Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a key member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right regime, said on Monday some of the budget funds meant for Arab local councils were a political pay-off by the previous cabinet.
“The priorities of our national government… are different from those of the previous leftist government and we should not apologize for that,” said Smotrich, head of the pro-settler Religious Zionism party.
Reacting to the move, opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid also accused Smotrich of racism, “abusing Arab citizens simply because they are Arab.”
Mansour Abbas, a lawmaker who heads the United Arab List accused Smotrich of racism.
“Arab citizens are entitled to those funds, which were meant to close the gaps between Arab and Jewish communities,” he said.
Arab citizens, most of whom are descendants of Palestinians make up about a fifth of Israel’s population.
Israel’s Arab minority has for decades faced social and economic disparities compared with Jewish citizens, including high poverty rates, overcrowded towns lacking in infrastructure and poorly-funded schools.
Ameer Bisharat, head of the National Committee of Arab Local Councils in Israel, said the freeze could mean that councils are unable to provide basic services such as garbage collection or reopening schools after the summer holiday.
Smotrich, notorious for making inflammatory statements against Palestinians
Past comments by the Israeli finance minister about the Palestinians have drawn international condemnation.
In March, Smotrich claimed that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, history, or culture. He further said Palestinians are “an invention of the past century”.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh back then strongly condemned the remarks by the far-right Israeli minister, describing them as evidence of the regime’s “racist ideology.”
Shtayyeh said the comments were “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology… of the current Israeli government.”
The minister in March also called for the destruction of the Palestinian village of Huwara, days after illegal settlers went on a rampage centering on the village near Nablus in the occupied West Bank.