Leading experts in Umm al-Fahm say lack of proper infrastructure is mainly to blame for city’s faltering economy
Past narrow winding roads, jumbled buildings, and hillside towns straddling the Green Line, lies the city of Umm al-Fahm–the socioeconomic and cultural center for more than 300,000 Israeli Arabs in the area. Located less than a mile from the West Bank, Umm al-Fahm is the third largest Arab city in Israel, behind Nazareth and Rahat. It is also part of what is known as the Triangle: a concentration of Israeli-Arab towns and villages located between Tel Aviv and the northern city of Haifa.
Over the past six decades, Umm al-Fahm has grown from a village of 5,000 residents to a city of 57,000 inhabitants. Despite this population boom, the city, like many in the Arab sector, has struggled to keep up with the rest of Israel in terms of economic growth. High unemployment and poverty rates have plagued it for decades.
“The unemployment rate of Umm al-Fahm is high relative to the rest of Israel,” Mahmud Agbaria Taysir, director of the Umm al-Fahm Economic Development Authority, told The Media Line. “It’s 18 percent overall and for women it’s even higher: almost 30%. It’s a serious problem because we don’t have an industrial zone and we need more land.”
Taysir, who oversees business entrepreneurship, real-estate marketing and municipal planning in Umm al-Fahm, argued that the absence of an industrial zone in the city disproportionately affects women’s participation in the workforce. This is because the majority of women, he emphasized, opt for jobs closer to home so they can carry on domestic tasks and child-rearing.
“Most residents work in construction and the majority travel outside the city each day to work,” he noted, adding that the problem was compounded by the lack of a proper public transportation system.
“Umm al-Fahm is a poor city and it is ranked low on Israel’s socio-economic index. The taxes the municipality collects are therefore low, which do not allow us to provide the necessary services. Because of this, we need the government’s help in a lot of areas.”
A few months ago, a new mall was inaugurated at the entrance to the city with the help of Israeli entrepreneurs and roughly $16.5 million of investment. The municipality had hoped to draw tourists to Umm al-Fahm to help foster growth, but Taysir and other business owners in the area revealed that the venture has not yet had much success.
Israeli Jews rarely venture into the city due to highly publicized crime and gang activity. According to Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, in 2017 there were 381 shootings in the city and only one indictment in the cases.
“Jewish Israelis don’t visit the city enough,” Taysir confirmed. “There’s a public perception of Umm al-Fahm as a violent city, which hurts the economy.”
Despite these ongoing issues, some industries are quite successful. One of the biggest employers in Umm al-Fahm is a furniture manufacturer known as Abed Lattef. Established in 1974, the family-owned business owns a factory in the city that employs 150 people.
However, the need for an industrial zone kept resurfacing as the main issue holding the city back.
“It’s quite simple: We need an industrial zone in the city to develop economically,” Muhammad Abed Lattef, CEO of Abed Lattef Furniture, reiterated to The Media Line. “It would also allow us to produce more furniture and export our products to other countries. We have the ability and marketing strategy to become leaders in the Middle East.”
Abed Lattef emphasized that 10% of his factory employees are women working in the textile and sewing department. Integrating women into the workforce is one of the key issues the Arab sector in Israel is attempting to address.
Women in the Workforce
Due to social norms, the majority of female residents in Umm al-Fahm remain unemployed, a gap the Riyan Employment Center is hoping to close.
“If we look back 10 years ago only 24% of Arab women worked and with our help, we have seen a significant rise,” Tawfeeq Mustafa Agbaria, the Employer Relations Coordinator at the Riyan Employment Center, told The Media Line. “Now nearly 35% of Arab women work. It was a struggle to bring women out of the house and into the workforce.”
With funding from the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Riyan now operates 22 employment centers across the country. These centers—which not only help Israeli-Arabs find work, but also train them for in-demand careers—provide services for Arab, Druze and Bedouin “women and men, ages 18 to 60, who have either been chronically outside the workforce, employed at the lowest levels, or employed beneath their true capacity.”
Roughly 21% of Israel’s population, or 1.8 million people are Arab citizens. Of this, 75.5% of Arab men are employed, while only 34% of Arab women between the ages of 25-64 are employed, a rise from 21% in 2000. Many of these women pursue careers in the already women-dominated field of education. As a point of comparison, 80% of Jewish women are employed.
“There are many obstacles facing Arab workers in Israel,” Mustafa Agbaria noted. “The main obstacle is knowledge of the Hebrew language. People know some Hebrew here, but professional-level Hebrew language skills are something we don’t learn in school.”
Infrastructure and Location
Another obstacle facing the economic development of Umm al-Fahm is connected to its location. Like many Arab towns and villages, the city is situated in the country’s periphery away from most places of businesses and major employers in central Israel. Because of this, the municipality is pushing for more land to develop business areas. The problem of planning even extends to organization and planning within the city as many of the streets have no names and addresses are almost impossible to find.
Last year, a report issued by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), an intergovernmental organization that examines economic and trade issues, noted that land use and spatial planning were at the heart of Umm al-Fahm’s economic woes. Titled “Spatial Planning and Policy in Israel: The Cases of Netanya and Umm al-Fahm,” the report details a range of problems facing residents of the city and offers guidelines for policy makers on how to address them.
“With a growing population and limited resources of developable land, residents face an increasing shortage of housing,” the report stated. “Businesses and industries have little space to start up or expand and the majority of the population commutes to neighboring locales for employment.”
The report also points to the city’s historic core, with its “small, twisting streets” as limiting accessibility and contributing to economic stagnation. It calls on the municipality to have “more effective and efficient uses of land” for the well-being of residents.
“Cities in Israel with a predominantly Arab population perform better than surrounding Arab countries,” the report continued. “But within Israel’s economy, large gaps remain and the Arab sector is characterized by a significantly lower GDP per capita than their [Jewish-Israeli] peers.”
Though some in Umm al-Fahm remain hopeful the situation will improve over time, as the next generation grows older and social norms continue to shift in Arab communities, the lack of proper economic infrastructure suggests that a long road still lies ahead.
“The Israeli government has some good intentions with the programs it has launched so far but it’s not enough,” Taysir, of the Economic Development Authority, argued. “At the moment, we don’t really feel the fruit of these efforts on the ground. They need to invest more—not only in Umm al-Fahm but in the Arab sector in general.”