Protesters Save Law to Help Negev, but Region Remains Mired in Poverty

Sophie Balatnik grasped Ze’ev Ben-Dror’s hand and kissed it.

A new immigrant from Uzbekistan, Balatnik used the little Hebrew she knew to show her gratitude to the manager of the “House of Cooking” soup kitchen in Dimona.

“Thank you, thank you,” Balatnik repeated in her heavily accented Hebrew, clutching Ben-Dror’s hand.

Balatnik was one of 100 people, mostly aging immigrants, waiting in the blistering desert wind of this Negev city for a free warm meal. When the tall, stoop-shouldered Ben-Dror announced that the food was ready, Balatnik grinned, showing her gold front teeth.

“We don’t have jobs, we don’t have anything,” she explained through an interpreter.

Balatnick and the others at the soup kitchen are victims of a bitter recession that many in Israel consider almost as insidious as Palestinian terror. A host of economic troubles, many unrelated to the Palestinian uprising, besieged the Israeli economy in 2001, leading both to the contraction of the economy and the gain of the dollar against the shekel, which resulted in higher prices.

Worst of all, however, was the record number of 251,000 people out of work, according to the most recent government statistics.

Traditionally the poorest among Israel’s Jewish areas, the Negev region has suffered disproportionately in the recession. And Dimona in particular has stood out, earning the unenviable distinction of having the highest unemployment rate — around 14 percent to 15 percent, city officials say — of any Jewish city in Israel.

The city wears the combination of recession and poverty like a scarlet letter.

One of the city’s two industrial zones is all but abandoned. Low-income apartments, considered inadequate even when they were built to house new immigrants in the 1960s, continue to house new immigrants today, despite the fact that they are crumbling.

“This city is in a huge crisis,” said Deputy Mayor Max Peretz. “The municipality itself is close to going bankrupt. We don’t even have enough money to pay our own land taxes, much less help out in a meaningful way the city’s desperately poor.”

A former high school teacher whose heavy brow makes him look perpetually pensive, Peretz said approximately 6,500 Dimona residents — of a total population of 40,000 — are on the welfare roll.

“Most of these are members of the 12,500-strong Russian immigrant community who have never had a job in Israel, who never pay taxes and continue to be marginalized,” Peretz said. “But alongside them there must be thousands of others, especially members of the veteran Dimona Moroccan community, who would rather die of starvation in their homes than go to a soup kitchen.”

Peretz, a Likud Party member who managed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s successful 2001 election campaign in Dimona — when Sharon captured 83 percent of the vote here — holds the government primarily responsible for the crisis.

Standing in Dimona’s main square among hundreds of loitering men, Peretz sighed.

“We are masochists,” he said. “We always vote for Likud and they always forget us, because they know we are in their pocket. What we need is a party with the security viewpoint of Likud but with the social conscience of Meretz.”

He wholeheartedly supports the Israeli right wing and the settler movement, Peretz said. Still, he finds it incomprehensible that it takes the government “seven years to widen the road from Dimona to Be’ersheba, and yet in a few months they build a brand new detour road in” the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

“How can they abandon the heart of the country like they do?” he asked.

Finance Ministry spokesman Moshe Debi said he sympathizes with Dimona’s poor.

“But this is all nonsense,” Debi said of the complaints and accusations. “The amount of money earmarked” for developing the region “is huge, and no additional funds should be allocated there.”

Everyone in Israel “has his hand out,” Debi said, but people do not seem to understand that there is nothing to give.

“We are in a crisis,” he said. “This is our economic Sept. 11, and everyone — the disabled, the dock workers, government officials and others — want more money, but the financial situation dictates that there is nothing left to give.”

The feeling of abandonment is traditional in Dimona, but it peaked last month when the government announced its intention to abolish the Negev Law. That law, which provides Negev residents with mortgage subsides, tax breaks and promises of an infusion of funds for industry, is a lifeline to many here.

A monthlong protest involving most Negev municipalities — estimated to have cost the state tens of millions of dollars in spoiled goods and lost productivity — forced the government to give in, despite Sharon’s efforts to cut $1.36 billion from the state budget.

Protesters stopped all commercial activity in cities like Dimona, burning tires, picketing and blocking the main traffic artery from the Negev northward. They also blocked the road leading into Jerusalem several times.

Ultimately the Negev Law was saved but scaled back, stripping benefits from those in the upper tax brackets. Politicians from the Negev considered the law’s salvation a great victory.

“While the tax breaks are now not applicable to all Negev residents,” said Dimona mayor Gabi Lalush, one of the protest leaders, “the total repeal of this law would have really hurt us.”

According to Peretz, Dimona’s greatest obstacle in dealing with poverty is that the Israeli government dictates where money can be invested. The government allocates funds for specific fields like agriculture or infrastructure, Peretz explained, funds that by law cannot by siphoned off to other projects.

Yet neither the municipality nor the government recognizes the depths the situation has reached, Peretz said. Not wanting to be seen as having “big-city” problems such as hunger, the municipality only obliquely aids soup kitchens like one called the House of Cooking, which is primarily funded by Chabad.

The municipality donates empty buildings, tables and chairs to the project, but not food, aid workers or money.

Government funding for social welfare projects is dismally insufficient, critics say. Citing an example, Peretz contends that government money is not enough to contend with the number of drug addicts who stream into the city upon their release from Be’ersheba prison.

The National Insurance Institute gives them a monthly stipend of $300, which Peretz says is not nearly enough to live on. That forces them back into buying, selling and using drugs, he said.

Vazanna Amishay agrees. Amishay, 47, was one of many drug addicts wandering around the city square opposite Dimona’s aging municipality building. He has been in and out of jail for drug-related offenses for years, Amishay said, adding that he is clean now and is being treated with methadone three times a week.

“No one in their right mind would hire me,” he said frankly. “And I can’t live off of the” National Insurance Institute stipend, “so of course if someone offers me $550 to transport a little ‘material,’ well, it would be hard to turn down.”

Traditionally, critics say, Israeli governments have chosen to emphasize defense needs over social welfare. If that continues, Peretz said, “I promise you there will not be a State of Israel to defend in two generations.”

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