This could have turned into a great opportunity for the State of Israel to correct an enormous injustice, reorganize distribution that had excluded an entire population and set just, moral, wise standards for a better future for everyone. All signs indicate that the opportunity is about to be missed, and not for the first time, with disastrous results.
Three investigative committees that dealt this year with border changes and revenue distribution in the south are supposed to submit their conclusions soon. Why were there three committees instead of only one? Maybe it was because in light of the dramatic socioeconomic changes that are going to be taking place in the Negev over the next few years, interested parties, power and wealth in the south applied more pressure to the government, and particularly to the Interior Ministry and Finance Ministry.
While they want to keep their elevated status, they know that the previous method of distribution, which kept all the money and influence in their hands and systematically left out all the others, will not stand up in the High Court of Justice.
The historic agreement that Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, signed last week with the mayor of Yeruham, Michael Biton, is clear evidence of this. The agreement states that the area of Training Base City, which is yet to be built, will be transferred from the jurisdiction of Ramat Hanegev to that of Yeruham. The agreement rectifies an injustice that went on for years, during which the regional councils received, for the deepest political and social reasons, the municipal taxes that the government paid for army bases, government ministries, prisons, installations of the Israel Electric Corporation and the Mekorot water company and industrial and commercial zones.
All these things were built on land annexed from the regional councils, while the development towns were left to stagnate. Now Yeruham will receive — and justly so — 3.9 million shekels ($1.1 million) in municipal taxes, together with some of the additional future revenues from joint projects of both local authorities. This is an important precedent at a time when the government is abandoning the local authorities and making them responsible for providing citizens with all services. The main victims of that policy are the weaker local authorities, particularly on the periphery.
But this worthy agreement points up even more strongly the exclusion of Bedouin local authorities, which lack a modern economic infrastructure, and even though the residents of those communities are the main ones harmed by the health and environmental hazards of the government installations on their doorsteps — such as Ramat Hovav — they look enviously at how the revenues coming from them go to other people; in other words, only to Jews.
All the Arab local authorities in Israel receive a total of 0.2 percent of municipal taxes, totaling 1.1 billion shekels per year that the state pays them. The Bedouin local authorities in the south receive a pittance of that miserable little bit, and are supposed to provide education, welfare, health and all the other services from their empty coffers despite the ongoing neglect and complete lack of access to resources and employment.
The Bedouin fear the committees’ conclusions, and with good reason. Not a single Arab expert sat on the panels until an advanced stage, and the stance of experts from civilian organizations, including that of the Headquarters for Economic and Community Development of the Negev Bedouin, was hardly heard. In such a state of affairs, the forcefulness of the politicians, who openly declare their intention of “Judaizing” the Negev, and of the strong councils that fear a reduction in their wealth, could prevail over the real experts and the honest people.
Whatever the recommendations may be, the interior minister has had excellent recommendations for just distribution (from the Alter Committee) that have been sitting in his office for years. If he follows them, he will set a welcome change in motion. If not, the yawning gap between the Bedouin and the state will grow deeper still, and lead to a national disaster.