High Court to Deliberate on JNF’s Discriminatory Land Policy

Tenders for Jews Only Violate Rights of Arab Citizens, ACRI argues

JERUSALEM – September 23, 2007 – Israel’s High Court of Justice at 9 a.m. tomorrow will deliberate on ACRI’s petition demanding an immediate end to the Israel Land Administration’s (ILA) policy of marketing lands owned by the Jewish National Fund to Jews only.

The petition, submitted in 2004 by ACRI and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, argues that the ILA, a public body charged with marketing and leasing lands owned by the JNF, violates the basic rights of non-Jewish citizens by prohibiting them from bidding on tenders.

The case has sparked intense national and international debate about the JNF’s role in Israel. The Court’s ruling will irrevocably affect the State’s fragile relationship with its Arab citizens.

Until 2004, the JNF bought lands for the purpose of Jewish settlement in Israel. Whenever a non-Jew leased JNF land, the ILA would compensate the JNF with the same area of land, in a complex land-swap arrangement. When this practice ended in 2004, the first JNF land tender was published for plots in Carmiel’s Givat Hamakosh neighborhood for Jews only. (Please see the accompanying Background Information for more on the ILA and JNF’s land policy.)

In response to the original petition against the Carmiel tender submitted by ACRI Attorney Auni Banna in 2004, the JNF and the ILA agreed to freeze all tenders in the North designated for Jews only. However, since then, the ILA has continued to issue discriminatory land tenders.

Since then, Israel’s Attorney General and the State Attorney’s Office have written that the ILA cannot discriminate in the marketing and administration of lands. ACRI hopes the High Court will adopt this stance, and cancel the policy altogether in a binding ruling.

The ILA and JNF’s marketing policy highlights the State’s systemic discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens, specifically in housing and land distribution. The government allocates vast areas for Jewish settlement only, often at the expense of Arab communities. ACRI contends that this practice violates Israel’s democratic principles and restricts Arab citizens from living on much of the State’s land.

ACRI also condemns the land-swap process because it does not truly provide non-Jews with equal access to land. The ILA, as a public body, must function for the benefit of all its citizens.

A panel of three judges – including Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish – will preside at tomorrow’s hearing. Petitions submitted by Adalah, the Legal Center for the Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Tel Aviv Law Clinic against the JNF land marketing policy will also be discussed.

Discrimination in JNF Land Marketing – Background Information

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) owns 12 -13% of the land in Israel; it bought a large part of this land from the State after 1948 (much of it absentee owners’ land) –a total of 2.5 million dunams. In 1962, the government made a pact with the JNF, allowing it to lease its land to Jews only, through the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), in keeping with the JNF’s mission to purchase and develop land for Jewish settlement. According to the agreement, the ILA would compensate the JNF with the same amount of alternative land whenever it leased to non-Jews. However, this was a complicated, bureaucratic process and in reality it was very hard for non-Jews to lease JNF land.

July 2004 – The ILA cancelled the land-swap process. Shortly thereafter, a tender for JNF land was issued for residential land plots in the Givat Hamakosh neighborhood of Carmiel according to the terms of the JNF’s agreement with the state. This effectively excluded non-Jews from bidding. In response, ACRI and the Arab Center for Alternative Planning submitted a petition to the Haifa Administrative Court against the ILA, the JNF, the Carmiel Municipality, and Arim, the Enterprise for Urban Development, claiming the tender was discriminatory. In the petition, ACRI Attorney Auni Banna argued that the tender was illegal because a public body manages JNF land and the restrictive terms of the tender were therefore tantamount to state discrimination.

September 2004 On September 7, 2004, the Court declared that the ILA must allow Arabs to participate in the tender or to suspend it until the Court issued a ruling. The tender was subsequently cancelled, and ACRI submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding that the state force the JNF to cancel the discriminatory policy altogether. ACRI requested an interim order freezing all JNF tenders in the country. For its part, the JNF opposed the petition, stating that its most basic and historic policy was to develop lands for the Jewish people. Yet, both the JNF and ILA committed to suspending all new tenders in northern Israel and the Galilee only, until the High Court ruling.

January 2005 – In response to the petition submitted by ACRI and other organizations, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz declared in a non-binding decision that the ILA is forbidden to discriminate against citizens on the basis of national belonging in the administration and marketing of land. However, he added that the ILA could continue its previous land-swap policy with the JNF.

April 2007 The JNF published new tenders for Jews only in Givat Hamakosh. ACRI appealed to the State Attorney’s Office, and the tender was cancelled.

May 2007 – The State Attorney’s Office wrote that the ILA cannot discriminate based on national belonging in administering JNF lands, and thus censured the land-swap arrangement as well.

July 2007 – The Knesset passed in a first reading legislation that would allow the JNF to lease lands to Jews only.

The law triggered campaigns for and against the policy, both in Israel and abroad. The JNF’s basic mission is under scrutiny – whether it should continue leasing land or focus on environmental projects that would allow it to avoid the discrimination issue.

September 24, 2007 The High Court will hold a hearing on the issue at 9 a.m. Several JNF donors and supporters have requested to be added as respondents to the petition because they believe their interests may be compromised by a ruling against the JNF.

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Categories: Arab Citizens of Israel, Land Distribution and Planning Rights, The Right to Equality

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