Following clashes between Jews and Arabs across Israel during May’s Gaza war, the campaign by residents of the Tel Aviv suburbs of Kafr Qasem and Rosh Ha’ayin waned, but it has since been revived

Residents of Kafr Qasem and Rosh Ha'ayin protest plans for a power station near their two towns.
Residents of Kafr Qasem and Rosh Ha’ayin protest plans for a power station near their two towns.Credit: Campaign against the Kesem power plant

Deiaa Haj Yahia Jan. 24, 2022

Raz Sagi, a city council member from the Jewish Tel Aviv suburb of Rosh Ha’ayin, and Musa Abu Zaid, of the neighboring Arab town of Kafr Qasem, sit together in a small protest tent. The smell of coffee prepared on a camping stove wafts through the tent in the middle of an open field near Kafr Qasem. They have been sitting there for the past month as part of a joint effort to stop the construction of the Kesem power plant, which is slated to be built between their two communities.

In late 2019, when the protest tent was initially set up, Arabs and Jews came together on a daily basis to discuss the planned power plant. While they were at it, they also openly talked politics.

The tent’s interior is decorated with protest signs in both Hebrew and Arabic. The protest against the Kesem power plant is unusual in that it has brought Arabs and Jews together in a common cause over concern regarding the risks that they say the plant would pose.

Mahmoud Freige, a social activist from Kafr Qasem, called it the Israeli Arab community’s first nonpolitical environmental battle. “The partnership with Rosh Ha’ayin is spectacular, a feeling of shared destiny,” Freige said, explaining that a common adversary has brought Jews and Arabs together.

The protest against the power station began in 2018, with an effort to revoke construction permits for it. It gathered momentum as residents of the area northeast of Tel Aviv held joint demonstrations. They set up the protest tent and marched together in front of government ministries.

When the protest tent was erected, a joint committee was also established to organize the protests as well as meetings with government officials and legal action. Their common concern prompted them to put disagreements aside, but the timing of the effort was difficult.

In May of last year, there were clashes between Jews and Arabs around the country during the war that Israel fought in Gaza. The effort to stop the power plant also came against the backdrop of the spread of the coronavirus and two Knesset elections in the space of a year. The residents lost their enthusiasm.

But after the national infrastructure committee decided a month ago to advance plans for the plant, members of both communities decided to reunite. Now they have spoken about how they managed to bridge their disagreements.

The protest tent against the Kesem power plant.
The protest tent against the Kesem power plant. Credit: Campaign against the Kesem power plant

“At our protest campaign headquarters, relations hadn’t been damaged,” Rosh Ha’ayin resident Yaffa Zafrani told Haaretz. “We were very concerned about the violent events and the hatred, and there was concern that it would hurt us, but in the end, we put everything aside. We focused on our protest.”

Sagi, the Rosh Ha’ayin city councilman, told Haaretz that residents from Kafr Qasem contributed money and equipment, labor and volunteers – as did people from Rosh Ha’ayin. “There was amazing cooperation,” he said. The threat “hangs over all of us, Arabs and Jews, and we have a joint interest. Our protest has just begun.”

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In spite of the many objections from area residents, the national infrastructure committee decided to advance the plan – and residents of Kafr Qasem would be expected to suffer the brunt of any harm to area residents’ health, because of the proximity of the planned facility to their town and to the wells that provide its water.

“We will have a water shortage. This will lead to shutting down a well that provides water to a third of the residents and businesses in the area,” Freige claimed. It would also critically harm residents’ quality of life, and the noise from the turbines would be expected to affect a large portion of Kafr Qasem to an extent that would make living there unbearable, he asserted.

Rosh Ha'ayin residents demonstrate against the power plant.
Rosh Ha’ayin residents demonstrate against the power plant. The sign in the foreground reads ‘Vote against the Kesem power plant.’Credit: Eliezer Katzenstein

Rosh Ha’ayin resident Zafrani claimed that the plant would cause pollution in the vicinity of homes and workplaces. Diesel fuel could endanger residents’ drinking water and air pollution would harm their health.

“There can be no negotiations over this. We will fight to the end,” she vowed.

The municipal governments in Kafr Qasem and Rosh Ha’ayin have also joined in the fight. Last week Rosh Ha’ayin city hall decided to challenge the national infrastructure committee’s decision in court and is now gathering the necessary information for a lawsuit.

The decision to sue is “final,” the city said and will taken “in cooperation with a number of local governments in the area, particularly the Kafr Qasem municipality.” But the Rosh Ha’ayin municipality added that prior to suing, other options are being explored by lawyers and other experts.