Arab towns plan Jerusalem rally, strike action over Smotrich’s freeze on funds

General strike set for next week; mayors say they won’t let school year start unless government transfers needed millions

Arab citizens protest the budget cut in the Arab sector, outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. Banner reads 'Objecting to cutting budgets protesting for life.' (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Arab citizens protest the budget cut in the Arab sector, outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. Banner reads 'Objecting to cutting budgets protesting for life.' (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Municipal leaders in the Arab community said Sunday they will ramp up their protests against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s refusal to transfer hundreds of millions in budgeted funding, calling for a general strike in the community next week and threatening to not open the coming school year at the beginning of September.

The National Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities set up a protest tent opposite the Prime Minister’s Office and the adjacent to the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, where they held a meeting to discuss protest strategy. Some 300 people participated in the protest, joined by Haim Bibas, chairman of the larger national umbrella group the Federation of Local Authorities.

Smotrich has taken flack — including from other cabinet ministers — for refusing to release NIS 200 million ($55 million) for economic development in Arab municipalities, and maintaining a hold on a higher education program for East Jerusalem residents. Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has drawn accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers.

The funds — aimed at boosting the economy, upgrading infrastructure and fighting crime in Arab communities — were approved by the previous government, which included the Islamist Ra’am party alongside left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties that united in opposition to then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Following the meeting in the Jerusalem protest tent, the committee of Arab authorities said it will call a general strike in the community for August 21. In addition, a mass rally will be held in Jerusalem the same day.

The committee further declared that without the promised government funding it will not be able to open the school year on September 1.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on August 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

At the meeting, Bibas, a former ally of the premier, told municipal leaders that Netanyahu assured him that NIS 200 million in funding will be transferred to them within ten days, Haaretz reported. However, the Arab mayors retorted that they have received no such official notification. They also pointed out that the sum is only part of the cash they have been promised, including the funds promised by the previous government.

Committee CEO Amir Bisharat accused government ministers of “following a clear policy of not publishing public tenders for projects intended for Arab society or delaying budgets in transportation and in education.” He said that even the allegedly promised NIS 200 million will not be enough for all the community’s needs.

On Saturday the committee said it is considering suing Smotrich for slander because of his remarks that government funding would disappear into the hands of organized crime groups or be used to support terror activities.

In an announcement, the committee called Smotrich’s remarks “falsehoods, incitement and defamation.”

Arab MK Ahmad Tibi of the Hadash-Ta’al party told the the Kan public broadcaster that Smotrich’s labeling of the Arab community authorities as controlled by organized crime and supporting terror activities is “racist stereotyping.”

Bisharat told the station that the municipalities have no objection to government oversight of what happens to money it provides the Arab authorities.

Arab citizens, along with MK Ahamad Tibi (second right) protest the budget cut in the Arab sector, outside the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Amid growing criticism of Smotrich for holding up the funds, he gave a televised press conference last Wednesday in which he asserted the action was “in the interest” of the Arab community.

The finance minister argued that “the main motivation for of crime in Arab society is economic” and that he was therefore forming a special committee on the matter.

“Despite all the pressure and the false campaign, I announce here that I will not allow the transfer of these funds without clear mechanisms that will ensure they reach their destination and not crime organizations, and without it being clear if they are being budgeted for incitement and encouragement to terror,” Smotrich said.

Shortly after his briefing, Netanyahu’s office pledged that NIS 200 million would be released and that unspecified monitoring mechanisms would be put in place before the funding goes through.

The funding suspended by Smotrich was approved in part to address a wave of violent crime that has engulfed the Arab community in Israel in recent years. Many community leaders blame police, who they say have failed to crack down on powerful criminal organizations and largely ignore the violence. They also point to decades of neglect and discrimination by government offices as the root cause of the problem.

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