectare campus for a Jewish religious college immediately beside the demolished area.

Israeli officials have explained that Arab-Israeli homes have been destroyed on the basis that they lacked permits, but that raises the issue of who is being granted permits. Human Rights Watch is not aware that Israeli officials have justified why Arab-Israelis have a harder time obtaining building permits or access to residential planning solutions in general.

Approximately 500 police officers arrived in the Abu Tuk neighborhood at 8 a.m. on a rainy December 13 and evicted the residents of six buildings before demolishing them. The independent Palestinian Ma'an news agency described one case in which armed police broke down a door and "pointed their rifles" at a brother and sister aged 11 and 12 and told them, "Don't move," before forcing them outside. Other residents told Human Rights Watch that the police did not allow them to save their possessions before demolishing their homes.

The families, after salvaging some belongings from the rubble, pitched five tents that they bought with donations, and placed a sign over their plot that read, "Abu Eid Refugee Camp." For three months, male members of the family, about 30 people, have been living in five tents on the ruins of their former houses, while the women have been staying with neighbors.

The families had been planning to erect two small, prefabricated homes, but on March 2, around 200 police destroyed the homes' bases and clashed with residents, injuring several. Kawser Abu Eid, a 39-year-old mother of five whose home was one of the six demolished in December, told Human Rights Watch that three of her children were home during the March demolitions, and that her 12-year-old son was hospitalized with a leg injury. A female neighbor's arm was broken when she tried to protect the boy, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. A police spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that no police forces were injured.

Police arrested four members of the Abu Eid family and one neighbor for resisting the evictions. They were released the next day under conditions of house arrest. Israeli civil society workers who were following the case told Human Rights Watch that they were not sure how the authorities would enforce the house arrest order, since the residents' homes had already been destroyed.

According to residents, the family complained about the December demolitions to Brigadier General (res.) Ilan Harari, who until February 2011 served as the head of Lod's municipality, and who agreed to write to the Welfare Ministry, the Housing Ministry, and the Israel Land Administration requesting assistance for the families. Human Rights Watch does not know whether the letters were sent. To date, the residents say, they have received no assistance.

"My kids have no home; they can't study under these conditions," Kawser Abu Eid said. "The head of the municipality promised to care for us months ago, but nothing has happened."

Israeli planning authorities have approved residential and educational building projects intended to benefit primarily Jewish Israelis on sites next to the demolished homes. In 2008 Israeli authorities began rezoning agricultural land for residential construction in the next-door Jewish neighborhood of Ganei Aviv, according to the Israel Land Administration. An October 2010 government decision urges other government agencies to complete plans for the neighborhood within six months, and directs that the land be allocated for housing for Israeli military and other security service personnel.

Directly beside the demolished homes, Israeli authorities have approved plans for a 7-hectare yeshiva (religious college) that will, according to the Lod Municipality website, "bring thousands of religious students and families to Lod." Harari said that this college will bring in "high-quality residents." On October 7, Minister of Interior Eli Yishai told Israeli media that "the thing that will help the city of Lod will be bringing another 50,000 Jews there. That's what will save and keep the city, I don't have another solution." The 50-million shekel project will be located on land previously designated as a "public open space." The Lod city council unanimously approved the allocation of the land to the yeshiva, the Lod Municipality stated.

"When it comes to housing rights in Lod, Israeli officials seem to have one rule for Palestinian citizens, another for Jewish citizens," said Whitson. "That kind of discrimination has been rejected the world over."

Members of the Abu Eid family told Human Rights Watch that they had been living in the houses in Lod since the 1950s, after Israeli authorities evicted them from their original homes in the Hula Valley region in northern Israel.

The Abu Eid family had been leasing land in Lod from the state of Israel, which controls 93 percent of the country's land and in most cases does not sell land but leases lots for 49 or 98 years. The land in question was zoned as an agricultural rather than residential area, a designation that restricted the permissible size and density of homes. Human Rights Watch has documented that Jewish towns and neighborhoods in the Lod area were also originally zoned for agricultural use, but authorities rezoned that land to allow residential construction.

Israeli planning authorities denied the Palestinian residents' repeated requests to re-zone the area to permit residential building. As a result, the structures that residents built lacked permits and were deemed "illegal." The Israel Land Administration first issued an eviction order against the homes in 2002. In 2010 the family lost a prolonged legal struggle when the Ramle Magistrate's Court rejected their appeal against the demolition orders, finding that the homes were built illegally on agricultural land.

In addition to the Abu Eid family, another 45 Arab-Israelis with homes in the same area received notices that authorities would bulldoze their houses by the end of 2010. Authorities demolished two Arab homes in the same neighborhood in October.

Israeli law requires the owners of demolished homes to pay the municipality for the cost of the demolition or face a criminal sentence, including imprisonment. Faced with this threat, some Palestinian Arab residents in Lod have demolished their own homes.

In October 2010 the government passed a large "emergency assistance" plan meant to "strengthen and develop the city of Lod," according to the prime minister's office. A quarter of the funds for that plan, 40 million shekels (US$11 million), will be used to create an "eviction authority" for "enforcement regarding illegal construction" for the next two years, with the possibility of an additional 10 million shekels in case of need. By contrast, the decision allocated only 3 million shekels (US $830,000) for projects that "advance" the Palestinian Arab community in the city, and even this part of the plan does not mention new building projects. The plan does indicate that authorities will re-zone an Arab neighborhood of Lod, Pardes Snir, from agricultural to residential, and construct housing units there, but notes that many existing Arab-owned buildings will first have to be demolished.

Throughout Israel, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arab homes lack required permits and are at risk of demolition. Israeli authorities demolished 165 houses belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel across the country in 2009, according to the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, an Israeli nongovernmental organization. Human Rights Watch has reported on discriminatory planning procedures in the unrecognized Arab-Israeli community of Dahmash, near Lod.

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