Housing Tenders' Dispute Fuels Racial Tensions in Northern Israeli City

'If a court in France heard such a petition challenging the collective purchase by Jews, it would not have dared to cancel, and if it had decided to cancel it, it would have caused shock,' say Arab MKs.

Protesters attending the rally against the award of 48 homes exclusively to Arab families in the northern city of Afula, December 26, 2015.
Gil Eliahu

Months after locals demonstrated against housing being awarded to Israeli Arabs in the northern city of Afula in a controversial bidding process, the Nazareth District Court issued a ruling Sunday scrapping its results.

Citing what he described as price coordination among the bidders and vague language regarding the bidding terms, the judge terminated the tender for building 43 housing units, all of which was awarded to Arab bidders. News of the initial bid results prompted protests in the city, which is overwhelmingly Jewish.

District Court President Avraham Avraham stated: “Even if we ignore the harm caused by the coordination of [bid] prices, we are left with the defect in the wording of the terms of the bidding process,” and absent the defect, other good faith bidders may have been successful in the bidding process instead of those who were awarded the lots.

It was impossible, he added, to separate those who coordinated their bids from those who did not. “The entire bidding process was defective and there is no alternative to disqualifying it,” the judge wrote.

The bidding procedure was challenged by four Afula residents whose bids had been rejected. They initially complained to the bidding committee, which rejected their petition on the grounds that it is natural for people who are friends or have family ties to exchange information, which the committee said accounted for the similarities in the prices offered by the successful bidders. The four Afula residents then appealed to the district court.

Abdallah Zoabi, a lawyer who represents four successful bidders in the bidding process who were not found to have coordinated prices among themselves, told Haaretz all bids for low-rise construction are worded the same.

“If the judge found a defect in coordination by a certain group, he should have disqualified the group and not the entire bidding process,” Zoabi said, adding that the court’s decision will be studied and an appeal of the ruling considered.

For his part, however, Ilan Vaknin, the lawyer for the four Afula residents who challenged the bidding process, said: “The court ordered the bidding process cancelled after we managed to absolutely prove in court that most of the successful bidders won after submitting coordinated bids, with improper coordination and prohibited tactics. That’s in addition to arguments about the constitutionality of sections of the bidding provisions that in essence gave an unfair advantage to bidders who organized compared to individual bidders who bid in good faith. It was the correct, just and necessary ruling.”

There was major opposition in Afula in December to the results of the bidding process. Opponents started a Facebook page, strung signs around the city and staged protests. At one demonstration near city hall, some of the protesters tried to attack Afula Mayor Yitzhak Meron and police had to extricate him and move him into the building.

Another demonstration that month attracted right-wing extremists including Bentzi Gopstein of the far-right Lehava organization. Gopstein spoke at the demonstration.

Criticizing Sunday’s court decision, Joint Arab List MK Basel Ghattas said: “Decisions such as these are a translation of the racist spirit that is sweeping every part of the country. State institutions have always used planning and construction to dispossess the Arabs of their land and rights and the district court in Nazareth has today given its stamp of approval to a petition filed for racist motives and that’s it.”

Ghattas’ party colleagues, Knesset members Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadia, called the court’s decision “embarrassing” and said it reflected the spirit of “separation” of Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich and his wife, a reference to Smotrich’s statement that he would not want his wife to room in a maternity ward with an Arab mother due to the noisy celebrations that she could expect.

Tibi and Saadia said the ruling reflected “legal hairsplitting aimed at surrendering and falling into line in accordance with the roars of hate of the demonstrators who didn’t want Arabs in Afula.”

“If a court in France heard such a petition challenging the collective purchase by Jews, it would not have dared to cancel [the bidding results], and if it had decided to cancel it, it would have caused shock,” they said.

The Israel Land Authority said that "we will study the ruling, work according to it, and the customary rules will be clarified in future biddings as is necessary."