Druze Townships Blame Government Discrimination for Financial Collapse

Blatant discrimination against Druze townships is to blame for their near state of financial collapse, said Hurfeish Mayor Rakad Khir a-Din. He cited a series of agreements between Druze mayors and Israeli governments over the last two decades that, he said, have been implemented at best partially, and often not at all.

When Khir a-Din was elected some 18 months ago, Hurfeish was near collapse. It had not paid its workers for more than 16 months. "Today, I'm paying salaries, but I don't know what will be next month," he said. "We're on the verge of a real catastrophe."

Government officials often blame Druze villages' problems on failed management, reflected in unnecessary appointments and very low tax collection rates. Khir a-Din disagreed: "It is simply blatant discrimination by successive Israeli governments, especially the most recent one."

Last Thursday, Druze and Circassian mayors met and planned to do battle against the government, starting with a large demonstration in two weeks opposite the Prime Minister's Office. "We've had it up to here, and anyone who thinks we will act like good children is making a big mistake," said Khir a-Din.

Such battles have become annual rituals, each ending in a new agreement that is then ignored. Last year's, for instance, called for closing the gaps between Druze and Jewish towns. But Khir a-Din cited a cabinet decision from 1987 that also called for parity between Druze and Jewish towns.

"To this day, nothing has happened," he said.

Hurfeish, he said, has some 6,000 residents, most of whom do army service, and is defined as a frontline community due to its proximity to Lebanon. Yet its budget is only NIS 27 million. Shlomi, a nearby Jewish town of similar size, has a budget of NIS 44 million.

"How do you explain such a gap?" he demanded - and replied: "Shlomi has a large industrial zone that puts millions into the town's coffers. Hurfeish has no industrial zone."

If the government does not want to create a new industrial zone, he proposed, it could "at least give us a cut of existing industrial zones, such as the Tefen Industrial Park, which was built entirely on Druze lands ... I'd be willing to take a cut of Ramat Hovav [in the Negev]. What matters is that I get income."

He rejected the suggestion that salvation lies in recovery programs and improved tax collection, arguing that "100 percent collection in Hurfeish means NIS 3.5 million. That's all. On that, we can't exist."

Following last summer's war in Lebanon, the Druze were hopeful: Most Druze towns were included in a cabinet decision to give the North extra funding, and should thus have received an extra NIS 447 million. However, Druze mayors said, most of this money was either never transferred or offset by cuts in their regular state funding.

Khir a-Din said he and many Druze mayors joined the ruling Kadima due to its promises of fairer treatment. "But so far, we have been given only neglect and unfulfilled promises," and many Druze are now switching to Likud, he said.

The Prime Minister's Office rejected the charge of unfulfilled promises. It said it has transferred NIS 49 million to Druze and Circassian towns this year, or 96 percent of its commitment, and that most other ministries have also transferred their shares.

The Interior Ministry said state funding for all towns is based on fixed and equal criteria; the income gap between Hurfeish and Shlomi stems from Shlomi's higher local tax revenues.