By JACOB KANTER
Four out of every five Israeli Arabs don't pay municipal taxes (arnona). But instead of pointing the finger at the Arab-Israeli conflict, a new Ben-Gurion University study claims that improving social and economic standards within Arab villages may be the key to changing the situation.
Doctoral student Rafik Haj's thesis, entitled "Israeli Arabs' Compliance With Paying Taxes," has been complete for nearly two years, but only recently passed the defense stage. After learning that only 18.6 percent of residents in Arab towns pay municipal taxes - as opposed to 53.7% of Jews - Haj sought to find the root of the problem.
"I visited six Arab villages in the North, and asked the citizens for their viewpoint regarding their local authorities," said Haj. "But I also asked them questions about their communities, their economic standing, and how much they care about one another."
Haj found a strong connection between what he termed the "social capital" within a locality and its residents' tax compliance.
"Social capital refers to the amount that a certain population is unified, friendly, and integrated," said Haj. "The social capital of the average Arab village was once much stronger than it is now. Today, they fight with one another over leadership ... there's a lot of unrest."
Other factors contributed as well, such as the citizens' satisfaction regarding the services they were receiving, and the families' levels of income.
"The happier they were with their public services, and the more money they earned, the more they paid their taxes," said Haj.
Haj also believes that his research dispels a common myth regarding the source of the problem.
"It's not true that Arabs don't pay taxes because they feel alienated by the state," Haj. "In my discussions with the citizens, I didn't find any connection between those types of sentiments and the levels of compliance with taxes."
Instead, Haj believes, the problem revolves around the nature of the municipal tax.
"The problem is that the municipal tax is paid according to how much land you own, not according to income," said Haj.
Haj discovered that the average Israeli Arab family owes 6.9% of its income to arnona, compared with 4.6% for the average Jewish family, since the average income for Jewish families is twice that of Arab families, he said.
"It's not that Arabs are less ethical people," said Haj. "They just often can't afford to pay these taxes."
Arab citizens, therefore, are often both unwilling - as a result of a lack of social capital - and unable to pay municipal taxes.
The solution, Haj believes, is not to use force, as some localities have used in the past.
"It was made clear to me that the use of force by the local authorities to receive the taxes that are owed to them is not an effective strategy," said Haj. "A very small percentage of citizens were ever afraid of the authorities in this sense."
Instead, cutting the municipal tax rate slightly would allow more families to pay it, and strengthening the municipalities' social capital would improve the "tax-paying morale," he argues.
"The local authorities have the task of strengthening and unifying the inhabitants of a village. It begins with education, the rate of citizenship, teaching about the village's history and importance. And eventually, after a period of time with these various initiatives, people will start to love their villages."
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