In Israeli Rural Community, Locals Act to Stop Arabs From Moving In

Over a third of the people in Nofit have petitioned to halt an expansion that would include a land swap and bring their Bedouin neighbors closer

The homes of Bedouin residents at Nofit in the Galilee, August 2017.
Rami Shllush

The August 2 meeting of hundreds of residents of the Lower Galilee community of Nofit was raucous. The topic: a plan to expand their pastoral village.

Remarks by officials from the community’s governing committee and the planning authorities were repeatedly interrupted after it became clear that the expansion would require a land swap making local Arabs part of the community. 

From that point, the discussion descended into rumor and exaggeration that at times came close to violence. The meeting took place because of a petition to halt the expansion signed by about 1,000 of Nofit’s 2,700 residents. Another petition to dismiss members of the governing committee attracted about 860 signatures. A day after the meeting, six of the nine committee members resigned.

Some of those who quit said they felt threatened and were concerned about their families.

“The problem isn’t that the racists screamed that tomorrow a mosque would be built in the community,” said one Nofit resident, “but that most of the people said nothing.”

On a tape obtained by Haaretz from the community meeting, one resident is heard saying that the Arabs are “like a bone in the throat” and raising the prospect that an Arab village would be built in the middle of Nofit.

Following the meeting, a mock death notice was sent out on Nofit’s WhatApp messaging group celebrating “the death of the idea of expanding the community.” It was signed: “The grieving family – Sons of Ishmael and a small number of residents.”

Center-left voting patterns

The idea for expanding Nofit, which was to include 216 new homes, began to take shape about a decade ago. Until recently, no one questioned the necessity for it as the population aged – leading to the closure of the community’s kindergartens and a reduction in the number of elementary school classes.

“Nofit needs to expand. It’s a matter of survival,” said one source, but now it appears that many residents believe otherwise as long as Arabs don’t stream in.

Still, Nofit isn’t a right-wing community. In the 2015 Knesset election, nearly 75 percent of voters chose the centrist Yesh Atid party and the center-left Zionist Union.

The expansion includes a plan for resolving the status of a 60-member Bedouin family that lives at the entrance to Nofit in substandard conditions with little infrastructure. Last week one member of the family said he had a hard time understanding the fear of his Jewish neighbors who live just a few hundred meters away.

“Every house in Nofit has air conditioning,” he added. “We don’t have electricity.”

A small portion of the proposed expansion area is owned by an Arab resident of the town of Sakhnin, Hussein Ghaneim. Another piece was expropriated about 20 years ago from residents of an adjacent Bedouin village. Now a land swap would be required.

The Israel Land Authority has proposed a land swap under which Ghaneim and other landowners would have the option of receiving land zoned for commercial use. Some Nofit residents who oppose the expansion are unwilling to accept the ownership of any Nofit land by Arabs, even if it is commercial and not residential.

Others said they believed the commercial land would ultimately be used for housing for the local Arabs. There was also the complaint that the plan would “change our special character.”

The rural community of Nofit in the Lower Galilee, August 2017.
Rami Shllush

For its part, the Israel Land Authority said the expansion plan had not yet been finalized. “When it is completed, it will be presented for approval to planning institutions in accordance with procedures and the law,” it said.

On the tape from the community meeting, another resident said: “I chose to live in Nofit because of the quality of life, because of its character, because of its residents, because of its high socioeconomic status.”

Another asked, "Are there restrictions on building a mosque on the new plots that will be given to our cousins?” – referring to Arabs.

Some speakers appeared careful not to use the word “Arab,” but others seemed to gradually let their guard down. One asked if there were any restrictions on building a mosque in the expansion area. Another asked residents to consider what the commercial center of Nofit would be like after the Arabs “come and sit at the café and drink beer.”

Bringing in the UN

Some at the meeting proposed dropping the Arab-owned land for the expansion plan, even if it meant a smaller expansion of the community. Such an option, it turns out, was discussed at the Zevulun Regional Council for the wider region.

According to the minutes of the discussion at the regional council, “such solutions don’t keep with the rules and laws of the country, and they cannot be implemented.” When that was mentioned at the meeting in Nofit, few sounded very convinced, even by the argument that “we are a country run according to the law.”

One of the few people at the meeting who expressed support for the plan was 94-year-old Prof. Uzzi Ornan. “Israel was established based on the Declaration of Independence and was accepted into the United Nations based on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said. “We cannot create a new Jewish ghetto here. I suggest accepting the expansion plan without racist arguments.”

At a playground in Nofit, one mother summed up the controversy by saying that “the fear is mostly over change.” Another woman acknowledged that there was shouting at the meeting, but just from a few people, she said. “Most of the people tried to understand what was really going on,” she added.

“There’s fear that the community is getting older. Kindergartens are closing, and what if there aren’t enough children for the school?” one woman said. Another insisted that “anyone can buy a lot” in Nofit, but she admitted: “After all the political correctness, people want to live with people like themselves.”

Another said: “We have no problem with them. We work with them. I like my housekeeper very much, but it’s a different culture. They act differently. I’m afraid that my daughter will go around and God forbid get run over. There are significant cultural differences.”

When ultra-Orthodox members of the Chabad Lubavitch movement came to Nofit, they were also met with opposition, the women said, adding that “anything that’s a little different from the norm is difficult.”

Ghaneim, the owner of the piece of land slated for the expansion, said he had not been aware of the controversy. He said he was willing to sit down with anyone, but people “reap what they sow” and good things aren’t in store for racists. He said he had bought the land in question several years ago and was willing to accept a swap.

One of the three committee members who didn’t resign, Dalit Spektor, has become chairwoman. At her first meeting at the helm, she said the head of the regional council had committed to cooperate with Nofit's residents to halt the approval process for the expansion.

Nofit, she said, is celebrating its 30th anniversary of “flourishing community life.” The expansion plan was promoted by people who didn’t involve Nofit’s residents and it “in no way reflected its original goals.”

In a democracy, the majority decides, she said. Nofit’s “gates are open to everyone ... and any hint to the contrary does nothing but an injustice to a community that has values and is diverse and tolerant.”