Palestinian councils in Israel strike in protest at funding freeze
Local Palestinian councils in Israel held a strike on Monday in protest at the extreme-right finance minister's freeze on hundreds of millions of shekels to their municipalities, a decision that has prompted accusations of racism.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government, suspended at least 200 million shekels ($52.75 million) of Palestinian municipal funds, saying that these could end up in the hands of what he called "criminal and terrorist elements".
That the finance minister was casting Arabs as thieves and criminals was "ridiculous" and "false", the mayor of the Palestinian city of Umm al-Fahm, Samir Mahameed, told Israeli Army Radio.
"This is survival money, not a luxury," said Mahameed, explaining that the funds were meant to assist in fighting soaring crime. "This is a struggle for our lives."
Despite a pledge by Netanyahu on August 9 to release the funds, Smotrich doubled down on his decision, vowing not to "keep turning a blind eye when hundreds of millions of everyone's tax funds were going to criminal groups", in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Monday.
Smotrich's move drew accusations of racism from Palestinian and Jewish lawmakers, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, as well as Palestinian mayors.
The extreme-right politician has a history of racism, including internationally condemned comments calling for the Palestinian town of Hawara to be "erased" and claiming Palestinians don't exist as a distinct ethnocultural group.
Palestinian citizens of Israel make up about 20% of the population.
They have for decades faced disparities compared with Jewish citizens, including high poverty rates, overcrowded towns lacking in infrastructure and poorly funded schools, which they say are a result of deliberate government policies.
Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel urged Smotrich to release the funds and voiced support for the municipal strike.
Palestinian municipal leaders protested outside government offices on Monday. Videos circulating on social media showed police pushing some of the demonstrators, including Palestinian lawmaker Ayman Odeh.
Protesters chanted "Violent police!" after officers restrained the hands of a woman who lay prone on the ground, her forehead bloodied.
Police said officers were warding off protesters who tried to break into the finance ministry.
(Reuters and The New Arab Staff)