arabs in israel - Nazareth: Upstairs, Downstairs

Assaf Adiv and Wehbeh Badarneh

Three years ago the "Nazareth 2000" project took off. Both local Arab figures in the municipality and government officials (at that time, from the Labor party) talked about putting the long-neglected city on the map of world Christian tourism. The project should have given Nazareth a giant economic boost. But the closer we get to the end of the millennium, the clearer it becomes that Nazareth has no reason to be festive. Menachem Ariav, the mayor of Upper Nazareth (a modern Jewish city), will probably be the one who is celebrating.

Nazareth (population 60,000) and the villages around it (population 90,000) have recently been confronted with a new plan to swallow what is left of their scarce land reserves, to the benefit of Upper Nazareth. The latter was built in 1957 in order to pose a counter-weight to Nazareth—the biggest Arab town in Israel. According to the new plan, Upper Nazareth will receive a generous 9,400 dunams (about 2300 acres). This will mean total strangulation of the Arab villages Ein Mahel, Kufr Kana, and Tur'an, and it will deal a deadly blow to Nazareth itself.

Ein Mahel: First in Line?

Salim Habib'allah of Ein Mahel has seen a lot in his many years. Land confiscation is no news to him, but the order he received lately—that he has to give up a hundred dunams for the sake of a new neighborhood in Upper Nazareth—was a bit much to stomach. He told Challenge, " This land is planted with olive and fruit trees. For years I have been working on it, clearing stones and plowing. I will not let them take it away from me."

Thirty other Ein Mahel landowners are in the same boat as Salim. On December 16 they went to the High Court to plead their case. At stake are 350 dunams with 6,000 olive and almond trees. The land was confiscated in 1976 by means of special authority given to the Minister of Finance for "urgent public needs,"(1) but the confiscation did not go into effect. The land owners’ lawyer, Ashraf Jassar, claims in a petition to the High Court that since it was "left untouched for 21 years, the confiscation order has lost its validity." Jassar told Challenge that the authorities notified him of their intention to offer compensation of $160 per dunam. But, he said, his clients are demanding that the confiscation be canceled. They will not enter into negotiations over money. Before 1948, Ein Mahel had 14,000 dunams of agricultural land. Today it has 4500, of which 1600 are within the built-up area, leaving only a fraction of what was once available for farming. The village has become a constricted island in the territory of Upper Nazareth.

Upper Nazareth—The Hub of "Judaization of the Galilee"

The territory under Upper Nazareth's jurisdiction today encompasses 26,000 dunams (2), for 50,000 people. This is twice the area of Nazareth with its 60,000 inhabitants. In September 1997 the local council of Kufr Kana, a village to the north of Nazareth, discovered a plan to add yet another 9,400 dunams to Upper Nazareth. Of these, 1800 dunams are owned by farmers of Kufr Kana, though the land is not within the jurisdiction of the village. The Ministry of the Interior notified the council of the plan to establish a committee that would define the new borders of Upper Nazareth. When the council approached the ministry about the plan, it became clear that the decisions had already been made and the announcement was purely formal. Kufr Kana's municipal engineer, Awni Zriki, gave Challenge a little more background: "Just a year ago we terminated discussions with the 'border committee' of the Ministry of Interior about the jurisdiction of Kufr Kana. Our municipality claimed that agricultural land—some 5000 dunams—that belongs to members of the village should be added to its jurisdiction to serve as reserve land while Kufr Kana develops. The Ministry of the Interior refused, claiming that this land can remain without any specified jurisdiction because there are no plans to confiscate it or adjoin it to another authority. The border committee did return 220 dunams to the jurisdiction of the village, thus legalizing many houses that had been built without permits. But now the bulk of the land (1800 of 5000 dunams) is claimed by Upper Nazareth."

The mayor of Upper Nazareth explained in a letter to Challenge (November 5, 1997) that Upper Nazareth is an "immigrant absorption" town and that the National Plan (Tama 31) (3) has designated it to become the central city in the Galilee. "In order to fulfill this mission," he wrote, "we must widen its jurisdiction." The deputy spokesperson of the Interior Ministry told us on November 6 that Upper Nazareth had presented a comprehensive review of its needs for the next twenty years, which showed that the city lacks land reserves for that period of time. It can only expand to the east, he claimed, and therefore it is looking at lands that are partially owned by Kufr Kana and the Israel Land Administration.

Distorted Priorities

The policy is crystal clear, and officials do not even look for ways to justify the harsh discrimination: The needs of new immigrants are determining the geography and demography of the region, while 150,000 Arab natives cannot build houses on their own land. Yet the problem runs beyond that of land confiscation. Nazareth has an industrial zone of 80 dunams, while Upper Nazareth has 4,500 dunams for this purpose. The village of Kufr Kana has 100 dunams for industrial use, mainly garages, small carpentry shops, and workshops. The needs of the Arab population do not appear on the development maps of the government—no matter if we talk of Likud or Labor. In an article describing the development of Upper Nazareth, Ha'aretz correspondent Avi Shmol noted the unique coordination and harmony between all government offices in their support for Upper Nazareth: " In early July the deputy of the Housing Ministry ordered his office to speed up a plan to build 4300 new housing units in the city. The pace of development in Upper Nazareth – and the plans that have been worked out by the Ministries of Interior, Infrastructure, Transport and Housing – are turning it into the main Galilean metropolis. According to unofficial estimates, the growth of the city is the biggest in the north" (Ha'aretz, November 13, 1997).

The Struggle Must Take to the Street

The situation does not bode well either for the deliberations of the "border committee," which will soon discuss the Kufr Kana lands, or for the petition of Ein Mahel's farmers to the High Court. It seems unlikely that the court will cancel the 21-year-old confiscation. Such a decision would be unprecedented. The Arab population and its institutions have only one real option—to launch a widespread popular struggle against the new plans for dispossession. Yet this mode of action, though popular and effective in the past, has lost its appeal. The representatives of the Arab population believe that it is more practical to reach an understanding with the authorities, even at the cost of losing the lion’s share. Since 1992, when Labor took office spreading sweet talk and promises, Israeli governments have simply bought the peace and quiet that enabled them to get on with their plans. Nazareth and the Arab villages are suffocating so that Upper Nazareth can flourish. The passivity of the Arab leadership is forcing the victims of a discriminatory policy to look for alternative means of struggle. The 150,000 Arabs of the Nazareth region cannot be pillaged forever. They too have basic needs that demand attention. Even if the Israeli government discriminates against them and the local leadership neglects them, a new voice must sooner or later arise.


1. The authority of the Minister of Finance is based on a Mandatory law from 1943 that gave the British military governor extraordinary authority to confiscate land or property for public needs, such as for military purposes during the war. The State of Israel adopted this law and has utilized it thoroughly in order to confiscate Arab land for Jewish settlement. 2 . In 1991, during the Gulf War, the Israel Land Administration added 7,300 dunams to the area under Upper Nazareth's jurisdiction (most of which is owned by Arab farmers). This huge addition was about one-third of the total area assigned to Upper Nazareth. 3 . National Blueprint 31 is the national development plan, developed in 1992 in order to facilitate the absorption of one million new Jewish immigrants.