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

Arab-Palestinian Local Governance in Israel at a Glance:

Challenges and Opportunities


Dr. Yousef T. Jabareen

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 a homeland minority within a State whose declared identity they do not share and, while they hold Israeli citizenship, they hold a distinct national identity.

Arab-Palestinian citizens compromise about 18% of the country's population.  They 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 70 towns and villages which are entirely Arab while the remainder resides in several mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

Despite more than six and a half decades of living in Israel, Arab-Palestinian citizens continue to confront systematic discrimination in the allocation of State resources.  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 from recent years demonstrates that that vast majority of Arab local authorities rank in the four lowest clusters while not one has been placed in the highest four (out of ten).  

Generally speaking, three primary factors are responsible for this:

Poor Government Funding Allocations: Despite comprising nearly one fifth of the country’s citizens, distribution of government budgets to Arab-Palestinian localities are usually around 5%-10% of 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.  Additional reasons include low business and industrial activity (largely as a result of shortage of public land).  However, inefficient tax collection, and the flawed and ineffective management of many authorities are also factors.  

Insufficient Land Allocations: Despite population growth, current land mass held by the community is approximately half of that which was under Arab-Palestinian ownership in the aftermath of the war in 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.  The government has made only negligible amounts of government owned land available for residential construction in Arab towns despite the fact that the government controls more than 90% of the land in Israel.  While over 1,000 Jewish settlements have been established since 1948, not a single new Arab town has been established by the government (other than the towns in the Negev that were set up to house Arab Bedouin who were removed from their traditional lands).  

This has created severe housing shortages.  When Arab citizens, facing problems identifying suitable housing in Arab areas move into “Jewish” towns, they are often challenged by local Jewish politicians and religious leaders who advocate that Jewish residents refrain from renting or selling to Arabs.

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 what the government considers to be 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; they are under-represented in the relevant decision-making bodies  

The negative impacts are numerous:

  • As noted, scarcity of land hinders potential income generation from business 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:  According to a report issued by the Israeli National Insurance Institute in 2010, over half of the Arab population lives under the poverty line (in comparison with 15% of Jews).  Among children, the problem is even more acute; about two third of all Arab children are poor (as compared to one fourth of Jewish children).
  • Welfare-Dependent Cases:  The statistics for cases handled by the welfare departments of the Arab authorities are very high and continually growing.  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, only one-fifth of Arab women work outside of the house, in comparison with almost half 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 by government officials 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.  Solutions could include the establishment of new localities in Arab areas and the enlargement of existing municipal boundaries in Arab towns in accordance with their social, cultural and economic needs.

Budgetary 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.

Indeed, in one of the most comprehensive studies investigating the economy of the Arab community ever undertaken, Prof. Eran Yashiv (Head of the Public Policy Department at Tel Aviv University) and Dr. Nitza Katsir from the Bank of Israel recommended that the state undertake massive investment in the Arab community.  They called for an investment of 8 billion NIS between the years 2013-2018 with five billion dedicated exclusively to rehabilitating the Arab education system.  The researchers also expressed their belief that investment – particularly in education – would accelerate growth nationally, in part through increased tax revenues.

Women and Youth:  Every effort must be made to integrate Arab women into the job market and to help them overcome social and institutional barriers to employment (such as a lack of government subsidized childcare in Arab localities).  Special attention should also be paid to the social, economic and educational needs of Arab youth who compromise almost half of the Arab population.

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.  These steps are crucial to stimulating economic growth.

The Role of Civil Society: Dirasat as an Example

In response to these challenges, a number of institutions including NGOs, local government and others within the community have begun to design and deliver programs, and training projects intended 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, in 2009 we embarked on an applied research project aimed at supporting the functioning of Arab local authorities in Israel.  The initiative, which was supported by round-table discussions, seminars and conferences, has resulted in a newly published book in Hebrew entitled ‘Palestinian Local Government in Israel: Political, Social and Legal Aspects.’  Edited by Dr. Yousef T. Jabareen and Dr. Mohanad Mustafa, the book is the fruit of several years of labor by a group of leading Arab-Palestinian researchers, academics and professionals.  As a team, they investigated – in depth – various obstacles to efficient and effective functioning of Arab local authorities in Israel.  The researchers represented various research and professional backgrounds; this greatly enriched research outcomes while also ensuring that the book provides a comprehensive perspective on the reality and challenges facing Arab local government.  This groundbreaking work is the most comprehensive applied research initiative to date focusing on Arab local authorities and led by an Arab group.  

The book - and the media attention it has generated - contributes to turning the situation around.  The research presents an overview and analysis of common dilemmas facing Arab local authorities and the Arab Palestinian community in general.  Following from this, the papers aim to strengthen the functioning of these bodies and their position vis a vis Israel’s central government while also transforming local governance into a central and effective avenue for the realization of social rights for Arab Palestinian citizens.  The aim of the research is to provide local government and other stakeholders with practical tools for advancing socio-economic and political transformation within the Arab Palestinian community.  The insights and analysis in the book are supported by detailed and realistic recommended courses of action vis a vis the national government and in relation to interactions with local stakeholders.  It is hoped that the findings will increase the professionalism and proper administration of Arab localities in Israel on the local and national levels.

The policy papers examine issues such as tax collection, the role of local leadership, factors which contribute to success and more.  For example a study focusing on tax collection in Arab municipalities found that it rose by 70% in 2008 as compared with 2005.  The increase was most likely related to the fact that many local authorities were no longer able to provide basic services such as garbage collection and water supply.  The study also found that small and relatively homogeneous villages with high ‘social capital’ (mutual concern among residents) contributed to higher collection rates.  This research and other similar studies have important implications for understanding pathways to success and are 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 more effective leaders and a better future for Arab-Palestinians in Israel.

Dirasat supplemented this research with a subsequent initiative aimed at improving the management of education on the local level.  With the support of the EU, Dirasat worked with 10 different education departments of local authorities.  In addition to engaging in applied research, participants benefitted from high quality training and networking, site visits, conferences and more.  The project not only contributed to the competence and professionalism of key professionals within local authorities, it also greatly increased transparency and public engagement of education in Arab communities.  Dirasat is facilitating the establishment of local education boards aimed at maintaining these impacts while increasing public involvement in Arab local government.

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 financial crisis.  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, stakeholders in local government and citizens 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.  Yes, we can.