Arabs in Israel fight for right to build homes in Jewish developments; Land agencies say they are sticking to settlement 'mandate'


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.

Davis, Mahamid and Jabareen had different reasons for taking on Katzir. Davis says he believes that Israel has an obligation to meet the needs of all its citizens, not just those of its Jews. Mahamid, 34, who has partially furnished the Katzir house but has not moved his family in, saw this as an opportunity to build a beautiful house in a lovely neighborhood.

Jabareen's reasons are tied to his Arab heritage and to the Israeli government's historic neglect of its Arab towns. Jabareen, who was born and raised in Umm el Fahm, successfully integrated another section of Katzir four years ago. The 32-year-old lawyer lives on the eastern hill, a sector of modest homes that the state developed. Eleven other Israeli Arab families followed him there, but only Jabareen owns his home.

"I want to prevent the Judaization of the Wadi Ara," Jabareen said of the valley in which Katzir sits. "I don't want to let Umm el Fahm and other Arab villages become ghettos. The only way to prevent it is to settle down here in their settlement."

The Katzir community council felt hoodwinked, says Dorit Ariel, a resident and spokeswoman for the council.

"What Uri Davis did was illegal because somebody who buys or rents a house in Katzir has to go through the [screening] committee of Katzir. It could be that on a personal level we wouldn't have had a problem with Fathi Mahamid," said Ariel, a 33-year-old marketing consultant. "It's very easy to present this whole issue as a Jewish-Arab problem. But they can't accuse us of this because this is a legal matter."

Ariel said the council interviews prospective residents because the community is small; it wants families who are "socially appropriate" for Katzir.

Could an Israeli Arab "be socially appropriate to the community?" she is asked.

"Yes, theoretically," she says.

But she adds: "The fact that the Jewish Agency has decided that only a Jewish family could buy land in Katzir to tell you the truth, the Jewish Agency is racist. I can't change the ideas, the opinions of the government. I can just look at it from my point of view. Whoever meets the criteria of Katzir, I have no problem with them living here. What was created here was a provocation."

The concerns of the Katzir community may be best reflected in an affidavit it filed in the Qaadan case. The affidavit poses questions that underscore Israel's identity as a Jewish state and problems for this democracy of 4 million Jewish and 1 million Arab citizens: How will Arabs feel at community events when Jews sing Zionist favorites such as "Songs of Our Homeland?" Is it appropriate to send an Arab child to a public school with a Jewish-centered curriculum? What about the feelings of Jewish parents who fear romantic liaisons between their teen-agers and Muslim young people who are their neighbors?

"To someone who is not involved in the lives of a communal settlement, it seems that the life of a community can exist with various cultures. But in fact it's not that way," the council said in its affidavit. "What creates a community life in such settlements are joint social events in Jewish holidays, memorial days, Independence Day. With all due respect to the wish to form a utopian communal society, one must take into consideration the social reality: A mixed community of people of different nationalities, different religions, in a small settlement, is not yet a reality that can exist in Israel."

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