Littering and Violent Racism Break Record as Israelis Flock to Sea of Galilee Shores

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Cleaners collect garbage on a beach on Lake Kinneret, August 28, 2020.
Cleaners collect garbage on a beach on Lake Kinneret, August 28, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

In the final week of August, beaches along Sea of Galilee and streams in the Galilee are reflecting two facets of Israel. On one side, hundreds of thousands of citizens with nowhere to fly are descending on every water source or footpath, leaving behind mountains of garbage. Trailing them and attending this mess are workers who, for meager pay and under difficult conditions, have to contend with a country in which discarded beer cans and snack food wrappers have become an inseparable part of the landscape. And these workers, who remain behind to return nature to some semblance of normalcy, report constant daily bullying and expressions of racism by visitors.

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Towards the weekend, cleaning staff on Levanon Beach on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, could breathe more easily for a while. This is when the profile of visitors changes, with families with children replacing groups of young adults. As children frolick in the water and smoke rises from a barbecue, Tarek Hassuna, from the Arab village of Misr, who has worked here for a decade, describes an incident from the previous day.

“We swept the grassy area with eight workers at midday”, he says. Then they encountered a group of young people who looked like hilltop youth, an idiom for young, radical Israeli settlers, so called because they originally lived on unsanctioned illegal outposts on West Bank hills. “We brought them a garbage bag, and one of the girls in the group said that she doesn’t need the bag. ‘The Hasbani Stream is mine, Be’er Sheva is mine and so is Hebron. The whole country is mine and you are the ones who have to clean it,’ she said."

From left: Tarek Hassuna, Sharif Zoabi and Bassem Zoabi on Kursi Beach, on the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret, August 28, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“I didn’t argue with her. I called my supervisor and he sent a policeman, who came within seconds. He told them that if they didn’t clean up, they’d have to leave. We now have inspectors and policemen accompanying us while we work.”

Hassuna says that incidents like these have pushed some of the older cleaners to stop working. “They have families, they’re afraid. I’m 45. Girls come looking for an argument. There are bins right there but they throw garbage next to them on purpose.” A visit to the beach shows some garbage next to a bin, as well as vandalized equipment. This bothers the workers less than the harassment by visitors.

“This year, most of the visitors are okay,” says 53-year-old Bassem Zoabi, also from Misr. “But there are young people making racist comments. This year they’ve crossed all lines: One manager was even beaten up," he says, before recounting an incident from two weeks before. Three cleaners asked a group of young people on the beach to lower the volume of the music they were playing, and a clash broke out, with dozens of youths taking part. The police said that this was not a racially-motivated incident and detained three workers as well.

“My workers hear calls such as ‘death to Arabs’ and ‘dirty Arab’ all the time. Our managers back us and we can call them anytime,” says Zoabi. “I only hope no one is murdered here. Other nearby beaches don’t have this. I don’t know why it happens only here.” He shows us photos of broken toilets and excrement smeared on walls. He’s been working these beaches for 30 years, currently as a contractor. He says that this year is unusually harsh by any standard.

Zoabi’s son Sharif has been working here for a decade. He too talks about racist taunts he is constantly subjected to. “The minds of 14-year-old children are full of hatred and racism. They tell us we have no place in this country, that we’re their slaves. I don’t respond when they curse us and the police. They use drugs and alcohol. Two girls pushed a worker into a latrine yesterday, telling him to clean it. They break bottles and children cut their feet, and we get the blame.”

Hassuna says that in the past there was the odd troublemaker, but now they are the majority. “You have some good ones, but most have grown up on hatred. We live near a kibbutz and have never felt that. I served in the army and contributed to the state.” The head of the regional council said that this team is devoted, working hard to keep the beaches clean, but that the violence and racism must be condemned.

Not all visitors behave that way. One of them notes how clean and quiet the area is. He jokes with the cleaners that if everyone disposed of their garbage like he does, they’d have no work.

Ibrahim Abdullah (left) and a colleague on Zinabberay Beach, on the western shore of Lake Kinneret, August 28, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The western side of the lake is somewhat different. Most of the cleaners are Sudanese. Ibrahim Abdullah has been working there for seven years. “There is more filth here now, more garbage. Some people don’t talk nicely. Some drunk Arabs quarreled with me two weeks ago. They despise Sudanese. Some of them laugh at us.” A friend of his, also from Sudan, proudly shows his Israeli ID card. He’s been working here for nine years, also saying some people don’t clean up when they leave. His mobile phone was stolen for the first time this year, after all the years he’s worked here.

Merciless heat

Small numbers of cleaning staff along streams in the north have to contend with masses of visitors, many of whom leave behind creative forms of garbage. One cleaning contractor shows us photos of carpets and armchairs left in the area. “People don’t care about cleanliness here. They don’t see these sites as needing to be kept clean. Ten percent of the visitors clean up while the rest leave their garbage behind. Bags they leave here are scattered at night by wild animals and the garbage gets into the water, floating down to the Kinneret,” he says.

This contractor hasn’t encountered physical violence, but he has been cursed. He takes it lightly, noting that the police are often summoned. “Workers aren’t heeded when asking people to pick up their garbage so they call their supervisors. When these are also ignored, they call the police. This happens every week.”

A cleaning contractor on the Snir stream, north of Lake Kinneret, August 28, 2020. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Signs forbidding people to stay overnight at Snir Stream are ignored, as are requests to keep the noise down, avoid lighting fires or swimming. The head of the regional council says that spending time in nature makes people better and is good for the local economy. “Just obey the rules and keep it clean,” he asks.

The cleaning contractor says that when he distributes garbage bags, some people understand while others get angry, saying that it’s obvious that they have to clean up. “But ultimately, most people don’t. The young ones are the worst. They cause damage and say that only suckers clean up. Let the state or the contractor clean up, they say.”