Hundreds Rally in Northern Israel Against Housing for Arabs

Speakers at rally in Afula include head of anti-assimilation group and local aide who used to work for construction minister.

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

Some 500 people, including a group of right-wing extremists, protested in Afula on Saturday night against the awarding of a housing tender in the northern city to 48 Arab families.

Among those speaking at the rally were senior officials from the municipalities of Afula and nearby Upper Nazareth, including Brig. Gen. (res.) David Suissa, an Afula city councilman and until recently the chief of staff for Construction Minister Yoav Galant.

After the demonstration had initially ended with the singing of the national anthem, Bentzi Gopstein – the head of the anti-assimilationist Lehava group – arrived. The organizers quickly turned the sound system back on and allowed him to speak. Gopstein was greeted with cheers and chants, including “Kahane still lives.”

Local residents waved banners proclaiming “Preserving the character of the city,” “Afula is in danger” and “Afula is not for sale.” Similar signs had appeared over the past week in the city, situated in the Jezreel Valley. Organizers handed out black balloons, while youngsters signed a petition calling for the cancellation of the tender.

Large numbers of police were in attendance, but the rally passed without any violent incidents.

“What is happening now in Upper Nazareth must not happen in Afula,” Alex Gadalkin, the former deputy mayor of Upper Nazareth, told the rally, adding, “Jewish identity is not racism.”

Protesters waving flags and carrying banners at the rally in Afula, December 26, 2015
Gil Eliahu

Afula Mayor Yitzhak Meron was heckled at a previous rally on December 6, and one of his deputy mayors was booed at the latest protest. Itai Cohen, one of the leaders of the fight against the tender award, called on Meron to resign.

“We, the residents of Afula and the region, and other good people, will do everything but everything so that Afula does not change,” Meron told the crowd. “Forty-eight families is not a drop in the ocean,” he added.

The tender for plots in the city’s Afula Hatse’ira neighborhood was run by the Israel Land Authority. The first tender for 88 plots, on which 118 units will be built, was published in February 2015. A third of those plots were won by Arabs and the others by Jews, including ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The tender causing the current unrest is the second tender, for 27 plots on which 48 units are set to be built. That was won solely by Christian and Muslim Arab families. According to the Afula municipality, the project – in the northwestern part of the city – will eventually have 1,800 homes.

At the previous rally, some 200 Afula residents demonstrated outside city hall to protest the tender. An attorney hired by local residents to examine the tender process sent a letter to the ILA calling on it to cancel the results. He also threatened that if it didn’t, he would recommend to his clients that they initiate legal proceedings. He claimed there were improprieties and price-fixing in the tender, and in similar prior cases the tender had been canceled. He denied that racism was the issue.

The authority had said in response that it sells land to all Israeli citizens transparently and with equality, with no discrimination based on religion, race or gender. The tender in Afula received 305 offers, and the ILA said it was unaware of any price-fixing or impropriety.