For three years, a Bedouin family has been waiting to move to the house they rented on Moshav Nevatim in the northern Negev. The moshav secretariat demanded the family appear before a selection committee, and the Be'er Sheva District Court ruled the demand irrelevant. However, the Supreme Court hinted last week it may overturn this ruling and allow the moshav committee meeting, angering both the Jewish landlord and would-be tenant. A decision is expected in the next few days.

The uproar has not been limited to Nevatim; moshav movement heads wanted to join the appeal against the district court ruling for fear a Supreme Court ruling would set a precedent about the right of other moshavim to hold selection committees. The court refused to allow the movement to join the appeal mid-stream but said it could join other petitions on the subject.

Meanwhile, in the south, debate continues on whether the demand for a selection committee meeting was simply following the rules - or a sign of racism. The Zakai family, who wish to rent, and the Tarabin family, the potential tenant, members of a well-known Bedouin tribe, have no doubts.

The two families, friends for years, believe the moshav members have no reason to oppose the rental agreement other than racism and xenophobia. "There has never been a selection committee in Nevatim," says Natalie Zakai. "When we moved to the community, we were not asked to appear before a committee nor were other families until the case of the Tarabin family came along." The court was shown a declaration, she says from members of the moshav committee to the effect that no previous family had been asked to appear before the committee.

However, the moshav secretariat says the agricultural association to which the moshav belongs has clear regulations and a family wishing to rent a property from someone who owns a farm there is subject to those rules without regard to their ethnicity.

Graffiti, poison and threats

Weizman and Natalie Zakai have lived at Nevatim for 19 years. The couple, who lost a son, had long been considering leaving the moshav. Five years ago, the Tarabin family suffered a tragedy; a fire destroyed their home and their 14-year-old daughter lost her life.

"A situation was created in which both families wanted to leave where they were living, and therefore the idea was raised of renting our farm to our best friends," says Zakai. The families agreed to a long-term lease of 10 years.

In the summer of 2007, Zakai went to the moshav secretariat, together with Ahmed and Ihlas Tarabin, to arrange the lease. When the members of the secretariat saw the Bedouin family, she says, they refused to approve. Since then, say Natalie and Weizman, they have been harassed, threatened and insulted. "Arab lovers" was spray painted on their home, and dozens of vintage cars parked on their land were set on fire.

Not only that: Criminal elements in the south have threatened them, they say, should they dare rent to Arabs. Following the court decision, a horse belonging to the family died. Natalie Zakai says an expert determined the animal had been poisoned. She sees no point in lodging a complaint with the police because she has no faith in them.

Ahmed Tarabin says: "I have no words to describe this other than racism - they simply don't want us here. I myself served in the Israel Defense Forces at the beginning of the 1970s. No one should say I did not do my duty to the state. It's interesting to know how Bedouin soldiers who read about our story will feel."

Moshav members vehemently deny charges of racism. The head of the moshav committee, Avraham Orr, told Haaretz: "We live in harmony with the area's Bedouin residents and have no problem with them. People should not stigmatize us. We are talking about renting a home and a farm, and these matters are subject to the rules and the association. We recently held two selection committees for two Jewish families and both were rejected."

While noting that the members of an agricultural association must meet its rules, he added: "Renting out housing units that are not part of the farms does not require a selection committee." He also rejected out of hand that there had been harassment of the Zakai family. The burning of the vintage cars had been solved by the police, he said, and the guilty party had nothing to do with the rental affair.

Supreme Court favors a committee

The Tarabin family's case has been in the courts for about three years now, beginning with the moshav's asking the Kiryat Gat Magistrate's Court for an order nisi to stop the Zakai family from renting its farm without the approval of a selection committee. Indeed, when the rental contract between the two families was shortened to one year and included only the house, and not the farm, the families' request was approved by the district court in September 2008, and the court ordered the moshav to approve the rental contract. The families' appeal had been submitted by attorney Ala Mahadjna of Adalah: Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The court noted that under the circumstances it was unreasonable and irrelevant to demand the Tarabin family be interviewed by a selection committee.

The two families, who had meanwhile prepared to move, were surprised a few days later by a staying order from the Supreme Court. They were even more surprised when, after the court discussion last week, they were left with the feeling the court would order the Tarabin family to appear before a committee.

The strong feelings in the affair surfaced last week in the Supreme Court. During the discussion, Weizman Zakai wanted to send a note to his lawyer, but the court guards ordered him out of the courtroom on the grounds he was disturbing the proceedings. They accompanied him out of the hall and a noisy argument broke out. Zakai claimed the guards assaulted him. Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who was heading the bench, heard Zakai's shouts and asked that he be brought back inside as party to the case. Following the proceedings, Zakai was taken to the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva with lacerations to his face and shoulder.

At the conclusion of the proceedings, Beinisch said, to the disappointment of the two families, that the selection committee should convene. She added that she would leave open the possibility of the two families' appealing to the High Court of Justice if they felt the committee had discriminated against them.

The families said they had looked to the court to save them like Don Quixote. Having to face a selection committee would be disappointing. "Everyone knows in advance what its decision will be," they said.