An investment that's in everyone's interest

How can the North truly be rebuilt in an atmosphere of hatred and resentment?

Katyusha 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Katyusha 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'Hassan, Hassan, a friend indeed; send missiles on Tel Aviv!" rose the rhythmic chant in Arabic, led by a group of young people carrying huge photographs of Hassan Nasrallah in a procession through the growing crowd. As the demonstration got underway the young Nasrallah supporters faded into the crowd. Their image, however, remained seared in my mind. For this rally did not take place in southern Lebanon in 2006, but in the northern Negev on March 31, 2001, at the site of Land Day demonstrations which I attended - in protest against the government's continued policy of land confiscation in the Negev and the Galilee. Over the past two months those young Arab citizens and their supporters nearly got their wish, as Hassan Nasrallah sent thousands of missiles crashing into homes, schools and agricultural areas throughout the Galilee. In so doing, Nasrallah provided Arab citizens of Israel with a rare and absurd instance of "proportional representation." Just over 40% of the civilian fatalities in the 2006 Lebanon war were Arabs from Haifa and Galilee, representing almost exactly their portion of the population of northern Israel. Yet even as they sat in stairwells or inner rooms (for there were no bomb shelters in Arab towns) listening for the terrifying boom that they prayed would not come too close, many Palestinian Arab citizens felt Hizbullah's action as a balm for years of deep humiliation by their own state. MANY ISRAELI Jews, myself included, were offended and angered by expressions of satisfaction, from Arab friends and neighbors, at Hizbullah's ability to take on the IDF and paralyze a quarter of the country. Now the war is over the process of physical reconstruction has begun. Yet how can the North truly be reconstructed, following this atmosphere of hatred and resentment? The second Lebanon war exposed and exacerbated many deep rifts in Israeli society, not the least of which is the troubled relationship between Arab citizens and the state. Exactly three years ago the Or Commission, established to investigate the riots of October 2000 (during which 13 Arab Israelis were killed by the Israeli police), released its report, detailing the dangers of existing systemic discrimination: "This is the most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel today… Action must be focused on giving true equality to the country's Arab citizens. The state must wipe out the stain of discrimination against its Arab citizens, in its various forms and expressions… The state must initiate, develop and operate programs emphasizing budgets that will close gaps in education, housing, industrial development, employment and services." In the intervening years, however, government development policy has done little to close those gaps. THE RECONSTRUCTION effort now being undertaken in the aftermath of the war provides a perfect opportunity - perhaps the last opportunity - to restore not only the physical infrastructure of the North but also to reconstruct its socioeconomic infrastructure, so that Jewish and Arab citizens may live together in equality, respect and an inclusive citizenship for both major populations of the Galilee. In order to carry out this vision, however, the government must jettison the old system of priority zones by which development aid has been channeled to Israel's peripheral areas. Over the past 50 years these zones defined Jewish development towns as "A" priority Zones for investment incentives, education allotments, tax benefits, mortgage subsidies, etc., while classifying neighboring Arab towns as "B" or no-priority zones. Motivated by the goal of settling Jews in peripheral areas, this classification system ignored the socioeconomic distress of Arab towns, which generally suffer from higher unemployment, lower income, poorer housing stock, and lower educational attainment than neighboring Jewish towns. Following a February 2006 High Court decision in a case brought by the Adalah advocacy organization striking down ethnically-defined priority zones for education assistance, the government is beginning to redraw the map of priority zones to include Arab towns. The formulae by which postwar reconstruction aid will be delivered to various towns and businesses depend partly on the priority zone designated. It is essential that the new non-exclusive designations, based on socioeconomic need, be renewed on a long-term basis and be used in the reconstruction effort. A PROPOSAL for equitable reconstruction of Galilee is now being advocated by two groups: Sikkuy for Civic Equality and the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development. The proposal presents a number of policy steps aimed at encouraging women's employment, integration of the Arab workforce in hi-tech industries, and including Arab towns in regional industrial parks. Today, 45 of 49 Arab towns in Galilee lack such critical industrial infrastructure. In addition, the proposal calls for redefining the criteria for government investment incentives under the Law to encourage capital investment. Under current definitions, only 1.4% of the Trade Ministry's assistance goes to businesses in Arab towns, despite the fact that Arab citizens comprise almost 20% of the Israeli population, and 40% of the population of the North. At this time of postwar reconstruction it is critical to seize the opportunity to rebuild Galilee, not only for the Jewish population, as in the past, but for all its citizens. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in the best interest of Israel. For a society that humiliates its members and discriminates against them is a society which cannot be a good home - neither to the humiliated, nor to the humiliating. An investment in equality is an investment in our future and in our children's future. It is a commitment that we do not concede to Hassan Nasrallah - winning the hearts and minds of our fellow Arab citizens. The writer, based in Jerusalem, is Associate Director of Ir Amim.