Arab-Jewish industrial parks: The last chance for economic equality?

Shared industrial parks have the potential to create local and regional growth engines that would allow Arab towns and Israel’s Arab citizens to achieve economic stability and provide a better future for the younger generation. Israel’s leadership must realize that this is not something to be taken for granted.

By Khalil Mari and Ronen Sabag

The annual State Comptroller’s report has once again exposed the severe lack of equality between Arab and Jewish towns in income generated in industrial zones. Although a fifth of the country’s population is Arab, 97.6 percent of all industrial zones in Israel are built in Jewish towns, while only 2.4 percent belong to Arab municipalities. This utter lack of equality dramatically influences Arab towns’ income from municipal taxes (“arnona”); 52 percent of all income generated from arnona taxes comes from the industrial and commercial sectors, yet only 1 percent of the overall arnona is generated from industrial zones in Arab towns.

Mahmoud A’ssi, head of the Kufr Bara local council, has been fighting for years for the establishment of a shared industrial zone with the Drom Hasharon Regional Council. He says that the various authorities have blocked this Arab-Jewish initiative and that without income generated from industrial zones he is unable to provide sufficient services to his residents such as education and employment, especially for women (75 percent of whom are unemployed). A’ssi has an active partner in the head of the Drom Hasharon Regional Council, Motti Daljo, who is fighting alongside him for the establishment of this joint Arab-Jewish industrial park. The two local leaders have long since signed an agreement outlining the shape and details of their partnership, including on the tough issues of dividing revenues between them, as well as zoning matters. In spite of this agreement, the government has done nothing to advance this unique and progressive model of regional Arab-Jewish cooperation. Thus, the two leaders are expecting an uphill battle at the regional planning committee.

Shared industrial parks have the potential to create local and regional growth engines that would allow Arab towns and Israel’s Arab citizens to achieve economic stability and provide a better future for the younger generation. Especially at a time of deep national budget cuts, the central government should do everything in its power to advance the creation of new economic platforms to increase the Arab towns’ self-generated income, help them achieve economic self-sufficiency and secure a more hopeful future for their residents.

In 2004 the government made a decision to encourage the creation or expansion of shared Arab-Jewish industrial parks. But according to the State Comptroller, in the nine years since then, the government has not advanced a clear policy or time frame for its implementation. Furthermore, a contradictory decision made by the same government creates a situation where Arab towns are not eligible for funding earmarked for planning once these towns partner with a Jewish (more affluent) town. Add to this conflicted reality the time it takes to acquire the necessary permits from the various planning authorities and the obstacles Arabs face in Israel’s bureaucracy. The result is progress so slow it is hardly noticeable. Steff Wertheimer built seven industrial parks in Israel housing more than 200 initiatives and with an export value of $1 billion. It took Wertheimer twelve years to acquire the necessary permits to build the industrial park in Nazareth.

Beyond being an economic and social injustice, this reality negates the core principle of equality. We face this distorted reality on a daily basis through our work directing Sikkuy’s “Equality Zones” project, which seeks to build Arab-Jewish municipal cooperation. This US Agency for International Development (USAID) has funded project advances values of civic equality in many fields especially economic development, equal employment opportunity (especially for Arab women) and Jewish-Arab regional cooperation. USAID views economic development of the Arab community as key to social empowerment and the shortest route to civic equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

The most significant reason for the high rates of unemployment among Arab women in Israel is the lack of access to work opportunities in their immediate surroundings. The lack of employment opportunities and decent public transportation in Arab towns are the main obstacles to Arab women joining the work force in Israel. Still, nearly all the industrial parks we are trying to advance are stuck for various reasons. In the present state of affairs the government must jump-start the process; it should map all the shared Arab-Jewish industrial parks that have been agreed upon between the sides, invest money and energy to advance these parks and set a time frame of three years for their implementation on the ground.

Israel’s decision makers must realize that an agreement between Jewish and Arab mayors to establish a shared industrial park is neither trivial nor something that can be taken for granted. Arab and Jewish municipal leaders who, despite the mistrust and suspicion between them, get together and reach an agreement to create a shared industrial park are not an everyday occurrence, to say the least. Put simply, if the state does not throw its weight behind these shared projects, cooperation between Arab and Jewish municipal leaders will be a thing of the past and along with it we will miss the last chance to achieve economic equality and stability for the Arab towns in Israel.

Khalil Mari and Ronen Sebag of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, are co-directors of the “Equality Zones” project advancing Arab-Jewish municipal cooperation on a regional scale in Israel.

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