An Israeli Arab couple petitioned the High Court of Justice this week, asking it to issue a temporary injunction that would allow them to live in the predominately Jewish town of Rakefet.
The couple, residents of Sakhnin, said they were denied residency in the town because they are Arab, but say that local authorities in Rakefet and officials at the Israel Lands Authority found an alternative way to keep them from moving into the town- by stating that according to a "suitability test," the couple are "not fit to live in the town."
The couple is being represented by Adalah, a non-profit organization which fights discrimination against Israeli Arabs. According to the organization, the couple was refused permission to settle in the town because they are Arab.
The couple is now requesting that the High Court instruct the Israel Land Authority and heads of the Misgav Regional council to ensure their rights to a residential plot in Rakefet.
The couple, Ahmed Zvidat and Fahina Avrik, graduates of the archaeology department at Jerusalem's Bezalel College, tried in 2006 to find a place to live in northern Israel. According to Zvidat, he had sought approval to build a house in a neighborhood of Sakhnin, but the land on which he wanted to build was reserved for agricultural purposes, and bordered the jurisdictional boundaries of Rakefet.
A short inquiry made to authorities at the Misgav Regional Council made it clear to Zvidat that changing the land's designation was not possible.
"They told me, 'just rent a house'," he told Haaretz this week.
After their plans to build in Sakhnin were denied, the couple made plans to move to Rakefet, a small agricultural community of 165 families. They looked forward to building a house, they said, and to enjoying the benefits of living in a smaller community.
In their request for a temporary injunction, they emphasized that at the time their plans to move to Rakefet were denied, the town was enlarging in order to accommodate new families.
Zvidat and Avrik met with representative from the Rakefet local committee, and requested that they be allowed to address the regional absorption committee of Misgav at a meeting that was also attended by a representative from the Jewish Agency and a representative from the absorption committee of Rakefet.
After the meetings, the couple requested a "suitability exam" at the Keinan-Sheffey institute, which came out in favor of Avrik.
"Fahina [Avrik] is an intelligent woman of high personal character, who aspires to great success", the committee's ruling stated. "She grew up in a home that stressed personal betterment and integrity, values that she has carried into adulthood. Also, she is someone who aspires to befriend and avoid conflict with those around her," the committee added.
Nonetheless, the committee came to the conclusion that Avrik is not suited to live in Rakefet.
"The impression is that she is an individualistic woman, and therefore, in the end, she is looking to advance her own goals, much more than she is concerned about the community in which she lives," the committee stated in its ruling.
Regarding Zvidat, the committee ruled he "is of a suitable personality, and looks to adapt himself to the norms, customs, and accepted rules of behavior." Nonetheless, the committee found Zvidat not suitable, since he "lacks sufficient knowledge of sophisticated interpersonal relations, and has problems fitting into the community." In the end, the "suitability test" ruled that "the couple's suitability level for acceptance into the community is low."
"We felt very insulted by the committee," Zvidat said. "I wonder what would happen if committee members or residents of Rakefet were forced to pass a suitability test? Would it rule that they are more intelligent than us, and more deserving of residence in Rakefet than us?"
In response to the appeal, the Rakefet local council emphasized the special characteristics of the town, specifically , its small, close-knit and "homogenous nature."
Nonetheless, the council explained that Rakefet is a pluralistic town with a diverse population, where secular families live side-by-side with more traditional and religious families.
Less than a month ago, attorney Suhad Bishara from Adalah received the ruling of Israel Lands Authority Director Yaakov Efrati, that attempted to sidetrack the couple's appeal. In the temporary injunction request, Bishara stated that the decision to bar the couple from living in Rakefet was made on the basis of nationality and religion, and violate laws protecting equality, dignity, and residence.
Bishara maintained that Israel Lands Authority representatives delegate authority over the appropriation of land to local acceptance committees, contrary to their official role as advisory bodies only.
Israel Lands Authority: 'Nationality is not a consideration' Representatives from the Israel Lands Authority have stated that in communities of up to 500 households, they parcel out land based on the recommendations of local acceptance committees, which do not consider "the nationality or religion" of the applicant. As an example, the authority cited their recent decision to allow an Arab couple to move to Kibbutz Hasollalim.
The authority also rejected the petitioners' claim that the acceptance committee fulfills an official public role that is not assigned to them by law. According to recent rulings by the Supreme Court, the authority over decisions relating to residency candidates is ultimately left to the Israel Lands Authority, even when there is a local acceptance committee.
"In instances where a couple is rejected due to reasons of unsuitability to the way of life of the community in question, the issue of greatest importance is the social unity of the community, not just the couple's ability to assimilate and contribute to the community," the Israel Lands Authority stated.