Interior Ministry Orders Ashkelon Mayor to Rescind anti-Arab Employment Order

Mayor announced he would bar Arab construction workers from kindergartens during school hours.

A laborer at a construction site in Ashkelon.
Ilan Assayag

Israel's Interior Ministry on Thursday ordered Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni to rescind his order to stop employing Arab construction workers in municipal institutions.

The mayor announced on Wednesday that he had decided to bar Arab construction workers from three kindergartens in the city during school hours, prompting outraged responses from across the Israeli political spectrum.

In a letter to Shimoni, the director of the Southern District of the Interior Ministry, Avi Heller, wrote: “From information published in the media it emerges that you have issued an order to cease the employment of Arab workers in construction at educational institutions in the jurisdiction of the city of Ashkelon. This action contravenes the principles of equality and the avoidance of discrimination, which are basic principles about the importance of which in the state of Israel requires no elaboration.”

Heller requested that the mayor “take immediate action to rescind this instruction and to send me notification of this.”

The Ashkelon municipality responded to the Interior Ministry letter, saying “There has never been any instruction from the mayor on this matter. He convened the contractors who are building the reinforced rooms in the kindergartens where there are no security guards and they reached understandings that at the moment are temporarily suspending the work projects.”

On Thursday morning about 15 Arab workers employed at three kindergartens in Ashkelon where reinforced room construction is underway did not show up for work. They are all employed by a single contractor, who won the tender to build reinforced rooms under the auspices of the Defense Ministry. These workers are screened and must meet a number of criteria stipulated by the Home Front Command: They must be citizens of the state of Israel who hold blue identity cards and they must, at the start of their employment, present a document from the police allowing them to work in educational institutions.

The mayor cannot fire workers who are not in his employ, as in this case, but since the kindergartens are defined as being in the premises of the municipality he can prevent entry to the workers. On this basis he issued the demand to the contractor to ensure that the employees do not arrive for work in the morning for a few days, in accordance with a request from parents in the city.

“The mayor’s decision sees every Arab citizen or resident as a security threat only because he is an Arab,” responded Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “This outlook is very dangerous and the recent events cannot justify decisions of this sort, especially when the Arab workers have no connection and never had any connection to these or to any other security incidents.”

Shimoni on Thursday denied reports that Arabs had been banned from entering the city.

In the letter to the interior minister outlining the developments in the last two days Shimoni stressed that he had not banned Arabs from entering the city, only from working in or near kindergartens during school hours.

“Following the past weeks’ events, fears among parents increased over the fact that Arab workers were spending time near their children in kindergartens,” Shimoni wrote.“Following an evaluation we held and in a bid to ensure security, while also continue the work without harming the Arab workers, two decisions were made last week: To beef up the security forces’ presence around schools where Arabs were employed and near construction sites, and allow the work to be carried out when there are no children in the kindergarten,” Shimoni wrote. He adds that the latter decision was made for “safety reasons” as well.

He said the city has asked the contractors to employ the Arab workers after the kindergarten children had gone home. “I want to make it clear that at no stage were Arab workers banned from Ashkelon. At this moment, too,Arabs are employed in dozens of construction sites. We dismiss with disgust any attempt to brand the city’s decisions as racist,” Shimoni wrote.