Circassian Town Can't Keep Arabs Out, Israel's Deputy Attorney General Rules

'No legal validity' to mayor's pledge to keep non-Circassian couple from living in northern town to preserve its 'Circassian character'

A protest in Kafr Kama against the sale of a home to a non-Circassian couple, July 11, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The Circassian town of Kafr Kama, in northern Israel, cannot prevent an Arab from moving there, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber ruled on Wednesday.

Responding to an inquiry from Balad lawmaker Hiba Yazbek, Zilber wrote that Kafr Kama council head Zachri Nebaso’s remarks that he would act to preserve the town’s “Circassian character” and prevent non-Circassians from building homes there has no legal force.

Zilber added, “Actions designed to prevent an equal allocation of state lands on the basis of race, religion, nationality, land of origin, gender, sexual orientation or any other inherent trait is unacceptable and has no legal authority.”

Last week, in a letter to local residents regarding the non-Circassian couple winning a land tender for construction in the town, Nebaso wrote: “I contacted relatives of the couple and explained that we must all show responsibility and keep outsiders from building on lots meant for residents of the town. … This is a declaration that outsiders shall not build in the town. … Kafr Kama is a Circassian community, with a special character that we all have a duty to protect.” About 1,200 residents also signed a petition calling for Kafr Kama’s “Circassian character” to be safeguarded.

Yazbek requested the intervention of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit “to prevent the policy of discrimination, exclusion and racism that the council head seeks to implement,” saying, “It is inconceivable for a local council head to tell a couple that won an [Israel Lands Administration] tender to whom the apartments may and may not be sold.”

The ILA informed Zilber that the tender “was published and conducted in accordance with decisions of the Israel Lands Council,” and that participation was permitted to locals and others with a first-degree family relation. Zilber replied to Yazbek that the “statements of the council head on this matter have no legal validity.”

MK Yazbek commented, “We’re living in an absurd reality in which, time and again, mayors and council heads feel emboldened to act in a discriminatory and racist manner towards Arabs, thinking they can get away with it.” Yazbek also said that she hopes “the lesson will sink in following this clarification and following the court ruling this week regarding the park in Afula. We have been seeing a significant intensification of the racist atmosphere, and the nation-state law is just one example of it.”

Mendelblit has weighed in on two cases recently regarding the ethnic or religious character of Israeli towns. At the end of May, he ruled that a pledge to “preserve Afula’s Jewish character” had no legal validity. Last week, in a rare move, he joined a petition by human right’s group Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights against a decision to close a municipal park in Afula to nonresidents, arguing it may be constitute discrimination against Israeli Arabs. Afula consequently backed down under pressure from the court.

The city’s decision, Mendelblit said in a statement regarding the park closure, “raises serious questions about the nature of the motives” behind it. Any decision on who is allowed in public parks “cannot be based on race, religion, origin, sex, sexual orientation, or any other innate characteristic,” he added.