A Victory for the Struggle against Racism: Afula Opens its Parks to All

Under pressure from the Nazareth District Court, the office of the state’s Attorney General, and Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, it was announced on Sunday, July 14, that the city of Afula in the north of the country will be reopening its parks today, July 16, to everyone, Arabs included. This development came after Adalah brought to court a legal suit against the Afula municipality for discrimination when it barred Arabs from entering its parks, with the office of the state Attorney General supporting the lawsuit.

A sign declaring that "The Park is open only to the residents of Afula" at the entrance to a public park in the northern city, as photographed on July 1, 2019

A sign declaring that “The Park is open only to the residents of Afula” at the entrance to a public park in the northern city, as photographed on July 1, 2019 (Photo: Adalah)

Afula had previously admitted that, while there is a municipal bylaw stipulating that only the city’s residents can enter its parks, there is no law on its books specifically prohibiting Arabs from doing so. However, after Adalah gathered irrefutable evidence that the ban on non-residents was being selectively enforced, and only against Arabs, the office of the Attorney General told a court late last week that the ban was illegal. Adalah Attorneys Fady Khoury and Sari Arraf submitted an administrative petition to the Nazareth District Court, demanding that it rule as invalid the ban by the Afula municipality on the entrance of non-residents to its public parks. Adalah also asked the court for an injunction prohibiting the implementation of the racist policy.

The state told the court that it could not stick its head in the sand and pretend there was no larger context to the prohibition, when it was clear that the non-resident ban was motivated by a desire to discriminate against Arabs.

At Sunday’s hearing, the court recommended to Afula that it open its parks within two days, and the municipality accepted the recommendation.

On the first day of summer vacation, July 1, when the ban went into effect, Attorney Nariman Shehada Zoabi visited an Afula city park with her baby, Adalah said in a press release. She was greeted at the entrance with a sign that read, “The Park is open only to the residents of Afula.” When the gatekeeper learned that Zoabi and her son were residents of the neighboring city of Nazareth, he forbade her from entering. Zoabi said she felt humiliated: “Jewish residents that I know very well passed by me, and freely entered this vast park, while I had to retrace my steps and return to my car.” Two different TV stations undertook undercover work and documented Jews – non-residents of Afula – entering the park freely, even after telling the gatekeepers they didn’t live in of the city.

The move comes only a month after Afula Mayor Avi Elkabetz made statements referring to what he called “the takeover of our parks,” which Adalah representatives said they believe was intended to imply that too many Arabs were visiting them. The mayor has also said that an Israeli flag should be flown proudly throughout the local park system, and Hebrew music should be played. In the past, Elkabetz has taken part in demonstrations against the sale of homes in the city to Arabs.

Hadash activists called the court decision on Sunday a victory against racism. MK Ayman Odeh, chair of Hadash, said it was a “victory over racial segregation in Afula and that it “reminded me of Martin Luther King’s wonderful statement: ‘Freedom was never voluntarily given by the oppressor.’”

MK Yousef Jabareen (Hadash), who appealed for legal help as soon as he learned of the decision to keep the parks closed to the non-resident public, said he hoped that the Afula municipality would “internalize the message: Public parks, and public places in general, should be open to the general public.”

MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash) also expressed congratulations to Adalah and called on the courts not only to abolish discriminatory policies motivated by Israel’s racist Nation-State Law legislated last year, but also to repeal the law itself. “The [Supreme] Court must strike down the Nation-State Law,” she said.