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Smotrich agrees to transfer frozen Arab funds with oversight following criticism and protests

Despite apparent concession, agreement requires oversight mechanisms and police involvement

Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a press conference at the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, Aug. 9, 2023. (Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich met with Arab leaders, Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to discuss the release of funds earmarked for Arab municipalities that he had frozen in recent weeks.

Following the meeting, Smotrich announced that the funds would be transferred to the Arab municipalities from the Ministry of Interior, under a system of oversight.

The Israel Police and Shin Bet - Israel's internal security agency (ISA) – also agreed to cooperate with authorities to monitor the use of the funds.

In addition, the Finance Ministry will budget tens of millions of shekels for technology to improve policing and enforcement in the Arab sector.

The Arab mayors agreed to the funds transfer with supervision and control mechanisms meant to ensure the money will benefit Arab-Israeli citizens and not criminal organizations.

According to the Finance Ministry, the mechanisms will be formulated over the next two weeks, at which time it will transfer the money to the Interior Ministry for distribution to the Arab communities.

The announcement stated that “a package of laws will be promoted that will grant powers for criminal and economic enforcement against the criminal organizations in Arab society.”

The Finance Ministry also asked for an agreement from the Interior Ministry not to disperse the funds until the supervision and control mechanisms are in place.

Smotrich was recently blasted by opponents for his refusal to transfer the funds, which were approved by the previous government.

A group of protestors gathered outside his home last week, demanding that he release the funds.

Some opposition members called Smotrich a racist for freezing the funds.

The finance minister, however, argued that he wanted to ensure the money would not be paid to criminal organizations as part of protection rackets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu previously defended Smotrich’s call to monitor the use of the funds but promised to reach an agreement to release the capital.

On Sunday, Israeli Arab media personality Rami Abu Siyam defended the government’s call to freeze the funds until oversight was in place.

“The money not only disappears but evaporates for us,” Siyam said on Israel's 103FM Radio.

“Next time I intend to vote for Likud because the Arab parties, with great sorrow I say, have not contributed anything to us,” Siyam continued.

“I come from a very political home, and what saddens me to this day is that Arab Knesset members manage to play with the feelings of the young public, but if we do an examination, they haven't promoted anything but themselves.”

Criminal organizations within the Arab sector have grown in size and influence over the last few years, with many demanding protection payments from local municipal leaders.

During the meeting, the Israeli leaders also discussed threats against candidates in the upcoming municipal elections.

One of the four Druze men running for municipal office was assassinated last week and there have been several reports of threats against municipal candidates and incumbents.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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