Druze and Circassian Israelis demonstrated in Jerusalem on Sunday in protest of an alleged government “betrayal” of their minority communities, demanding funding they claim their municipalities had been promised.
The protesters, who reportedly numbered in the hundreds, demanded the government pass a new budget for 2020 and formulate a five-year budget plan for their communities that they say will help level the playing field. They also demanded that the government revoke legislation that they say discriminates against them.
Local leaders speaking at the protest accused the government of “drying up their budgets” during the coronavirus pandemic by not adequately funding them, Walla news reported.
“We want the government to recognize us as citizens of this country, and make us equal to the rest of the citizens,” Daliat al-Karmel Mayor Rafik Halabi said in a speech delivered at the protest, which took place outside the Prime Minister’s Residence and later moved to the Foreign Ministry, where a cabinet meeting was taking place.
Protesters wore T-shirts saying “You betrayed me, brother,” and “Brothers don’t betray one another.” In an act of political theater, local leaders chained themselves together in front of the Foreign Ministry in an attempt to prevent cabinet ministers from entering the building.
Israeli Druze, members of a 1,000-year-old offshoot of Shiite Islam, number some 145,000 people and live primarily in the country’s north. Circassians are a distinct ethnic group originating in the Caucasus, and now scattered across the Middle East; about 4,000 live in Israel today. Both groups have historically made major contributions to Israeli public life — Druze and Circassian men serve in the Israeli military — but many in the communities say they are discriminated against as non-Jewish minorities.
A key theme in the protesters’ rhetoric was the five-year plan for Arab communities, known as “922,” which is set to elapse this month. The 922 plan allocated NIS 15 billion (some $4.3 billion) to reduce inequalities between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel. It was widely seen at the time as an unprecedented action by the Israeli government to support Arab infrastructure and economic development.
In March this year, the government developed a tentative sketch for a new five-year plan — “923” — to fund infrastructure and development in Arab communities, including the Druze and Circassian.
The outline put forward by the Social Equality Ministry includes plans for strengthening access to local government, improving Hebrew language ability, making credit more accessible to Arab Israelis, and improving health care services in Arab cities and towns, among other goals.
The Association of Druze and Circassian Municipalities claims it is the only population in Israel to lack a budget for 2020, and that the government’s decision in January to implement a one-time earmark of NIS 200 million has only been partially carried out, with around NIS 70 million yet to be transferred.
During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Finance Minister Israel Katz and Regional Cooperation Minister Gilad Erdan to form a new five-year plan in coordination with the Prime Minister’s Office.
Now that a new coalition had been formed, Netanyahu said, the government could move forward with a new five-year plan. He noted that most of the NIS 200 million had already been transferred.
“This is not only our obligation, but a great privilege of ours. I hope that you will conclude discussions with these communities as soon as possible, so that we are able to bring them further accomplishments,” Netanyahu told the cabinet.
As of press time, the Finance Ministry had not yet responded to a request for comment on the rationale for the delay or when the new plan might be completed.
On May 3, Druze and Circassian local leaders announced a “month of rage,” conducting general strikes in northern cities and towns. Schools and businesses were closed and municipality heads led protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Protesters also demanded amendments to the Kaminitz Law, which toughened penalties for building without permits. Arab lawmakers allege that the 2017 legislation was designed to target Arab Israelis. Although the law does not mention any community in particular, Arab Israelis say getting building permits in their communities is nearly impossible, necessitating illegal building.
Association of Druze and Circassian Municipalities President Jaber Hamoud alleged on Army Radio that the law was being used to demolish buildings in Druze villages throughout the coronavirus crisis.
Demonstrators also criticized the 2018 nation-state law, an enormously controversial piece of legislation that enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and declared Hebrew the national language. At the time of its passage, Druze led major protests against the legislation, which was seen as creating a second-class citizenship enshrined in law.