Arab council heads are planning a strike beginning this Wednesday, August 16, CEO of the National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities Ameer Bisharat told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview on Sunday.
This follows the council heads from all over Israel gathering on Sunday in front of the Prime Minister’s Office to protest Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s temporary freeze on NIS 2.5 billion in funding for the sector. This includes hundreds of millions aimed at combatting the lack of classrooms for Arab students. The start of the strike will coincide with another protest outside the PMO.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement last Wednesday evening amid Smotrich’s press conference announcing the establishment of a task force to analyze and approve the transfer of funds to Arab municipalities and east Jerusalem, saying that ״The Arab citizens of Israel deserve what every citizen deserves and I am committed to that. This is my demand from all government ministries - and this will be done after an inspection that will ensure that the funds will indeed reach their destination - for the Arab citizens of Israel.”
The council heads who protested on Sunday warned that if their calls to unfreeze the money go unheeded, they will be forced to keep schools closed come the beginning of the school year, slated for September. Modi’in Mayor Haim Bibas joined the council heads to show solidarity. Despite this, neither his municipality nor other Jewish municipalities are planning on joining the strike.
Will Arab sector schools not open in September?
Bisharat said in a radio interview on Sunday that Smotrich “is trying to weaken the Arab leadership and authorities” with his move, and that the council heads “have in mind a shutdown of the school system at the beginning of September.” Bisharat also accused the finance minister of undermining the democratic process by putting incumbent council heads in election peril a few months before nationwide municipal elections are to be held.
Bisharat’s comments follow a string of statements by Arab leaders of what they say is a government that does not care about Israel’s Arab population.
According to Hebrew media, those protesting have been in discussions with the Interior and Finance ministries, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office, in hopes of finding a solution. The government proposed that the municipalities agree to receive the funds, contingent on setting specific programs and goals for the allocated money. The council heads refused the offer and demanded that the money be transferred as it was outlined in the initial funding - without additional oversight.
The freeze has caused stirs within the government, with a slew of ministers expressing their dissatisfaction with the halting of the money. This includes Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (Shas), who has warned of a budget disaster; Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud), who has warned of its potential cause for an increase in violence; and Diaspora Affairs and Combatting Antisemitism Minister Amichai Chikli (Likud), who in his role as social equity minister was responsible for the distribution of funds. Opposition leaders as well as security forces have also pushed back on the funding freeze.
Despite this, and the prime minister’s promise, no progress has been made on releasing the funds.