A good neighbor program for Jews and Arabs

Shuli Dichter, Sikkuy’s co-director, shows a map of the Wadi Ara area to a group of residents. The organization is attempting to create a shared regional industrial zone in the area.The relationship between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel …

Shuli Dichter, Sikkuy’s co-director, shows a map of the Wadi Ara area to a group of residents. The organization is attempting to create a shared regional industrial zone in the area.The relationship between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel is a complex, difficult, and a historically rocky one. On a national political level, the two communities rarely see eye-to-eye.

But on a local level, Israeli Jews and Arabs are not adversaries: they are neighbors. And neighbors need to communicate and cooperate.

To fill the need for increased cooperation between neighboring Jewish and Arab communities within the state of Israel, the organization Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality has launched a unique pilot project, which that they hope will become a model that will be adopted by the government for countrywide implementation: the Mayor’s Forum for Jewish-Arab Regional Cooperation.

“Operating on a municipal level is an important part of encouraging Arab empowerment – if you don’t create cooperation between neighboring Jewish and Arab municipalities, there is a sense of a tug-of-war happening – what one sector gets something it is taken away from the other,” explains Shuli Dichter, Sikkuy’s co-director. “When you encourage regional projects, it becomes a win-win situation. Sikkuy has initiated this project in order to construct a shared organization structure, a sustainable and ongoing one which will allow Jewish and Arab communities to cooperate.”

Sikkuy (“a chance” in Hebrew) is a non-partisan NGO that develops and implements projects designed to advance equality between Palestinian- Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel in government budgets, resource allocation, hiring policy, land usage and more. Founded in 1991 as a Jewish-Arab advocacy organization, Sikkuy is dedicated to mainstreaming civil society in Israel through the values of civic equality between Arab and Jewish citizens and total civic partnership, promoting the concept of citizenship as the basis for individual empowerment and shared civic identification for all citizens.

The first Jewish-Arab Mayor’s Forum (JAMFI) will be composed of the Jewish and Arab mayors in the northern Triangle area. The four-year project is based on a model used successfully in Northern Ireland, another part of the world where political adversaries also need to interact as neighbors and fellow citizens in a civil society.

The first stage of the pilot project will be launched in the northern section of the Triangle – in the center of the northern part of the country, a region in which 30,000 Jews and 120,000 Arabs live. The triangle is one of the three areas of the countries where Jewish and Arab councils exist side by side: the Galilee, the Triangle, the Negev.

Forums for dialogue between Arabs and Jews in these areas exist but not at the highest levels, and focus on the social-cultural-educational aspects of the relations between Jews and Arabs. These forums don’t answer the acute need for regional Arab-Jewish cooperation on the municipal level where the important issues of land usage, economic development, health, environment are determined.

This new project will establish regional forums for increasing cooperation between neighboring Jewish and Arab local authorities, and tackle issues as they arise. The forum will meet four times a year to direct and steer the work done by professional joint working committees staffed by employees of the local councils.

In this way, resources and effort can be pooled for development that will benefit the entire area’s population: Arabs and Jews alike. Right now, according to Dichter there is no structure in place that encourages mutual beneficial activities between Arab and Jewish municipalities – and the creation of such a structure holds a great deal of potential.

“Currently, most of the life of the citizens in Israel are dependent on the central governments decisions,” says Dichter. “However, more and more we see that increasingly, day-to-day life decisions are dependent on the municipal government. If we go to general security and policy in general, politics is determined by the central government. But peoples’ day-to-day life is very much dependent on general policy and politics. But the local government can make life easier and better for both Jewish and Arab citizens by making decisions and making life arrangements much more cooperative.”

The JAMFI joint working committees will focus their efforts on planning for residential and commercial building, drainage and sewage systems, municipal zoning & boundaries, health and environment, and community policing.

Each working committee will present an annual working plan for dealing with the issues determined by the Forum. The committees will deal with the friction points and other problems between the neighboring councils in their area of expertise. The committee members will be an interface between the committee and their municipalities with the knowledge and background gained in their specific fields.

The first goal of the pilot project is to create a shared regional industrial zone on the edge of Wadi Ara. As Israel is an extremely centralized country, the government, specifically, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, usually determines the major regional industrial zones.

“Only 3.2 percent of regional industrial zones of these were in Arab municipalities. These industrial zones involve more than the issue of a convenient working place for residents. Municipalities make a living off of these zones: the businesses pay taxes, which improves the life of a community,” says Dichter. In this new zone, both Jewish and Arab communities would benefit from the tax income.

The physical infrastructure in the Arab communities also must be addressed in the forum, he stresses. In many regions, right next to modern Jewish communities, there are Arab homes that have to store water on their roofs because there is no 24-hour water supply to the citizen’s home of running tap water. “In the Arab towns, the local infrastructure, the pipes and pumps are old and logistically problematic. The infrastructure wasn’t in place when these homes were built = it was the other way around – water, electricity, drain, sewage were put in afterwards.”

But the biggest reason for the gap in infrastructure is because until 1994, Dichter explains, the legal structure of allocations to municipalities by the central government blatantly discriminated against the Arab sector, creating disparities in the infrastructure of 20-80 percent between them and their Jewish neighbors. It has taken the ensuing decade, he says, in order for the new laws to be enforced and for budgeting to finally become equal.

“This is good news – that 56 years after the establishment of the state, there is finally balance,” he said. However, bitterness and difficulties remain from the socioeconomic gaps that are the result of the decades of imbalance.

“The gap is a source of continuous dispute between the citizens, and the source of friction between the communities. Improving the Arab communities’ infrastructure such as their draining systems, sewage systems and other environmental issues will benefit whole regions; after all, mosquitoes don’t discriminate between Arabs and Jews.”

“It’s not easy, a lot of distrust is there between the two sides, years of animosity and the existing physical disparities that are still there, we should acknowledge the gap and try to overcome it.”

Dichter hopes the success of the forum in its initial region will lay the ground for forums in other areas where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side. According to the plan, in the second year, the project will be expanded to the southern Triangle and will include the Southern Sharon and Emek Hefer Regional Councils and the Arab local councils in the region (Zamar, Taibe, Kalansua, Kafr Bara, Kafr Qassem).

The next step, if success is achieved, will be establishing a countrywide forum for Jewish and Arab mayors.