Monday, May 14, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Hurfeish

Far from the tourist attractions of Israel's beautiful beaches and majestic religious sites lies the quaint Arab town of Hurfeish. A cluster of cement houses nestled in the valley of the Meron Mountains, just a few kilometers from the Israel-Lebanon border, it seems hardly like the kind of place vistors or even most Israelis would frequent. However, the town's remote setting, along with its unique population, gives it a history and story that can illuminate us to the many problems facing villages throughout the Galilee and beyond.

Hurfeish is 2,000 years old, dating back to the times of the Byzantine Empire. Today, and for the last 500 years, the village has been home to a majority population of Druze Arabs, comprising about 6,000 residents. While Druze Arabs are a religious minority of the larger Palestinian people, many Druze Arabs in Israel feel strongly connected to the State due to their mandatory service in the Israeli military. On the other hand, many Druze citizens still feel very connected to their Palestinian roots and culture. Their identity is a unique and complicated one, deserving of deeper depth which cannot be properly explored here.

However, the unique position of the Druze community is worth mentioning, because while the State promotes the idea that Arabs who serve in the military are entitled to “benefits,” which are usually rights that every citizen deserves, such as education, employment, housing, etc., the village of Hurfiesh is a perfect example as to why this concept falls flat. While almost every citizen living in Hurfiesh serves in the military (and overhalf in combat units), the village is still plagued with extremely high levels of unemployment, poverty, and overcrowding. 

"Illegal" houses

One can easily argue that the main source of Hurfeish's problems is its inability to expand. Most of the village land was confiscated decades ago, partly for the Mt. Meron Nature Reserve and partly for neighboring Jewish towns. In the 1980s, Druze residents acted through the Follow-Up Committee to demand more lands from the government to accommodate for the village's natural growth. In the late 1990s, the residents were granted some lands for new neighborhoods, but since then, the village has not been granted a new Master plan. This inevitably leads to the current-day situation, in which a quarter of the houses in Hurfeish are considered “illegal” by the government and therefore, unable to receive basic services and under constant threat of demolition. 

"Illegal" houses being built

Electrical lines that residents extended in order to reach "illegal" houses

Unpaved road outside "illegal" houses

In the village, we met with Fawaz Hussein, active member of the Hurfeish local council for almost two decades. He gave us a tour of the area, showing us numerous “illegal” houses along the way. Many of the houses were huge and elaborately decorated; standing testimate to the fact that their community values owning a home to be one of the highest ambitions in life. We were surprised to discover that residents remain so invested in their homes even though they face the possibility of demolition at any given moment.

Fawaz Hussein

The "illegal" home of Handa Amer

Click here to listen to Fawaz speak about the housing issues in Hurfeish.

Transcript in English:

"As a minority, we naturally respect the law and we love the law and we want to implement it, but the circumstances don't allow us. A person is forced to build illegally, considering that there is no structure nor space for building. So there is a dilemma, a moral dilemma...a person wants to obey the law but a person (also) wants a basic right to live in a house and with stability.
As for the Druze sector, because it serves in the army, we now have this kind of disappointment...that the citizen is giving all of his rights and doing all of his duties and he is not receiving his rights, especially the basic right to housing and to live in safety without any persecution. Not long ago, they legislated a law in Knesset that each soldier is entitled for a portion (of land) for building. This law is implemented for Jews but not for others (non-Jews) who serve in the army. Why?
What I also want to say that we have all around us are Jewish settlements and villages. Every other day we see a new neighborhood in the Saa'saa, in Ilkoush, in our neighboring Hossen...without protests, without violence, without all of these problems. Meanwhile, we have been suffering for tens of years from this subject. This issue did not begin yesterday; it is the result of different governmental policies.
I will give you a simple example; the current Minister of Interior, who have been in this position for the past three years, has not approved any new structural maps for the Arab sector. The structural map (Master plan) is supposed to grant answers for the next 20-30 years...give solutions concerning the problems of housing. Meaning, if one wants to build, he will be able to receive a license, and not commit any illegal violations, and if there is no available land, the country will give portions of land or give new neighborhoods for expansion. In 1979, they began to plan a master plan (for Horfesh). It was finished in 1998, and from 1998 until today, there has not been a (new) master plan to adjust to modern circumstances. A quarter of the houses in this town have problems, like with licenses, violations.."

Now we invite you to listen to the story of Handa Amer, a resident of Hurfeish living in an “illegal house” without basic services but with a demolition order.

Handa is a social worker and she lives with her husband and three daughters.