Fear and Loathing in Upper Nazareth

Arab and Jewish residents respond to Mayor Shimon Gapso, who is determined to keep his town predominantly Jewish.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

Ghanem Mahroum, 60, from Nazareth, very much wants to move to the neighboring city, Upper Nazareth. "I feel better here; in our city there's a lot of crime, noise, and our municipality is not good enough. I'd be happy to live with Jews. If I have enough money I'll move here." His son, who is a lawyer, is already about to make the move from Nazareth to Upper Nazareth.

Mahroum is a boxing coach in his town and owner of a café in Upper Nazareth. Two days ago he went from one place of business to another in Upper Nazareth, posting notices about an international boxing competition to take place 10 days from now in Nazareth. Teams from Austria, Hungary, Germany and Israel will be participating. "Since I was a young boxer I've always been proud to represent Israel. The State of Israel is a good country that allows its citizens to advance and develop. It's a shame that a man like [Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon] Gapso comes with his pronouncements and spoils the atmosphere. I think that he should get a lot of practice before he re-enters the election arena because the way it looks to me, in the next round he's going to suffer a knockout."

With two months to go before local council elections, the Upper Nazareth mayor succeeded last week in dictating the agenda. For him, the main issue is relations between Jewish and Arab residents of town. His campaign, which began about a week and a half ago, features posters with pictures of leftwing MKs Ilan Gilon (Meretz), Haneen Zoabi (Balad) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) and quotes they have made in the past against Gapso. Later the posters were removed and replaced by Gapso's replies, such as the sign "Upper Nazareth will be Jewish forever; no more shutting our eyes, no more clinging to the law allowing every citizen to live wherever they want. This is the time to protect our home."

"There's a war atmosphere in the city," said an Arab business owner who requested anonymity. "This time things have reached a climax, but there have been statements against us for a long time and they are already creating a bad atmosphere here." He claimed that as a result of that atmosphere his young son was humiliated and harassed in his kindergarten. "Other children called him a 'stinking Arab,' among other things, and we had to take him out of the kindergarten [in Upper Nazareth] and transfer him to one in Nazareth."

Attorney Sari Khoury, an Upper Nazareth resident, also says: "Our mayor wants us, the Arabs, to feel inferior in this city. He's quite a provocateur who makes sure to emphasize again and again what a racist he is." At the same time Khoury emphasized that "On a daily basis, I would describe my neighborly relations with the Jews as very good. There really is no difference in my relationship with a Jewish or an Arab neighbor."

Khoury's Jewish neighbors in the Hakramim neighborhood in northwest Upper Nazareth constitute a minority in a neighborhood where the Arabs are the vast majority. It's a spacious neighborhood of private homes whose residents are independent professionals: doctors, lawyers etc. An Arab resident of the neighborhood who asked not to be identified by name has been living there for 24 years. Only a road separates Hakramim from Nazareth, but "the conditions here are far better," she says. "In Nazareth, there's chaos."

She was not perturbed by the uproar of recent days and dismissed it. "I love the city and the country, and there are racists everywhere. All I want is to live in peace and quiet," she said, but she admitted that members of her family, including her adult children who are university students, are disturbed by the issue.

No demographic plot

Dr. Ra’ed Getas has lived in Hakramim for 26 years, having moved to Upper Nazareth from the Arab town of Rama after being appointed head of the Ear, Nose and Throat department at the Holy Family Hospital in Nazareth. He is one of the two Arab representatives on the city council (which has 17 members) for the Arab Joint Party for Coexistence, a local merger of the Hadash and Balad parties. He expects the party to win three or even four seats in the coming election.

"Every Arab resident came to Upper Nazareth for his own reasons. After all, it's a basic right of every person,” says Getas. “There's no big plan here to bring about a demographic revolution.”

According to Getas, the Arab population of the city can be divided into four groups: residents who lived in the area where Hakramim was established even before the area was annexed from Nazareth to Upper Nazareth in 1957; those who came due to a housing shortage in Nazareth and the other Arab communities in the area; people of means – engineers, doctors and others – who wanted to live in a modern city that meets their needs; and a small group, on a lower socioeconomic level, composed mainly of widows and divorcees who wanted to get away from their old milieu.

Five years ago there was a different atmosphere in the city: Getas and his partner on the Arab list, Dr. Shukri Awada, were the first to sign a coalition agreement with Gapso. At the same time Gapso appointed an Arab resident as an adviser on Arab affairs. Getas says that in return for their support they were promised that a committee would be formed to help establish an Arab school in the city, but he says that the promise was broken and after they left the coalition the anti-Arab statements steadily increased until peaking in recent days.

Gapso claims that his actions are based on his desire to preserve the Jewish character of the city. "Anyone can come to live here, but he should be aware that it's a Jewish city, just as the State of Israel is a Jewish state. The demand to open an Arab school does not come from a genuine need - after all, most of the Arabs students from Upper Nazareth study in private schools in Nazareth. What they want is to hoist a flag and change the character of the city."

Gapso is very happy watching the Israeli flag flutter. "That's a breeze that's worth a picture," he said at the sight of the wind blowing a huge Israeli flag, one of seven that he has placed around the city. One of them is at the entrance to Hakramim, near Getas' house. The cost of maintenance, mainly replacing the flags that become tattered from the wind, in addition to the cost of installing the huge flagpoles, is thousands of shekels per month.

A new Haredi neighborhood

During the years of Gapso's tenure, which began in 2008, the Arab population of the city has grown from 15.2 percent to 19 percent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Before the number reaches 20 percent, Gapso promises to carry out his plan to bring 3,000 Jewish families to the new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Yona Gimmel.

Gapso considers the project his baby, and in recent years he has worked energetically among the ministers of the Haredi parties to promote construction of the neighborhood as a way to prevent the city from becoming a mixed Arab-Jewish city. He realized that his attempts to change the name of the city to Lev Hagalil, Kokhav Hagalil or Hod Hagalil (Heart of the Galilee, Star of the Galilee, Glory of the Galilee, respectively) and decorating the streets with Stars of David on the lamp posts, large Hanukkah menorahs on the holiday and other Jewish symbols, are not enough to change the demographic situation.

The city of Upper Nazareth is basically secular. About half of its residents are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, and on Shabbat there is public transportation. Gapso has declared in the past (on the website of the Halamish – Haredim for Judea and Samaria settlers) that "quite a few people in the city, especially the Arabs, don't like it [the establishment of the Haredi neighborhood] to put it mildly. But the facts speak for themselves and most of the population, even the secular community, knows that Haredim are preferable to Arabs."

Shahar, a resident who recently finished his army service, identifies with the mayor. "When Menahem was mayor [Menahem Ariav, who was the mayor of Upper Nazareth for 32 years] the situation was ideal. I don't want Nazareth and Upper Nazareth to intermingle. We aren't welcome in Nazareth, while they come here, drive through the street, honk at a girl and she gets into the car. Shimon is doing good work, but I still don't understand whether he is for or against an Arab school."

Shahar is standing at the entrance to a store in a shopping center in the southern part of the city, whose residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, veteran Israelis and an Arab minority. Most of the stores are empty. While in the commercial center adjacent to Hakramim they speak mainly Arabic, in this center the prominent language is Russian. Shahar notes that he has four Arab neighbors “who are good, quiet neighbors who live their own lives. But suddenly, since Shimon was elected, more and more Arabs are coming to the city." He says that among the Jewish population "the city is becoming a senior citizens' home. The young people are leaving for the center or for Haifa and the Krayot [Haifa's satellite cities]."

But he and his mother, who joined the conversation, said that "If Shimon isn't elected the city will become a city with an Arab majority. Shimon knows how to hold his own against those who are slandering him. He's an honest man ... who’s interested in your welfare, knows the residents and respects them. The problem is that he doesn't receive support and they bother him all the time."

Along with the anger at "the daily shootings from Nazareth, with a bullet even fired into our house once, and the call of the muezzin at 4 A.M.," what bothered the Shahar and his mother most was the feeling that his future in the city is unclear. "The young people are leaving because there are no places of entertainment here and there's no work. If you find work here at a salary of NIS 4,000, say thank you." Shahar is already planning the trip to the Far East, followed by studies that will take him out of the city, in search of a better fuiture.

The Rassco Commercial Center, which was built 50 years ago and was last renovated 20 years ago, looks neglected, but has more customers. Dollar stores (which sell everything for two shekels) are an attraction. Shortly before Eid al Fitr (the three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan) many Arab families have come to shop. Michael Tomasis, owner of a falafel stand in Rassco for the past 50 years, understands "the minorities who didn't come here to conquer the city, but just want a better quality of life. In Nazareth they were suffocated; there's nowhere to build there, so they come here. They didn't come here to occupy us."

But as one of Gapso's known supporters he claimed that "they didn't understand his statements; he has nothing against them, but he's not ashamed that he wants Upper Nazareth to be a Jewish city. He respects them and gives them fair and equal treatment. The relations in the city between Arabs and Jews are excellent."

Moshe, who is eating at the falafel stand, said that he came to the city from Jerusalem in the late 1970s "in order to Judaize the Galilee." According to his theory "Everyone is wrong. Shimon loves Arabs and their situation improved during his tenure, and because he's worried about this image among the Jews, it's as though he's saying: 'Look what the leftists are saying about me.' The strong population has left Upper Nazareth, and his campaign is geared to the weak population that remained here, including Russians who like a strong leader like Putin. But his talk will actually cause an Arab school to be opened here in another two years rather than in another 20."

Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso in court: Indicted but reelected. (May 28, 2015)Credit: Rami Shlush
A view of Upper Nazareth.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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