Arab mayors camp out at PM's office in budget protest

"I'll stay in the tent until we get our rights," said Mayor Muhammad Yousuf Hassan of the village of Mash'had.

First they made a one-day strike of all the Arab and Druze municipalities. Then they demonstrated outside Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, where they said they got violently shoved by police. Now Arab mayors from across the country have gathered in a protest tent they set up across the street from Sharon's building to pressure the government to give them their annual-budget money, which some of them have not received since the year 2000. "I'll stay in the tent until we get our rights, even if takes months," said Mayor Muhammad Yousuf Hassan of the village of Mash'had. "We want them to give us what they give the Jewish municipalities." But the Interior Ministry claimed that the mayors were not running their municipalities properly and for that reason wouldn't pay them. "There are 32 Arab local councils and municipalities that have collected less than 25 percent of their municipal tax," said Moshe Mosko, spokesman for the ministry. "No Jewish local council has collected that little." Residents of Mash'had, according to a list provided by the ministry, paid only 14% of their tax bill by June 2005. The Arab councils point out that, because their residents were poorer, they received discounts on municipal taxes, therefore making the statistics inaccurate. "They forced us to hire collection agencies to collect taxes," said Hassan. "But the problem is that the unemployment in the Arab sector is very high so they deserve discounts. In my village, unemployment is at more than 25%. So the money the municipality gets from the tax is a very small portion of what it needs." Municipal taxes and water payments are the main source of money that municipalities and local councils can collect. This is normally supplemented by the state through annual maintenance and development budgets given to almost every Jewish and Arab city, town and local council. The Arab mayors point to deeper causes for their large debts. The state has set up very few industrial zones in the Arab sector. Factories pay high municipal tax rates and water fees, which provide Jewish cities and towns with high income to run their municipalities. "It's true," acknowledged Mosko. "The problem in the Arab sector is that they don't have industrial sectors and there's no doubt that the income from industrial zones is high in tax and water." Still, Mosko insisted the Arab municipalities and local councils could do a better job collecting money from the tax and water fees. "The problem is that this clan doesn't pay, and that clan doesn't pay," said Mosko. "The municipalities are afraid that if they demand the [payments] the clans will damage their cars." He added that people were "not scared" of not paying because there were no serious penalties. Meanwhile, the lack of money has had dire consequences. Many Arab municipal employees have not received months of salaries, trash is collected sporadically, and water is turned on and off throughout the day. "We haven't paid the salaries for October and November," said Khalil Khoury, the mayor of Rama, who shared lunch in the tent with some 25 other mayors. Because the development budgets for 2004 and 2005 had been frozen, "no schools, no libraries, no gyms, no playgrounds, no new roads and no parks have been built in my city for years," said Khoury. Some children go to school in rooms rented by the municipality. Many homes are still not hooked up to a sewage system. The Interior Ministry said it would not transfer the budgets to the Arab local councils and municipalities unless they followed certain guidelines, which included firing employees and collecting more municipal taxes from residents.