Nibras Taha, 36, is the director of the brand new one-stop employment center in the Israeli Arab town of Tira, a few miles northeast of Kfar Saba in central Israel.
With a BA in social work from Tel Aviv University and a Master’s degree in organizational consulting, Taha represents the new generation of Israeli Arabs looking to take their place in one of the world’s most dynamic economies.
Taha leads visitors around Tira’s employment center, which is the latest in a string of efforts by the Israeli government, in concert with non-governmental bodies including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), to help reduce unemployment and under-employment among Israeli Arabs.
Established by the Authority for Economic Development in the Arab Sector, which answers directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, the employment center is housed in a non-descript building on a residential street in the town.
According to Taha and Ibrahim Habib, director of regional development for the Authority for Economic Development, the goal of the Tira Center is to ensure that the economic potential of the Arab, Druze and Circassian sectors is realized. “While Arabs constitute twenty percent of the population, they only account for eight percent of the Gross National Product,” notes Habib.
“The government estimates the loss from these people being absent from the workforce at around 31 billion shekels every year,” he adds.
The median age of the Arab population in Israel is 20 and 19 for the Bedouin community that doubles its size every 15 years. Habib explains that almost 40 percent of Arabs in the 18-22 year-old age group are neither studying nor working: “The main reason is a lack of frameworks they can get into,” he says, side-stepping the controversial proposal to draft Arabs into national service in their own community while their Jewish Israeli peers serve in the army.
Visiting the employment center, Tira Mayor Mamoun Abd Alhai insists that had the proposal for Arab national service come from either the education or welfare ministry instead of the Ministry of Defense, it would have been better received, but as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists, Israeli Arabs will not want to serve since “we’ll look as if we’re at war with our own people.”
So in 2011 the Israeli government, via the Authority for Development for Economic Development in the Arab Sector, allocated 4 billion NIS for economic development to be spent by 2016. “We recognize the positive intentions of the Prime Minister himself and the director of his office who emphasized the importance of the integration of Arabs into the national economy,” states Habib, as he lays out the ambitious plan that calls for action in the education, employment and business spheres.
There’s a particular emphasis on providing opportunities for Arab women to enter the work force, since as Taha acknowledges, it’s hard for any family to make it in Israel on one salary. As a result, traditional opposition to Arab women working outside the home is dissipating.
One program identifies 500 promising Arab female high school students and provides them with counseling and tutoring to encourage them to go on to higher education. In 2001, only five percent of Arab women were college graduates. In 2010 that number had risen to 12 percent. Funds for building new day care centers in the Arab sector and subsidies for fees are included in the five-year plan to allow more women to work and study.
Tira, with a population of 22,000 living mostly in single-family multi-generational homes, is part of the Triangle, a concentration of Israeli Arab towns and villages clustered close to the Green Line. There are no Israeli flags to be seen, but a protest tent flying the Palestinian flag sits prominently in the center of town to express solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike.
A few miles south in Kafr Kassem, Mayor Nadir Sarsur lauds the Lev Haaretz (Heart of the Land) project, an industrial park initiated by the Yitzhaki Group using Arab land. The development takes advantage of the central location of Kafr Kassem to provide a base for companies like FedEx, the Rami Levi Supermarket chain and Super Pharm.
With proximity to Route 6, the major north-south highway, as well as Ben Gurion Airport and the Afek Industrial Park, and drawing from the neighboring Arab and Jewish towns for employees, Lev Haaretz has already become an example of positive co-operation.
“Lev Haaretz will provide a source of income for the municipality; provide jobs and help neighboring towns,” asserts Mayor Sarsur.
“We want to emphasize that we are practicing co-existence by acts, not words,” the mayor says.
“Coexistence doesn’t need politicians. We simply live together,” shrugs Josef Marco, an Israeli business consultant who is volunteering his time as an advisor to Kafr Kassem. Marco estimates that the Lev Haaretz Park will have a 1 billion NIS output when it’s fully operational.