In Jisr a-Zarqa, Arab families struggle to preserve traditional fishing

The town’s growing population is squeezed against the sea by the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve and Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael to the north, Highway 2 to the east, and upscale Caesarea to the south.

A fisherman in Jisr a-Zarqa untangles his catch from the net (photo credit: TAYLOR RENEE BISSEY)
A fisherman in Jisr a-Zarqa untangles his catch from the net
(photo credit: TAYLOR RENEE BISSEY)
The warm sun shines brightly upon the group of men and a few women gathered in front of sheds on the beach. The first boats have already entered the small cove of Jisr a-Zarqa and, with them, nets full of a variety of fish.
The men untangle the fish from the bright green nets and toss them into blue and yellow buckets. When a new boat comes in, they move away from their nets or come down from their nearby sheds to help anchor the boat and unload the new catch.
Locals from the exclusively Arab town as well as Jewish Israelis from the neighboring towns huddle around, filling plastic bags with the new catch to bring home. Halil Jarbon, 77, is the grandfather of this community.
“People like to come here. They see the fishermen come out of the water with fish in the nets,” he says. “The people know they are the freshest fish around.”
The community gathers around to grill the new catch on the grassy platforms in front of the stone, wood, and metal sheds. They sit in plastic chairs enjoying tea and coffee with a large spoonful of sugar, a daily ritual for this small group of fishermen and their families.
The day before brown waves had crashed against the light poles in the bay. Under the shelter of the make-shift roof of his restaurant located on the beach front of Jisr az-Zarqa, Mussa Jarbon, 46, had watched as his brother pulled his boat out to cast the nets that evening. “This color, chocolate, the rain changes the water and brings many fish,” he explained.
Only two boats, maybe three, though, braved the weather. Mussa did not. He and the other fisherman buy many of their nets in Haifa, and they are expensive. While winter storms bring nutrients to the sea through rain, attracting fish closer to the shore, the storms also can tangle their nets on the rocks, leaving them useless. Each fisherman weighs the risks, a lost net or lost income from lack of fish.
Fishing has passed from father to son in this community. Unfortunately, each generation has seen less fish. “I remember I would go fishing with my father thirty-five years ago. Daily we would come back to the beach with a hundred kilos, two-hundred kilos of fish,” Mussa recalls. “Now I don’t see this.”
These fishermen now need motor boats because of the decrease in the amount of fish in the Mediterranean.
“Once with a small net from the shore, people could get the same amount fish that he gets with eight nets he puts far away,” explains Jarbon.
The small artisanal fishing community sits proudly in front of the densely populated Jisr az-Zarqa. It is the only remaining exclusively Arab town on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The residents are descendants of swamp-dwelling Bedouin known as Arab Ghawarina. They were joined by Sudanese slaves brought from Egypt in the 19th century and two families, Jarban and Amash, who fled from the Jordan and Hula valleys. A majority of the towns residents hold these names to this day.
In 1920, because of their surprising immunity to malaria, the residents of Jisr az-Zarqa relocated to their current location after helping Jewish settlers drain the nearby Hula swamp. This collaboration led to good relations that later preserved the community during the 1948 war. Halil Jarbon reports his father was told by the people of Zikhron Ya’akov, a nearby Jewish community, that the Arab residents of Jisr az-Zarqa did not have to move. In contrast, other Arab towns, like Fureidis, were moved further from the Mediterranean because the Israelis feared that the townspeople would aid an attack against Israel if other Arab countries approached from the sea.
Their status as “swamp people” and their relationship with the nearby Jewish communities isolated Jisr az-Zarqa Arabs from the other Arab communities. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that they began to marry Arabs from other towns.
The town’s growing population is squeezed against the sea by the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve and Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael to the north, Highway 2 to the east, and upscale Caesarea to the south. An attempt by Caesarea, home to Prime Minister Netanyahu, to build a “sound barrier” to block the call to prayer between the two cities was started but never completed. The partial wall is now covered with vegetation, but is a clear boundary between the two communities.
Despite residing adjacent to the highway, only recently has there been talk about putting in an exit to serve the town. There are only two entrances and the main entrance is only one lane wide. Currently, Israelis can simply drive past this town. Halil Jarbon has watched the relationships that existed previously change. “It’s not only in Israel, but all the world,” Halil recognizes.“But here we don’t really have relationships between ourselves, the Arabs and the Jewish.”
The winter waters brought full nets of fish (credit: TYLOR RENEE BISSEY)The winter waters brought full nets of fish (credit: TYLOR RENEE BISSEY)
Jisr az-Zarqa is one of the poorest towns within Israel. The population of 15,000 has more than doubled within the last two decades. About sixty percent of the community’s population is under the age of 25. The town has a high unemployment rate, and low matriculation rates.
Over the past decade, there have been several initiatives to foster change within the community. One example of these is the “social business”, Juha’s Guest House, established by an Israeli Jew along with a local Israeli Arab from the community. In collaboration with this guest house, the Middle East Partnership Initiative has begun to establish programs such as vocational training for local women instructing them in traditional weaving and other skills that have been lost. The fishing village has also been targeted for economic development within the city through tourism.
Israel’s Park and Nature Authority (PNA) began a clean-up on the beach front of Jisr az-Zarqa and the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve. Its stated goals were to attract more tourists to the area as well as to decrease the ecological impact of the pollution. The Parks and Nature Authority employs three local fishermen to pick up trash.
 Hamama, the only woman fishing in the community, however, sees problems with the PNA getting involved.
“People are afraid that in a few years they will take this place from them because they know how things work in Israel and with this department. Just like every place that is beautiful and has the potential to become touristic and have money, they take it over,” she said. There is uncertainty about the future of the sheds, too, whether they will be allowed to stay or if they will be torn down. Hamama wants to preserve the beach and fishing community.
During the day, the sheds serve as gathering places for local families. In the warmer months, the sheds and the beach are humming with activity. Fishing, biking, swimming and surfing can all be found within this small cove. Hamama, who broke away from the conservative standards of the village and the community by establishing herself as a strong girl when she was young, believes the development efforts should be focused instead on empowering youth and women. She has established youth groups and sports clubs for women to help them become empowered.
At the same time, it is becoming more difficult to make a living from fishing. Halil Jarbon recognizes the tie between the growing amount of litter in the sea, and the decreasing amount of fish. “There is no more fish in the sea nowadays because the waters are polluted,” Jarbon said. “Either there is the power plant, all the garbage, and all the rivers going to the sea are polluted with sewage.”
He recalls that when he was a child that there used to be so many fish that collecting them was like agriculture. “Like a farmer used to go to his field and take as much as he wants and he had plenty. This was the same as going to the sea.”
It is only recently that Israel began taking steps to help reestablish the marine ecosystem. Israel attributed much of the decline in the fishing yields to the large commercial boats that moved down the Israeli coast.
“They just take everything in their way and they don’t care where it’s a big fish or a young fish that could grow equal to the size of the others,” Halil said. “Once they catch the fish, and they don’t use them, they are throwing them back into the sea. But they are already dead, so they are destroying the population of the sea.”
In 2014, Israel began to place restrictions on trawling activity after they saw a severe decline in fishing yields. The Ministry and Agriculture established far-reaching amendments of the fishing regulations to help with the overfishing. The amendments would be overseen by the Parks and Nature Authority beginning in 2016.
In addition to restricting commercial trawlers, another amendment stops fishing during the spawning period. Halil Jarbon agrees that if this was implemented, in a few years the situation would improve.
“It’s actually a good idea, but the problem is that if we are not fishing for two months, we don’t have income” he said. “If the Park and Nature Authority would pay us for the two months, it would be fine. But, it is not working, because this is the first year we are trying that, and we didn’t fish for two months, and we haven’t seen the money yet.” For the fisherman, fishing is their main income. But, even with fishing, according to a survey done in 2017, many of them still rely on economic aid from the state.
In addition, there are other restrictions that have been implemented whose rationale is not clear to the fishermen of Jisr az-Zarqa. It makes sense to not fish near the military base to the north or the power plant to the south, but Halil says doesn’t understand the restriction on fishing near Tantura, which used to be an Arab fishing village prior to 1948.
The fishing community not only struggles with challenges from the Israeli government but also the local council. The fishing community lacks a paved road all the way to the sheds. There is no electricity running to the beach. Everything there is run by generators. Many fishermen still feel the local government is not meeting the needs of this part of the community.
For these and other reasons, there is still a lot of division and distrust when it comes to the government and the local council. “Israel’s eyes are on us because we are situated in the best location,” Hamama says. “There are a few families in the village doing fishing and it moves from father to son. The sea is a source for earning money. Not only for families but for the entire village, it is part of our tradition and legacy.”
Fishermen help push out a boat during rough waters (credit: TAYLOR RENEE BISSEY)Fishermen help push out a boat during rough waters (credit: TAYLOR RENEE BISSEY)
Unless something changes soon, Jisr a-Zarqa’s tradition and legacy of living by and from the Mediterranean are threatened. The decrease in fishing yields threatens the future of the profession here. Thirty years ago, Mussa Jarbon recounts there being forty men and, sometimes, up to a hundred men fishing. Now there are only six families engaged in fishing. “Now we have 15 boats [that can] work daily”, Mussa, says. “If the weather is good, you will see. Sometimes only two boats go out depending on weather and the fish.”
Halil admits now that he is older, he doesn’t go out to sea anymore, but the sea is still his passion. Every day the first thing he does in the morning is look at the sea. “I give my wife an insulin shot and her breakfast, and then I come straight to the sea” Halil says. “Thirty years ago, you couldn’t have sat here with me, because I would have been in the sea all the time.”
Mussa, who has eight children, six girls and two boys, is encouraging them to pursue their education. He is able to sustain his family through fishing and opening his restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays, but he says life is still difficult. As one of his sons tells him he would like to be a fisherman, a wave of concern washes over his face.
“I would like my children to go to university,” he says. “The sea isn’t going anywhere.”