Court rules that Israel must open settlements to Arabs

JERUSALEM — In a landmark decision, Israel's Supreme Court has prohibited the state from discriminating against citizens by allocating land for the exclusive use of Jews or other groups.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed on behalf of an Israeli Arab couple whose application to live in the northern settlement of Katzir had been refused because they are Arab.

In its decision Wednesday, the court ruled 4-1 that as a Jewish, democratic state, Israel could not promote policy that discriminates against any of its citizens based on their religion or nationality.

"This is perhaps the most important ruling the high court has made in the past 50 years regarding equality for citizens," said attorney Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which filed the petition.

The settlement was established on state land in 1982 by the Jewish Agency for Israel in cooperation with the Katzir Cooperative Society, which accepts only Jewish members.

The chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, said in the wake of the court decision that the agency is "for equal rights for Arabs and we feel that an effort must be made to allocate land for this sector in order to substantially improve their quality of life."

At the same time, he noted that there are three areas in Israel with high Arab populations — the Triangle in northern Israel, the Negev and the Galilee — and that the government should hold "urgent talks to ensure a Jewish hold on these areas."

In a statement, Meridor warned that "especially during this period, when an independent Palestinian entity is being formed, a real danger arises for the future of the Triangle, the Galilee and the Negev as integral parts of the state of Israel."

The high court's ruling "did not relate," the statement said, "to the reality that in the Triangle it is the Jews who are in fact the minority." As a result a situation could arise "which would discriminate negatively against Jews."

The legal battle began more than four years ago, after Adel and Iman Ka'adan, of the Arab village of Baqa al-Garbiyeh, were told they could not purchase land and build a home in the community of Katzir, near Hadera, because the land was earmarked for Jews alone.

Iman Ka'adan, a schoolteacher, said she and her husband, a hospital worker, had hoped to improve the standard of living for themselves and their three daughters.

"The situation in Baqa al-Garbiyeh is intolerable," she told Israel Radio. "There is no infrastructure, sewage flows in the streets."

In Katzir, she added, "they have air conditioning, new facilities and every possible advancement."

Meanwhile, right-wing legislators have vowed to initiate legislation to circumvent the ruling.

"I am convinced that most of the nation will open its eyes and stop and say, 'We are crazy, destroying ourselves with our own hands,' " said Zvi Hendel, a member of the right-wing National Unity Party.

Arab Israeli legislators hailed the decision as a breakthrough. "There will no longer be a division of settlements based on being Jewish," said Taleb a-Sana'a of the United Arab List.