Despite Netanyahu’s Promise, Israel Allots Only $7.7m to Rehabilitate South Tel Aviv

The prime minister once pledged hundreds of millions of shekels but balked when rightists criticized his plan for asylum seekers, which he subsequently dropped

Asylum seekers and activists protesting in south Tel Aviv, April 9, 2018.
Moti Milrod

Despite the prime minister’s promise to pour hundreds of millions of shekels into south Tel Aviv, the cabinet this week approved just 28 million shekels ($7.7 million) over three years to rehabilitate the area’s troubled neighborhoods.

These neighborhoods have the highest concentration of asylum seekers in Israel, which many residents believe has exacerbated their problems.

Three months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees under which Western countries would take in about 16,000 asylum seekers, roughly half the total, and Israel would absorb the rest.

At the time, he said this plan would save Israel “hundreds of millions of shekels” that had been earmarked for running the detention facility in Holot and deporting the asylum seekers to third countries in Africa; he  promised that this money would be invested in south Tel Aviv. But one day later, he canceled the agreement under pressure from right-wing activists.

The plan approved by the cabinet this week will define areas with high concentrations of asylum seekers as national priority areas. But because the government has no precise data on how many asylum seekers are living where, it will first set up an interministerial committee to set criteria for which areas the plan will cover and how the budget should be divided among them.

The committee will be headed by the directors general of the housing and interior ministries and will be required to issue its recommendations within a month.

Based on data from the Population and Immigration Authority and the Tel Aviv municipality, as of May 2017 there were some 22,000 asylum seekers in Tel Aviv and about 15,000 illegal migrants. Together, according to the cabinet document, they constitute about 62 percent of south Tel Aviv’s population.

The Eilat municipality says it has 3,000 asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom are in the Yaelim neighborhood, where they constitute 15 percent of the population.

Though the cabinet document stressed that the government has no exact data on the impact of the asylum seekers, it said their main impact is on residents’ feelings of personal security, health and welfare services, and a general decline in residents’ quality of life. The plan will therefore include help for needy families, projects to improve formal and informal education – particularly for preschoolers and elementary school students – and improved health services.

The plan was supported by all the ministers except Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who said he did not yet have an opinion on it. It will also require approval by the Knesset Finance Committee.

Activists in south Tel Aviv lambasted the cabinet’s decision.

“To talk about rehabilitation with a budget like that is nonsense,” said Dror Mizrahi, a resident of south Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood who is running for city council for the Meretz party. “South Tel Aviv’s problems didn’t begin because of the asylum seekers and won’t end after they leave.”

Shlomo Maslawi, a city councilman and resident of south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood who has pushed for deporting the asylum seekers, said that “this proposal will achieve the opposite of what it intends. It will encourage the infiltrators to stay in south Tel Aviv.”

Sheffi Paz, another pro-deportation activist, added: “Rehabilitation will be possible for south Tel Aviv only when the infiltrators and the other illegals leave and the neighborhoods are returned to their legal residents.”

The Tel Aviv municipality said the most important part of the plan is “the government’s recognition, for the first time, of its responsibility for dealing with residents’ distress, which until now the municipality has borne almost alone.”