State to Invest NIS 700m in Developing Arab Towns

In proposals to go before the cabinet on Sunday, state moves to address housing shortage for minorities.

The state intends to allocate NIS 700 million for accelerating economic growth in 10 Arab, Druze and Circassian communities who comprise 30% of Israel's total population of minorities. The final touches are being put on the proposal, which is slated to be submitted to the cabinet for approval on Sunday.

The list of the communities to be included in the program has not been finalized. The idea is to make a concentrated, coordinated effort in those towns to remove the main barriers to their economic development. The plan will simultaneously address employment, transportation, housing and possibly even security issues. But other areas related to economic development, such as education and welfare services, have been left out.

The Finance Ministry and the Minority Affairs Ministry in the Prime Minister's Office are responsible for the plan, to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given his blessing. Also involved is Iman Saif, the director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors in the Prime Minister's Office.

The most dramatic changes envisioned by the proposal are in housing. For the first time the state is to address the serious housing shortage in Arab communities and take action to end it. To do this the state will have to take the place of the local authorities and advance zoning, planning and construction plans. The lack of detailed plans of this type in most Arab, Druze and Circassian municipalities effectively blocks legally authorized building in many of these communities.

The new plans mark a radical change for the Arab sector, and will stress higher density construction instead of the traditional building, due to a lack of land. The state will provide terms for the new housing similar to that given by the Israel Lands Administration in the periphery: for example, subsidizing half the development costs. Another problem to be dealt with is a lack of land for public buildings.

Employment will be the second major focus of the plan. The budget wil include funding for public daycare facilities, which are almost nonexistent in these Arab towns. As a result, only 18% of Arab women work today. Public transportation wil also be expanded within the towns, and not just along major intercity routes. This will allow people to better reach the new centers of employment, which will include new industrial areas alongside the cities. The project will also encourage entrepreneurship and the opening of new businesses. It will also include funds for job retraining and advanced professional courses.

The project looks to be the largest economic development plan for the Arab sector in Israeli history. The treasury and the Prime Minister's Office both view it as being of historic importance, after coming to the realization in recent years that the levels of poverty in the Arab sector have been holding back the economic development of the entire country; and closing the economic gaps between the Arab population and the rest of Israel is an opportunity for a major economic jump forward for all Israelis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has placed an emphasis on the development of the Arab sector as part of Israel's application to join the organization. In its report on Israel in preparation for Israel's entry into the organization the OECD cited the gaps within Israeli society as the largest problem facing Israel, and the biggest barrier to Israel's acceptance into the OECD.