The residents of Israel’s southern periphery, bordering the Gaza Strip, are among the Israelis who suffered the most from Operation “Protective Edge.” Thousands were forced to leave their homes for weeks, while those who remained were confined to bomb shelters. Properties were damaged, tourism was annihilated, work days were lost, and many small businesses went bankrupt. By the end of the Operation, it was clear that residents of the embattled south — one of Israel’s poorest regions to begin with — were in dire need of the state’s aid.
Yet money designated for the rehabilitation of the south is apparently being diverted to bolster West Bank settlements — again.
Last Tuesday (September 30), at a Knesset debate over budgetary transfers, Israel’s Ministry of Finance requested to transfer an advance of 50 million shekels to “local municipalities” that suffered financial damages from Operation Protective Edge. On its face, an innocuous request. But according to a report (in Hebrew) by the Israeli financial paper “Calcalist,” the Ministry did not initially identify which municipalities it was referring to. Only after members of the opposition demanded the details, threatening to halt debate, did the Ministry disclose the breakdown.
The MK’s were then surprised to discover that the Ministry’s request earmarked disproportionately large amounts to a group of West Bank settlements that had suffered comparatively minimal losses.
The Ministry requested an advance of 413,000 shekels (a little over $110,000) for the Har-Hevron Regional Council, the West Bank municipality relatively unharmed by the hostilities. Meanwhile, it allotted only 278,000 shekels ($75,345) to the southern Regional Council of Hof-Ashkelon, 300,000 shekels ($81,308) to the Regional Council of Sha’ar HaNegev, and 439,000 shekels (a little over $115,000) to the the large municipality of Eshkol. These three municipalities are part of the Gaza Envelope, the southern region surrounding the Gaza Strip, which sustained overwhelming damages during the Operation.
MK’s across the political spectrum were outraged by the Ministry’s initial lack of transparency. MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) said: “We’re being manipulated, they’re not telling us the truth.” MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said: “There’s no choice but to conclude that [the request] includes things that have nothing to do with this operation. In relation to the rocket fire, Hof-Ashkelon suffered incomparably more than Har-Hevron.”
Yossi Adas, a representative of the Finance Ministry, explained that Regional Councils in the Gaza Envelope had already received security grants and benefits during the Operation, “and these were taken unto account when we prepared the advances for the Councils.” Also, these advances may not indicate the full and final sum of the aid each council will receive.
In the end, the Knesset’s Finance Committee approved an advance of 15.2 million shekels ($4.12 million) to 43 local municipalities. The Hebrew website Ynet reported (Hebrew) that the three southern municipalities mentioned above received half or less than the already-modest sum the Ministry had requested for them. The West Bank municipality of of Har-Hevron, on the other hand, got the entire sum the Ministry outlined. In addition, the Finance Committee approved a future transfer of 2 million shekels ($542,153) to “the local council of Hebron,” a religious council presiding over a small neighborhood in Hebron of 300 people.
Several MK’s expressed suspicions that these and other funds were being funneled to the West Bank as part of a political deal between Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and the chairman of Finance Committee, Nissan Slomiansky, from the far-right party HaBayit HaYehudi. A few months ago, Slomiansky reversed his objection to Lapid’s “Zero VAT” legislation, then helped get the bill passed by the Finance Committee. “Zero VAT”, a bill reducing the VAT tax to zero on the purchase of new apartments, is now Lapid’s most trumpeted achievement.
On Tuesday, MK Moshe Gafni announced “grave suspicions that this is bribery.”
“It’s time that you took care of all the people, not just the settlements,” Gafni continued. “All government departments are being cut down, except for the settlements, that keep getting constant budget increases, probably because Nissan Slomiansky closed a deal to pass Lapid’s ‘Zero VAT’ — in return for money for the settlers and the settlements.”
Even without shady deals, Israel’s state budget routinely favors its settlers over its poor. A recent report by the Adva Center, a non-partisan policy analysis institute, showed that in 2012 (the most recent year for which full data was published), West Bank settlers received significantly more government subsidies per capita than the rest of the country. The poorer southern region was lowest on the list of subsidies, receiving on a per capita basis only about half of what went to the settlers.
Furthermore, a recent financial analysis by Calcalist (Hebrew) found that additional millions are being quietly funneled, off the books, to the West Bank settlements. This funding flows through opaque channels, under the guise of “budget surplus transfers.” The Har-Hevron Regional Council, for example, received last year the whopping amount of 14.5 million shekels in such budget transfers — over 14 times more than the original million allocated to it in the state budget. For comparison, the Regional Council of Sha’ar HaNegev received less than 150,000 shekels total.
On September 28, Lapid presented his Ministry’s proposal for the 2015 state budget, which will be voted on in the coming week. “This is a budget with a social message,” he declared, “a budget that pours resources into improving education, health, welfare, personal security, everything that affects the lives of Israeli citizens from the weaker sectors of the population and from the middle class.”