By Ghaida Renawie-Zoabi and Ron Gerlitz
Sixty six years after the foundation of the State of Israel, Arab citizens are still struggling to achieve the longed-for equality. Although the Arab population of Israel is about 1,658,000, representing almost 21% of the country’s population, an overwhelming 53% of Israeli families living under the poverty line are Arab citizens.
The authors are directors of two prominent Israeli NGOs: Ron Gerlitz is Co-Director of Sikkuy: Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, and Ghaida Renawie-Zoabi is Executive Director of Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance.
Ron Gerlitz joined Sikkuy as Co-Executive Director in January 2009. Sikkuy (“a chance or opportunity” in Hebrew) is an NGO in Israel that develops and implements projects to advance equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
Injaz was founded to improve the quality of local governance in the Arab sector. Viewing local authorities as enablers of socio-economic development Injaz seeks to develop the professional capacity of the individuals working for such authorities.
Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi: Coming from a rich background of work in education, is an organisation development and community activism, with special attention to women’s rights, Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi is the founding Executive Director of Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, a post she has held since 2008.
What do they do?
Through political advocacy, working with local government and grassroots activism Sikkuy influences decisions regarding government budgets, resource allocation, hiring policy and land usage.
One of the most striking expressions of the lack of equality in the Israeli society is the situation of Arab Local Authorities. Not only is their population poor, requiring a higher level of welfare and other social services, but the municipalities themselves suffer from a significant lack of resources, when compared to their Jewish counterparts.
Arab towns in Israel, constituting 73 of a total of 256 local authorities, serve ninety percent of Arab Israeli citizens. The total income per capita of the Arab municipalities amounts to only 60% of that of Jewish municipalities.
Recently, the non-profit organisations we direct, Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, and Sikkuy: Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, presented the findings of a study we did together – analyzing the sources of disparities in local municipalities revenue resources available to Arab and Jewish towns in Israel.
The report, From Deficits and Dependence to Balanced Budgets and Independence, shows that the major cause of disparity is the lack of a local tax base for Arab municipalities which means – they have a very small stock of tax revenue-generating properties in every category — residential, industrial, commercial, tourism, banking, infrastructure facilities, etc. This situation stems from decades of systemic discrimination in government allocation of lands and tax incentives – such that Jewish regional councils and development towns were allocated significant state lands for industrial areas, which were then classified as priority development zones.
These policies provided incentives for commerce and industry to locate to Jewish municipalities, as opposed to neighboring Arab towns; leaving Arab towns bereft of a tax base, and contributing to severe under-employment of Arab citizens.
Now, when national government contributions to local government budgets are decreasing, local sources of income are increasingly vital in order to allow decent, if not equal, levels of public service.
The report refutes the widely-held stereotype that low tax collection rates by Arab municipalities are the major cause of budget disparities.
While low collection rates do exacerbate the problem, improving these will make a relatively minor contribution toward parity. Indeed, maintaining that Arab municipal leaders are the ones primarily responsible for the budget inequalities of their towns constitutes not only a mistaken policy analysis; it represents a nasty case of blaming the victim.
Instead, researchers, Michal Belikoff and Safa Aghbaria, cite a number of public policies that must be pursued – primarily by national government, but also by Arab local authorities – in order to shift the situation toward greater civic equality.
Indeed, the data show that the economic problems of Arab municipalities in Israel can only be addressed by beginning to rectify decades of structural discrimination – through intensive Israeli government involvement and investment in the development of the Arab localities and a fair distribution of state resources and properties.
For the good of all citizens of Israel, we urge a change of attitude and action: from blaming the victim to investing in equality.