Smotrich meets head of Arab mayors committee over frozen development funds

Finance minister reiterates he will not release the NIS 200 million he froze without tighter oversight, spars with Mudar Younes over his claims the money will reach crime groups

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Thursday met with the chairman of the Arab Authorities Committee, who he sparred with over his decision to hold up NIS 200 million ($53 million) in development funds for Arab municipalities.

After meeting with Mudar Younes, who is the mayor of Wadi Ar’ara, Smotrich reiterated that he will not release the frozen funds until oversight mechanisms are put in place to ensure the money is not extorted by criminal organizations, as he has alleged.

“The motor of protection [rackets] and criminal groups is money that comes from the state budget, and this is what I am fighting,” said Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party. “The situation today in villages and the Arab municipalities is unfathomable and I am not willing to put up with it.”

He also defended his decision to freeze the funds until they come under stricter monitoring, a move that has been criticized by some fellow ministers and drawn accusations of racism from opposition lawmakers.

“The decision to oversee the transfer of the funds so they reach Arab Israeli citizens and not criminal groups is a just, moral and right demand that today cannot be disputed,” Smotrich added.

Responding to that statement, Younes called for the immediate release of the funds and for the government to address the crime spike.

“We will not agree to the government and police giving up responsibility for dealing with crime. We demand the budgets without discrimination in oversight,” the mayor said.

National Committee of Arab Municipalities chairman Mudar Younes. (Courtesy)

Younes also commented on Smotrich’s claims that the earmarked funds would be funneled into the hands of organized crime groups, saying the minister was “not really aware of the problem and does not know the facts and data.” He also argued there was a double standard, with funds not cut to predominantly Jewish municipalities in which there were cases of corruption.

“The response to the efforts of criminal elements to take over the local authorities needs to come from the police — enforcement and punishment. It cannot be that the victims of the takeover attempts by criminal elements are punished and not the true criminals,” he added.

Younes’ talks with Smotrich came a day after he also reportedly clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting of a ministerial panel established to address rampant violent crime in Arab towns, which has continued to shatter records set over the past few years.

Since the beginning of the year, 159 members of the Arab community have been killed by violence, much of it attributed by police to warring crime organizations. The figure is over twice as high as for the same period in 2022.

Recent killings included a shocking quadruple homicide Tuesday evening in the northern town of Abu Snan, which came a day after the killing of Tira’s municipal director. One of the victims Tuesday, Ghazi Sa’ab, was running for mayor in the upcoming municipal elections and had announced the launch of his campaign only hours prior to his death.

Mourners attend the funeral of 66-year-old Salman Halbi in Yarka, northern Israel, August 23, 2023. Salman Halbi was one of the four victims of a brutal shooting in Abu Snan the previous night. (Flash90)

Sa’ab and his relatives Zohair al-Din Sa’ab and Amir Sa’ab, who were also killed in the shooting, were buried Thursday in Abu Snan. The fourth victim, Salman Halabi, was buried Wednesday in the nearby town of Yarka.

Meanwhile, police announced the arrest of two suspects in connection to the Abu Snan shooting in the northern town of Dir Al Assad, after earlier apprehending a suspect at Ben Gurion Airport as he was trying to leave the country.

The suspect was not identified beyond being a resident of northern Israel, as there is a court gag order on most details of the investigation. He was set to be brought before a court for a closed-door remand hearing.

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