Arab-Palestinian Local Governance in Israel at a Glance: Challenges and Opportunities

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Nazareth. Photo: Nicole Harrari


June 12, 2011

Introduction:  Arab-Palestinian Local Governance and National Policy

In the aftermath of the 1948 war, a significant number of Arab-Palestinians found themselves within the borders of the newly established State of Israel.  They are an indigenous minority within a State whose identity they do not share and, while they hold Israeli citizenship, they have a distinct national identity. 

Arab-Palestinians have consistently resided in three main geographical areas within Israel: the Galilee and Triangle regions in the north of the country and the Naqab in the south.  Approximately 90% of the community lives in over 50 towns and villages which are entirely Arab while the remainder resides in several mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

Despite more than six decades of living in Israel, systematic discrimination in the allocation of State resources continues to confront Arab-Palestinian citizens.    

Since the founding of the State, Arab communities have suffered from severe socio-economic distress.  Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics consistently places Arab-Palestinian local authorities in its lowest socio-economic rankings: Data for 2004 (the latest info on this specific issue) demonstrates that approximately 45% of Arab local councils rank in the two lowest clusters (out of ten) and 97% are found in the four lowest clusters. 

Generally speaking, three primary factors are responsible for this:

Poor Government Funding Allocations: Despite comprising nearly 20% of the country’s citizens, distribution of government monies to Arab-Palestinian localities are usually around 5%-10% of the total funding - or even lower - depending on the nature of the funding. 

Low Self-Funded Income:  The second factor which contributes to financial distress is low self-funded income.  Poor tax collection, a significant problem, is primarily due to pervasive poverty among Arab residents.  However, low civic awareness regarding the importance of paying taxes, and lack of trust in local leaders are also factors. Additional reasons include low business and industrial activity (in part due to a shortage of land), inefficient tax collection, and flawed and ineffective management of many authorities.  

Insufficient Land Allocations: Despite population growth, current land mass held by the community is half of that which was under Arab-Palestinian ownership in the aftermath of 1948.  This decrease is mainly due to widespread land confiscations by the central government.  Currently, virtually no land is allocated for industrial, commercial and tourism uses in Arab areas.  In fact, the area of jurisdiction of Arab local authorities totals no more than 2.5% of the entire area of the State.  While over 1,000 Jewish settlements have been established since 1948, the Arab sector has remained at an almost total standstill. 

In addition, problems with planning further exacerbate an already problematic and sensitive situation:

  • Arab authorities which submit building plans and zoning proposals face unreasonable delays in getting them approved.  The lack of approved plans on regional and municipal levels impedes the issuing of legal building permits.  In many cases, even private land owners are not permitted to build on their own property.  This, combined with a severe housing shortage, only encourages illegal building.  The State then uses this as a pretext for issuing demolition orders.
  • Arab-Palestinians and their interests are not appropriately represented in statutory planning bodies on the national and regional levels.  

The negative impacts are numerous:

  • As noted, scarcity of land hinders potential income generation from businesses and industry.  Consequently, an important source of local tax revenue is lost.
  • Arab localities are plagued by persistent and acute housing shortages resulting in unauthorized building and creating unnecessary social tensions.
  • Service provision is poor and quality of life is reduced due to lack of space for public buildings, institutions and open spaces.  Employment opportunities close to home are few and far between.  Due to lack of space for industrial and commercial development, businesses either open in residential areas or people are forced to commute out of the community to reach jobs.  Arab towns and villages are thus drained of workers, entrepreneurs and their human and financial capital.  This further weakens the economic base of such cities.
  • Over 45 Arab-Bedouin communities in the Negev are not recognized by the government - with all that this implies in terms of an acute lack of essential infrastructure, basic services and more.  

The poor situation of local authorities reflects the population they serve:

  • Poverty: The Israeli National Insurance Institute's report "Poverty and Inequality in Income Distribution in Israel: 2006-2007" demonstrates that the poverty rate (after transfer payments and direct taxes) among Arab families is 3.6 times that of Jewish families. The extent of poverty among Arab-Palestinian children is especially distressing - about 62% of all Arab children are poor as compared to 31% for the country as a whole.  
  • Welfare-Dependent Cases:The statistics for cases handled by the welfare departments of the Arab authorities are very high and growing constantly.  This is primarily due to the multiplicity of social problems and the prevailing socio-economic situation.
  • Crime and Violence: The ratio of convictions per 100 people for Arabs (16.9%) is much higher in comparison to Jews (7.7%)
  •  Women’s Employment: Arab women, for cultural and religious reasons, require special attention in terms of welfare, employment and education.  Today, 24.7% of Arab employees are women, in comparison with 47% of Jewish employees.

In this context, and in terms of relations with the national government, Arab community representatives have generated some general suggestions intended to advance the status of the community.  These include:   

Land Allocations: Today, land in Israel is perceived as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Arab’, to the detriment of the latter as the State only allocates land for Jews.  Viewing land as a natural resource to which all citizens are equally entitled may be a starting point for policy change. One policy improvement could be to establish new localities in Arab areas and enlarge existing municipal boundaries in Arab towns in accordance with their social, cultural and economic needs.  
Budget Allocations:  These should not only be divided proportionately according to population but affirmative action should be applied to ensure that decades of discrimination and neglect are adequately addressed. 
Women: Every effort must be made to integrate Arab women into the job market and to help them overcome social barriers to employment (such as a lack of government subsidized childcare in Arab localities).
Encouraging Business Development:  Incentives must be offered for the development of local businesses, business zones must be established and government-funded grants must be allocated to entrepreneurs. 

Recent Economic Crises

Recently, many local Arab authorities have found themselves facing large monetary deficits, liquidity problems and poor standards of payment to employees and service providers.  This is not surprising in light of the economic distress faced by this community and given the absence of constructive national policy.  

By law, when a local authority has an ongoing deficit of at least 10% or an accrued deficit of 15%, or where there are suspicions of irregularities and illegal behavior, the Ministry of Interior has the authority to take over the financial management of such councils.  This gives the Ministry virtually unlimited power in decision-making.  Currently, appointed officials oversee 51 out of 71 Arab local authorities.  Some 90% of Arab-Palestinians in Israel reside in these 71 localities. 

Recovery plans were designed to pull local councils out of chronic financial distress; they have three major components which municipalities must meet as a condition for receiving governmental funding and other types of support: decrease expenses; decrease the number of employees; and increase income from municipal taxes.  However, the majority, if not all, of Arab local councils that enlisted in the recovery plans failed to meet these conditions.  This is due to both internal and external factors such as the inability of citizens to afford to pay municipal taxes and a basic disregard displayed by the Ministry for the unique socio-economic characteristics of Arab localities in the formulation of their regulations.  Thus, success on the national level has been very limited.

As a result of such plans, the independence of such authorities has been curtailed significantly.  This lack of independence has serious and very troubling implications for Arab self-steering in Israel.  In virtually every aspect of Arab-Palestinian life in Israel, they are presented with barriers to decision-making and autonomy.  Nevertheless, the local level is one of the few places where, theoretically, the Arab community is able to self-govern, develop local leadership and manage their internal affairs.  However, under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior, even this small measure of autonomy is being seriously eroded. 

The Role of Civil Society: Dirasat as an Example

In response to these challenges, a number of institutions including NGOs, local governance councils and others within the community have begun to design and deliver programs, such as training projects, to increase the leadership capacities and professionalism of staff employed by Arab local councils.  

Dealing with this issue has become a central focus of Dirasat’s work.  With the support of the Heinrich Boell Siftung, we have launched a comprehensive initiative to promote improvement in the management of Arab-Palestinian local governance.

Together with the National Committee of Arab Local Councils (NCALC), a voluntary umbrella group representing the heads of Arab local authorities in Israel, we are currently in the process of completing several research papers focusing on various challenges facing local Arab government heads.  The policy papers are examining issues such as tax collection, the role of local leadership, factors which contribute to success and more.  Dirasat will develop recommendations on the character and content of training and enrichment programs intended to enhance the capacities of Arab local councils.  Our applied-research will ensure that training programs developed by us are responsive to the actual and unique needs of Arab local councils (as opposed to government training programs designed for Jewish local councils) and will highlight positive examples from within the Arab community.  We hope and believe that this initiative will have an empowering impact on Arab local councils and will equip them with the knowledge and tools needed to further improve their performance and move past their current crisis.  We also hope our findings and outputs will be adopted on the national level.

As part of this initiative, Dirasat initiated a groundbreaking study on tax collection in Arab municipalities.  Our study found that tax collection rose by 70% in 2008 as compared with 2005.  It seems that this increase took place because local authorities were no longer able to provide basic services such as garbage collection and water supply.  Our study also found that small and relatively homogeneous villages with high ‘social capital’ (mutual concern among residents) led to higher collection rates. 

This pilot research has important implications for understanding pathways to success.  For example, by increasing social cohesion, local professionals can increase tax collection to better help residents of their cities and towns.  Studies like this will be vital for the development of appropriate training and enrichment programs, and for helping local decision-makers in reaching better informed decisions.  With knowledge such as this, local leaders can tailor their solutions to the community, thus creating better leadership and a better future for Arab-Palestinians in Israel. 

In Conclusion

Discrimination against the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel and the community’s relatively low socio-economic status is, generally speaking, a well-known and documented fact.  What is perhaps lesser known is how this plays out on the local level and how this impacts the functioning of local governing institutions.  Such institutions are currently challenged in addressing the many and varied needs facing their constituents, along with a crisis in management.  Nevertheless, the current situation offers a window of opportunity for Arab-Palestinian citizens to regain control of their lives and have a direct impact on their future.  Arab NGOs have seized this opportunity to work on behalf of their own communities to ensure that constituents’ needs are appropriately addressed.  Not only will this bring relief on an individual level, Arab-Palestinians will take a giant leap towards empowerment of our leaders and improving management of our own affairs – thus bringing about a better life for future generations.    


Dr. Yousef T. Jabareen is a human rights scholar, lawyer, and community activist. He is the founding director of Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, based in Nazareth, and he co-founded and co-directs the Arab Minority Rights Clinic at the University of Haifa.
An Arab-Palestinian citizen in Israel, Dr. Jabareen has been an ardent advocate for the equal rights and substantive citizenship of the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel for more than 20 years.