A nod to equailty

Will the government’s 13.8 billion shekel plan to improve conditions in the Arab sector be implemented?

Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tucked inside the folds of rolling hillsides in northern Galilee, this city is not a top go-to destination despite its lovely surroundings.
Meet Sakhnin, a place where panache meets notoriety; a community of quaint stone and cement houses bracketed by pretty mosques and a church; a spot that reflects both the best and the worst aspects of Jewish-Arab relations in the Holy Land.
A home to some 30,000 mostly Muslim- Arab citizens, Sakhnin boasts a soccer club, Bnei Sakhnin, in the country’s premier league. The club brought much joy and pride to local residents when it won the State Cup in 2004. On the other hand, the area has also been prone to violent protests and is infamous for being one of the sites of the deadly “Land Day” protests in 1976, against land confiscations, which has turned into an annual tense remembrance day.
Violence also visited Sakhnin in 2000 when the Palestinians launched a second intifada, and again this past October at the onset of the latest wave of Palestinian violence.
Now, however, Sakhnin is looking to change its fortunes, sprucing up with the recent construction of a couple of shopping malls and a glistening new community center that houses its municipality offices.
Yet, beneath the facelift, Sakhnin remains beset by double-digit unemployment, a high poverty rate and a housing shortage that sends many of its young people seeking to build a future to either Haifa or nearby Karmiel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet recently approved a plan intended to boost the status of Arab towns like Sakhnin, with an unprecedented aid package of about 13.8 billion shekels ($4 billion) that hopes to redress decades of lopsided funding and close wide income, education and infrastructure gaps with predominantly Jewish cities.
The planned infusion of funds to the Arab sector is described by some officials as revolutionary. Unlike past willy-nilly allocations that were never actually handed over, the latest plan earmarks specific sums in the state budget for projects in Arab towns and villages ranging from infrastructure improvements to building more homes and schools – developments seen as critical to making Arab citizens equal participants in the Israel economy.
The envisaged allocations are considered unprecedented in that, at least on paper, they are proportionate to the number of Arab citizens in the country. For the first time, Israel is actually taking money that was doled up disproportionately to its Jewish populations to share it with a key disadvantaged minority.
In Netanyahu’s own words, the plan approved by his cabinet on December 30, aims to provide “a significant increase in funds intended to help the minority population and narrow gaps” between Arab citizens and other Israelis.
His government seems more serious about this plan than past blueprints that went nowhere, as the OECD, bankers and financial experts all warn that Israel’s own economic growth will soon be stunted unless it changes its tune and adopts a more inclusive approach toward its Arab population.
Arabs number about 20 percent of the population, yet account for close to 40 percent of its poor, according to a recent report by the Knesset Research and Information Center.
At least two billion shekels of the sum have already been included in the 2016 state budget, so officials expect some of the fruits of the plan, such as infrastructure and road improvements, to be visible in the coming months, if not by early 2017.
But other key aspects – housing, confiscating illegal weapons, community service in lieu of military conscription, and wider employment opportunities – are tougher nuts to crack, and still in the throes of negotiation.
It also doesn’t help matters that the ambitious plan comes at a time when Jewish- Arab relations are being newly strained by the ongoing wave of violence. Though focused in the occupied West Bank, tensions with the Palestinians have seeped across the “Green Line” as well. The involvement of Arab citizens in the violence is rare, but notably included a deadly shooting rampage January 1 at a Tel Aviv bar that shocked the nation ‒ Jews and Arabs alike.
Officials deny that the timing of the approval of the plan suggests an intent to buy quiet in the Arab sector, and point to the fact that it was drawn up before the knifings and shootings began in the fall. In fact, as the weeks since the program’s adoption go by, there is already concern whether the persisting violence and tension surrounding it may wind up jeopardizing this plan rather than spur its implementation.
Such skepticism runs rather strong at Sakhnin’s city hall, where officials can’t even remember how many times they’ve heard politicians promise them more money but then fail to deliver.
AS MAYOR Mazen Ghanaim sees it, the sum being offered to the entire Arab sector is only a fraction of what is needed to keep up with basic demands for schools, housing and other infrastructure.
“Let’s wait and see in the months ahead whether the government is serious,” Ghanaim, also head of the Arab High Monitoring Committee, tells The Jerusalem Report.
“The plan is a good one, but the needs of Arab society are greater than 40 billion shekels” or almost four times as much as the government has earmarked, “but it’s a first step,” he admits.
Meanwhile Sakhnin’s city engineer, Aziz Bashir, says, “It’s a daily struggle around here for many residents,” noting that he doesn’t even have the money for a truck to lay fresh asphalt to fix gaping potholes in the roads. Playgrounds are lacking in many neighborhoods, Bashir adds.
“The kids have nowhere to go but into the streets.”
Though hopeful, Khaled Khalaily, the deputy mayor, is a bit skeptical as to whether the current plan will ever see fruition.
He mentions how after a recent visit by a Jewish politician to Sakhnin, he later found notes jotted down about residents’ complaints left behind on a table in his office.
“We have heard of many, many, many plans in the past. Unfortunately, what we hear in the media isn’t always right or carried out,” Khalaily tells The Report. “We hope that after so many years and the many plans that have been made, this time the government will implement its promises, and then we would be very, very happy.”
Khalaily says he doesn’t envisage Arab communities achieving parity with their Jewish counterparts, but, “on a scale of one to 10, I’d take a five or a six ‒ that would be a blessing.”
Does he think the government is trying to use the program to placate Arab citizens, long angry at the disproportionate share of state resources they enjoy, and tamp down tensions over the latest violence with the Palestinians? “People at the top must understand that in the end, a lack of equality, or insufficient budgets, will bring about only negative things for the country,” Khalaily replies.
“It would be terrible were we to reach a situation where only by resorting to violence would we achieve anything. We want the establishment to know that if we deserve something it’s because we deserve it, not because there is violence. We don’t have to receive something to silence us,” he says.
Arabs want parity with fellow Jewish citizens “because we live here,” Khalaily adds.
“I’m loyal to the country and I’m a citizen.
And what a citizen gets in a city such as Haifa, I deserve, too.
“In Sakhnin and the Arab sector in general, it’s no secret that 99 percent of us are against this wave of violence. We don’t believe in it, it doesn’t achieve anything, and our culture doesn’t favor it. “There’s less than a percent that may think otherwise, but I don’t care about them. The vast majority wants peaceful coexistence.”
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, whose job it is to oversee implementation of the Arab sector plan, tells The Report, “The plan is a historic change, for the first time being expressed as part of an overall program ‒ a very, very, important one that will close social gaps and redress the injustice done to Arab society over the years.”
It’s a “very inclusive” blueprint aimed at providing funds in virtually all realms.
We will see many results already in 2016, where budgets will be handed over to resolve infrastructure, sewage, education and public transportation issues, and integrating women into the labor market and integration into higher education. There will be a revolutionary change; this is a very fundamental and professional plan,” she says.
Asked how the policy differs from the many promises made to Arab locales that have gone nowhere, Gamliel calls those that flopped “minor plans.”
“I see this as a national plan, an imperative of reality, to provide equal opportunity, as minister of social equality, to the entire Israeli population. This plan is being implemented, for the first time, in cooperation with all local council heads and MKs from every party. It is aimed at understanding all the needs of the Arab population and translating that into an operative plan,” Gamliel adds, also noting that she has “broad support from the Finance Ministry” for the policy.
She calls it a “first-rate national interest” to stem a dropout rate of one in three Arab pupils, which she says, “hurts our entire society.”
Another key national interest, according to Gamliel, is to integrate more Arab women into the workforce. Many experts see the high unemployment in that group as a key factor driving poverty and inequality.
A lack of daycare centers and poor public transportation are frequently cited as reasons for why only some 35 percent of Arab women are employed outside the home, compared to 75 percent in their Jewish peer group.
“The more Arab women who are integrated into the workforce, the more it improves the overall economy,” Gamliel says.
Sammy Smooha, a professor of sociology in ethnic relations at the University of Haifa, says the new program is really unique.
“We are talking about real change, not just by giving Arabs extra money, but by changing the basis of allocations, which means shifting resources from Jews to Arabs. This is something very radical.”
Experts on the country’s troubled Jewish-Arab relations also see the fact that the treasury is so invested in the plan as essential to Israel’s future economic growth as reason to be optimistic.
Still, the process of implementing the program is not without potential major hitches.
One of the main issues is over agreements still in discussion about the terms for expanding housing and dealing with some 50,000 illegally built homes in the Arab sector, where the bureaucracy involved in obtaining a construction permit has long rendered that process untenable.
MULTI-STORY homes have become quite common in many Arab towns in recent years, and some in the sector are fine with Netanyahu’s idea of putting up more multi-story structures, rather than the traditional single-family homes, which Netanyahu has stated as a specific goal of the plan. But many do seem to object to the idea of making the subsidization of additional housing contingent upon agreeing to the near exclusive construction of high-rises.
MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, who was active in behind-the-scenes talks that helped shepherd the plan, is now engaged in similar contacts to ensure it is carried out.
“I think we have to be very clear about the fact we must struggle for implementation.
Implementation won’t happen without a struggle,” Odeh tells The Report.
Odeh is troubled by criticism from farright cabinet ministers who already are threatening to try to attach conditions to the funds. Odeh is in the midst of negotiations over zoning plans and to ease plans to condition housing permits and subsidies on multi-story construction, which he sees as posing a lifestyle issue for Arab families in many communities.
“In a normative country you cannot punish people who haven’t violated the law,” says Odeh, who points out that it isn’t illegal to build a single-floor house.
“When it comes to building taller structures, most Arabs live in villages and villages have their traditions just like moshavim and kibbutzim, where they also don’t build high-rises,” he adds.
Arabs living in cities “are ready to live in taller buildings,” says Odeh, “but new neighborhoods should have proper infrastructure and a proper system of commerce and education. You cannot increase the number of homes without a proper school system. You cannot open more businesses without infrastructure.”
Odeh notes that Israel has built some 700 towns and communities for Jewish residents in the past six decades, but none for Arabs.
Most Arab towns and cities, he says, lack proper zoning plans to enable legitimate development and this has had a knock-on effect in creating a shortage not only in housing but schools, workplaces, clinics and other basic services.
“As a result of the discrimination, Arabs build illegally,” contends Odeh.
He has proposed a year-long hiatus in demolitions of illegal homes in exchange for ordering residents to quit putting up unauthorized buildings, pending negotiation of a zoning plan during that year.
Officials also have demanded that guns be seized from Arab communities. There’s no opposition to this from Odeh who says most Arab citizens are keen for authorities to confiscate the weapons that have proven deadly in their own communities. “We want to see no guns among the Arab population,” he says, pointing to rampant crime in some communities that most Arab citizens would like to see averted.
Another sticking point in the plan pertains to government demands to set quotas for Arabs to volunteer for national or community service instead of serving in the military, since Arab citizens are not conscripted.
Many Arabs say they agree with the idea of encouraging more volunteerism, but bristle at it being a condition for receiving money to which they feel entitled as tax-paying citizens.
Odeh is somewhat pessimistic about the successful implementation of the government’s plan, but is determined to promote its implementation, “there is a struggle between straight thinking on the part of some treasury officials and the racist tendencies in the government,” alluding to ministers who point at continued Palestinian violence as a reason to attach conditions that risk undermining the entire project.
“Based on past experience of such plans failing and certainly given this rightwing government, there’s no doubt we have strong fears. But make no mistake, we are determined to struggle for its implementation, to sit with the Treasury and apply pressure,” Odeh asserts.
Rawnak Natour, a director-general at Sikkuy, an organization that works to achieve greater Jewish-Arab coexistence, calls the plan “an unprecedented effort, not just to dole out allocations, but it actually aspires to equalize funding for Arabs.”
SHE CAUTIONS, however, against attaching terms or conditions that run the risk of ruining the plan’s intent. The focus, she says, must be to rectify “continued discrimination.
This is about citizens’ rights and you cannot attach unreasonable conditions,” she tells The Report.
Sakhnin’s deputy mayor Khalaily thinks the plan is not far-reaching enough. He points to a desperate need in his city for industrial zones to develop businesses that would generate more local tax revenue for development. He worries that is not sufficiently addressed by the government’s program.
Khalaily is proud that Sakhnin has recently raised its city tax or arnona collection to upwards of 80 percent, but the amounts generated are barely enough to cover maintenance costs. Little is left over to pay for the improvements necessary to develop Sakhnin to the level of nearby Jewish-dominated towns and cities.
“At the end of the day, the big money for city taxes comes from industrial zones and, currently, the Israeli government doesn’t do enough to build and develop industrial zones in the Arab sector.
“We lack the basics, while the Jewish towns have a surplus because all the major factories are located there,” he maintains.
Sakhnin has one industrial zone but it houses mainly “low-tech” businesses, such as repair and construction-related firms. A more developed hilltop complex run by the neighboring Misgav council, in plain view from Sakhnin’s city hall, seems a constant reminder of what they’re missing – including land many in Sakhnin say their grandparents owned that is now in the hands of neighboring Jewish localities.
Telemarketing operations that have opened recently are the most sophisticated operations, where many college graduates, particularly women, can find employment.
The lack of opportunities means many of Sakhnin’s young people don’t return after college for lack of appropriate employment.
Shadi Hedrei, a woman waiting on line at a tax-collection office, says there are few jobs for her grown children. “When you see graduates like my daughter working at a call center, it hurts a lot,” Hedrei, 49, a boutique owner, laments to The Report.
“The economic situation is no good, businesses open and shut all the time. I wish they would give us more land to build more workplaces,” she says.
Sociologist Smooha, an Iraqi-born Israel Prize winner, sees few pitfalls in the actual plan he describes as “really unique” and capable of bringing about “real change.” Shifting funds from Jews to Arabs is “something very radical” for Israel, he believes.
With that, Smooha sees one of the biggest risks of the plan is that it raises too many expectations. Equalizing funding alone, he says, will not resolve the tensions between Jews and Arabs, particularly at a time when incendiary rhetoric is uttered all too often on all sides.
Netanyahu’s frequent reproof of the Arab population has not helped improve the atmosphere, particularly since his “they’re coming out in droves to vote” remark about Arabs on last year’s Election Day insulted many minority citizens.
“In order to change the atmosphere and improve Arab-Jewish relations, it’s not enough to implement this program. You need to change the destructive discourse,” Smooha says.
“Both sides have engaged in very bad discourse; if they change the discourse, that can produce a better outcome,” he concludes.