In a decision announced last week by Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri, due to the persistent efforts of local leaders, including members of the Shatil-led Bedouin Treasurers Forum, NIS 20 million (nearly $6 million) in annual regional tax revenues collected from the Ne’ot Hovav industrial zone will be redistributed to 11 local authorities in the area.
These local authorities include the Bedouin towns of Al Qassum, Segev Shalom, A’rara, Hura, Lakia and Neve Midbar, among the authorities in Israel rated lowest in national socio-economic rankings. The Ne’ot Hovav industrial zone, located south of Be’er Sheva, is described by the government as “a principal economic anchor” in the Negev-Naqab region. Ne’ot Hovav is home to chemical and pharmaceutical plants, and generates NIS 50 million (approximately $15 million) in tax revenues annually, that until the recent decision, have been funneled back into Ne’ot Hovav exclusively, rather than contributing to the tax base of local authorities in the broader region.
Of the roughly 245,000 Bedouin living in the Negev-Naqab region, some 60% earn less than minimum wage and roughly 34% are currently unemployed. As a result the tax base is disproportionately low, and so, for these struggling towns, the new income from Ne’ot Hovav will be vital. “There is so much we’ll be able to do with these funds,” said Auda Abu Sreihan, the treasurer of Segev Shalom. The funds will be used to improve municipal services, education, and commercial development.
“We worked on this [for two years], without success,” Abu Sreihan explained. Yet, the when local Bedouin leaders led a campaign to pressure the government officials at the national level, their efforts paid off.
Abu Sreihan gives Shatil a lot of credit for the breakthrough. “It’s the first time an external organization has given us [Bedouin leaders of local authorities] this kind of guidance. Shatil really helped us understand how the system works and empowered us.” With grants from the Kennedy Leigh Charitable Trust and the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), Shatil trained treasurers of Bedouin local authorities to build and implement collaborative strategies for increasing municipal budgets, among them just the sort of redistribution of tax revenues that will happen in Naot Hovav.
“The Forum changed something basic in my thinking,” Abu Sreihan shared. “Originally, I was suspicious of government policies to redistribute regional tax revenues. I thought, ok, where’s the catch? Only once I began to understand the allocation mechanisms from the inside, did I realize the Bedouin could really benefit here. I also understood that working together on this is key — both in terms of information sharing among the treasurers, and in being a stronger force in campaigning for fairer shares. Now we’re also demanding more transparency from the Ministry of Interior on how these funds will be transferred and when.”
The Ne’ot Hovav initiative is part of a range of Shatil-supported activity in this area. The Bedouin Treasurers’ Forum is now mapping other, similar non-residential, revenue-generating sites, in order to advocate for the redistribution of revenues to additional Bedouin local authorities.
Shatil’s Innovation Laboratory for Bedouin Social and Economic Development is also working with municipal leaders to access funds allocated as part of the largest ever socio-economic development plan for Bedouin, known as Government Decision 2397. Inaugurated in 2017, the plan has the potential to reduce yawning socio-economic gaps, address infrastructure deficiencies, strengthen local authorities, and improve public education in Bedouin localities.
According to Abu Sreihan, “When GD2397 was being developed, local Bedouin leaders did not conduct a single collaborative meeting on how this allocation should be structured. At the Shatil Laboratory round table, we sat together for the first time and shared information and ideas, and then initiated a meeting with the Ministry of Interior. We now have regular quarterly meetings set with the Ministry. Our first accomplishment was helping the Ministry understand that the reserves of unspent monies from GR2397 should go toward ongoing municipal expenses and not for new projects. We’re also working together with ministry staff on establishing reasonable parameters for distribution of these reserves to the various towns.”
Abu Sreihan also participated in a Shatil Laboratory round table on improving service provision in the Bedouin local authorities. “It never occurred to us to map which neighborhoods have telephone connectivity, postal service, or how long it takes to get to the nearest ATM machine. Now we have a basis on which to petition for increased government funding.”
Sultan Abu Obaid, director of Shatil Be’er Sheva, adds, “We’re not stopping here. Once the treasurers know more about the revenue-generating facilities in the Negev, they will need to draw up agreements regarding petitions for redistribution. We’re also advocating for greater transparency in the redistribution formulas. Shatil will be there to provide the guidance needed in organizing and advocating for these changes.”
With Shatil’s help, Bedouin leaders of the Negev-Naqab are becoming more knowledgeable, more professionalized and more capable of influencing the policies that will shape the future of their communities. This is good for the Bedouin communities of the Negev-Naqab, and it’s good for the entire region.