Not an inch of asphalt in Jisr az-Zarqa’s main square was left unoccupied Thursday afternoon, as children and their parents clamored together in excitement to dedicate their new ecotourism attraction, the Jisr az-Zarqa Trail.
“We hope that this path will bring happiness and make this city a tourism city,” Muhammad Lutvi, chairman of the Jisr az-Zarqa Parents Committee, told The Jerusalem Post.
Although the Israel National Trail crosses through Jisr az-Zarqa – one of the few Arab-Israeli communities along the nationwide route – the residents claim that most travelers simply skip the part that goes through Jisr or pass through it as quickly as possible.
In response to this situation, Jisr junior high-school students last year embarked upon a project that will now offer Israel Trail hikers the chance to briefly deviate from the official trail to a short circuit through the village.
The Jisr az-Zarqa Trail, launched on Thursday, is a marked path that passes through 17 landmarks in the village, with signs in Arabic, Hebrew and English, to reveal the history of each individual point.
The hope is that not only will the travelers enjoy the path itself but also visit the various cafés and local businesses along the route, the community members said.
Originally, the Jisr az-Zarqa Trail began as a junior highschool project conducted with the Institute for Democratic Education to strengthen local identity and self-image, and to connect the students with their natural environment, the residents said. Yet the project soon expanded, and the route now features all of the signs, maps, brochures and a special website.
Community members argue that Jisr has a coveted spot along the Israel Trail for good reason, as it is located on a beautiful Mediterranean beach, on the path of Nahal Taninim and on a kurkar sandstone ridge filled with Roman archeological finds.
While the hikers are missing the opportunity of exploring a town with a unique culture, Jisr – one of the poorest communities in Israel – is missing out on the economic advantages of being located on the Israel Trail, according to the residents.
“The Jisr az-Zarqa Trail is the inspiring story of people trying to create practical coexistence between Jews and Arabs, who want to fit in and request without shame what they rightfully deserve,” a spokesman for the residents said. “This is the story of young people and adults who are not willing to give in to prejudice, and refuse to wallow in poverty.”
On a tour of the roughly 0.5 km. Jisr Trail, Lutvi showed the Post various explanatory signs along the route, such as one marking the house of the first head of the local council.
“He was the father of this village,” Lutvi said.
Another blue sign marks the former home of Rajeh Shehab, who worked on draining the local swamps during the time of the British Mandate.
Today, approximately 14,000 people reside in Jisr, and half of the population members are children, Lutvi said.
Basic infrastructure, like trash collection, is lacking, and the economic situation is one of the poorest in the country, he said.
A 400-year-old village, Jisr was settled by Sunnis in the 17th century, and was officially founded in 1924.
“We want all the tourists to enter the city,” Lutvi said.
Addressing the community members in front of the city’s mosque, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz congratulated them on their efforts and said that an environmental project can often be economically transformative.
“Those who come to your community will not need much time to fall in love with it,” Peretz said. “You are in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
As the minister urged them to be proud of their town, junior high-school students, bedecked in crisp white baseball caps and t-shirts emblazoned with the trail’s new logo, responded with resounding applause.
Reminding them that environmental progress begins with children, Peretz instructed them, “When you see someone polluting the environment, don’t be shy to tell him that the environment belongs to us.”