Urban Plan Seen as Racist Move in Arab Sector

Last month, against the background of the government's plan to consolidate Rameh with two neighboring villages - Sajur and Ein al-Assad - Uri Borovksy, the prime minister's adviser on Arab affairs paid a visit. From his conversations in the well-kept village at the foot of Mount Meiron, he formed "an optimistic impression."

Yair Ettinger

A series of violent brawls between Druze and Christian youths over the past two months resulted in loss of life and the arson of homes and automobiles, but the various ethnic communities in the Galilee village of Rameh have once again established good neighborly relations - more or less.

The situation had been long unbearable but in February, when an anti-tank missile was fired through the wall of a church in the village - and several nuns were miraculously saved - representatives of the village's Christian, Druze and Muslim communities were persuaded to make efforts toward reconciliation.

Last month, against the background of the government's plan to consolidate Rameh with two neighboring villages - Sajur and Ein al-Assad - Uri Borovksy, the prime minister's adviser on Arab affairs paid a visit. From his conversations in the well-kept village at the foot of Mount Meiron, he formed "an optimistic impression."

"I discovered that there are only a few more little items that need to be bridged, and then we will be on easy street," declared Borovsky.

Still the Christians of Rameh (53 percent of the 7,600 residents) will lose automatic control of the town council when the two neighboring villages are added to Rameh's jurisdiction, and they warn "easy street" will be splattered with blood.

"Unification of these three towns is a recipe for disaster," say their representatives. "There is an arsenal in the village that would be sufficient for an attack on Iraq; unification will only add to the sensitivities, and will flare up the still-burning embers. The government's idiocy and indifference are nothing short of evil."

Even representatives of the Druze minority (30 percent) of Rameh, who will become a majority in the newly consolidated authority (57 percent of the 12,600 residents), voted against consolidation when the village council voted on it. Ein al-Assad and Sajur also opposed the move, as did 200 other settlements, both Jewish and Arab, who are candidates for consolidation under the Interior Ministry's cost-cutting plan.

All of these villages, towns and cities fear that the move could lead to serious social problems, a decline in the standard of living and the level of education, a loss of identity and of the historic character of their settlements.

The Interior Ministry plan to consolidate local councils is the subject of abundant interest in the Arab sector, and is the object of most of the criticism directed at the treasury's economic plan. The dismal scenarios referred to in Rameh are nothing compared to the shrill tones voiced at the national level. The plan is being called a lot of things: "A declaration of war on the Arab sector," "theft of land," "obliteration of historic identity," "a danger to the physical existence of the Arabs in Israel" - these are but a few of the commonly expressed statements that pepper conversations with public figures and experts, and articles and columns in the Arab press.

The consolidation of local authorities, says an editorial in the weekly Kul al-Arab, is in line with the government's efforts to expropriate and "swallow up Arab lands." "We do not believe," reads the article, "that Israel should be igniting the conflict with over a million Palestinian Arabs."

"Will our grandfathers forgive us if we abandon our villages," asks the joint action committee for Daliat al-Carmel and Usifiya, two Druze villages that are candidates for merger, in an article that appeared in the newspaper Panorama. "Do you want to convert us from a traditional community to a civil community? Did the government make a study to examine the effectiveness and success of this plan?"

Thousands of lost jobs

According to the Interior Ministry plan, 192 councils and municipalities, in all population sectors, are candidates to be consolidated into 70 unified authorities, whose consolidation will be anchored in the law. The 77 currently existing Arab authorities (including Druze, Bedouin and Circassians) comprise 65 local councils, 10 municipalities and two regional councils; they will be reduced by one-half, to 38. This number includes 15 Arab councils and municipalities that will not be affected by the plan, such as Umm al-Fahm.

Tova Ellinson, the Interior Ministry's spokeswoman states that when the plan was being drawn up, "There was a great deal of vacillation about many of the places, in a variety of aspects. As for the Arab sector, we are aware of the various sensitivities and try to take them into consideration, but when you think about it logically, why should every 1000, 2000 or 3000 residents need a separate authority? Everyone agrees the current situation is unreasonable, and that there is an immense waste of public funds."

But no heads of local authorities are volunteering to give up their jobs.

As soon as the plan was presented, the Union of Local Authorities (ULA) declared that it would fight the plan, and the Arab authorities, which constitute 30 percent of its membership, joined it in what was then described as a "Jewish-Arab struggle."

But the ULA was accused of racism two weeks ago by Shawqi Khatib, the chairman of the Higher Monitoring Committee of Israeli Arabs, who also chairs the Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities. He says the ULA has abandoned the fight against the plan, which mainly harms Arab local authorities.

Dr. Hanna Swaid, head of the Ilabun town council says, the plan is perceived in the Arab sector as exploitation of political weakness. "Every Arab village and town is suspicious of the possibility that at some point in the future, if there is interest in dismantling the consolidated local authority, it will require a change of the law, which is not viable if you lack political power in the Knesset," he said.

Spokesmen like Swaid, who also heads the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, tirelessly repeat their objections to the plan - in articles, emergency caucuses, meetings of the Higher Monitoring Committee and in the Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities, and will do so once again at a special session to be held next week in the Knesset.

They offer a long series of arguments: the plan disregards geographic distances between small settlements, ignores the unique social structure and ethnic and economic gaps; the plan will cause serious social damage as a result of a process of urbanization that will be forced on the villages; cutbacks in the "balance and development" budgets (to equalize the level of services in Jewish and Arab settlements), which are part of the government's economic program, will widen the gap between Arabs and Jews, bleed dry the Arab authorities that are already saddled with huge debt, and essentially eliminate the "4 Billion" development plan for the Arab sector; the local authorities - which Swaid says are "the biggest employer in every Arab town and village" - will also be forced to fire thousands of employees, who will join the ranks of the unemployed in the Arab public.

Interior Ministry officials says that the heads of failing local authorities, Jewish and Arab alike, have to recognize their own shortcomings and should welcome the opportunity now being given to their residents to receive a higher level of services, with bonuses given to local authorities that will be upgraded in status.

In Arab towns and villages, the status of the local authority remains powerful even when the garbage is not collected on schedule and even when the workers can barely remember when they last saw a salary stub. In a population sector whose first representative body was the "Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities" - a forum that still constitutes the core of the Monitoring Committee - the local authority, says Swaid, is "much more than a mere service supplier," and enjoys a status that exceeds that of the Arab Members of Knesset.

Swaid: "The Arab public holds the local authority in high regard, because of the lack of weight that the Arabs wield on the national playing field. Most of the elite, the academics and the journalists, maintain an involvement in the local authorities. The authority enjoys a symbolic political status, and if you have any intention of harming it, the thinking is that you in fact want to harm the Arab population. At that point, it turns into a sort of national threat. That's how it is perceived."

The parties will profit

The fierce opposition also greatly reflects what experts and journalists are convinced the plan conceals. Dr. Ghassem Khamaisy of the Department of Geography at Haifa University says, "There is a concern that by merging the local authorities you are wiping away Arab settlements that are older than the Jewish settlements. Some of the settlements that are to be consolidated do not have a continuity of built-up area, and there are concerns that the territory might be reduced. There are concerns that someone will come and say, `We are going to consolidate you in a certain direction, and cut off your land from the other direction.'"

"The long history shows that things like this have happened," says Khamaisy. "I don't think it is a genuine worry in all cases, but in some of the arrangements, it might be, for instance, that regional councils will be granted land that is part of the master plan of Arab settlements. Part of the philosophy behind the local authority is Judaization of the area. On top of that is the matter of the names to be given to the consolidated authorities. At present, there is not a single Arab on the Names Committee, which raises concerns of a possible loss of the historic identity of settlements."

Ellinson says the Interior Ministry has no concrete plans to expand or reduce the amount of land under the jurisdiction of the consolidated local authorities. "Right now, it is not on the table. It's a problem, but I assume that some of the localities will eventually have to adjust their boundaries. There are going to be so many problems in the settlements that are being consolidated, and we will have to solve them."

Last month, amid concerns by the Christian minority in Israel that the consolidation plan will exacerbate the erosion of its strength, heads of the Christian local authorities came to Jerusalem for a panicked meeting with the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Avigdor Yitzhaki and adviser Borovsky. The heads of authorities - seven Israeli villages currently have a Christian majority, and some, like Rameh and Ilabun, will lose this majority after consolidation - vehemently requested that the plan not hurt Christian settlements or those that already suffer from fragile intercommunal relations. Following the meeting, Borovsky chose to offer this noncommital response: "We most certainly must sit and talk with the people. The idea of consolidating local authorities is correct, but we most certainly have to hear the reactions to the plan, and it may be that we will be persuaded."

From a small office in the center of Rameh, the walls of which are hidden behind pictures of the Pope and the Greek Catholic bishop of northern Israel, novice priest Jeris Mansour is coordinating the effort to foil the consolidation plan. Mansour, who runs a construction engineering firm from the same office, phones his Druze neighbors and implores them to tell the visiting reporters about their objections to consolidation.

One, Yussef Farhoud, is a teacher who is a member of the local Druze leadership. He concurs with Mansour that consolidation would create social problems. "However, if we belong to the Druze sector, there will be a lot of benefits. As citizens, all of us will benefit by being part of a Druze local authority, even the Christians and Muslims, who would also enjoys the benefits that go with being in a Class-A development region."

Heading out to a funeral procession for one of the members of the village's Druze community, Mansour says: "There is general agreement here against the consolidation. We have internal problems that we have only recently overcome, but everything is on a low flame; why involve an outside population in all of this?" He proposes that the prime minister consolidate Rameh with its neighbor, Karmiel. "Why not offer a good example to the whole world, and prove that Jews and Christians and Druze and Muslims can live together?"