Fear and loathing in Upper Nazareth
Arab and Jewish residents respond to Mayor Shimon Gapso, who is determined
By Eli Ashkenazi, Aug. 11, 2013
to keep his town predominantly Jewish.
Ghanem Mahroum, 60, from Nazareth, very much wants to move to the
neighboring city, Upper Nazareth. "I feel better here; in our city
there's a lot of crime, noise, and our municipality is not good enough.
I'd be happy to live with Jews. If I have enough money I'll move here."
His son, who is a lawyer, is already about to make the move from
Nazareth to Upper Nazareth.
Mahroum is a boxing coach in his town and owner of a café in
Upper Nazareth. Two days ago he went from one place of business to
another in Upper Nazareth, posting notices about an international
boxing competition to take place 10 days from now in Nazareth. Teams
from Austria, Hungary, Germany and Israel will be participating. "Since
I was a young boxer I've always been proud to represent Israel. The
State of Israel is a good country that allows its citizens to advance
and develop. It's a shame that a man like [Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon]
Gapso comes with his pronouncements and spoils the atmosphere. I think
that he should get a lot of practice before he re-enters the election
arena because the way it looks to me, in the next round he's going to
suffer a knockout."
With two months to go before local council elections, the Upper
Nazareth mayor succeeded last week in dictating the agenda. For him,
the main issue is relations between Jewish and Arab residents of town.
His campaign, which began about a week and a half ago, features posters
with pictures of leftwing MKs Ilan Gilon (Meretz), Haneen Zoabi (Balad)
and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) and quotes they have made in
the past against Gapso. Later the posters were removed and replaced by
Gapso's replies, such as the sign "Upper Nazareth will be Jewish
forever; no more shutting our eyes, no more clinging to the law
allowing every citizen to live wherever they want. This is the time to
protect our home."
"There's a war atmosphere in the city," said an Arab business owner who
requested anonymity. "This time things have reached a climax, but there
have been statements against us for a long time and they are already
creating a bad atmosphere here." He claimed that as a result of that
atmosphere his young son was humiliated and harassed in his
kindergarten. "Other children called him a 'stinking Arab,' among other
things, and we had to take him out of the kindergarten [in Upper
Nazareth] and transfer him to one in Nazareth."
Attorney Sari Khoury, an Upper Nazareth resident, also says: "Our mayor
wants us, the Arabs, to feel inferior in this city. He's quite a
provocateur who makes sure to emphasize again and again what a racist
he is." At the same time Khoury emphasized that "On a daily basis, I
would describe my neighborly relations with the Jews as very good.
There really is no difference in my relationship with a Jewish or an
Khoury's Jewish neighbors in the Hakramim neighborhood in northwest
Upper Nazareth constitute a minority in a neighborhood where the Arabs
are the vast majority. It's a spacious neighborhood of private homes
whose residents are independent professionals: doctors, lawyers etc. An
Arab resident of the neighborhood who asked not to be identified by
name has been living there for 24 years. Only a road separates Hakramim
from Nazareth, but "the conditions here are far better," she says. "In
Nazareth, there's chaos."
She was not perturbed by the uproar of recent days and dismissed it. "I
love the city and the country, and there are racists everywhere. All I
want is to live in peace and quiet," she said, but she admitted that
members of her family, including her adult children who are university
students, are disturbed by the issue.
No demographic plot
Dr. Ra’ed Getas has lived in Hakramim for 26 years, having moved
to Upper Nazareth from the Arab town of Rama after being appointed head
of the Ear, Nose and Throat department at the Holy Family Hospital in
Nazareth. He is one of the two Arab representatives on the city council
(which has 17 members) for the Arab Joint Party for Coexistence, a
local merger of the Hadash and Balad parties. He expects the party to
win three or even four seats in the coming election.
"Every Arab resident came to Upper Nazareth for his own reasons. After
all, it's a basic right of every person,” says Getas.
“There's no big plan here to bring about a demographic
According to Getas, the Arab population of the city can be divided into
four groups: residents who lived in the area where Hakramim was
established even before the area was annexed from Nazareth to Upper
Nazareth in 1957; those who came due to a housing shortage in Nazareth
and the other Arab communities in the area; people of means –
engineers, doctors and others – who wanted to live in a modern
city that meets their needs; and a small group, on a lower
socioeconomic level, composed mainly of widows and divorcees who wanted
to get away from their old milieu.
Five years ago there was a different atmosphere in the city: Getas and
his partner on the Arab list, Dr. Shukri Awada, were the first to sign
a coalition agreement with Gapso. At the same time Gapso appointed an
Arab resident as an adviser on Arab affairs. Getas says that in return
for their support they were promised that a committee would be formed
to help establish an Arab school in the city, but he says that the
promise was broken and after they left the coalition the anti-Arab
statements steadily increased until peaking in recent days.
Gapso claims that his actions are based on his desire to preserve the
Jewish character of the city. "Anyone can come to live here, but he
should be aware that it's a Jewish city, just as the State of Israel is
a Jewish state. The demand to open an Arab school does not come from a
genuine need - after all, most of the Arabs students from Upper
Nazareth study in private schools in Nazareth. What they want is to
hoist a flag and change the character of the city."
Gapso is very happy watching the Israeli flag flutter. "That's a breeze
that's worth a picture," he said at the sight of the wind blowing a
huge Israeli flag, one of seven that he has placed around the city. One
of them is at the entrance to Hakramim, near Getas' house. The cost of
maintenance, mainly replacing the flags that become tattered from the
wind, in addition to the cost of installing the huge flagpoles, is
thousands of shekels per month.
A new Haredi neighborhood
During the years of Gapso's tenure, which began in 2008, the Arab
population of the city has grown from 15.2 percent to 19 percent,
according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Before the number
reaches 20 percent, Gapso promises to carry out his plan to bring 3,000
Jewish families to the new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Yona
Gapso considers the project his baby, and in recent years he has worked
energetically among the ministers of the Haredi parties to promote
construction of the neighborhood as a way to prevent the city from
becoming a mixed Arab-Jewish city. He realized that his attempts to
change the name of the city to Lev Hagalil, Kokhav Hagalil or Hod
Hagalil (Heart of the Galilee, Star of the Galilee, Glory of the
Galilee, respectively) and decorating the streets with Stars of David
on the lamp posts, large Hanukkah menorahs on the holiday and other
Jewish symbols, are not enough to change the demographic situation.
The city of Upper Nazareth is basically secular. About half of its
residents are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, and on Shabbat
there is public transportation. Gapso has declared in the past (on the
website of the Halamish – Haredim for Judea and Samaria settlers)
that "quite a few people in the city, especially the Arabs, don't like
it [the establishment of the Haredi neighborhood] to put it mildly. But
the facts speak for themselves and most of the population, even the
secular community, knows that Haredim are preferable to Arabs."
Shahar, a resident who recently finished his army service, identifies
with the mayor. "When Menahem was mayor [Menahem Ariav, who was the
mayor of Upper Nazareth for 32 years] the situation was ideal. I don't
want Nazareth and Upper Nazareth to intermingle. We aren't welcome in
Nazareth, while they come here, drive through the street, honk at a
girl and she gets into the car. Shimon is doing good work, but I still
don't understand whether he is for or against an Arab school."
Shahar is standing at the entrance to a store in a shopping center in
the southern part of the city, whose residents are immigrants from the
former Soviet Union, veteran Israelis and an Arab minority. Most of the
stores are empty. While in the commercial center adjacent to Hakramim
they speak mainly Arabic, in this center the prominent language is
Russian. Shahar notes that he has four Arab neighbors “who are
good, quiet neighbors who live their own lives. But suddenly, since
Shimon was elected, more and more Arabs are coming to the city." He
says that among the Jewish population "the city is becoming a senior
citizens' home. The young people are leaving for the center or for
Haifa and the Krayot [Haifa's satellite cities]."
But he and his mother, who joined the conversation, said that "If
Shimon isn't elected the city will become a city with an Arab majority.
Shimon knows how to hold his own against those who are slandering him.
He's an honest man ... who’s interested in your welfare, knows
the residents and respects them. The problem is that he doesn't receive
support and they bother him all the time."
Along with the anger at "the daily shootings from Nazareth, with a
bullet even fired into our house once, and the call of the muezzin at 4
A.M.," what bothered the Shahar and his mother most was the feeling
that his future in the city is unclear. "The young people are leaving
because there are no places of entertainment here and there's no work.
If you find work here at a salary of NIS 4,000, say thank you." Shahar
is already planning the trip to the Far East, followed by studies that
will take him out of the city, in search of a better fuiture.
The Rassco Commercial Center, which was built 50 years ago and was last
renovated 20 years ago, looks neglected, but has more customers. Dollar
stores (which sell everything for two shekels) are an attraction.
Shortly before Eid al Fitr (the three-day festival marking the end of
Ramadan) many Arab families have come to shop. Michael Tomasis, owner
of a falafel stand in Rassco for the past 50 years, understands "the
minorities who didn't come here to conquer the city, but just want a
better quality of life. In Nazareth they were suffocated; there's
nowhere to build there, so they come here. They didn't come here to
But as one of Gapso's known supporters he claimed that "they didn't
understand his statements; he has nothing against them, but he's not
ashamed that he wants Upper Nazareth to be a Jewish city. He respects
them and gives them fair and equal treatment. The relations in the city
between Arabs and Jews are excellent."
Moshe, who is eating at the falafel stand, said that he came to the
city from Jerusalem in the late 1970s "in order to Judaize the
Galilee." According to his theory "Everyone is wrong. Shimon loves
Arabs and their situation improved during his tenure, and because he's
worried about this image among the Jews, it's as though he's saying:
'Look what the leftists are saying about me.' The strong population has
left Upper Nazareth, and his campaign is geared to the weak population
that remained here, including Russians who like a strong leader like
Putin. But his talk will actually cause an Arab school to be opened
here in another two years rather than in another 20."