The Afula municipality agreed Sunday to backtrack on its decision to close the city's park to nonresidents, after a district court said that closing off a public area and charging an entrance fee is illegal.
The municipality agreed to reopen the park at the order of the Nazareth District Court during a hearing of a petition by rights group Adalah, which claimed that the park was closed to deny access to Arab Israelis from nearby villages. Judge Danny Sarfati ruled that closing public parks and charging entrance fees was illegal.
The court approved a request by the municipality for a two-day period to reorganize, thus on Tuesday it will reopen the site to the entire public.
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“Even if the place is closed only to discriminate [in favor of] local residents, according to the law, charging a fee for public parks is illegal," Sarfati said. “The ban on charging a fee is a ban on restricting entry. Just as you wouldn’t close a street, you don’t close a park, even without considering whether something is discrimination.”
Beginning on July 1, the Afula municipality banned entry to the city park to nonresidents. According to Adalah, the decision of the municipality and the mayor, Avi Elkabetz, stemmed from racism and was intended to prevent Arabs from the surrounding towns from visiting the park.
The city said in response to Adalah’s petition that an area 30 dunams (about 7.5 acres) large was open to the wider public, but Haaretz found that this area was a neglected grove outside the park.
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Attorney Adi Goldhammer, who represented the municipality at the hearing, said it accepted the court’s position because the municipality's by-laws do not let it prioritize residents in terms of entry to a park.
“We thought that the legal situation permitted the move; the court expressed its position," he said. "Still, we’re glad that the court removed the matter of racism from the agenda.”
Adalah said that it had stated from the start that the municipality had no authority to close the park. The organization said the municipality requested to close the park for two days so it could remove equipment that it didn't want to make available to the wider public.
“The racist motives of the municipality for this illegal move were brought to light today in court," Adalah said.
The municipality said in response to the decision that the judge "immediately made clear in his statements that he doesn't want to color his decision with issues of racism, and rightfully so."
It said that following the ruling to reopen the park, "we have been forced to move some of our activities to community centers, the city pool and other locations inside the city in order to guarantee the enjoyment and safety of our residents."
The municipality added that it will continue working with the Interior Ministry to find a way to restrict access to the park in the future.