At a recent meeting of the Israel-Europe Policy Network regarding Muslim minorities, MK Ophir Paz-Pines declared that as interior minister in Ariel Sharon's government he had presided over a discriminatory policy against Arabs. He claimed that Israel's Arab citizens have faced "structural" discrimination since the state's founding. As an example he pointed to discrepancies in state funding directed toward Arab municipalities.
Israeli Arab municipalities do face financial discrimination, but in large part it is a discrimination of their own making. Israeli Arab municipalities barely collect taxes, many are on the verge of bankruptcy, there is a complete lack of enforcement of building codes and residents do not invest in their own infrastructure.
Rafik Haj of Ben-Gurion University has shown in his recent thesis that only 18 percent of Arabs pay municipal taxes (arnona) while 53% of Jews do. Haj claimed that one reason for this is because Arabs can't afford to pay. This claim is blatantly false, and the noncompliance with taxation is only part of the problem. Arnona is based on how much land someone owns or how large a house someone has. But other studies have shown that in Arab villages statistics for ownership and size of houses are woefully inaccurate, meaning people are taxed less than they should be. The chaos in Arab villages is comparable to the situation in southern Italy, where people traditionally do not pay their share of taxes.
CHAOS AND illegality in Arab municipalities exist in other areas as well. The building of houses without permits is common under the excuse that "we never receive permits... the process takes forever." In most Arab villages one will find that between 10 percent and 30% of the houses appear unfinished and in a constant state of being "built." Is this because an owner in the midst of construction doesn't have to pay taxes, or because of some other problem?
In Nazareth, it was revealed during the Hizbullah war that most houses did not have "safe rooms." Arab MKs complained that this was due to racism from a government that doesn't care for its Arab citizens during wartime. But the building of a safe room is mandated by law, so in fact it was the contractors and the subsequent lack of enforcement that were to blame.
Enforcement is part of the discriminatory policy, but not the way Paz-Pines sees it. Few enforcement measures are taken, such as the much-publicized but infrequent bulldozing of illegally built homes in Arab villages, because it causes communal tension and riots. Thus the threat of violence, neglect and disinterest in enforcing the law in the Arab sector means that even Israel's poorest Jewish citizens must live up to a higher standard than its wealthiest Arab ones.
Another feature of the Arab sector is that several bankrupt Arab villages are run by Jewish mayors appointed by the Interior Ministry. Zvika Fogel runs Tuba-Zangariya in the Galilee and Chemi Doron is the mayor of Taiba, the third-largest Arab municipality in the country (population 37,000). Taiba declared bankruptcy when its debts reached almost $300 million. Its residents owe more than $50 million in taxes to city hall. One Arab woman from the town informed me that the appointment of the Jewish mayor was a good thing because of perennial infighting among the town's leading families that had led to financial and municipal mismanagement.
Paz-Pines wants us to compare Taiba to Modi'in, a nearby Jewish town. But Modi'in's residents pay taxes and the police enforce the law. The difference between city services is primarily one that has to do with the citizens' compliance with the law; it is not a question of wealth. Taiba is bursting with wealth, as is evident from its giant villas, but there is no interest in investing that wealth in community institutions.
The discrimination cuts both ways. Arab municipalities receive little; they give little. In Arab villages people prefer to build where they please and not follow building codes or install safe rooms. Residents undervalue their houses so that when they do pay taxes, they pay less than they should. People prefer large sprawling houses to planned tenements. The state doesn't enforce laws in Arab villages until it is too late and the villages, towns and cities are bankrupt.
When the State of Israel enforces the law equally in Arab and Jewish municipalities and Arab citizens pay their share of the tax burden, then it will be time to ensure that Arab municipalities receive similar per capita amounts of state funding as Jewish municipalities. One law for all should be the ideal: enforcement for all, responsibility for all, compliance for all and financial investment in municipalities for all.
The writer is a researcher at Hebrew University.