The Jerusalem Post: Government agrees to Druse, Circassian financial demands

Abe Selig - Jerusalem Post -- The Forum of Druse and Circassians in Israel announced an end to their month-long protest against what they had labeled the state's longstanding neglect and discrimination against the two communities, after an agreement was reached late Tuesday with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

The agreement, which also involved Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's participation, stipulates that the government will initially cover the Druse and Circassian communities' debt and will include the immediate allocation of funds to pay employees of the local councils and cover additional expenses.

The second phase of the agreement calls for the establishment of a committee, headed by Prime Minister's Office Director-General Eyal Gabai, that will examine possible solutions to other problems facing the Druse and Circassian communities, such as a shortage of housing and the appropriation of their farmland.

"We hope that this agreement will be the answer to the problems facing our communities," forum head Saleh Fares told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "As of now, our water has been turned back on, and we're looking forward to seeing how things develop."

Late last month, national water company Mekorot cut off the water supply to a number of Druse villages in the Galilee due to the authorities' debts, which had reached NIS 316 million at the end of 2008.

That debt, in addition to the NIS 5.2m. debt the authorities are expected to accumulate in 2009, will be covered by the government as part of the deal.

The forum began its protests at the beginning of June and included demonstrations outside the Knesset, as well as rallies in the North. Throughout the process, forum members complained that government officials were misleading them over their intentions to find solutions to their list of complaints. However, they said now that government officials had put their words into action, they felt that their protests had paid off.

"We really didn't want to protest at all, and maybe they thought we weren't going to keep protesting," Fares said. "But what can I tell you? We said we wouldn't stop until we got answers, and now we've got them. Now we're hopeful for what the future holds."

Fares told the Post last month that the government wasn't providing proper funding for local authorities in Druse and Circassian villages, and lamented that while they were expected to be full citizens of the state in other regards, they were being left behind monetarily.

"We grow up together, fight together and sometimes we even die together," Fares said at the time.

Druse men are conscripted into the IDF, and many serve in the Herev infantry battalion, which consists solely of Druse soldiers and officers.

As the Druse protest was winding down, however, Arab MKs and mayors of the Arab municipal councils demonstrated in front of the Knesset Wednesday afternoon to protest the economic hardships facing the councils, and declared a general strike throughout their municipalities.

Source: The Jerusalem Post