Exclusion of Arab Towns from the National Priority List (NPL).

HCJ 2773/98 and H.C. 11163/03, The High Follow-up Committee for the Arab Citizens in Israel, et. al. v. the Prime Minister of Israel

Petition filed in 5/98 in Adalah's own name and on behalf of the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel and the Follow-up Committee on Arab Education against the Prime Minister seeking the cancellation of a 1998 governmental decision. The decision divides the country into "National Priority Areas" in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, without legislative authorization or clear objective criteria. The national priority areas list classifies selected towns as “A” or “B” or “no status”: towns classified as “A” receive substantial additional budgetary allowances and services from the government such as extra educational funding, tax breaks to local businesses, and funds for infrastructural development. Residents of these areas receive enormous personal economic benefits such as additional mortgage grants and loans, tax exemptions, and educational benefits such as free pre-schools for children, additional hours of schooling, fully-funded computer labs from the Ministry of Education, and exemption of fees for exams. The government assigns priority A status almost exclusively to Jewish development and border towns, and settlements in the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories. Of the 553 towns and villages classified as national priority “A” there were only three small Arab villages.

Adalah argued in the petition that the government lacks authority to divide the country into national priority areas, and that this division is against the rule of law; the economic benefits involved are of such a magnitude to require statutory legislation authorizing their provision and stipulating objective criteria for their distribution. Adalah contended that the purpose of designating towns as national priority areas is to help poorer towns to develop economically. However, although Arab towns and villages in Israel rank lowest in all socio-economic indices according to official government statistics, they are almost completely excluded. Moreover, Adalah argued that the government's division is based on arbitrary geographical considerations. For example, although the disparity in educational attainment levels and the quality of facilities between Jewish and Arab schools is overwhelming, Migdal HaEmek and Natzeret Illit (two Jewish towns in the north) receive priority “A” educational benefits, while eleven other neighboring Arab towns and villages do not receive these benefits. Adalah demanded that these eleven villages be classified as priority “A” for the purpose of receiving educational benefits, arguing that the exclusion of Arab towns and villages from this classification constitutes discrimination on the basis of nationality.

After years of hearings and written submissions, the Court ordered the state in 12/02 to explain why it should not cancel the decision excluding Arab towns from the national priority areas list. At a hearing in 12/03, the Court asked Adalah to submit a new petition on the case, and issued an order nisi. Adalah filed a new petition in 12/03. In 2/04, Adalah successfully requested a further order nisi as part of the new petition requiring the Attorney General's (AG) Office to explain the exclusion of seven Arab Bedouin towns in the Naqab (Negev) from the national priority area “A” list in the field of education, advancing two main arguments: (1) the seven Arab Bedouin towns should be included in the list as the official data shows that they are the most in need of such a program. In comparison to Jewish towns, they are by far the most economically disadvantaged towns in Israel, with the lowest levels of educational attainment; and (2) in its final report, the official Or Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the causes and results of the October 2000 protest demonstrations, also examined the poor socio-economic situation of these towns, recommending that the state give special attention to the Arab Bedouin, emphasizing budgets to close the gaps in education, housing, industrial development, employment, and services.

The AG’s Office submitted its response to the order nisi later in 3/04, arguing that dividing the state into national priority areas has been a part of the government’s political program since the early years of the state and is thus a legitimate policy. The AG also stated that the classification is not based socio-economic considerations, adding that although there are no written criteria for the classification scheme, the designation is based on geographical considerations.

At a hearing held in 11/04, Adalah presented a government map which clearly demonstrates that the borders of the national priority area are drawn close to Arab towns and villages, and yet exclude them. At the hearing, the state argued that the objective of the decision is to encourage Israeli citizens to relocate to peripheral areas, and to support towns which absorb new Jewish immigrants (olim). In response, Justice Heshin asked the AG's representative why she would not admit that the Israeli government is attempting to "Judaize the Galilee." Adalah argued that the goal of assisting towns which take in olim is discriminatory against Arab citizens of Israel for three reasons: (1) Arab towns do not receive new Jewish immigrants, and therefore the decision effectively excludes them; (2) Israeli law already provides for a wide range of existing benefits and assistance for olim; and (3) if the aim of the decision is to facilitate the immigration of olim, then there is no reason for the educational benefits available under the decision to be extended to entire towns or villages. In response to the Court's questions over the exclusion of Arab towns from national priority area "A" for education and the existence of internal criteria for the drawing up of the borders for these areas, the state responded that the logic for the map is evident from the map itself: to encourage individuals to move to these areas. The AG's representative added that this logic also explains why benefits are afforded to entire towns and villages.

In 6/05, Adalah submitted a motion for an injunction to the Court, requesting that it freeze a governmental decision issued earlier in 6/05. The decision awards grants to individuals for the purchasing or leasing of apartments in national priority areas “A” and “B,” within buildings comprised of multiple storeys in the Galilee and in the Naqab. According to the decision, anyone who purchases or leases such an apartment in a multi-storey building in national priority area “A” will receive a grant of NIS 25,000 from the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and NIS 20,000 in national priority area “B.” Adalah emphasized in the motion that there are only four small Arab towns categorized as national priority area “A,” arguing that this constitutes blatant discrimination on the basis of national belonging, and that even these four are not covered by the government’s new decision, as they do not contain buildings of multiple storeys, a condition for receiving the grants. Adalah also stressed that the failure to freeze the governmental decision would cause material damages, harm the interests of the petitioners and violate their rights.

Result: In 2/06, concluding eight years of litigation on this issue, an expanded seven-Justice panel of the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling to cancel the government decision establishing national priority areas in Israel, finding that it discriminates against Arab citizens of Israel on basis of race and national origin. In its decision, the Supreme Court also accepted Adalah's argument that the government is not authorized to unilaterally divide the country into national priority areas unless the Knesset enacts legislation establishing criteria and justifications. Significantly, the Supreme Court’s cancellation of the government decision is not restricted to national priority areas for education, but affects all national priority areas. In accepting Adalah’s position, the Supreme Court has ruled that the executive, as is every other governmental authority, must respect the principle of equality and is prohibited from discriminating against the minority citizens of Israel.

The Court’s ruling transfers the issue of the establishment of national priority areas to the Knesset, making it more difficult for the government to independently make decisions affecting social and economic issues to such a large extent in Israel. Adalah views this ruling as groundbreaking for its recognition of the government’s collective discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel on the basis of race and national belonging. This ruling constitutes a precedent since it will affect every governmental decision and hinder the executive’s ability to circumvent the rule of law to arbitrarily violate the rights of Arab citizens, especially in the fields of social and economic rights. Thus, in accepting the petition, the Supreme Court has ruled that the executive branch including each governmental authority is compelled to respect the principle of equality.

Update: In 4/07, Adalah demanded that the Supreme Court reject the Attorney General’s (AG) request to extend a deadline requiring the state to cancel the governmental decision. According to the Supreme Court’s judgment, the decision should be cancelled within 12 months of its issuance, on 27/2/07. In the request, the AG argued that the state is preparing for the complete implementation of the ruling but, due to the complexity involved in formulating alternative and equitable criteria, this preparatory work has not yet been fully completed. The state also claimed that it would be difficult and damaging to cancel budgets in the middle of the school year. Adalah argued that the submission date of the AG’s request (a month prior to the end of the allotted period), and the reasons stipulated therein reveal a lack of good faith and integrity, and that over the previous year the state had many options to advance the implementation of the ruling. Adalah emphasized that the state is working simultaneously to promote a bill in the Knesset (the National Priority Areas Bill-2007) that in effect constitutes an attempt to anchor in primary legislation the classification of towns and villages as NPAs in a way that would circumvent the law stipulated in the Supreme Court’s ruling. The proposed bill grants general authority to the government to determine the list of towns and villages according to broad considerations, without clear and equal criteria, as required in the aforementioned Supreme Court ruling.

H.C. 2773/98 and H.C. 11163/03, The High Follow-up Committee for the Arab Citizens in Israel, et. al. v. the Prime Minister of Israel (petition accepted)