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The cabinet voted yesterday to approve the largest economic development plan for Israeli Arabs in the country's history.

The ministers allocated NIS 800 million for the program, which will take a multifaceted approach to strengthening the Arab economy by building and expanding industrial areas, creating administrative bodies, offering professional and academic instruction, developing tourism, bolstering community security, and improving transportation and day care services.

Announcement of the program, however, coincided with a civil rights group's report that charged the current Knesset with being the most racist and discriminatory since Israel's founding. This year the government passed at least 21 bills discriminating against Arabs, according to the study, conducted by the Coalition Against Racism and the Mossawa Center: the Advocacy Center for Arab Palestinian Citizens of Israel.

The economic program announced yesterday will initially be launched in 12 Arab locales - all relatively large and politically stable - and if successful, will later be expanded to additional communities.

The pilot program will be spread across five years, with an annual outlay of NIS 160 million. Israel's annual budget is NIS 325 billion.

Half of the program's funding will come from the Finance Ministry, and half from other government agencies. None of the money, however, will be drawn from programs already slated for the Arab populace, meaning that the community will essentially receive NIS 800 million in additional funding.

Hadash chairman Mohammed Barakeh denounced the program for not meeting even the minimal needs of Arab communities, and dismissed it as an attempt by Jerusalem to help win membership to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Barakeh said Israeli Arabs have had bitter experiences with long-term development plans, which he claimed were either scrapped before they began or ran out of steam before they were completed.

Other leaders within the Arab community reacted more positively to yesterday's announcement. Adel Abu Al-Hija is mayor of the Lower Galilee town of Tamra, one of the communities included in the pilot program. He said any additional funding to local councils is welcome, but cautioned that the Interior Ministry and other government bodies must not view the plan as a pretext for reducing their own investment in Arab communities.

Damning report

The rights group study found that in 2008, the Knesset passed 11 bills it deemed racist, while in 2009 it passed 12 such measures. So far in 2010, it said, the Knesset has passed no fewer than 21 bills including discriminatory measures against Israel's Arab citizens.

According to the report, released yesterday to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, discriminatory legislation against Arabs rose 75 percent from last year. "There has never been a Knesset as active in proposing discriminatory and racist legislation against the country's Arab citizens," said the report's authors, Lizi Sagi and Nidal Othman.

In many cases, the report found, MKs try to propose legislation that would bypass Israeli law as ruled by the Supreme Court, in order to reach coalition agreements. Bills that would otherwise be recognized as illegal undergo cosmetic changes and are then passed, the report said.

Laws granting benefits to Israelis who serve in the army or do national service are one method of systemic discrimination, the report found. Also cited was a bill, which has already passed a preliminary hearing, making remarks or printed material that "bring contempt upon or discomfort to the country" punishable by up to a year in prison.

Also mentioned was a proposal to have all street names in Israel rendered in Hebrew, a measure restricting land purchases and the so-called Nakba Law, which would ban state funding for events marking Israel's independence as a day of mourning. The last of these was passed in a preliminary Knesset hearing last week and is undergoing minor changes.