This project’s concept is based on three assumptions:
- A large proportion of the state’s resources – land, infrastructure, environment, employment zones and public transportation – are allocated at the local/ regional level.
- Many of the decisions on these issues are jointly decided upon by the heads of the local municipal authorities and the decision makers in the central government.
- A positive relationship and mutual respect between Arabs and Jews living in the same area is essential for the prosperity and well-being of both communities.
It’s important to note that the Equality Zones project was based on a model that Sikkuy developed in the Wadi Ara region from 2007 – 2011, in which local shared Arab – Jewish frameworks were developed. As a result of that program two new industrial zones are in the planning stages and a joint tourism association for the Wadi Ara region is now active.
Equality Zones works on creating significant, meaningful and sustainable cooperation between Arab and Jewish towns in the same region. The project strives to eliminate barriers and build relationships between Arab and Jewish local and regional authorities based on mutual interests. Sikkuy works with mayors, professional municipal staff, citizens and civil society organizations to create permanent and sustainable shared regional frameworks. These frameworks work on identifying and developing action plans to advance the economic development of the local communities and equal distribution of regional resources. These actions make a significant contribution to reducing the tensions between the Arab and Jewish citizens, to leveraging shared economic development, to reducing environmental damage and to advancing relations based on mutual respect.
This project is funded with a three year grant by USAID – the foreign assistance arm of the American government.
Within the Equality Zones project forums were established comprising heads of local and regional councils in two regions in Israel. In the north (Nazareth – Jezre’el Valley) Sikkuy initiated the forum of mayors with nine participating municipalities and regional councils (Nazareth, Emeq Yizre’el Regional Council, Iksal, Kfar Tavor, Yafia, Migdal Haemeq, Daburiya, Afula and Bustan el Marj). The second forum (“forum for regional partnerships”) comprises seven municipalities in the Southern Triangle – Sharon region (Kafr Qassem, Rosh Ha Ayen, Drom Hasharon Regional Council, Kafr Bara, Kokhav Yair, Tira and Jaljulia).
Generally, each forum convenes with Sikkuy representatives once every three months, certain of the benefit of dealing with major challenges at the regional level. The main issues raised in the forums include: the creation (or expansion) of employment zones, environmental protection, advancing public transportation, roads and highways and shared regional tourism.
To develop cooperative regional solutions for these issues, Sikkuy established professional working groups to deal with each area. Each group comprises municipal professionals, engineers, department heads and others. This approach guarantees professional responses to the issues as well as the development of permanent frameworks for continuing the Jewish-Arab regional cooperation even after the project concludes and regardless of the results of the local elections for municipal heads.
Industrial zones are a main source of income for local authorities. Only 2.4% of the industrial zones in Israel are located in the Arab towns. This has a very significant negative impact on employment opportunities for Arab citizens, on the potential for the Arab towns to achieve economic stability and on regional equality. This becomes even more critical when the government cuts budgets to the local authorities and the gaps between the Arab and Jewish communities increase in every field.
In the overwhelming majority of Arab towns in Israel there is no regular public transportation and the inequality in comparison with Jewish towns is blatant. In many Arab towns the only bus lines are on the main highway near the town or there might be one internal bus line that runs on the main street. In a study conducted by Sikkuy, “From Barriers to Opportunities: Public Transportation in the Arab Communities” it was established that the central government only began investing in public transportation in the Arab communities in recent years with the goal of reducing the gaps and to make public transportation accessible to Arab residents. Available public transportation has a significant impact on access to employment, higher education, health services and entertainment. The Equality Zones project works with professional working groups funded by the local authorities to promote public transportation and reduce the gaps between Arab and Jewish towns.
Concern about the quality of life in general and the environment specifically has been on the rise in Israel. This is good news for everyone and these issues are typically issues of joint interest in each geographic area. Thus lack of regional solutions to sewage treatment in an Arab town would limit its capacity to expand and develop. That is why it is important that the different local councils cooperate in a meaningful way. With the help of Sikkuy, the mayors’ forum in the north decided to create a joint regional statutory environmental body to deal with environmental issues. Sikkuy is facilitating this process, developing a regional environmental data base and working the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the local authorities to arrive at shared solutions.
Regional tourism is the only component of the project’s work that is not dealt with by the mayors, rather by community members. Sikkuy facilitates groups of citizens, Arabs and Jews, along with local entrepreneurs, to establish shared tourism development non-profit organizations that will become a permanent framework for advancing regional tourism. This initiative is based on an economic model that will increase entrepreneurial efforts and investments. Sikkuy’s past experience in the Wadi Ara region and in Jisr a Zarqa has demonstrated that tourism encourages new economic horizons and individual entrepreneurial initiatives that lead to increased income. Tourism also creates a sense of local patriotism for both communities living in the same area and an interest in advancing joint regional Jewish-Arab tourism ventures. In 2013 Sikkuy, along with local activists in the Sharon – Triangle area initiated “The Magic of Ramadan Tour” which brought hundreds of visitors into neighboring Arab towns to experience the Ramadan season. This venture exposed many tourists to both Arab and Jewish towns in this area and created economic activity that benefited many local residents.