Civil rights group ACRI called on Modi’in Mayor Haim Bibas to rescind his policy of preventing non-residents from using the city’s main public park during the intermediary days of the Pessah and Succot holidays, as well as during other school vacations.
The restrictions were enacted just before this year’s Succot festival. Park Anabeh in Modi’in is a large, modern expanse containing picnicking areas; an events stage, a small boating lake and an adventure playground.
Although the reason given by the mayor and the municipality for the ban was that the park becomes overcrowded during the holiday seasons, critics accused the mayor of seeking to keep out haredi residents of neighboring Modiin Illit - a purpose built ultra-Orthodox city - who flock to the park at these times.
There are no comparable public facilities to Park Anabeh in Modi’in Illit.
“The fact that the park was built on municipal land does not mean that the municipality can do whatever it wants with it,” ACRI wrote in its letter to Bibas on Tuesday.
The letter stressed that the policy of restricting entry to non-residents is illegal, as it contradicts laws governing municipal authority as well as anti-discrimination laws.
“Public space, such as this park, is designated for the public at large. It is unacceptable for local authorities to attempt to restrict the public’s ability to access parks under their control.”
In response to ACRI’s letter, Modi’in Municipality denied that it was deliberately targeting ultra-Orthodox visitors and said that it had received a legal opinion written by Prof. Ariel Bendor, an expert on Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at Bar Ilan University, “which would allow the municipality to restrict entry to the Park for non-residents during holidays and vacation [periods].”
“According to the legal opinion, in a similar manner to other unique services provided by the municipality to its citizens alone, it is possible to assign the use of the park at specific times for city residents because of the high number of visitors and the [concordant] high maintenance costs,” the Modi’in municipality wrote.
ACRI said it disagreed with Bendor’s opinion.
“The restriction is illegal; it violates the right to equality, and in practice constitutes prohibited discrimination against a religious group,” ACRI said.
Modi’in residents have complained in the past about overcrowding of the park during the peak seasons of Pessah and Succot and the summer vacation period.
In conversation with The Jerusalem Post during Succot, several city residents on a visit to Park Anabeh, complained that the large numbers of haredi visitors crowded out Modi’in residents. They also reported that the haredim left behind large amounts of rubbish.
Some park visitors claimed that some ultra-Orthodox visitors had requested from other park guests that they dress in a more modest fashion.
Several people in the park also mentioned an incident that occurred during the Pessah holiday earlier this year, in which a presenter of a show that was being staged in the park called on a female volunteer to assist him on stage.
A haredi woman then objected and asked the presenter to choose a male volunteer instead, a request with which the presenter complied.
In a separate incident that further raised inter-communal tensions, Mayor of Modiin Illit Yaakov Gutterman told haredi newspaper Yated Neeman that a new archaeological park in his city, which is yet to open, would only be available to members of the ultra-Orthodox public.
Bibas wrote a letter to Gutterman in response, threatening to bar residents of Modi’in Illit from Park Anabe if Gutterman maintained his stance.
ACRI noted in its letter that it had also recently written to the Kiryat Ata municipality over its policy of charging non-residents entrance fees to its public park. ACRI said that it suspected the purpose of the policy was to prevent Arab residents of local communities visiting the park.