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The heads of five Bedouin local authorities in the north of the country yesterday announced their support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party. The endorsement came at a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday evening in the village of Shibli, near Kfar Tavor.

Another seven heads of Arab local authorities attended the meeting and said they are still undecided but are leaning toward supporting Kadima.

The meeting also drew dozens of residents from Shibli and the surrounding area.

The hardcore Kadima support came from members of the Bedouin Forum in the Likud Central Committee, which had numbered 25 before most switched to Kadima. Abdel Salem Shibli, head of the local council for Shibli and Umm al-Ghanem, quit the Likud and said he intends to run for a slot between 20-29 on Ariel Sharon's list.

According to Said Abu-Sayakh, a journalist and Shibli resident, "There is a palpable stampede to Kadima among the Arab public" out of belief that the Gaza pullout indicates a change in Sharon's positions.

"People believe he is now the strong leader, strong enough to make fateful decisions on economic and political matters. There is faith he will change the government's attitude to the Arab public," he said.

Adel Grifat, head of the Beit Zarzir local council, said he decided to move from Likud to Kadima out of the hope the new party will advance the economy and treat the Arab public with greater equality.

Muneir Zebidat, head of the Basmat-Tivon local council, also announced he is transferring his support to Kadima. He previously supported Labor.

Rabhi Amara, head of the Kafr Kana local council, announced he will remain a Labor supporter, but hopes Labor will form a coalition with Kadima.

All of the speakers at the conference presented Olmert the severe economic plight of their localities. The host, Shibli, mentioned that the Mekorot water company is expected to cut off the village's water supply this week. A representative from Kseifa, a Bedouin town in the northern Negev, said his community had its water supply disconnected for three days, so the schools were also closed.

"We're still not citizens like everyone else," the head of the Ka'abiya local council, Yasser Tabash, said. "Whoever helps us and puts a Bedouin candidate in a viable spot will get our support."

Olmert promised to incorporate Arab Israelis into all areas of life as a process leading to normalcy.

"There are two populations today that are distressed: the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. A solution must be provided, or else we will pay an intolerable price for it," he said. Olmert also promised that Kadima will have an Arab MK, "and maybe even more than one."