Ashkelon mayor, Peace Now fume at spending preferences

Ashkelon mayor, Peace No

Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin on Thursday leveled harsh criticism at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's proposed redrawing of the "national priority areas" map, a realignment that would leave out Vaknin's city of over 100,000 near the border with the Gaza Strip. Among the areas listed on Netanyahu's map are 91 West Bank settlements housing well over 100,000 Israelis. The settlements on the map - including those in the Jordan Valley, as well as Ariel, Nili, Betar Illit and Itamar - were selected because of security considerations. Many of the communities, but not all of them, are outside the large settlement blocs. Overall, the new plan would include some 1.9 million people, 25 percent of Israel's population, including 40% of Israeli Arabs. Vaknin told The Jerusalem Post the decision was "grave, mistaken and unreceptive to the realities in Ashkelon," and called on Netanyahu to reconsider. Vaknin cited Ashkelon's proximity to the Gaza Strip and the fact that the coastal town had been heavily bombarded by Hamas rockets and missiles throughout last January's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. "Over the course of a month last year, 200 Grad missiles landed in and around the city, but we are stripped of the status given to other cities that were targeted," Vaknin said, citing Beersheba, Ofakim and Netivot, which remain on the national priority list. The mayor added that during Cast Lead, when Netanyahu was heading the opposition, he had visited Ashkelon and vowed to help the city recover from the onslaught of Hamas missiles. Vaknin said "it is now up to Netanyahu to keep the promise he made to us." According to Vaknin, losing national priority status would severely affect the ability of the municipality and its residents to pay their bills, and could mean the city would not be able to meet its education and welfare needs. Vaknin added that he and members of his staff planned to meet with Prime Minister's Office director-general Eyal Gabai and demand that Netanyahu reconsider the allotment, saying if the demands were not met, they would launch a protest in Ashkelon against the move. Netanyahu's bureau announced the plan to reporters on Wednesday and sent ministers a map of the new priority areas ahead of a vote on the realignment at Sunday's cabinet meeting. On Thursday, Gabai said the towns gerrymandered into the priority areas had received such status because of national security needs. Towns and municipal councils within the new boundaries will receive preferential treatment from the state and incentives for education, housing, infrastructure and employment. Peace Now also slammed the new national priority areas map on Thursday, saying that the realignment was based on ideology and not on security or socioeconomic considerations - the two reasons traditionally given for inclusion in a national priority area. Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Oppenheimer told the Post that the organization saw the claims of socioeconomic considerations as disingenuous, saying that Netanyahu had redrawn the map in order to gain favor with the Right, especially in the wake of the settlement construction freeze he instituted last week. "We studied these areas and found that the quality of life in the settlements is much higher than in the rest of Israel," Oppenheimer said. "These benefits are meant to help close socioeconomic gaps. In our research, we found that in most of these places in the West Bank, there is no socioeconomic gap to cover, not when compared to the rest of Israel." He added, "When you take something that is meant to help poor areas and use it to strengthen your standing with the right wing, it can easily be seen as a political maneuver." In a report published on the group's Web site Thursday, Peace Now lists a number of statistics comparing quality-of-life measurements in parts of the West Bank included in the new priority areas to those of Israeli cities within the Green Line. Peace Now's data indicates that the median income for a family in the settlements is NIS 13,566, 10% higher than the national average of NIS 12,343 per month. In terms of unemployment, Peace Now reports that the settlement average is 6.5%, compared to 7.3% in Israel. Peace Now argues that socioeconomic conditions in the settlements compared to the rest of Israel are actually higher overall than the numbers indicate, considering that a third of the settlement population is ultra-Orthodox and significantly poorer than the national average. The left-wing group's statistics also reveal the socioeconomic gap between cities recently put on the list, and communities within the Green Line that were formerly on the list, to be quite large. For example, its report shows the average monthly wage in Ashdod and Ramle to be NIS 4,832 and NIS 4,428 respectively, while West Bank settlement Efrat, which is included in the priority areas, has an average monthly wage of NIS 7,793.