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Israeli finance minister freezes funds for Palestinian citizens of Israel

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also holds up educational grants for Palestinians
Israel's Finance Minister and leader of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich attends a meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on 20 March 2023 (AFP)

Israel has frozen funds for Palestinian towns and Palestinian education programmes in East Jerusalem, far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Monday, leading to charges of racism by opponents.

"The priorities of our national government... are different from those of the previous leftist government and we should not apologise for that," Smotrich said, saying the funds would have eventually gone to "criminals and terrorists”.

Smotrich, who also took administrative control of large sections of the occupied West Bank from Israel’s military, in a move experts say amounts to "de jure annexation”, is refusing to release about  $85.5m in funds previously earmarked for Palestinian municipalities.

He is also holding up about $53m slated for education preparatory programmes for young Palestinians, claiming that “Islamic radical cells” had taken root in Israeli colleges and universities.

Smotrich is one of the most far-right ministers in Israel's government. The leader of the Religious Zionism political alliance previously said that "there were no such thing as Palestinian people".

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He also said that the Palestinian town of Huwwara, in the occupied West Bank, should be "wiped out", following the killing of two Israeli settlers in February.

Palestinian citizens of Israel under threat

Palestinian citizens of Israel are estimated to make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population. They were granted citizenship in 1948, when the state of Israel was proclaimed, but they have long faced discrimination, racism, and economic disenfranchisement. Palestinians refer to the creation of Israel as the Nakba or catastrophe, which refers to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias to make way for the creation of Israel

Newly-unearthed Israeli historical records reveal officials' relentless efforts to forcibly empty Palestinian lands of their Bedouin inhabitants in the Negev during the 1950s. Additionally, the Israeli government has been accused of preventing the expansion of Palestinian villages and encircling them with new illegal Israeli settlements.

Smotrich’s funding freeze underscores how Palestinian citizens of Israel have come under increased threat and harassment under a far-right government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In June, Middle East Eye reported that the Israeli government was advancing legislation to "Judaize" the Galilee, a region in northern Israel with a significant Palestinian population, as part of a deal struck by Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who want to expand Israeli settlements in the region.

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Smotrich’s move is also likely to put new economic pressure on Palestinians in East Jerusalem, who comprise nearly 40 percent of the city’s total population.

Activists and some Israeli politicians have accused Netanyahu’s government of willfully ignoring the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Between January and June 2023, 102 Palestinian citizens were murdered in several locations across Israel, including women and small children, with little interference by the Israeli police.

Palestinian citizens of Israel have told MEE previously that despite a surge in protests against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul efforts, the Israeli public has little interest in the needs of Palestinian citizens of Israel or the occupation of Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s government has plowed ahead with an unprecedented level of construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank while violence against Palestinians is flaring.

According to a Middle East Eye tally, at least 208 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, including 36 children - a rate of nearly one fatality per day.

A total of 172 people have died in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making 2023 one of the bloodiest years in the occupied Palestinian territories. Another 36 people were killed in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have killed 26 Israelis in the same period, including six children.

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