In a rare move, Israel's attorney general joined Thursday a human rights group's petition against a decision to close a municipal park in the country's north to nonresidents, arguing it may be constitute discrimination against Israeli Arabs.
In recent years, residents of the northern Jewish-majority city of Afula have opposed Arabs from the area using the park, and protested against Arabs buying houses in the city.
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Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights filed a petition with the Nazareth District Court, asking it to annul the decision made last month by the Afula municipality to close its main municipal park to nonresidents over the summer, except on Fridays.
Adalah argues that the municipality's decision is meant to prevent the city's Arab residents from entering the park and demands that the court rescinds it.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit asked the court to issue an interim order to leave the park open to all until a final decision in the case is made.
The city's decision, Mendelblit said in a statement, "raises serious questions about the nature of the motives" behind it. Any decision on who is allowed in public parks "cannot be based on race, religion, origin, sex, sexual orientation, or any other innate characteristic," he added.
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Mendelblit detailed letters of complaint he received, in which Afula Mayor Avi Elkabetz was quoted as saying, "The occupation of the municipal park must end. It is not a political issue. It is not an election issue. It is simply a fundamental matter of principle. A park that was built for the residents of Afula needs to remain theirs … We must proudly wave Israeli flags through the entire park and play music in Hebrew."
In addition, city council members were cited committing to "preserve Afula's Jewish character," as well as the mayor's participation in the demonstration against selling a house to an Arab family.
The Afula Municipality argues, however, that the decision to close the park was not meant to discriminate against Arabs, but that it seeks to organize various events for the city's residents that will take place in the park during the summer.
The city also said the park was built with public funds and local residents are the ones paying for its maintenance.
Mendelblit said the municipality's response doesn't provide comprehensive answers to the questions presented to it by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber and that an interim order is required to allow for sufficient time to examine the city's arguments.