- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli Arabs are trying to strike down a new law reducing family benefits, arguing that it has deliberately been drafted in a way that will affect Arabs more harshly than Jews.

The challenge is being brought by a coalition of Arab members of the Israeli Knesset, mayors of Israeli Arab cities, Arab human rights groups and a left-wing Israeli political party.

They will ask the Supreme Court tomorrow to declare the new law illegal on grounds that it breaches anti-discrimination provisions in the Israeli constitution.

Until now, under a program designed to boost the birthrate, all families have received payments from the government on a scale that ranges from $34 for each of their first two children to $172 for the sixth and each subsequent child.

Benefits for all families will be cut under the new law, one of a series of belt-tightening measures being undertaken because of an economic downturn prompted by the 21-month-old Palestinian uprising.

But the cuts will be far deeper 36 percent compared with 16 percent for parents who have not served in the army or security services.

In a country where Arabs are exempt from the military service required of all Israeli Jews, the Arabs believe the provision was designed deliberately to reduce their benefits disproportionately.

The law will also hurt ultrareligious Jews, who traditionally have large families but whose sons are exempted from military service if they attend yeshiva seminaries.

But the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, part of the governing coalition, wants to amend the law so that families could claim the larger benefit for their children if even an uncle or grandfather had served in the military.

Israeli Jews, who fear eventually being swamped by the Israeli Arabs with their higher birthrates, make up 80 percent of the population, compared with 20 percent who are Arab.

The government, rocked by the criticism and the legal action, has said it will not implement the legislation until the court has ruled. Its own legal adviser, Elyakim Rubenstein, has said he is not confident the measure can be defended.

Israel's most senior Arab Knesset member, former Deputy Foreign Minister Nawaf Masalha of the Labor Party, walked out of the governing coalition in protest of the new measure.

"This is discrimination," Mr. Masalha said. "Some of my other Labor colleagues even call it racism."

Official figures show that implementing the law will drive 20,000 Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli families below the poverty line. Already Arabs make up half of the 600,000 citizens in poverty, according to Mr. Masalha.

"I am now confident the court will rule in our favor and make the cuts equal for Arabs and Jews," the former minister said. He said the Labor Party's leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Eliezer, would help reverse the law.

The original legislation providing for child allowances for large families was designed to encourage Israelis to have more babies in a country that was seen as underpopulated and fighting for its existence as a Jewish state.

To the chagrin of many Zionists, the greatest beneficiaries of the law have turned out not to be the secular Zionists but Arabs and strictly Orthodox Jews.

The court challenge has highlighted other areas of discrimination against Israeli Arabs.

Although they are entitled to equal benefits and to trade-union protection, there have been widespread complaints that various ministries deliberately spend more money per capita in Israeli areas than they do in Arab cities, towns and villages.

"In the ministries of education, health, transportation, infrastructure and industry, for example, we get less than 10 percent of the money, even though we are 20 percent of the population," Mr. Masalha said.

"The only time we had been closing the gaps was under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when I was deputy health minister."

The stagnant economy, exacerbated by increased defense spending and long work layoffs by reserve soldiers called to deal with the uprising, has meant that unemployment for Israeli Arabs has risen more sharply than for Israeli Jews. It stands at around 15 percent to 20 percent, twice as high as for Jews.

Government figures released two weeks ago showed for the first time that Arab villages, towns and cities made up the first 23 spots in a list of places with the highest unemployment.

The unemployment has been exacerbated by the uprising, which has left Israeli Jews reluctant to visit shops and restaurants in Arab villages and cities.

Mr. Masalha, while acknowledging Jewish fears of violence, says this is "collective punishment" for a small minority who launched violent attacks or burned cars as the uprising in the West Bank and Gaza began.

In one series of clashes, Israeli police killed 13 Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Arabs are widely suspected of giving suicide bombers transport and inside information on which targets to attack for the most deadly effect.

"The last 20 months have been a disaster," he said. "I believe in living together, coexistence and integration. I have been very frustrated.

"I believe that before the uprising in September 2000 the relations between Arabs and Jews were developing well and in the right direction, even if we suffered some disadvantages. Now it is a catastrophe."

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