The Afula municipality on Sunday agreed to open its parks to the general public, reversing a controversial city ordinance banning nonresidents that many critics said was designed to keep Arabs from nearby towns out of the Jewish-majority city.
The city agreed to change its policy at the recommendation of the Nazareth District Court, where the municipality is being sued over the discriminatory policy by the advocacy group Adalah.
Before the judge handed down his ruling, Afula officials told the court the signs banning nonresidents would be removed by Tuesday.
In his decision, the judge said that limiting access to public parks was illegal, but did not refer to Adalah’s claim that the ban was motivated by anti-Arab racism.
“The law is clear about preventing access or charging a fee for public spaces,” he said. “Just like it would be illegal to shut down a street, it’s illegal to restrict entry to a public park, regardless of whether the motivations are discriminatory.”
Last month, newly elected Afula Mayor Avi Elkabetz banned nonresidents from city parks after pledging during his campaign that “the conquest of the municipal park must stop. We must proudly hoist Israeli flags throughout the park and play music in Hebrew.”
Adalah filed a petition at the Nazareth court seeking to have the ordinance struck down. It said the ban on nonresidents followed Elkabetz’s “explicit” election promise to keep residents of nearby Arab towns out of Afula.
Though the city insisted the ban was not designed to keep Arabs out of the city’s parks, testimonies and two separate undercover investigative news programs revealed it was being selectively enforced for Arab visitors.
Named in Adalah’s petition was Nazareth resident Nariman Shehada Zoabi, who said she and her baby were forced to leave a park in Afula.
Zoabi said she felt “ deeply humiliated” when the guard told her to leave, according to the petition. “Jewish residents freely walked past me into the very park that I so often enjoyed with my son while I was prevented from entering and forced to leave – simply because I am from the Arab city of Nazareth.”
On Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sided with Adalah, telling the Nazareth court the city’s ordinance was illegal.
Mandelblit said there were “serious questions about the motives behind the sweeping decision of the Afula municipality to close the park.”
“The decision to enter urban parks, which are shared public spaces, cannot be based on considerations of race, religion, nationality, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation or any other inherent characteristic.”
“A decision that was ostensibly made on the basis of [race, religion, nationality, country of origin, sex, sexual orientation] is a totally unacceptable decision that should be annulled,” he wrote.
Jewish-Arab tensions in Afula have increased since Elkabetz was elected last November. He ran on a platform of “preserving the Jewish character of Afula,” and after he won the race, reportedly added a pledge about preserving the Jewish nature of the city to city councilors’ oath of allegiance.
Last month, Elkabetz and his deputy joined tens of protesters, including Afula city council members, at a demonstration against the sale of a home to an Arab family where city council member Itai Cohen vowed the municipality under Elkabetz would continue to “ensure that Afula preserves its Jewish character.”
“Anyone looking for a mixed city — Afula is not the address,” Cohen told Army Radio on Sunday morning. “We are a right-wing place with Jewish characteristics.”