March 16, 2012
Israel’s alleged efforts to lift its Arab population from poverty and unemployment appear to be nothing more than hollow words in light of recent Knesset debates over this year’s state budget.
On Monday March 5, Israeli ministers, members of the parliament, and representatives from various non-governmental organizations convened at the Knesset to discuss the unequal allocation of funds in the 2012 state budget.
According to a report produced by the Mossawa Center, an advocacy organization for 1948 Palestinians, Israel’s 2012 budget displays strong signs of ethnic discrimination, as it provides hefty subsidies to the Jewish population, while Palestinian citizens are among the poorest and most underemployed in the country.
State neglect of the Palestinian minority is one reason that this community remains on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder in Israel.
Over 50 percent of Arab families are considered poor, and on average, Arab men earn 42 percent less than their Jewish counterparts.
In recent years, there has been an increase in political rhetoric that promises to prioritize the integration of Israel’s Arab community into the larger economy and close the economic gap between minorities and the rest of Israeli society.
In 2007, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office established the Authority for the Economic Development of the Minority Sector with the goal to improve minorities’ economic activity. In 2010, on the eve of Israel’s admittance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israeli politicians ramped up their lip service to close the gap between the Arab and Jewish sectors. Citing the negative impact a low-performing minority sector has on the overall Israeli economy, politicians promised to make economic equality a priority.
Yet nearly two years later, the Palestinian community within the 1948 borders – 20 percent of the national population – is still only allotted 6.25 percent of the 2012 state budget.
"If we look at all government plans and look at them seriously, it is clear that the government is not doing enough to close the gap," Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center said.
Farah points to the ample state subsidies that are available exclusively to Jewish citizens as evidence of the state’s hypocrisy. The state has allocated 7 billion shekels to services, grants, and subsidies that Arabs cannot access. This includes 2 billion shekels to the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community, 2 billion shekels to new (Jewish) immigrants, and 1.76 billion shekels to soldiers who have completed their military service (Arabs are exempt from serving in the Israel Defense Force).
Yet the Authority for the Development of the Minority Sector, insists that the government has made genuine efforts to reduce the economic disparity among ethnic groups in Israel.
It points to the creation of this department in 2007 and a multi-year plan that would see 4 billion shekels invested in the Arab community over the course of four years. But Farah argues there is scant evidence to support such a claim.
"It is not clear in the budgets of the ministries how this plan has been or will be implemented. This is an issue of transparency," Farah says.
In fact, statistical evidence suggests that government assistance could actually have quick results. For example, targeted state measures saw a dramatic 46.2 percent decrease in poverty among the Jewish population, compared to a measly 13.5 percent among the Arab population.
Farah thinks that if the government really wanted to effect a change, it could and would.
In the past, as many as 40 percent of Arab households were not connected to a sewage system. In recent years that number has been reduced to 27 percent.
"This was important to the government because it was polluting the water in Israel," Farah points out.
"If they want something, they will find the money to get it. It’s the same with getting Jewish immigrants from abroad. But when it comes to the Arab community, they don’t care."
What critics and proponents of government plans agree on is that the most serious problem Palestinians with Israeli citizenship face is a lack of jobs available to them. Only 20 percent of Arab women are employed and 27 percent of Arab men are unemployed.
"There is a crises in Arab villages and cities and in the rest of the country: they need better services and jobs," says Farah.
Some apologists of Israel’s policies stop short of attributing the job crises for Palestinians in Israel to racism, and instead diagnoses the reason why Arabs are not hired with ignorance.
Nuri al-Uqbi, from a Bedouin tribe in the Negev, is well acquainted with this "ignorance" – or what others call racism. Al-Uqbi’s tribe is from the unrecognized village al-Araqib in the Negev that has been destroyed nearly 30 times since July 2010.
He remembers when ten members of his tribe were fired from working at the Beersheva hospital to make room for new Jewish immigrants from Russia.
"We have no rights here."
"We were farmers before, but now we don’t have any land to farm," he says.
Agriculture in the Jewish State is controlled by the government. Farmers must be granted permission in order to produce any kind of agricultural product. Ninety-nine percent of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget goes to Jewish farmers, according to Mossawa’s statistics, making it a virtually closed field to the Arab community.
If xenophobia is Arabs’ biggest hurdle facing them in the job market, the government has not done much to ease this barrier. There are more than 30 laws that discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and many more pending approval by the Knesset.
No doubt, this legislative example has contributed to the general racism evident among the Jewish public in the country. In 2010, the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis believed the state had a right to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel, 46 percent preferred not live next to Arabs, and only 51 percent believed Arabs and Jews should have equal rights.
But al-Uqbi does not need to hear the numbers to know he has become unwelcome in his own land. "Of course they don’t want us in Israel – they call it a Jewish State."