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Israel: Arab council staff strike in protest at funding freeze

August 21, 2023 at 2:28 pm

Israel’s Finance Minister and leader of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich attends a meeting at the parliament, Knesset, in Jerusalem [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images]

Staff at Arab-run local councils in Israel went on strike today in protest at the finance minister’s decision to freeze payments of hundreds of millions of shekels for their municipalities, Reuters has reported. The decision has prompted accusations of racism.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious government, suspended payment of at least 200 million shekels ($52.75 million) of Arab municipal funds, saying that these could end up in the hands of what he called “criminal and terrorist elements”.

That the far-right minister was casting Arabs as thieves and criminals was “ridiculous” and “false”, the mayor of the Arab city of Umm Al-Fahm told Israeli Army Radio. “This is survival money, not a luxury,” said Samir Mahameed, who explained that the funds were meant to assist in fighting soaring crime. “This is a struggle for our lives.”

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Despite a pledge by Netanyahu on 9 August to release the funds, Smotrich doubled down on his decision, vowing today not to “keep turning a blind eye when hundreds of millions of everyone’s tax funds were going to criminal groups.” The ultra-nationalist Smotrich’s move drew accusations of racism from Arab and Jewish lawmakers, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, as well as Arab mayors.

Arab citizens, most of whom are descendants of Palestinians who were able to resist the ethnic cleansing that enabled the founding of the occupation state of Israel in 1948, make up about a fifth of Israel’s population. They have for decades faced disparities compared with Jewish citizens, including high poverty rates, overcrowded towns lacking in infrastructure and poorly funded schools, which they say are a result of deliberate government policies.

Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel urged Smotrich to release the funds and voiced support for the municipal strike. Arab leaders protested outside government offices earlier today. Videos circulating on social media showed police pushing some of the demonstrators, including Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh. According to a police spokesperson, officers were fending off protesters who tried to break into the finance ministry.

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