The massive military training base that is rapidly taking shape south of Be’er Sheva could mark a real turning point for the Negev, and not only because of the relatively high-earning and well-educated career army families it will bring to this region of southern Israel. The base will be making generous contributions to local governments, in the form of arnona (municipal taxes), that have the potential to make an equal impact on the quality of life in the Negev.
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It’s therefore no wonder that a battle royal is raging over the distribution of the municipal tax pie. The main combatants are the well-established Ramat Hanegev Regional Council and Yeruham, a so-called development town that was once one of Israel’s poorest. But no one seems to have noticed that the new base’s nearest neighbor is actually the shamefully poor Neveh Midbar Regional Council, whose residents are Bedouin.
The state owns significant amounts of land in the Negev, on which it pays hefty arnona to local governments. It’s an open secret that nearly all these funds go to the area’s dominant regional councils, Tamar and Ramat Hanegev. Less well-known is the fact that not a penny goes to the Bedouin councils, even though in most cases they are the nearest to the state lands and in any event they are the poorest in the Negev and the most in need of the money.
The 200,000 or so Bedouin in the central Negev are Israel’s poorest. All of the area’s Bedouin communities are near the bottom of the state’s socioeconomic ranking; most Jewish communities are in better shape.
According to a report compiled a year ago by the Knesset’s Research and Information Center on the Neveh Midbar Regional Council, some of the district’s schools and kindergartens have no electricity, there is no central sewage system or regular garbage collection and there is only one paved road in each community — the rest are dirt.
And these are officially recognized communities. Many Negev Bedouin live in small encampments that are not recognized by the state. They lack infrastructure for water, sewage, communications and electricity. In short, parts of the central Negev are Third-World.
Over the past several years, the state has allocated 1.2 billion shekels ($347 million) to an economic development plan administered by the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin. One of the goals of the project is to improve conditions in the recognized communities in order to persuade Bedouin in the unrecognized communities to move to the official ones.
But if the effort is to succeed, the recognized Bedouin communities need independent, sustainable sources of revenue, not handouts. To that end the headquarters, an agency within the Prime Minister’s Office, is battling on behalf of these communities for a share of the municipal tax bonanza.
The battle is being waged on three fronts: three Interior Ministry committees tasked with divvying up arnona revenues in the region. One deals with the distribution of future revenues from massive government facilities that currently do not pay arnona, chiefly the Nevatim air force. The other two must take on the sensitive job of redistributing payments currently going to Ramat Hanegev and Tamar.
Those two regional councils have vast territories and few residents. They take in tens of millions of shekels a year in arnona from businesses: For Ramat Hanegev, these sums exceed 10,000 shekels per resident annually; for Tamar region, it’s 60,000 shekels. The region’s 200,000 Bedouin get none of this money. According to the headquarters, in these communities arnona from businesses amounts to 100 to 150 shekels a year per resident, compared to 700 to 1,200 shekels for even relatively poor ones Jewish communities in the region, such as Dimona and Yeruham. For the regional councils the range is from 4,500 to 60,000 shekels.
It’s tempting to blame the Bedouin communities for their low arnona revenues, to say they’re poorly run and thus incapable of attracting employers. That’s the usual argument of the Ramat Negev and Tamar regional councils, which attribute their own success to their business development efforts and investments. They say the Bedouin communities want to deprive them of some of the fruits of those efforts.
But the fact is that despite the proximity to Bedouin communities, the state does not pay taxes on its many assets in the area to these towns. That suggests that perhaps the Bedouin are not altogether at fault for their plight. In addition, the Bedouin communities have almost no land that is suitable for business development.
The headquarters for Negev Bedouin development confirms this, meaning that even if Bedouin communities were better run, they would have little potential to increase their tax revenues from businesses.
One could argue that the low arnona collection rate of these communities points to poor administration, a common argument advanced by Jews who claim that Arab Israelis in general and Bedouin in particular are responsible for their own situation.
These are the numbers from the headquarters. Like other Arab local governments in Israel, Bedouin communities are undergoing a sea change with respect to arnona collection. In Kseifa, collection rates rose from 11% in 2008 to 56% in 2012. In Arara, they went from 32% to 70% during the same period. Then there’s Hura, whose 78% tax collection rate is the average rate for Jewish communities.
The headquarters for Negev Bedouin development doesn’t evade the subject. It proposed that only Bedouin communities where at least 50% of the assessed arnona is collected qualify for a piece of the municipal tax revenue currently going to Ramat Negev, Tamar and Nevatim. It even suggested that this minimum be raised gradually, as an incentive to increasing collection rates. If the agency’s recommendations are accepted, between four and six Bedouin communities in the central Negev would qualify for a share of the tax revenues.
Two previous panels recommended sharing arnona revenues with Bedouin communities, without results. Officials from the headquarters say they cannot judge whether they’ll be successful this time.
Former cabinet minister Benny Begin has spoken of the government’s responsibility for helping the Bedouin, especially the younger generation, to acquire “the tools needed to address the challenges of the future.” Is the State of Israel ready for this challenge?