Under Finance Minister Smotrich, the Israeli state’s war on its Palestinian ‘citizens’ has reached new heights

Miko Peled

Mondoweiss  /  August 23, 2023

Palestinians living within the Israeli state have always been second class citizens, and under the current right-wing government, hundreds of millions of shekels in public funding are being cut from these communities.

In early August of 2023 Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced a freeze on tens of millions of dollars that were slated to go to Palestinian localities. Already in dire straits financially because of racist policies that go back to the founding of the State of Israel, the Palestinian cities within 1948 Palestine are now being denied what little money they were promised. 

These funds were promised to the Palestinian municipalities in order to alleviate some of their enormous difficulties. As expected, Smotrich’s move brought about protests by leaders of the Palestinian community of 1948, and as also expected, these protests were met by violence by the Israeli police. In a tweet posted on August 21, 2023, Israeli Knesset member Ayman Odeh is photographed at the protest in front of the Finance Ministry as an Israeli policewoman punched him in the throat.

The official reason behind Smotrich’s move is that he does not want the money to fall into the hands of “Islamic terrorists.” This money was promised by the previous “Leftist” government, he said, and the current government has other priorities. He also alluded to the very high level of crime in the ‘48 Palestinian communities as a good reason to deny the local authorities funding. The cash could fall into the hands of organized crime groups or be used to support terrorism, he argued.

Since the State was established, the Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced huge economic disparities compared to Jewish Israelis. Poverty rates are higher among Palestinian citizens than Jewish Israeli citizens, and the poorest of the poor among Israeli citizens are Palestinians. Palestinian cities and Palestinian neighborhoods within mixed cities like Lyd, Ramleh, and others, suffer from overcrowding, a severe lack of infrastructure, housing shortages, and lack of funding for schools. 

As the severe shortage in funding creates enormous problems within these communities, funding for Jewish Israeli communities is robust. Fida Shehada is a city council member and a central figure in the Palestinian struggle against systemic racism in the city of Lyd, occupied in 1948. In an interview she gave me at her home in Lyd she talked about the problems the city’s Palestinian population faces and the reasons she chose to study urban planning. 

“I remember seeing seven homes being demolished in one second,” she said, and she wanted to understand why. Having graduated with a degree in urban planning she returned to Lyd and ran for city council. “There are three thousand home demolition orders in Lyd alone, more than forty thousand in 1948 Palestine.” Then she added, “That does not include the Naqab or Jerusalem.”  

“How many of the demolition orders are for Jewish Israeli homes?” I asked her. 

“None,” she replied. 

She realized that the state of Israel does urban planning for Jews only. What about the mixed cities? What about Palestinian cities and communities? No planning is done, no development is planned. 

As I was writing this I asked her about the freeze in funding. “These 200 million shekels,” she wrote to me, “come from taxes Palestinians paid and were promised to the municipalities so that they have the funding to open the schools in time for the 2023-2024 school year.”

The impact of the freeze also means that the cities will be unable to provide garbage collection and, as Shehada said, is likely to delay the opening of schools. 

Smotrich also decided to freeze 200 million shekels that were supposed to assist Palestinian students in East Jerusalem who qualify for academic studies, mostly at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Smotrich said that these funds will remain  frozen until “extremist Islamic activity” on campus was eradicated.

It can come as no surprise that almost at the same time as money is denied for Palestinians, Smotrich and Settlements Minister Orit Strock propose to allocate $180 million to “support” Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This includes funding for health, education, and youth services. The idea is to “Judaize” the West Bank in its entirety while bringing about the collapse of the Palestinian communities of 1948. 

The Israeli government certainly burns the midnight oil in its efficiency. Anti-Palestinian legislation is being introduced in the Knesset and passed at an impressive speed. A video showed up on my Instagram feed several days ago, showing Dr. Ahamd Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset standing behind the podium, and shouting into the microphone. He was addressing the chamber calling on other members of the Knesset to, in his words, “stop this Neo-Nazi legislation!”

I could not find any reference to what he was talking about, so I messaged him to ask what legislation he was talking about. “The Planning and Construction Bill,” he replied. 

I still couldn’t find it, so he sent me a copy of the bill. This is a proposed amendment to an existing bill that was already passed in a preliminary vote, stipulating that the penalty for engaging in construction without a permit will include — besides the demolition of the home —  disconnecting the “perpetrator’s” water supply, electric supply, and phone service. The amendment will also allow the state to demand that the fine exacted from the perpetrator for the expenses of demolishing the illegal construction be paid immediately.

It is widely known that Palestinians who want to build a home or remodel an existing home even slightly will not receive permits, and by proceeding with the construction, they risk having their entire home demolished. As Fida Shehada said, this draconian practice of demolishing homes does not apply to the homes of Jewish Israelis — only to Palestinians. 

It just so happens that I know many Israelis who build or remodel a home without permits. If an inspector happens to see it, they will receive a report of some sort and are likely to have to pay a fine. They inevitably go to court, meaning the process will drag on for years. Jewish Israelis never have their homes demolished.

As Israelis continue to fight the Netanyahu “judicial reform,” and protest against the erosion of their privilege within the apartheid regime, you never hear them demand that any of the policies and practices mentioned here stop. This is because these protesters, too, believe in the purity of a “Jewish democracy.”

Miko Peled is an Israeli writer and activist living in Washington, DC; he was born in Jerusalem to a prominent Zionist Israeli family, and in 2012 he published his first book, The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine