Last summer the Israeli cabinet allocated 28 million shekels ($7.7 million) to rehabilitate neighborhoods with a high percentage of asylum seeking residents in cities across the country, but eight months later, the money has yet to arrive. Tel Aviv was to receive the largest allocation, and the funds were supposed to be budgeted over three years, with the first 10 million shekels arriving before the end of 2018.
The cabinet decision to allocate the money to rehabilitate the neighborhoods came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended a deal with the United Nations refugee agency to resettle African asylum seekers under pressure from the right wing.
The Construction and Housing Ministry, which is responsible for the plan, is blaming the Prime Minister’s Office for placing obstacles in their way. The PMO denies the accusations and says it is still waiting for the official proposal from the committee established to address the matter.
That committee, established by the Interior and Housing ministries and composed of officials from a number of relevant government ministries, was meant to determine which areas to prioritize based on the number of asylum seekers living there, and set the criteria for allocating the funds. However, it has met only four times and has not yet decided which areas will be prioritized, delaying the funds by at least a year.
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So far, the committee’s work has focused on gathering data on asylum seekers around the country. Here, too, disagreements arose between the committee members and representatives of the PMO, which refused to accept the numbers the cities sent as the basis for making decisions. The representatives requested to use data from government ministries instead, said a source with knowledge of the committee’s decisions; they were also unsatisfied with the data from the Health and Education ministries and the Population and Immigration Authority, asking for data on the neighborhood level and not for the entire city.
The committee later reached an agreement on the funding criteria and the then-new housing minister, Yifat Shasha-Biton, asked for the Knesset Finance Committee to meet and approved the funds. But the finance committee refused to meet on the issue, saying Shasha-Biton had not followed protocol and had not received all the required approvals.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai sent Netanyahu a letter on the issue at the beginning of February. In the letter, which Haaretz obtained, Huldai asked the prime minister to ensure the decision is carried out before the upcoming election.
“Despite our request for setting a comprehensive government policy on the matter and despite the continued cries of our residents, the government you head has not taken responsibility for the difficult situation it has created, while creating an illusion that the foreigners' residency is only temporary,” wrote Huldai. “Promises must be kept and decisions must be carried out, certainly when they are cabinet decisions. Our residents are sick of promises that have been broken and decisions that have not been implemented.”
Former Tel Aviv city council member Suzi Cohen Zemach, who helped prepare the cabinet decision, told Haaretz that it seems the project is stuck because of the upcoming elections, and that she is still waiting for answers. She added that while the money will not solve the problems of the neighborhoods, it will help.
Shula Keshet, a Tel Aviv city council member and the chairwoman of the neighborhood committee for Tel Aviv's Neve Sha’anan, where many asylum seekers live, told Haaretz that the delay was not surprising and they are used to having promises broken in south Tel Aviv.
The Housing Ministry said the committee had been established according to the cabinet’s decision and that after holding a number of intensive meetings, it reached several understandings on setting the criteria for allocating the funds. But, “to our regret, in light of the objections of the representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, the committee could not reach a joint decision,” it stated. The ministry said it is delaying the funds and will hold another meeting to reach a decision to present to the cabinet.
Meanwhile, the PMO laid the blame on the Housing Ministry for the committee not yet making its recommendations, saying the PMO had not delayed the funding in any way and was waiting for the Housing Ministry to bring its plan on the matter back to the cabinet.