Nazareth Illit: From Judaization of the Galilee to a Mixed City, Vision versus Reality

In this article from the December 2016 issue of Bayan, Shlomi Daskal examines the recent elections held in Nazareth Illit and the fundamental regional changes reflected therein.

Shimon Gafsou

Shimon Gafsou

Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth) was established in 1956 alongside Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, as a Jewish settlement on lands expropriated from local Arab residents as part of the vision of the “Judaization of the Galilee”. However, over the years, Arabs too have relocated to Nazareth Illit, for a variety of reasons.[1] According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (as of 2014), the city houses 40,000 residents, 20% of which are Arab. The demographic changes have led to occasional discord between Jews and Arabs, especially in times of national conflict between Israel and the Palestinians[2], however, there is also friction on day-to-day matters, such as the building of Arab schools in the city, increasing the quantity of Arabic-language books in the local library, the placement of the Christmas tree, and more. These requests were summarily dismissed by the mayor, Shimon Gafsou, a Likud party member. Moreover, upon his election in 2008, Gafsou worked to emphasize the city’s Jewishness, whether through symbolic acts such as installing an unusually large Israeli flag at the entrance of the city and dispersion of Stars of David through the city’s streets, or by encouraging religious, right-wing populations to settle there[3].  In the 2013 municipal election cycle, Gafsou chose the slogan “Nazareth Illit Jewish forever,” although, on more than on occasion, he explained that “everyone is welcome to live in the city.”[4]

Politics and Communication – The Art of the Impossible
It would seem possible to describe Nazareth Illit as another city wherein Jews and Arabs clash on nationalist grounds. However, the case of Nazareth Illit is different because of two interesting personalities: Dr. Shukri ‘Awawdeh and Dr. Ra'ed Ghattas. Physicians by trade, the two demonstrated remarkable political resourcefulness, and succeeded in shrewdly navigating municipal politics. They quickly became key figures in the city’s public life by being aware of their strength, as well as their limitations. In 2008, seven years before the unification of the Israel’s Arab parties via the Joint List, ‘Awawdeh , a Hadash party member, and Ghattas, a Balad party member whose brother Dr. Bassel Ghattas has been one of the party’s representatives in the Knesset in recent years, understood the power of a united Arab list and joined forces for the Nazareth Illit council elections under the name “The United List for Co-existence.”

The United List of Nazareth Illit reached the height of its power this year, in light of special mayoral elections following Mayor Shimon Gafsou’s dismissal from the office for a criminal conviction. At first, the members toyed with the idea of entering the mayoral race, however, with a limited number of potential candidates, they concluded that their entry into the race would stir racial strife, and serve to reframe the elections as part of the Jewish-Arab conflict, thereby damaging The Joint List’s achievements thus far. Therefore, the members preferred to support a Jewish candidate in return for gaining accomplishments for Nazareth Illit’s Arab citizens from within the municipal framework. 

Two Jewish candidates competed for The Nazareth Joint List’s support: Netanel Twito, who had served as acting mayor (and, at the time, led a coalition with which The List was allied), and Ronen Plot, a former Knesset CEO , who was identified with the right side of the political spectrum. Previously, Plot had served under Likud minister Yuli Edelstein as general manager of the Ministry of Absorption, the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, and most recently, as general manager under Edelstein in his capacity as Speaker of the Knesset. After deliberation, The United List decided to publicly back Plot. They announced their support only one day before the elections – a prudent political move to minimize opportunities for Plot’s opponents to portray the election as a matter of Jewish-Arab conflict. After the announcement, the party ensured that their decision was broadcast through every available network. They even uploaded a special video to Balad’s YouTube channel, which featured Dr. Ghattas calling their constituency to vote for Plot.[5] This formed a surprising political coalition: ‘Awawdeh and Ghattas cooperated with Likud’s Plot and an additional council member from the Israel Beiteinu party (viewed as hostile among many Arabs in Israel), Alex Gadlekin, who had once urged Arabs to leave the city in return for financial compensation.[6]

Additionally, days before the election, Plot circulated a video in which he received Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement. The news site, al-Arab, a subsidiary of Kul al-Arab, in a rare reference to elections, questioned whether The List would endorse a right-wing candidate who is supported by the Prime Minster, and included the video in their report.[7]

Another arena in which there were interesting developments with regard to the elections was the media. In general, Israel’s Arab media showed little interest in the elections, with the exception of two media outlets:   the news site Bukra and the television station Musawa. Bukra, an independent news site funded by the Zoabi family, volunteered unequivocal support for Plot.[8] Musawa made no endorsement, however, the station provided a variety platforms for Ghattas and ‘Awawdeh  to disseminate their political philosophy , and even allowed ‘Awawdeh  to make an on-air appeal for the citizens of Nazareth Illit to vote for Plot on the day of the elections.[9]  It is important to note that Musawa is a satellite TV station of the Palestinian Authority that addresses Israel’s Arab citizens, and that in the past, the Israeli government has attempted to shut it down.[10] Paradoxically, this station has contributed to the election of Plot, who as mentioned, was the Israeli Prime Minister's favorite. 

Even before election day, Dr. ‘Awawdeh  had presented his rationale for cooperation at the Nazareth Illit council: “What’s happening in Nazareth Illit is a reflection of what’s happening in the Knesset and in the Israeli government at large; the local authority reflects the activities of the Ministry of  Interior, which is run by the Interior Minister, and above him is the Prime Minister, and they are all from the Israeli Right…obtaining [our rights] will require maneuvering within the framework of the local government…we will not establish the Palestinian State in Nazareth Illit, but our demands [regarding] daily matters will be [fulfilled].[11]

Among those demands were the construction of an Arab school from grades K-12 to serve over 2,000 Arab students in the city, infrastructure investment in Kramim, the city’s central Arab neighborhood, and the establishment of community centers for the Arab public.[12] In an attempt to defend their support of Plot, ‘Awawdeh  presented favorable facts: Plot had formerly been a member of the Labor Party and was close with the dovish Yossi Beilin; as CEO of the Knesset and government ministries he had not been a Likud member; the members of the United Arab List gave their assurance that Plot was not politically biased and that their relations with him were good; it’s possible to live peacefully with his political views; cooperation with Plot would allow The United List to clench executive positions in the municipality, and would enable them to turn a new page in relations between Nazareth Illit and neighboring Arab settlements. Before the elections, and afterward, ‘Awawdeh  and Ghattas took pains to present the result which was most crucial for their purposes – that the Arab voice would decide the election .[13]

The Neighbor Casts Criticism
Criticism of the cooperation between Nazareth Illit’s Arab List and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s candidate spread mainly through social media networks.  An unusual critical stance arrived from the city’s neighbor, the Arab city of Nazareth. Upon the publication of the signing of the coalition agreement, the City of Nazareth municipality issued a statement condemning the agreement and personally attacked ‘Awawdeh  and Ghattas.[14]

About a week later, Nazareth's mayor Ali Salaam complained in an interview that the United List leadership had earlier shunned him for his supposed ties to the Likud. Now they were congratulating themselves for entering into a coalition with Likud party members.”[15]

In spite of the criticism, the two pressed on, with Ghattas highlighting their seminal accomplishment: “In these elections it was revealed that we have the power to determine the outcome. In every future race, it will be known that no one will become mayor without the Arab voice.” In addition to presenting their achievements since the establishment of the list, ‘Awawdeh  explained, “They attacked us as though the candidate in Nazareth Illit had been George Habash, and we abandoned him to support Ronen Plot […] the choice was between a right-wing candidate from the Likud who recognizes our right to coexist, and a right-wing fascist who doesn’t recognize our right to speak.”[16] It is important to note that unlike his statements during the campaign, ‘Awawdeh  admitted that Plot was a Likud member and not an unaffiliated candidate. In another instance, ‘Awawdeh wrote that Plot understands the sensitivities of the Arab public. For example, in his victory speech, Plot did not surround himself with Jewish national symbols, and he also called for co-existence between Jews and Arabs.[17]  

Taking Responsibility without Forgetting the Past
In an interview intended to spur the Arab public to vote, Dr. Shukri ‘Awawdeh shared his personal credo: “We cannot sit in the corner slinging catchwords and saying ‘they’re racist,’ [even if] it is true. In order to create positive influence, one must influence from within …and to maintain your minimum or maximum national identity, while pulling the majority to identify with a threatened and oppressed minority. And that’s what we we’re doing in Nazareth Illit.”[18]

Additionally, the Joint List of Nazareth Illit believes that they are leading a change of mind – that they, the Arabs, serve all the city’s citizens and not just their own constituency.  As part of the call to take responsibility for the goings on in the city, they point out that their municipal activities for Arab citizens have led to interaction with Jewish citizens, namely at cultural events. In the same breath, they admit that the interaction is mutual – Arab citizens attend the events of their Jewish neighbors, which in turn, leads to exposure and mutual recognition.[19]   

It is important to note that this is not a kitschy co-existence story nor a honorable Arab acceptances of the Jewish-Zionist hegemony. Both Awawdeh and Ghattas don't neglect to mention the past and in fact the expropriation of Arab lands, which served as the basis for Nazareth Illit’s establishment, serves as their start point ‘. For them, Nazareth Illit is the land of their ancestors, upon which they are not guests and this provides an impetus to participate in the city’s happenings.[20] Furthermore, they are convinced that civic activity and taking part in the municipal scene will lead the Arab public to successes at the national level.[21] For ‘Awawdeh  and Ghattas, this applies not only to Nazareth Illit, but rather, view their municipal work as something that should be used as a model for mixed cities throughout the country.  For them, just as the unification of The Joint List of Nazareth Illit preceded the unification of Arab parties on a national level, so too must Nazateth Illit serve as a model for mixed cities. In ‘Awawdeh ’s words: “The Joint List in Nazareth Illit […] is a pioneer in national activity, and the spark that created the Joint List on the national [level].  It is necessary that the committees which monitor the conflict, along with the committees of [Arab] regional councils, pay attention to our struggle for an egalitarian existence as an example to be tested in mixed cities.”[22]

‘Awawdeh promised that a Joint List member will not serve on the council more than two terms. Therefore, he does not intent to run in the municipal elections in 2018.[23] It is not unlikely to imagine that Dr. ‘Awawdeh may one day serve as a member of the Knesset. Will the Nazareth Illit model ascend to national politics? Time will tell.

[1] This phenomenon is not unique to Nazareth Illit. For more on this phenomenon and its causes, see: Shuki Sadeh. “Arabs Flock from Beit Hanina to Ramat Aviv,” The Marker (18.12.2005).  

[2] Ahikam Moshe David. “Nazareth Illit: Clashes in the Midst of the Operation in Gaza,” NRG (01.10.2009).

[3]  Ahikam Moshe David. “Goodbye Nazareth Illit: Shimon Gafsou’s Plan to Judaize the City,” NRG (10.11.2009); Avika Lam. “The Jews of Nazareth Illit Fight for the City’s Identity,” Channel-20 Y-NET (25.02.2015)

[4]  “Gafsou Promises to Return to Nazareth Illit and Quiet the Arabs,”(غابسو يؤكد للشمس عودته لرئاسة بلدية نتسيرت عيليت ويطمئن السكان العرب) Radio Al-Shams Website (08.12.2015).

[5] Ra'ed Ghattas. “Nazareth Illit Elections,”,رائد غطاس.. انتخابات نتسيرت عليت عرب 48 (07.06.2015)

[6] Kobi David. “A Proposal in Nazareth Illit: Arab Families Will be Compensated – and Leave,” Walla! News (13.06.2012); Plot publicly supported right-wing journalist, Sharon Gal; Hila Glazer. “Who Will Save Nazareth Illit?” Haaretz (09.06.2016).

[7] “Will Arab Citizens Support Likud Candidate Ronen Plot?” Al-arab (05.06.2016). Interestingly, this story has no byline. The possibility that this criticism’s source may have been intended to discredit Bukra, a competitor who openly endorsed Plot.

[8]  For more on the mobilization of the Bukra website see Shlomi Daskal: “On Behalf of Journalism, a Reading of Co-Existence,” העין השביעית (09.06.2016).

[9]  Afternoon Broadcast (الظهيرة), Musawa Channel (07.06.2016).

[10]  Hassan Sha'alan and Ran Boker. “Netanyahu against ’48: On the Closure of the New Channel for Arab Israelis,” YNET (18.06.2015); Yaniv Kovovich and Jakie Khourie. “Erdan Orders the Closure of Palestinian Television Channel Operating in Israel,” Haaretz (24.06.2016). It’s important to note that Musawa was not gentle in its treatment of Awawdeh, especially in interviews with Ramzi Hakim, during which  the oversized Israeli flag at the city’s entrance and the Stars of David throughout the city were shown as a background view .

[11]  “Dr. Shukri 'Awawdeh – We are considering running a candidate for the Nazareth Illit municipality” (د. شكري عواودة - نفكر بترشيح مرشح عربي لرئاسة بلدية نتسيرت) 9 O’clock with Ramzi Hakim (التاسعة مع رمزي حكيم), Musawa Channel (01.04.2016).

[12]“Here’s what the United List achieved in return for the coalition.” ("هذا ما حصلت عليه 'المشتركة' مقابل الائتلاف") 9 O’Clock with Ramzi Hakim (التاسعة مع رمزي حكيم), Musawa Channel (05.08.2016). According to Awoudeh, the coalition agreement dealt with these issues on one level or another.

[13] “Dr. Shukri 'Awawdeh: Deputy Mayor of Nazareth Illit” (د. شكري عواودة نائب رئيس بلدية نتسيريت عيليت). Raddarsite (02.08.016).

[14] 15. “Nazareth Municipality Mercilessly Attacks Nazareth Illit’s Joint List.” (بلدية الناصرة تهاجم ‘المشتركة‘ بنتسيريت عيليت بلا هوادة). Panet (26.07.2016).

[15] Agenda, Israel Radio in Arabic (02.08.2016). The interview garnered national attention from the Hebrew-language media follow Salam’s comments that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) had urged Arab residents to vote for the Joint List. As such, he justified PM Benyamin Netanyahu’s claims on election day that “Arabs are flocking to the polls.” A close review of his comments indicates that the criticism was directed at Abbas, who had promised to help stabilize the municipality’s coalition if would aid the Joint List.

[16] Riham Riham Yusef Athamneh. “Why We Endorsed Plot,” Bukra (09.06.2016).

[17] Dr. Shukri 'Awawdeh. “Between National Identity and Clarity of Vision” (بين الانتماء الوطني ووضوح الرؤيا). Al-arab (08.06.2016).

[18] Afternoon broadcast (الظهيرة). Musawa Channel (07.06.2016).

[19] “Arabs harvest  High Positions in Nazareth Illit Municipality, Dr. Shukri 'Awawdeh”(العرب يجنون أماكن رفيعة في بلدية نتسيرت عليت - د. شكري عواودة). Our Morning (صباحنا غير), Musawa Channel (01.08.2016).

[20] “Here’s what the Joint List achieved in return for the coalition.” ("هذا ما حصلت عليه 'المشتركة' مقابل الائتلاف") 9 O’Clock with Ramzi Hakim (التاسعة مع رمزي حكيم), Musawa Channel (05.08.2016).

[21] Even 'Ali Salam, mayor of neighboring Nazareth, represents Arab activism. However, in the eyes of the Arab public (and in the eyes of the Arab political establishment), Salam was perceived as a  collaborator with the right-wing government who had relinquished national principles, especially in light of the revelation during the mayoral elections in Nazareth that he had previously been a Likud Party member.

[22] Dr. Shukri 'Awawdeh. “Between National Identity and Clarity of Vision” (بين الانتماء الوطني ووضوح الرؤيا). Al-arab (08.06.2016)

[23] “Arabs harvest High Positions in Nazareth Illit Municipality, Dr. Shukri 'Awawdeh”(العرب يجنون أماكن رفيعة في بلدية نتسيرت عليت - د. شكري عواودة). Our Morning (صباحنا غير), Musawa Channel (01.08.2016).