Full and equal?

By ADAM HUG
December 15, 2010 21:54

How Israel can tackle inequality in the Arab sector.

4 minute read.



Illustrative photo

Arab students 311. (photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)

For too long, the challenges facing Israel’s Arab citizens have been obscured for international observers by the all-too-pressing concerns of the conflict. But this is gradually changing due to recognition of the growing tensions between the country’s Jewish and Arab communities. It is against this backdrop that the Foreign Policy Center has published its new report, “Full and Equal Citizens: How to deliver equality for Israel’s Arab community,” as part of our work on minority rights across the world. It makes a number of recommendations.

First, it is imperative to bridge the planning divide that sees so many Arab majority areas either unrecognized or with obsolete official plans. Ensuring that every community has current and accurate plans would help ease the dramatic shortage of housing available to the Arab community, and end the impasse whereby unapproved building takes place to meet local demand at the risk of prosecution and demolition.

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It would also help encourage business development by making investment more secure and facilitate government funding.

Previous government initiatives to rectify this problem have stalled, so it is to be hoped new initiatives by the Authority for Economic Development of the Arab Sector have more success and are the start of much more work in this area. If needed, the EU or European Investment Bank could provide financial support, while extra capacity could be mobilized among planners internationally to help boost local capacity and support the work of local NGOs already active in this area.

The government’s rejection of the 39 rabbis’ recent missive is to be welcomed, but words alone are not enough. It must take concerted action to ensure equal access to housing and land. This would involve a major housebuilding program in Arab-majority areas, and further reform of the allocation practices of the Israel Lands Administration, Jewish National Fund and housing providers.

Tackling the inequality in the provision of discretionary state development funding, where Arab municipalities receive less than 5 percent of the total, and ending the 32% gap in social welfare spending will be essential components of a strategy to reduce deprivation among Arab communities, whose members are more than three times more likely than Jews to live below the poverty line.

IN THE workplace, having missed its 2008 target of achieving 10% representation by the Arab community in the civil service by a 4% margin, it is imperative that the government redouble its efforts to achieve this proportion by the new 2012 deadline.

In the private sector, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission can play an important role, but it needs to be able to expand its capacity and become more independent.

The case remains for an official equality commission with a wider remit to promote equality across society through education and advocacy. Although such bodies are common in other democracies, an Israeli version seems a long way off. Nevertheless, partnership work across society with equality bodies in other countries can still make a positive contribution, as is already the case between the EEOC and the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.

In the Knesset, recent attempts at discriminatory legislation have further undermined trust in the political system among members of the Arab community.

The extremely low percentage of Arab-Palestinian and Beduin citizens voting for mainstream parties in 2009 should have been a warning to the political class about the polarization of its politics, but the current coalition has been taking forward issues that were once at the fringes.

Moderate forces in political life must firmly reject measures that inflame community tensions, limiting free speech and legitimate debate about the country’s future.

The EU and other international partners must be similarly robust in their opposition to attempts to restrict their financial support for NGOs in this sector that would be in breach of the commitments made in the EU-Israel Association Agreement and Action Plan.

The need for robust debate about how to deliver equality for the Arab community must not be abused to provide fuel for extremist attempts to undermine either the country or any of its citizens. Many of these important issues have been relevant for decades, and it is deeply unfortunate that Israel did not take the opportunity provided by the Or Commission more than seven years ago to address them.

Israel is not alone in facing challenges between majority and minority communities, so it is essential that progressive forces both here and beyond work together, sharing best ideas about how to move forward.

The work of the US and UK Jewish community task forces on Arab issues can help the international community engage in an informed and supportive manner. In partnership, we must redouble our efforts to bring about a future where the pledge of Israel’s founders to give its Arab community the rights of “full and equal citizens” can be fulfilled.

The writer is policy director at The Foreign Policy Centre.

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