Members of the Afula City Council were sworn in on Thursday and pledged to preserve it as a Jewish city. City council members swore allegiance to the State of Israel and its laws, as stipulated by law, but then also promised to preserve the Jewish character of Afula as well as the religious status quo in the city.
Itai Cohen, a city council member from the Habayit Hahevratit (Social Home) faction, told Haaretz: “It was very touching, and it is a legitimate right.” Cohen said he is now proposing that all educational institutions in the city fly the Israeli flag at the entrance to their buildings, and suggested “proudly flying” the Israeli flag at all of the entrances and exits in an out of Afula, the main city in the Jezreel Valley, in the north of the country.
"We must proudly identify with the State of Israel, its values, its Declaration of Independence,” said Cohen, who in the past was one of the leaders of the protests after all of the successful bidders for the purchase of dozens of lots in 2015 sold through a public bidding process were Arab.
In another development, the new mayor of Afula, Avi Elkabetz, who was elected last month after running a campaign promising residents to preserve the Jewish character of the city, closed Afula's municipal park to non-residents last Saturday. The Facebook page for the park said only city residents would be given access to the park last Saturday. The post suggested that residents seeking to come to the park then bring their identity cards with them, which shows their address. Hanukkah holiday events in the park next week will also be open only to Afula residents.
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Elkabetz was the city's mayor from 2013 to 2015 and the municipal park was built during his tenure. In this year’s municipal election campaign, he participated in demonstrations against the sale of homes to Arabs in the predominantly Jewish city.
In August, as part of Elkabetz’s election campaign, he wrote the following on Facebook: "The occupation of the municipal park must end. It is not a political issue. It is not an election issue. It is simply a fundamental matter of principle. A park that was built for the residents of Afula needs to remain theirs .… We must proudly wave Israeli flags through the entire park and play music in Hebrew,” he wrote.
Elkabetz wrote that the park should be closed for maintenance on days when large numbers of non-residents planned on coming. “We need to stop being exploited! It can be done. We just need the will. Don’t surrender in advance and certainly don't encourage the admission of non-residents to our park,” he warned on Facebook.
In response to a question from Haaretz as to whether closing the park to non-residents was racist, Cohen, the councilman, said: “I don’t see any racist element [in the policy] because [those who live] outside [Afula] cannot enter even if they are Jewish. There is no issue of Jews and Arabs here .… Arabs have businesses in Afula. If there is something inappropriate about calling Afula a Jewish city, then I need to pack my bag and move abroad. The State of Israel was carved in blood, its values and Jewishness.”
In recent years, including the period of the protests against the sale of homes in the city to Arabs, some residents complained that Arabs from the surrounding areas make substantial use of the park.
In an interview with Chaim Hecht on Radio Kol Rega in March, Elkabetz said: “This issue of coexistence has come up more and more recently, and I have a sort of suspicion — and call it whatever name you want — that we are not protecting the Jewish character of Afula enough. It begins at home, it moves into the neighborhood and it moves on to the park, and we need to stop it as soon as possible.”
Later, after Hecht told him he was riding a racist tiger, Elkabetz said: “God forbid. There is no issue of racism here.” Referring to the largely Arab region to the southwest of Afula, Elkabetz added: “I agree with you that we need to build a park for Arabs in Wadi Ara, whether it’s from state funds or from the towns' money, but the park in Afula was not built by the state. The park in Afula was built by the Afula municipality with money from Afula residents and it would be proper for the residents of Afula to benefit from it first.”
The Afula municipality said it has had excellent commercial relations that cut across population sectors and this will continue. "The city of Afula, like the State of Israel, was Jewish and will remain Jewish, and all the members of the city council, coalition and opposition, have committed to preserving the Jewish nature of the city.”
The municipality said the municipal park is “the center of activities in the city and the lively heart of the city.” The city's statement explained that the network of local community centers, which holds activities in the park, asked to allow only local residents to attend special events that it was organizing for last Saturday and during Hanukkah. This was permitted to enable Afula residents and their families to enjoy the activities, the municipality said. The decision was made based on legal advice, and the city does not intend to apologize for it, the municipality stated.
"The park belongs to the residents of Afula and any attempt to link that to the Arab-Jewish issue is divorced from reality. No outsiders were allowed to enter. It does not matter where they live, and it will be the same during Hanukkah, when the local community center will hold activities in the park,” the city's statement added.