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Cabinet Backs Controversial Bill Barring Arabs from State-owned Land

Israel’s Cabinet stirred up a hornets’ nest this week by backing a bill that could bar Israeli Arabs from owning homes on state-owned land.

Cabinet minister Dan Meridor, who was one of two ministers to vote against the bill, called the decision a “grave error” that was “flagrantly discriminatory.”

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein said in a statement that he had urged ministers not to support the bill, which he warned would deepen the rift between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities.

The bill was proposed by National Religious Party legislator Haim Druckman to circumvent a March 2000 decision by the High Court of Justice that the state cannot allocate land in a way that discriminates against any Israeli citizens.

The court said the government broke the law when it allocated state-owned land to the Jewish Agency for Israel to build a community that barred Israeli Arabs from having homes there.

The court issued its ruling after the northern community of Katzir refused to permit an Israeli Arab couple to move there.

At Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, 17 ministers voted in favor of the bill, while two opposed and one abstained.

The text of Druckman’s bill says that state land, which is administered by the Israel Lands Authority, can be allocated to the Jewish Agency for the purpose of achieving the agency’s goals of promoting Jewish settlement in Israel.

The bill states that the establishment of Jewish-only communities is contingent upon approval from the defense minister or ministers responsible for the law’s enforcement that such a move is required because of “security reasons” — or to ensure the character of a community that is built upon certain ideals that all its residents must share.

The Jewish Agency’s chairman, Sallai Meridor, issued a statement Monday saying the Druckman bill “does not contradict the High Court of Justice’s position.”

The court had “determined that there may be circumstances which would justify maintaining” a Jewish-only settlement policy, he said.

Just as the Israel Lands Authority “allocates land to Bedouins and Druse and the matter is understood and accepted,” he said, “it is likewise important that land be allocated to Jewish settlements.”

Before it can become law, the bill must pass three votes in the Knesset. It could also face challenges in the High Court.

The issue was brought before the Cabinet by Education Minister Limor Livnat, after the Ministerial Legislative Committee, which determines the government position regarding proposed legislation, decided against supporting the bill.

Livnat said the Cabinet had voted to fulfill the Zionist ideal of Jewish settlement in all the land of Israel. She was also quoted as calling the government decision a victory for advocates of a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state.

Meridor, the sole minister to speak out against the bill at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, blasted the decision.

“It is not permissible to allow an Israeli law to state that a non-Jew may be prevented from living in a particular place for security reasons,” Meridor said.

“This is not a security matter at all. There is no need for flagrant discrimination,” Meridor said.

Opposition legislators denounced the government decision as racist.

Legislator Nehama Ronen of the leftist Meretz Party said the proposed law should be disqualified because it is “racist.”

“The government decisions means that racism has become the official ideology of the State of Israel,” said Israeli Arab legislator Azmi Beshara.

In its March 2000 decision, the High Court ruled 4-1 that the state cannot discriminate between Arabs and Jews in land allocation, even if the allotment is conducted by the Jewish Agency and not directly through the Israel Lands Authority.

The one dissenting judge, Ya’acov Kedmi, agreed that the state has no right to discriminate against Arabs on state lands. But he added that the Jewish Agency, which was formed to promote Jewish settlement in Israel, has the right to decide who can benefit from its resources.

The court issued its ruling after a petition was brought by Adel and Iman Ka’adan, an Israeli Arab couple that wanted to build a house in Katzir.

Following its ruling, the High Court ordered the Katzir membership committee to consider the couple’s candidacy “with an open heart” and not base its decision on religion or nationality.

Last year, the community’s membership committee informed the couple that their candidacy had been rejected because they were deemed socially unsuitable.

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