Be’er Sheva Mayor Threatens Rights Group Over Israeli Arms Industry Discussion

Negev Coexistence Forum under fire for arranging meeting to discuss Israeli arms sales abroad and the defense industry in municipal building

Be'er Sheva mayor Rubik Danilovich.
Olivier Fitoussi

The mayor of Be’er Sheva said Tuesday he would ask the courts to ban a coexistence group from holding events at a municipal bomb shelter in the southern city if the group proceeds with its plan to discuss the Israeli arms industry at an upcoming meeting.

The Negev Coexistence Forum meeting, scheduled for Monday, is set to discuss Israeli arms sales abroad and its defense industry. The municipality claims the discussion does not conform to the purposes for which it allocated the space.

“From the information that I received over the past few days, it emerges, ostensibly, that the intent is to hold a discussion slandering the State of Israel, its values and its image. Unfortunately, this is not the first time you have hosted activities of this type, but this time it seems you have gone too far,” Mayor Ruvik Danilovich wrote the group in a letter.

The title of the meeting is “The Israeli weapons empire, a conversation with ‘armed men’ and lawyer Eitay Mack.” Mack is a Jerusalem-based human rights attorney and activist.

Danilovich wrote that he considers freedom of expression a supreme value that he would “protect as necessary.” However, he added, “I cannot lend a hand to the use of city assets funded by the municipality for this purpose. That is not why a bomb shelter was allocated! That is not the purpose of the allocation, and it is not the purpose of the association as it was presented to city hall’s allocations committee.”

Some six months ago, Haaretz reported that the municipality had allocated space in one of its bomb shelters to the association based on its goals, which include deepening the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the Negev; creating frameworks for joint Jewish-Arab activities to deal with shared problems and to assist the residents of the area; education for tolerance; and activities for equal rights between Jews and Arabs.

“You are asked not to allow extremists from both sides to fan the flames, divide and slander, and choose the path of dialogue and acceptance of the other. That is the way of this city and its residents. To be clear, if you hold this event despite the above, I will have no choice but to turn to the court,” Danilovich wrote.

This is not the first time the city has come out against events held in the shelter, which is in the city’s Dalet neighborhood and for which the association only has to cover the cost of expenses when it holds its gatherings.

Danilovich has also opposed meetings in the shelter where individuals who refuse to serve in the army have participated, and another event that taught “effective photography at demonstrations and protests.” According to city hall, that event dealt with “how to provoke the security services, including ways to effectively photograph such events.”

In May, city hall sent a letter to Negev Coexistence Forum Director Haya Noah, claiming that some of the activities at the bomb shelter breached the agreement by which it allocated the space to the group. Since then, the parties have met in Danilovich’s office to try to bridge the gaps.

Sources at the meeting said Danilovich did not promise anything about continued use of the premises by the forum. Danilovich mentioned the meeting in his letter, saying it had not helped and there had been “event after event, more and more extremism – as if your whole purpose is to create provocations.”

Two years ago, the municipality banned a screening in the shelter of the documentary “Shivering in Gaza,” about the work of a Dutch trauma expert with Gaza Strip residents following the 2014 war. The attorney general later determined that the ban was justified.

The Negev Coexistence Forum said in response to Danilovich’s letter that its meetings were legitimate, legal and broke no agreement with the city.

The meetings were meant to “challenge the public discourse, raise issues of coexistence and lead to Jewish-Arab-Bedouin cooperation in the Negev. Unfortunately, right-wing politicians decided to ride the antidemocratic wave to win a headline and picture in the newspaper. It is even more unfortunate that the Be’er Sheva Municipality does not stand up for everyone’s freedom of expression.”

With regard to the intervention of MK Nava Boker (Likud), who recently asked Danilovich to prevent the meeting from taking place, the association said that all of its meetings will take place as scheduled, “and we invite Danilovich, like the rest of the public – including the Knesset member who followed our activities and took the trouble to write a letter about it – to come and hear about the Israeli weapons industry, about coexistence in the Negev, and about democracy in the framework of the events we have held and will continue to hold. Who knows, they might learn something.”