'They Told Me I Couldn't Enter': Israeli Public Pool Separates Bedouin From Jews

Separation is unofficial but familiar to residents, one of whom says there is a tacit agreement because locals threatened to boycott the pool if Bedouin were allowed

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
The entrance to the pool, Mabu'im, June 17, 2018.
The entrance to the pool, Mabu'im, June 17, 2018. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

A public swimming pool in southern Israel has separate hours for Jews and Bedouin – a practice that is undeclared but nevertheless familiar to visitors.

The pool in the community of Mabu'im is operated by the Merhavim Regional Council. An employee told Haaretz that the pool has activities for the Bedouin community during the week ater 6 P.M. and on Friday nights, while the rest of the time the pool is open only to members.

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"There is a tacit agreement here," a resident of Mabu'im said. "Bedouin will not enter the pool when there are Jews because the residents threatened to stop coming."

The separation is the result of the pool establishing designated hours during which only members may use the pool, even though this is not specified in its regulations. Several members of a Bedouin family who tried to use the pool on Saturday were refused entry based on this condition.

Members of the Hamamdeh family who were denied entry to the pool in Mabu’im, June 16, 2018. Credit: \ Ilan Assayag

However, a number of residents said they have never encountered this condition and often use the pool on Saturdays with a one-time payment. A resident of Be'er Sheva said she and her family have visited the pool on Saturdays for years despite not having membership – and that the staff never checked whether she is a local resident.

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Adel Hamamdeh, one of the family members denied entry on Saturday, said he was surprised he wasn't allowed to enter. "They told me I couldn't enter, that I could only enter after 6 P.M. because I am Bedouin," he said. He told Haaretz that while an employee told him that entry was for members only, he observed people entering after paying a fee.

A Bedouin employee of the pool told Haaretz that the separation occurs and that it is needed because of "differences in mentality" between Bedouin and Jewish visitors. Asked about Jewish non-members who say that they have entered during members-only hours, he said: "You know where we live, and we won't ignore reality. Every place has its procedures and we need to respect one another." He added that most members of the Bedouin community using the pool accept the separation.

Another Mabu'im resident said that refusing entry to Bedouin is a deliberate policy resulting from residents' threats to stop using the pool if Bedouin were allowed.

One Bedouin visitor, a resident of Rahat, said he had been using the pool for the past three years and that he welcomed the separate hours because of the presence of "naked women" and alcohol.

The Merhavim Regional Council confirmed that the pool has hours in which only Bedouin may enter, but said that discriminatory practices during regular opening hours would be improper and that they intend to summon the pool's operator for clarification. It also said that the pool is intended for use by council residents but can be opened to non-residents if it is necessary economically. According to the council, once the operator decided to open the pool to non-residents, this should apply to all visitors regardless of their religious affiliation.

The Coalition against Racism said in a statement about the pool's policy: "Preventing Arab families from Rahat and Segev Shalom from entering the swimming pool in a community in the south is an unacceptable and unacceptable practice that is instituted in several entertainment venues in Israel. As long as it is not discovered because of attempts by operators and owners, it continues to happen even when it's forbidden. We in the Coalition against Racism call on the Jewish and Arab public in Israel not to remain silent in the face of this phenomenon, but to expose it and bring it to an end because it is immoral as well as illegal."

Lawmaker Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) said he would call for an investigation into the matter. "The separation of those who arrive at the pool on the basis of nationality is illegal and immoral," he said. "Anyone who invents justifications and cloaks this separation in claims of "cultural suitability" will end up sinking into apartheid. I will appeal to the attorney general to open a criminal investigation against the owners and operators of the pool and against public places that separate Jews and Arabs. Such separation is against the law that prohibits discrimination in public services."

The same pool was previously linked to claims of discrimination, with a news channel airing in 2013 a recording in which the manager was heard rejecting a request to allow Bedouin children with cancer to enter the pool because of "problems with the community." He said in the recording that there was "an incident three years ago" and that the pool had been open only to members since then.

In 2009, the pool refused entry to a Christian family from Be'er Sheva, allegedly because entry was only for local residents. A member of the family said he approached the manager and was ultimately told that "we don't allow Arabs to enter the pool." The council apologized for the incident.

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