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Gapso’s stand has nevertheless pushed against the constraints of Israeli civil equality laws to create a distinctive anomaly: The city provides individual and household municipal services equally to its Arab and Jewish residents, from trash collection to social services. But when it comes to the public sphere, Arabs are invisible wherever the law allows.
“The municipality wants us to treat Nazareth Illit like a hotel,” said Raed Ghattas, one of the city’s two Arab councilmen. “It wants us to sleep here, [but] wake up and conduct our activities, in schools, offices and in culture, outside of Nazareth Illit.”
Most of the Arabs are Christians, but one wouldn’t know it at Christmas time. In 2010, Gapso stopped a plan that would have placed Christmas trees in some public places. “As long as I’m mayor, there won’t be Christmas trees or any other non-Jewish symbol,” he said at the time.
The biggest complaint in the Arab community is that it doesn’t have a school. Israel’s public education system is divided into Jewish and Arab sectors. And while Arabs are free to enroll in Nazareth Illit’s Jewish-sector Hebrew-speaking schools, most prefer Arab-sector Arabic-language schools. But there aren’t any in Nazareth Illit. Building and opening new schools is a municipal responsibility. As a result, some of Nazareth Illit’s 1,900 Arab children spend as much as three hours on connecting buses each day getting to and from school in Nazareth.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has taken up the local Arab residents’ battle to establish schools. “Arabs have the right to be there, so they should have the full right for education, which means schools in their language,” said Auni Banna, the group’s attorney, in an interview.
But Gapso has vowed to oppose their establishment, and told the Forward, “There will never, never be an Arab school in Nazareth Illit.”
For critics, Gapso’s bold assertion raises serious questions about local democracy in Israel. But Gapso insists he’ll hold firm no matter how much his town’s Arab population grows. He said rhetorically, “If the population of Nazareth Illit is 99% (Arab) and I will be mayor, there won’t be an Arab school.”
The situation in Nazareth Illit should not be confused with the one existing in Jerusalem. There, the Arabs, who make up about 30% of the population, mostly don’t have Israeli citizenship, while Nazareth Illit residents do; high poverty levels also afflict Jerusalem’s Arab residents, and a vast disparity in municipal services is evident between the city’s Jewish and Arab sectors.
“We pay council tax and get services,” said Sliman Salach, standing outside his family’s $1 million-plus home.
Like many of Nazareth Illit’s Arabs, the Salachs are wealthy émigrés from Nazareth, where property is in short supply and the city has little room to expand, in part due to government land expropriations that originally made Nazareth Illit possible. Disappointed by what they regarded as poor municipal services in Nazareth, the Salachs came to Nazareth Illit simply looking for good homes in well-kept neighborhoods.