By Yair Ettinger

A massive four-year development program for the Arab sector has been fully implemented so far, the ministerial committee on Arab affairs headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced yesterday.

The announcement was greeted, however, with skepticism by Arab community leaders and advocacy groups.

The government also announced that a few weeks ago - almost two years after the plan was approved - a private company had been hired to supervise implementation of the dozens of the plan's projects, which range from the construction of industrial parks to the building of schools.

The plan, originally approved by Ehud Barak's government after the Arab riots of October 2000, calls for the investment of NIS 1 billion a year in the Arab sector, from 2001 through 2004. A separate plan approved earlier called for some NIS 615 million to be invested in Bedouin villages in the north over the five years ending in 2003.

Alex Goldengorn, the deputy director of the Prime Minister's Office, said that in line with the plan, NIS 914 million had been invested in the Arab sector in 2001 and a further NIS 1.02 billion would be invested in 2002. During the first three years of the Bedouin plan, he said, NIS 314 million had been invested - slightly less than the NIS 349 million that should have been invested by this date.

Shuweiki Khatib, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, said, however, that the statement had merely been a way of "attacking us through falsehoods."

He admitted that he had no data that contradicted the government's figures, but added: "I have no way of knowing because two fundamental principles of the program - involving the Arab sector's leadership and transparency - were not honored."

Sikkuy, an Arab advocacy organization, said its annual report on state financing for the Arab sector showed that in most ministries, the budgets for the Arab sector had actually been cut in 2002. The report, it said, also indicated that the funds invested in 2001-2002 had been nothing more than the regular Arab sector development budgets.

"They're taking the existing budget, labeling it, wrapping it in cellophane and saying: `Here's the plan,'" said Sikkuy Executive Director Shalom Dichter.

Sikkuy also charges that NIS 4 billion is not nearly enough to close the Arab-Jewish gap, and that in any case, much of the money is being wasted because no comprehensive survey of the sector's needs was conducted first.

Even Science, Culture and Sport Minister Matan Vilnai, a Labor representative on the interministerial committee, said he had been "surprised" by the announcement, adding: "This shows that the Likud has sense and we, the Labor Party, don't. They are doing what we should have done long ago. Sharon is showing the Arab sector that he doesn't merely beat on the Palestinians, but is also reaching out to them."

The plan was originally drafted by Barak's government in 1999 and was supposed to start being implemented in 2000. But the cabinet postponed approving it, finally doing so only after the October 2000 riots in an effort to placate Arab anger over the killing of 13 rioters, apparently by police. Elections were called shortly thereafter, so the plan was further delayed.