State sides with public over access to picturesque kibbutz stream

After years of foot-dragging, prosecution tells Haifa District Court that public access to Hassi Stream in Kibbutz Nir David should be given ‘immediately’

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

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

A long-running campaign for public access to a beautiful stretch of water within the confines of Kibbutz Nir David in northern Israel took a major step forward Sunday, when the state prosecution informed the Haifa District Court that public access to a stretch of the stream should be granted immediately.

“From the state’s point of view, the general public has right of access to the stream [popularly known as the Hassi]… access that comes from the state’s property rights to this land,” a written opinion said.

Emphasizing that public access had to be balanced with the right of kibbutz members to continue their way of life, and that the preference would be for access that does not pass close to members’ homes, it said, “If access can only be via kibbutz [residential areas], then that can’t be prevented.”

“Look at the clock, look at the date, and mark this day as a huge victory,” said a post uploaded Sunday to a Facebook page with 23,600 followers called “Liberating the Hassi.”

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

Residents of the northern city of Beit She’an, backed increasingly by social justice activists from all over the country, have battled for years to gain access to the turquoise stream, which is actually a canal.

Hassi (whose official Hebrew name is the Amal Stream) is a Hebraization of the stream’s Arabic name, al-‘Atsi. It starts from a spring at Gan Hashlosha, better known by its Arabic name, Sakhne, before flowing into Nir David.

The stream used to run through Beit She’an, but was diverted for agricultural and other uses in the 1980s, and has dried up.

After free access to other local bodies of water in the area ceased, residents from Beit She’an and other communities began to pour into the kibbutz to enjoy the stream’s waters and to relax on the manicured lawns carpeting its banks.

But at Nir David, some of the houses almost touch the stream. For the kibbutzniks, it felt like an invasion. They argued for their right to preserve their quiet lives after their forbears suffered 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.

They insisted that they need the stream to help finance the kibbutz through tourism and that they are not equipped to turn their village of several hundred souls into a public national park for thousands.

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 still stuck in the planning system.

With frustration mounting, activists launched the “Liberating the Hassi” campaign.

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

Violent scenes outside Kibbutz Nir David, August 14, 2020. (Channel 13 screenshot)

Last summer, groups of protesters gathered in front of Nir David’s gate, calling for social justice.

Nir David responded by hiring a private security firm and heated confrontations between the two sides turned violent.

Responding Sunday to a petition filed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which mainly represents Mizrahi voters, and one of  its lawmakers, Moshe Arbel — against Nir David, the Emek HaMa’ayanot (Valley of Springs) Regional Council and the Israel Lands Authority — the State Prosecution recommended a staged approach, starting immediately, with the opening of a gate on the western side of the kibbutz currently used only by members of the kibbutz and a kibbutz sports center. This, said the prosecution, is located a “reasonable” distance from kibbutz homes, does not involve any statutory changes and requires a 500 meter (550 yard) walk, at most.

Another possibility would be access from the direction of Gan Garoo, a kangaroo attraction to the northeast of the kibbutz, the opinion said.

A third option, which will take longer, would be to expand the kibbutz’s original plan for access from the east and get it through the planning system.

The final decision, which the court has yet to make, could set an important precedent.

A post uploaded Monday to “Liberating the Hassi” said, “Dozens, if not hundreds, of pairs of eyes from all over Israel are looking beyond the legal and public debate at the center of this petition… with the understanding that any decision, this way or that, can impact the way that other private bodies and economic bodies and other interest groups allow themselves to take ownership or to prevent access to public land, natural or otherwise.”

The post went on, “This is not a theoretical struggle and it is not a petty struggle. This is a struggle that raises weighty questions about who holds the powers that allow or prevent access to public areas in the State of Israel.”

A statement from Kibbutz Nir David said, “In the state’s announcement regarding Nahal Hassi as submitted to the Haifa District Court on Sunday, the state reiterated its position that the river should not be accessible in the kibbutz’s residential area, and proposed a temporary solution outside and not near the residential areas, [which was] also by agreement between the regional council and the kibbutz.”

The saga has exposed deep ethnic and socioeconomic fault lines that many Israelis would prefer to think no longer exist between Mizrahi Jews, particularly North African ones, and Ashkenazi Jews, mainly of European descent.

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