Cabinet okays $843m development plan for East Jerusalem, while other funds withheld

Move comes as local authorities call for nationwide two-hour strike on Monday in solidarity with Arab towns across country that are protesting ongoing budget freeze by Smotrich

Left to right: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at an announcement in Jerusalem on August 20, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Left to right: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at an announcement in Jerusalem on August 20, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The cabinet on Sunday approved a five-year, nearly NIS 3.2 billion ($843 million) plan for the development of East Jerusalem, which has replaced a previous NIS 2.5 billion ($680 million) plan frozen by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who objected to funding for a college preparatory program for Arab students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Smotrich is still withholding a separate NIS 200 million ($55 million) earmarked for Arab towns across the country, and municipal leaders have said they will join a scheduled strike on Monday in protest.

The new plan for East Jerusalem will allocate money for infrastructure development, housing, healthcare, education, public transportation, welfare and cultural programming, among other areas.

“This decision will change the face of Jerusalem,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised statement after Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “We are uniting Jerusalem.”

Smotrich stressed that the plan will reinforce Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, saying that “a united Jerusalem is not just a slogan, it is a responsibility. A responsibility to every resident, a responsibility for the development and prosperity of Jerusalem as our eternal capital.”

Last week, Smotrich reportedly backed down from his insistence that NIS 200 million not be allocated toward an academic preparatory program to help integrate East Jerusalem residents into Israeli universities. He had justified his earlier objection by citing an alleged presence of “radical Islamic cells” in Israeli universities, a claim dismissed by many professionals cited by Hebrew media.

Composite photo showing Haim Bibas (left), chair of the Federation of Local Authorities in Jerusalem, February 26, 2023, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem, August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The cabinet approval came just a few hours after local authorities called for a two-hour warning strike on Monday to protest Smotrich’s ongoing refusal to transfer hundreds of millions in budgeted funding to Arab municipalities, in solidarity with Arab municipal leaders who have declared a general strike on that day.

Haim Bibas, chairman of the national umbrella group the Federation of Local Authorities, said Sunday that local government offices will shutter their doors on Monday from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m., in support of Arab municipal leaders who will hold a general strike and rally in Jerusalem over the issue.

“Local authorities stand with local Arab authorities and will strike tomorrow as a sign of solidarity,” Bibas said at a local government education convention in the Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiya.

“If we get to September 1 [the first day of school]  and we are in the same situation, we will weigh our options. We are standing up for funding in the periphery and the [Arab] community. When something doesn’t smell good, we have to show up,” Bibas added.

Bibas also wrote to heads of local authorities, explaining that Smotrich’s action “harms the weakest authorities, which are currently on the verge of collapse.”

“Violence and crime are on the rise and reach everywhere. The prolonged budget freeze brings the authorities to a state of dysfunction and they are unable to provide services to their residents,” the letter read.

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)

Baqa al-Gharbiya’s Mayor Raed Daka said at the meeting that 2023 was a “year of emergency for the Arab community,” amid a record wave of violent crime that has claimed 150 lives since the beginning of 2023, over double last year’s rate.

“We deserve the funds, and we need them like air to breathe. The education minister says it’s a year of cohesion. In Arab society we say — a year of emergency,” he added.

In response, Smotrich said he didn’t understand the need for a strike and called on municipal heads to “join hands with us.”

“You will be the first to pay the price of threats, blackmail and violence,” he said in a statement.

In a more strongly worded statement hours later, Smotrich said: “We will act to prevent the reckless and irresponsible strike tomorrow. I won’t cave in to pressure and threats.”

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference on the planned construction of a new railway line from the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the city of Eilat, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has drawn accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers for his decisions.

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.

Smotrich has claimed that without proper oversight, the money would disappear into the hands of organized crime groups or be used to support terror activities.

Amid criticism of Smotrich even from coalition lawmakers, Netanyahu has said the funding for Arab municipalities will go ahead, but with oversight.

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