JERUSALEM: Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has frozen funds for Arab towns and Palestinian education programmes in East Jerusalem, citing crime and safety fears and prompting accusations of racism.
Smotrich, a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious government, said on Monday some of the budget funds meant for Arab local councils were a political pay-off by the previous cabinet that could end up in the hands of “criminals and terrorists”.
“The priorities of our national government... are different from those of the previous leftist government and we should not apologise for that,” said Smotrich, head of the pro-settler Religious Zionism party whose past comments about the Palestinians have drawn international condemnation.
Israel’s public broadcaster Kan first reported the freeze on Sunday when it published a letter from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel to Smotrich, urging him to release 200 million shekels ($54 million) of the funds at stake that are intended for administration and another 100 million for economic development.
Lawmaker Mansour Abbas who heads the United Arab List accused Smotrich of racism.
The extra funds, designated in 2022 for 67 Arab councils, were the state’s acknowledgement of years of insufficient resource allocation to Arab localities
The freeze could mean that councils are unable to provide basic services such as garbage collection or reopening schools after the summer holiday
A separate 200 million shekels for encouraging academic studies among Palestinians from East Jerusalem would also be frozen until what he described as “extremist Islamic activity” on campus was eradicated.
“Arab citizens are entitled to those funds, which were meant to close the gaps between Arab and Jewish communities,” he told Reuters.
Arab citizens, most of whom are descendants of Palestinians who stayed in the new Israeli state after the 1948 war surrounding its creation, make up about a fifth of Israel’s population.
Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment, while opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid also accused Smotrich of racism, “abusing Arab citizens simply because they are Arab”.
Social and economic disparities
Israel’s Arab minority has for decades faced social and economic disparities compared with Jewish citizens, including high poverty rates, overcrowded towns lacking in infrastructure and poorly-funded schools.
The extra funds, designated in 2022 for 67 Arab councils, were the state’s acknowledgement of years of insufficient resource allocation to Arab localities, said Ameer Bisharat, head of the National Committee of Arab Local Councils in Israel.
The freeze could mean that councils are unable to provide basic services such as garbage collection or reopening schools after the summer holiday, he said.
‘Hatred and racism’
Smotrich said a separate 200 million shekels for encouraging academic studies among Palestinians from East Jerusalem would also be frozen until what he described as “extremist Islamic activity” on campus was eradicated.
In May, the government extended a 2018 2.1 billion shekel five-year plan meant to improve education, employment, health and infrastructure in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move unrecognised internationally.
It includes programmes to help Palestinians - who make up almost 40 per cent of Jerusalem’s population, with almost two thirds below the poverty line - integrate into Israeli academic institutions.
Smotrich said the new East Jerusalem plan would have a total increased budget but that although encouraging academic studies among the city’s Palestinians was a worthy cause, this also had unwelcome consequences.
“In recent years, radical Islamic cells have developed in Israeli universities and colleges, over and over again they express solidarity with Israel’s enemies,” he said on Facebook, responding to Kan’s report.
It was unclear on what data or research Smotrich had based his radicalisation claim, though he cited pro-Palestinian student protests during the 2021 Israel-Gaza war. The academic institutions involved rejected his claim.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, along with three other institutions, expressed shock at Smotrich’s funding decision, which will affect hundreds of Palestinian students, and urged Netanyahu not to let “voices that promote hatred and racism” prevail.
Security chiefs have made clear that Smotrich’s decision will be counterproductive, the university added.
Also on Tuesday, Israeli security forces demolished the West Bank home of a Palestinian man accused of carrying out a deadly shooting attack earlier this year, the military said, the latest incursion to fuel tensions in the occupied territory.
Israel’s decades-old tactic of levelling the family homes of alleged Palestinian assailants has drawn intense criticism from human rights groups, which call it collective punishment — prohibited under international law.
Opponents of the policy also raise questions about its efficacy, arguing that leveling the residences of often uninvolved parents, spouses and children of alleged assailants and leaving them homeless only fuels an unrelenting cycle of hatred and bloodshed.
Israel defends such home demolitions as a deterrent meant to prevent future attacks. Netanyahu’s far-right government, which has taken a hard line against the Palestinians, has vowed to ramp up home demolitions of Palestinian attackers as violence spirals in the West Bank.
The Israeli military said its forces entered the Askar refugee camp in the northern West Bank city of Nablus early Tuesday and demolished the apartment of 49-year-old Abdul Fattah Kharushah, an alleged member of the Hamas militant group who was suspected of shooting and killing two Israeli brothers in the town of Hawara earlier this year.
The highway shooting on February 26 that killed the two men — brothers from the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha — had followed a deadly Israeli military raid in Nablus and unleashed the worst outburst of settler violence in decades. Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage in the town of Hawara after the shooting, burning dozens of Palestinian cars and shops and leaving one man dead.
Kharushah was later killed during an Israeli military raid on the Jenin refugee camp in March.
Young Palestinians burned tires and hurled stones and explosive devices at Israeli forces who stormed into the Askar refugee camp to demolish Kharushah’s home, on the third floor of an apartment building, on Tuesday. The Palestinian Red Crescent reported that two Palestinians were wounded by bullet shrapnel and others wounded by rubber bullets as Israeli soldiers tried to disperse the crowds. The Israeli military said it was also confronted with Palestinian gunfire in the camp.