Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich intends to allocate NIS 670 million ($180 million) to West Bank settlements and allow the Interior Ministry to transfer funds to “unregulated places” — apparently illegal settler outposts — according to a Tuesday report.
Smotrich is advancing the move with Settlements Minister Orit Strock of his far-right Religious Zionism party. The plan will be brought up for a government decision at the coming weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that the outlay will be partly funded by shaving the budgets of some other ministries — including NIS 130 million ($35 million) from the Education Ministry and NIS 200 million ($53.5 million) from the Interior Ministry.
The report said that the timing of the move — two months before nationwide mayoral elections — creates legal difficulties as there are complications with the government transferring funds to specific localities so close to a vote.
Smotrich’s budgetary actions have recently come under criticism after he decided to hold back NIS 200 million ($55 million) budgeted to develop Arab municipalities and freeze NIS 2.5 billion ($670 million) in funds meant for Arabs in East Jerusalem. Facing widespread pushback, Smotrich announced a team will be formed to ensure the money isn’t misused, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the funds will then be transferred.
The Abraham Initiatives, which campaigns for equal social and political rights among Jews and Arabs, responded to the Kan report by accusing the government of trying to make the lives of Arab citizens “intolerable.”
“Instead of transferring budgets to Israeli citizens who live within the borders of the country and desperately need budgets to reduce the gaps, the finance minister sees himself as the finance minister of the settlements only,” the group said.
Arab municipalities have called a general strike for next Monday in protest of Smotrich holding up the funds, and have threatened to not open the coming school year at the beginning of September.
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 Netanyahu.
Under coalition agreements, in addition to being finance minister, Smotrich was also granted broad powers of control and planning in Israel’s West Bank settlements.
While most of the international community considers all Israeli construction in the West Bank to be illegal, Israel differentiates between settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.