Be’er Sheva District Court Judge Eliahu Bitan on Wednesday likened the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality’s activity in the city to bringing Meir Kahane to Umm al-Fahm.
The Jewish-Arab organization operates in one of the city’s public shelters. In the past it has had held discussions on conscientious objection, the Israeli arms industry and a workshop on filming demonstrations. “Why insist on doing this like bringing Kahane to Umm al Fahm?” said Bitan, referring to a 1984 march led by the militantly racist Jewish leader in the Israeli Arab city. The judge made his remarks at a hearing on the appeal filed by the coexistence forum contending that the Be’er Sheva municipality, which is seeking to cancel its rental contract for the shelter, is violating its freedom of speech.
The aim of the appeal, filed by attorney Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, is to protect the organization from being evicted from the shelter, which it uses as a space to hold events and for daily activities. The judge was harshly critical of the organization, describing its activity in the public shelter as political rather than communal. “There are a thousand things that could be done, and all they do is talk yes Nakba, no Nakba – what does that have to do with the people who live here?” the judge asked.
The city objected to several activities that were held in the shelter, saying they did not belong in a public space, and argued that the rental contract was violated. The forum says its events fall within the terms presented to the municipality before the space in the shelter was allotted to it.
The forum says it can’t understand how the municipality and the mayor “have the audacity to interpret what it is within the forum’s mandate and what isn’t.”
Bitan termed it practically a “contractual” issue and therefore accepted the municipality’s argument that it was a matter of breach of contract and not of violation of freedom of speech. He also noted that the municipality had attempted to reach an agreement with the forum to resolve the matter, and that the forum’s activity in the public shelter had been increasing recently. He suggested that for “controversial events,” the forum rent a different space, but the organization rejected that idea.
“I think the judge got carried away,” said Bedouin social activist Marwan Abu Farih. “He’s trying to separate us from the Palestinian people and from the Nakba that the Palestinian people experienced here. The Bedouins have been here since before the founding of the state. In 1948, the Bedouins in the Negev were made to flee from their land. Because of the war some left for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Gaza, there are even refugees in Sinai.”
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The Negev Coexistence Forum said: “The shelter never changed its character or the nature of its activity since it opened in 2006. It was meant to serve as a center for cultural activity that interests the Jewish and Arab residents of the city and to serve as a site for open discussion. We intend to keep fighting in every legal forum for the continuation of our activity, which we believe does not deviate in the slightest from the bounds of freedom of expression.”