Inside story

Ethnic ghosts rise again in fight over access to kibbutz stream

Fearing violence, lawmakers, mayors call for calm in fight seen by many as part of bid to correct historical injustices over division of resources and land

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Amal, or 'Hassi' stream flowing through Kibbutz Nir David in northern Israel, August 9, 2020.  (Menachem Lederman/Flash90
The Amal, or 'Hassi' stream flowing through Kibbutz Nir David in northern Israel, August 9, 2020. (Menachem Lederman/Flash90

A battle by residents of the northern city of Beit She’an to gain access to a section of stream that runs through a veteran kibbutz has turned violent and is exposing ethnic and socio-economic fault lines that many Israelis would prefer to think no longer exist.

The residents, backed by an increasing number of social justice activists from all over the country, say that the stream is public property, which it is, according to the law.

But the people living in Kibbutz Nir David — whose forebears suffered the hostile conditions of scorching heat, humidity and malaria to drain the swamps, channel the water into a canal, build homes and landscape the area into what today looks like a Garden of Eden — say that their closed, quiet way of life also has to be taken into account. They insist that they need the stream to help finance the kibbutz through tourism and are not equipped to turn their village of several hundred souls into a public national park for thousands.

The stream used to run through Beit She’an but was diverted for agricultural and other uses in the 1980s and has dried up. A 2015 compromise plan by the kibbutz to set aside a section of the stream for public use is still stuck in the planning system.

On Thursday, after a raucous discussion, the chairwoman of a Knesset committee ordered all sides to meet with mediators in a bid to find a solution and prevent the fight from descending into violence.

A land of springs and streams

Emek HaMa’ayanot, or the Valley of Springs, is a popular area to visit during the summer. Despite the high temperatures  — the valley forms part of the Syrian-African rift — the plethora of springs and streams, fed by the rains on Mount Gilboa, provide a welcome respite.

There are two national parks with paid entry — Ma’ayan Harod and Gan Hashlosha. The latter is better known by its Arabic name, the Sakhne.

Until around ten years ago, locals and others in the know would congregate at  three other springs — Ein Shokek, Nahal Kibbutzim and Ein Moda.

That was until the early 2000s, when the area of the three springs was upgraded. Publicity brought tens of thousands of visitors from all over Israel and with them, mountains of trash and considerable environmental damage. As a result, the authorities decided to close the park to vehicles.

Instead, and to the chagrin of locals, those unable or unwilling to walk the  considerable distance from the entrance to the springs were offered paid alternatives such as bicycles, which currently cost NIS 50 ($15) for three hours, or golf buggies, costing NIS 210 or NIS 300 ($60 to $90) for two hours, depending on the size. The franchise for this transportation was won by Kibbutz Nir David.

A group of locals petitioned the High Court to have the no-vehicles rule reversed, but instead got a compromise rather than a solution, which saw the parking lot moved a little closer to the springs.

It was at that point that attention turned to the Hassi Stream that starts from a spring at the Sakhne and then flows through Kibbutz Nir David. (Hassi is a Hebraization of the stream’s Arabic name, al-‘Atsi. Its official Hebrew name is the Amal Stream)

Area residents began to pour into the kibbutz to enjoy the stream’s turquoise green water and to relax on the manicured lawns carpeting the banks. But at Nir David, some of the houses almost touch the stream. For the kibbutzniks, it felt like an invasion.

In 2010, feeling that their way of life was being compromised, the kibbutz blocked the entrance with an iron gate.

A map showing two of the national parks near Kibbutz Nir David. The city of Beit Shean appears in the lower right-hand corner. Google maps)

In 2015, activists turned to the Beit She’an Magistrate’s Court to force access. That prompted a compromise under which the kibbutz agreed to plan for a section of the stream, some distance from the houses, to be set aside for public enjoyment. It submitted the plans, but they were ping-ponged back and forth, and are currently stuck with the Northern District Planning Committee.

With frustration mounting, activists launched a  “Liberating the Hassi” Facebook page in September. That has since garnered 18,500 followers.

This summer, groups of locals demonstrating in front of Nir David’s gate were joined by Israelis from all over the country, calling for social justice.

The kibbutz Nir David hired a private security firm and heated confrontations between the two sides turned violent. One on occasion, Nir David’s head of tourism, Cheli Jacobs, was beaten. Several protesters rough-handled by security guards were reportedly sent to the hospital.

Violent scenes outside Kibbutz Nir David, August 14. (Channel 13 screenshot)

The stream is a symptom of a deeper wound

Some of the messages on the campaign Facebook page are not complimentary. One post contains a photograph of a less than salubrious street in Beit She’an and suggests that the protesters clean up their own backyard before looking with envy to take over a beauty spot that is the fruit of other people’s hard work.

There is some sympathy for the kibbutzniks, who have chosen to lead their own quiet way of life within what is essentially a gated community.

But for others, the stream is a symptom of a far deeper wound that dates back to the early years of the state and to the way land and resources were divided. Dominating the posts are people with Mizrahi surnames, particularly North African ones. Mizrahi is a term for Jews who came to Israel from Muslim lands.

Oren Yiftachel, a professor of political and legal geography, urban studies and urban planning at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has been researching the distribution of land and resources for years.

The Hassi flowing through Kibbutz Nir David. (Google maps)

Using the term “ethnocracy,” he has described what he calls the “discriminatory division of space” that took place under the banner of settling the land — a division that harmed Mizrahis and local Arabs from the early years on, and other groups, such as immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, who came later.

The beneficiaries, says Yiftachel, were the Ashkenazis, Jews of mainly European descent, who came to the country first and controlled it through various incarnations of the Labor Party until the Likud swept to power in 1977 — largely thanks to aggrieved Mizrahi voters.

Prof. Oren Yiftachel. (YouTube screenshot)

It was the first wave of immigrants, mostly Ashkenazis, who created the kibbutzim and early moshavim before and right after independence in 1948. Their settlements were established mainly along international borders, or on former Arab villages.

A development town in the early years. (YouTube screenshot)

The second wave of immigration, which lasted through the 1960s, brought Jews from Muslim countries (as well as from eastern European ones, such as Romania). Most of the newcomers from countries such as Morocco and Tunisia were poorly educated, the better positioned Jews from these countries having chosen to leave for France rather than Israel. The weaker groups were sent by truck from temporary transit camps  (usually during the night) either to moshavim (farms) or to public housing developments in 27, initially barren,”development towns” whose location was determined by a policy of increasing the Jewish population in peripheral areas. Most of these towns were in the south or north, far from Israel’s economic and cultural center.

One of these was Beit She’an.

One of the trucks that took new immigrants to the development towns. (YouTube screenshot)

Newcomers who had the ability to flee from the development towns did so as soon as they could. Those left behind were to depend for their livelihoods on agricultural or horticultural labor, or on low tech industrial work, often in  economically unviable factories that needed constant subsidies from the state.

The Ashkenazis got a bigger slice of the land, per capita

Planning was one of many tools used to keep the two groups apart.

Rural areas, including the kibbutzim and some moshavim were organized into regional authorities. The development towns were given their own, separate councils.

In the early years, the only contact that residents of a city like Beit She’an would have had with members of a kibbutz like Nir David would have been as laborers. Because of the way the boundaries were drawn, their children would have gone to different schools.

For the Mizrahi Jews, the kibbutzim, with their sprawling landscaping and lawns (for which the kibbutzniks had toiled hard) became a symbol of everything that they had been denied.

The Shefayim Water Park on Shefayim Kibbutz land in central Israel. (Screenshot)

In recent years, the regional authorities have reaped additional sources of income not available to the development towns (although open to the moshavim) — permission to convert agricultural land into anything from lucrative housing and tourist facilities to out of town shopping malls and gas stations.

Beit She’an is fortunate to have a world-class Roman archaeological site on its doorstep. Other development towns are less lucky.

Kibbutz Nir David. (Shlomi Mishali, Pikiwiki Israel, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5)

The Platinum Club of kibbutzim

Nir David,  which last year had a population of around 730, is part of the Platinum Club of kibbutzim. Founded in 1936 as Tel Amal, it was the first of the so-called “tower and stockade” settlements and the first kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley.

A site recreating the tower and stockade settlement method, in Emek Hama’ayanot (Springs Valley), October 8, 2017. Tower and stockade was a settlement method used by Zionists in Mandatory Palestine during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

Unlike the early road tarring workers, KKL-JNF tree planters and factory laborers of Beit She’an, Nir David’s left-wing, secular, founders were recognized by the Labor movement leadership as the true Zionist pioneers — people fired by the will to settle what was then British Mandate Palestine and help set the borders of the future Jewish state.

For the Mizrahis, the kibbutzim, with their sprawling landscaping and lawns (for which the kibbutzniks had certainly toiled) became a symbol of everything that they had been denied.

Today, things are different. Many Mizrahi Jews serve as ministers, members of Knesset and senior bureaucrats. And the Likud has been in power for 31 of the past 43 years, with the Interior Ministry, responsible for planning, held for many years by the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party, Shas. Organizations such as the Mizrachi Democratic Rainbow, which is supporting the Beit She’an residents in their campaign, now exist to fight for fairer distribution of land and equality of opportunity in education and employment.

The Moroccan-born Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nevertheless, says Yiftachel, the distribution of land and resources and the stratification of society has barely changed, with Israel’s Arabs on the bottom, the Mizrahim above them, and the Ashkenazim still on top.

“The whole system is warped, ” he insists.

The regional authorities — the biggest and strongest of which are still mainly made up of kibbutzim, according to Yiftachel’s research — retain jurisdiction over a whopping 80 percent of state land, as well as most of the country’s natural resources, even though only 10.4 percent of Israel’s roughly nine million citizens live in them.

The wealthy Tamar Regional Council, for example, which has less than 2,000 permanent residents and runs along the southern section of the Dead Sea, is able to profit from taxation paid by the hotels in Ein Bokek , the Dead Sea Works, which mines minerals, and Rotem Amfert Negev, which mines phosphates. These sectors all employ labor from nearby development towns, but it is the regional authority that enjoys the tax income.

Hotels along the shore of the Dead Sea (photo credit: Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
Hotels at Ein Bokek along the shore of the Dead Sea. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

The tip of the social justice iceberg

Asked why the protests over Hassi Stream have grown this summer, Yiftachel said that a number of elements seemed to have coalesced. Social justice activists were “looking for a cause,” locals were frustrated that the kibbutz plan for a public stretch of the stream had not borne fruit, and the kibbutz has been actively marketing its tourist facilities “in everyone’s face.”

And why Kibbutz Nir David? “Because most kibbutzim do not control a park as beautiful as theirs.”

Security guards hired by Kibbutz Nir David to fend off campaigners demanding access to the Hassi Stream. (Channel 13 screenshot)

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Yiftachel went on, describing other cases in which kibbutzim and moshavim have taken control of natural resources. Over the years, he went on, courts had forced kibbutzim who fenced off areas of the Sea of Galilee and charged entrance fees to take the barriers down.

Only last week, the upmarket Shavei Zion moshav on the northern Mediterranean coast was ordered by the Environmental Protection Ministry to remove fencing on its beach so that the public could pass through.

The Mediterranean Sea seen from the Shavei Zion promenade (Shmuel Bar-Am)

On Tuesday, the fight over the Hassi came to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee.

Opening the discussion, chairwoman Miki Haimovich (Blue and White) said it was clear that the dispute was not just about water, but about deep divisions in Israeli society which aroused sensitivity and emotion.

There was a loud discussion, with not a few references to the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide.

Likud MK Keren Barak (left) gestures while addressing the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on August 18, 2020. (Screenshot)

Likud MK Keren Barak, (the daughter of Egyptian and Polish immigrants) who first entered the Knesset in April 2019 and who called for the debate, said she had entered politics to “end discrimination against development towns” and insisted that Nir David open the gates before any negotiations could take place.

The Hassi, she said, was just one of many natural resources that needed to be opened to the public, among them sections of Mediterranean beach adjoining kibbutzim such as Ma’agan Michael and Nahsholim in northern Israel and stretches of river such as the Hatsbani which the HaGoshrim Kibbutz in the northern Galilee reserves for paid-for activities such as kayaking.

Nati Vaknin, a leader of the campaign to open the Hassi Stream in Kibbutz Nir David to the public, addresses the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on August 18, 2020. (Screenshot).

Calling for the immediate removal of the security firm hired by Nir David, activist leader Nati Vaknin said that if the Hassi was opened, measures such as prohibiting barbecues and karaoke music could be taken to limit the disturbance.

Deputy Attorney General Erez Kamenitz said he was surprised that the 2015 proposal was stuck. He opined that there were rights on both sides — the stream and banks were public property to which the public has access rights, but the kibbutz houses are on private property. A balance had to be struck, he said, and the tool was planning.

Yoram Karin, head of the Emek HaMa’ayanot Regional Council (L) with Beit She’an Mayor Jackie Levy, at the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, August 18, 2020. (Screenshot)

Jackie Levy, son of the former minister and deputy prime minister David Levy,  who was one of the first working-class Mizrahis to climb the ranks of the Likud, said that he and Emek HaMa’yanot Regional Council head Yoram Karin had been working for two years on a NIS 100 ($30) million solution to rehabilitate both the Harod Stream (part of whose pollution comes from Nir David’s fish ponds) and that part of the Hassi that once ran through Beit She’an. The latter would form part of a city park.

Both Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority had already visited to have a first look at the plans, he said. Now the funds had to be found.

“Until that happens, we need to allow access to the Hassi [in Nir David.] It’s a statement,” Levy said. He added that the Sakhne should temporarily allow Beit She’an residents to enter at no cost.

Nir David kibbutz chairman Shlomo Glazer addresses the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on August 18, 2020. (Screenshot).

Asked by Haimovich why Nir David could not open the gates immediately for a couple of months, kibbutz chairman Shlomo Glazer said that while people could swim into the kibbutz, they could not come in through the main gate. It would not be fair to have them traipsing past people’s homes, he argued.

“If thousands of people come in, we have no parking, they’ll park on the grass, there are no toilets, no cleaning services, no enforcement.”

As Keren Barak shouted, “open the gates first!” and Shlomo Glazer retorted, “Only if you want to destroy the kibbutz!” Haimovich instructed all of the parties to accept Levy’s proposal to meet around a table and try to reach a solution with the help of external mediators.

“Let’s all get together,” Levy said. “We won’t leave the room until we’ve found a solution acceptable to all.”

He added, “My heart is with the demonstrators, but if this thing blows up, we’ll find ourselves going back to the 1950s.”

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