Public transportation is usually taken for granted in societies with advanced economies. Yet, when part of the population does not have access to this most basic service, it cannot participate fully in the country’s development.
For a variety of reasons, that has been the reality for many of Israel’s Arab citizens over a long period of time. Even today, when progress is being made to rectify an ongoing disparity, some, steeped in lingering distrust, continue to focus on the hindrances.
Aiman Saif, who grew up in the Arab town of Ar’ara in the Wadi Ara region of the Galilee and now works in the Prime Minister’s Office, is one forward-looking official who refuses to be mired in the endless debate over who is responsible for such inequities in Israel.
Finding solutions that can more fully integrate Arab citizens into Israeli society is his mission, and transportation is a vital part of the government’s efforts to enhance the economic conditions and status of Israeli Arabs.
“Until a few years ago, Arab communities in Israel, with the exception of Nazareth, did not have buses,” says Saif, who oversees a government project to overcome the longstanding inequity between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities in access to public transportation. “Today, 200,000 Arabs are using buses in 13 communities.”
This transformation is one result of a plan developed and implemented by the Authority for Economic Development of the Minorities. Saif has been the Authority’s director since its creation in 2008. A unit of the Prime Minister’s Office that has a small staff of 14 Jews and Arabs, the Authority has the influence and resources to bring about substantial changes.
“If I have one billion shekels, I would invest more than 60 percent in public transportation,” says Saif, explaining that a bus network system is necessary for providing the Arab minority greater access to higher education, employment, integration into the Israeli economy – and enabling broader engagement with Israeli society.
“Our main mandate is to utilize the economic potential that lies among the Arab sector,” says Saif, who has been working with other government agencies to improve the rates of Arab participation in higher education and access to employment opportunities. Even university graduates find that a lack of transportation can inhibit access to employment, since many jobs involve daily commuting to cities.
One of the challenges Saif faces is within his own community, engaging local Arab leaders in the Authority’s efforts. To overcome that hurdle Saif introduced an inclusive approach, involving municipal-level political and business leaders as advisers in planning, decision-making and implementation of each project. “We succeed together or we fail together,” Saif has been telling fellow Arab citizens.
It worked for the buses, and it is now immensely important for the Authority’s innovative approach to the emerging housing crisis. “We need 100,000 housing units in the Arab community over the next 10 years,” says Saif, adding that currently only 6,000 are being added annually.
Density is the primary challenge, as little land is available to expand towns and villages to accommodate natural population growth. The tradition of building more and more houses needs to be replaced by vertical growth, and that means erecting apartment buildings, which are common in Jewish communities, but new for Arab towns.
The Authority’s “condo” project, building apartment buildings of two to 10 floors in Arab communities, aims to ease the inevitable burden. “What we offer is an organized concept of high-quality construction, with a public infrastructure, including parks and schools,” says Saif.
“We are trying to provide quality neighborhoods in Arab communities.”
One thousand apartments – 300 in Sakhnin and 700 in Nazareth – are under construction.
A marketing campaign explaining the benefits of this new housing concept has been well received, says Saif.
But there are those in the Arab community who remain suspicious. Saif told me that some suspect the “condos” project is aimed at preventing migration to nearby Jewish towns like Carmel or Upper Nazareth.
Saif maintains that the Authority wants to provide real options, so that Arabs can choose to live in their villages and towns or buy in communities that are predominantly Jewish. “I want Arab citizens to have the opportunity to choose where they want to live,” he says.
The real breakthrough will come when the first 1,000 condos are completed in another year or two in Nazareth and Sakhnin.
“People are suspicious until we have a model done,” says Saif.
The Authority so far is succeeding in implementing an Orr Commission recommendation that the government address the concerns and rights of the Arab minority, now 20% of the population. Improving the lot of Israeli Arabs can only help Jewish- Arab relations and the state of Israel.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.