ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Scuffles as Arab mayors, MKs protest outside Netanyahu’s office against budget cuts

Community leaders organize a strike and demonstration that ends with minor brawl with police; one mayor detained

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

MK Ayman Odeh is pushed by police during a protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's decision to freeze funds earmarked for Arab municipalities, outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Ayman Odeh is pushed by police during a protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's decision to freeze funds earmarked for Arab municipalities, outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Representatives of Arab local authorities staged a protest in Jerusalem on Monday morning against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s refusal to transfer hundreds of millions in budgeted funding to Arab municipalities.

Smotrich has taken flak — including from other cabinet ministers — for refusing to release NIS 200 million ($55 million) for economic development in Arab towns and villages, drawing accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers. The National Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities, which organized the protest, estimated the withheld sum to be higher, at NIS 320 million ($84 million).

Earlier Monday, a “warning strike” was held across Arab towns from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. to demand the release of the funds. The Israeli Federation of Local Authorities said it would join the strike on Monday, with local government offices shuttered throughout the country in solidarity with their Arab counterparts.

The march took place outside the Prime Minister’s Office and the adjacent Finance Ministry, and included a few hundred leaders of Arab local authorities as well as Arab MKs and social activists. There was a similar protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office last week.

Local Arab leaders have also threatened not to open schools at the beginning of September.

The estimated 400 protesters on Monday were also decrying a rampant epidemic of violent crime in their communities, which has claimed the lives of 150 people since the start of 2023, more than double last year’s rate.

Some participants chanted, calling Smotrich a “racist settler.”

At one point, clashes broke out between protesters and security forces after a security barrier was broken, with footage showing lawmaker Ayman Odeh, head of Hadash, being pushed by a policewoman. Fouad Awad, head of the Mazra’a Regional Council in northern Israel, was detained by police.

Arab mayors and MKs (including Hadash members Ayman Odeh, second from right, and Aida Touma-Suleiman, fourth from right), protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem against cuts to Arab municipalities, August 21, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

The frozen 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.

The leader of the Balad party and former MK Sami Abu Shehadeh told The Times of Israel that the cuts have had an immediate impact on the functioning of local Arab governments and the lives of Arab citizens. “Arab municipalities expected to receive the allocations approved under the previous government, and they have already spent the money, as they are supposed to. Now they are millions of shekels in debt,” he said.

“Out of the blue, Arab mayors had to make cuts. They axed formal and informal education programs, sports, culture, and other activities that provide a framework for our youth,” Abu Shehadeh added, highlighting one connection between the budget cuts and the rampant crime rates in Israeli Arab society.

“It is pretty sad that we had to come to this, that we need to protest for our rights. But this is the current government, and this is who we have to work with. We have already agreed on a school strike for early September. Today’s strike and protest are a warning to the government to take us seriously.”

In response to Smotrich’s accusations that the earmarked funds would be funneled into the hands of organized crime groups, the former MK noted that misappropriated funds in Jewish towns in the past – such as Netanya –  did not lead to budget cuts, and said the decision is motivated solely by racism.

Arab local leaders have said they agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to put in place monitoring mechanisms to supervise how the money is spent. A spokesperson for Smotrich told The Times of Israel that “the goal is for the money to be spent for its purpose.”

Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher of Arab Society in Israel for the Israel Democracy Institute, said that budget cuts for Arab municipalities, the judicial overhaul, and the settlement expansion are all “tentacles” of an “octopus plan” promoted by some cabinet members with an aim of reinforcing Jewish supremacy.

“Parts of the current executive want to do away with whatever had been achieved under the previous government in favor of Arab society, in an effort to ‘judaize’ and ‘de-Arabize’ the country,” Khalaily told The Times of Israel.

“In order to push ahead such decisions, the government needs a weak, politicized judicial system that will not stand in its way. Hence the judicial overhaul,” he further claimed.

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