Small Piece of Heaven Locked Behind Kibbutz Gates Reveals Israel's Deep Social Divides

On social media and on the ground, the heated battle over public access to a picturesque stream located inside a kibbutz in northern Israel is more than just a local dispute ignited by the scorching August sun

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The Asi Stream and Kibbutz Nir David, 2020.
The Asi Stream and Kibbutz Nir David, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

A kibbutz in northern Israel has become a battleground over public access to a stream located inside its gates. Dozens of springs flow in the area east of Beit She’an, also known as Springs Valley, despite the extreme summer temperatures, and quite a few beautiful spots can be found among the golden fields. But only one stream has managed to draw such major attention for months on end now.

The Asi Stream, on the grounds of Kibbutz Nir David has been at the center of a fight for years now, mainly by the residents of Beit She’an. After months of protests, demanding that the kibbutz allow the general public full access, Beit Shean’s mayor, Jackie Levy, and the head of the Emek Hama’aynot Regional Council, Yoram Karin, announced last week that part of the kilometer-long stream, also known as Amal Stream, would be opened to the public.

In a compromise deal, it was agreed that entry would be free and would comply with rules set during the coronavirus crisis. It was also agreed that a plan would be launched to have the stream flow through Beit She’an. The protesters said in response that the mayor of Beit She’an does not represent them and they want access to the entire stream.

One of the protest leaders, Yair Ben-Hamu, wrote on his Facebook page last week: “Imagine that you are schoolchildren, and some bully comes and takes away your sandwich, takes a bite of it and gives it back. Say thanks, you cheeky guys, he gave you back part of the sandwich! They tell you that out of the goodness of their hearts they’re giving up part of the stream for your benefit…They’ve given you part of the stream that according to law they have to allow access to. Who are they kidding?”

Protesters from the nearby town of Beit She’an swim in the Asi Stream, Friday, August 14, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The latest fight over the stream renewed in September, led by a group of young people, mainly from Beit She’an and the surrounding communities. The protesters started a Facebook page that now has 15,000 members, and they hold a protest every Friday at the kibbutz gate. According to the protesters, they believe in distributive justice and they intend to protest until the entire stream is open to everyone. Shlom Glazer, the Kibbutz secretary, says that he understands them well, but he opposes the nature of the struggle. The protesters are using invective on social media and are aggressive and disruptive. “I define this in one word: a nightmare,” he says.

On Friday morning security guards went on duty around the entrances to the kibbutz, like they do every Friday – only this time there were more of them. Although the weekly protest was scheduled for noon, activists began arriving at 9:30 AM and tried to get into the kibbutz. Convoys of cars from all over the country converged on the spot while the temperature outside was still bearable.

“They’re just trying to annoy us. I know them,” said David Kakun from Beit She’an, who has worked as a security guard at the kibbutz for the past eight years. “They respect me, but they’re disruptive. People live here on the Asi. You can’t let them in,” According to kibbutz residents, a convoy of activists’ cars stopped during the night and honked their horns for several minutes.

Meanwhile, few swimmers were present along the part of the Asi that was opened to the public, partly because of restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis. There was a lifeguard on duty paid for by the kibbutz, and the atmosphere was pleasant. One wader in the stream, Ilan from Tivon, southeast of Haifa, said that the moment he saw the Asi had opened to the public he quickly signed up to get in. He arrived with his family at 9:30 A.M. Friends of their arrived later. This was the first time he had visited the kibbutz or the stream.

The Asi Stream and Kibbutz Nir David, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“They took us around, explained things to us,” Ilan said, and the experience was great. Looking at it as an outsider Ilan, said the arrangement seemed “balanced; it takes the privacy of the kibbutz into consideration and allows people to enjoy the stream.”

Bureaucratic snafus

Kibbutz Nir David was founded in 1936 and was known in those days as Tel Amal, one of the so-called “Tower and Stockade” communities established during a period when the British Mandate authorities had banned Jewish settlement. The fight over access to the stream began 2015, led by a group of Beit She’an residents. It ended with a court-brokered compromise with the kibbutz by which some of the stream would be open to the public. But five years went by and the agreement wasn’t implemented. The kibbutz blamed the planning authorities for not approving the required zoning changes they submitted.

“One of the things they wrote in the compromise deal was that because Nir David has no control over the planning authorities, if the plan weren’t approved it wouldn’t be considered a breach of the agreement,” Glazer, the kibbutz secretary, said. “We submitted a plan and that’s where it got stuck. So we resubmitted, it was approved and it seemed that things were moving ahead. That’s the best plan that we could offer.”

In a query by Shas lawmaker Moshe Arbel to Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminitz on the matter, the latter criticized the kibbutz for its conduct. However, Kaminitz also said that the state’s position was that the public be allowed access to the stream but that balance be maintained between the right of the kibbutz and its residents to a normal life.

Demonstrators trying to keep cool while protesting in the heat outside Kibbutz Nir David on Friday, August 14, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Visitors cooling off in the Asi on Friday, August 14, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Glazer noted that normally 42 people work in Gan Hashlosha, the nearby national park. They include 12 lifeguards as well as maintenance and cleaning staff.

“In Nir David, there’s no parking, no cleaning services, no order,” he said. “If someone decides to sleep here, drinks a little beer, goes into the stream and drowns, who will take responsibility for it?”

Until 1960, Gan Hashlosha was part of the kibbutz, he added. Then the kibbutz “gave it to the state, which turned it into a national park. This was Nir David’s land, just like the Asi. We handed it over because we understood that we had to share, and people didn’t live there. They do live here.”

Yehudit Bejarno, a kibbutz resident with two children, said the kibbutz has closed its preschools on Fridays due to the weekly demonstrations. Those preschools serve children from Beit She’an as well and employ workers from nearby communities, she noted. But because of the kibbutz’s decision to close its gates, they can’t get in.

What am I supposed to tell my son, who asks why people at the gate hate us? Why do I need to apologize for being a kibbutznik?

Yehudit Bejarno, Kibbutz Nir David resident

“We can’t let hatred and violence enter our gates,” she said. “What am I supposed to tell my son, who asks why people at the gate hate us? Why do I need to apologize for being a kibbutznik?”

'As if we're Hamas'

By noon on Friday, dozens of protesters had gathered at the kibbutz’s main entrance, holding signs with slogans like “We’re liberating the Asi” and “The Asi belongs to everyone” and shouting “Shame!” at the guarded gate. Two were detained for questioning.

Many protesters wore blue shirts and masks bearing the slogan “Nature belongs to everyone.”

“The whole country ought to come in,” one demonstrator shouted.

“The demonstrators here are the salt of the earth,” another shouted via a loudspeaker. “They fought alongside your children in the army. You’ve put up barbed wire as if Hamas were going to come in.”

Lior Benisti, a protester from Lod who came with his wife and daughter, said he came “to join the protest against the theft of a beautiful natural resource.”

“Kibbutz members must stop being greedy. They earn money from this,” he said. “They are people who have access to resources, unlike others who don’t. That’s the whole story. This is a beautiful, genuine and authentic protest.”

Protesters after they managed to enter Nir David to cool off in the Asi, Friday, August 14, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

One demonstrator shouted through a megaphone: “This isn’t a protest by Beit She’an residents; there are people here from all over the country.” Another pointed to an approaching bus and announced, “Look, a bus has arrived from Tel Aviv.”

“With God’s help, the gates will open today and the people will go in,” said one demonstrator, Rotem Lev Shapira from Kfar Yehezkel. The protesters also tried to enter the kibbutz and swim in the stream during previous demonstrations.

At 12:30 P.M., when the temperature in the parking lot had already hit 39 degrees Celsius, the demonstrators actually did manage to enter the kibbutz through the main gate and cool off in the Asi. It’s not clear how the gate was opened.

“I personally am upset by the situation,” said Galia Hanani, who moved to the kibbutz from Beit She’an nine years ago with her husband and children. “I have friends on both sides.”

“Regardless of whether the fight is justified or not, this isn’t the way,” she added. “In my view, the fight isn’t justified; nothing here violates the law. But wars won’t help. Only dialogue will.”

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