Israel’s last coastal village draws tourists

Jisr e-Zarka, one of Israel’s poorest towns, paints houses blue in a bid to draw tourists and reinvent itself.

FEELING BLUE: Some of the houses that were painted thanks to Anat Cohen Halevi’s initiative. (photo credit: ANAT COHEN HALEVI)
FEELING BLUE: Some of the houses that were painted thanks to Anat Cohen Halevi’s initiative.
(photo credit: ANAT COHEN HALEVI)
Driving along Israel’s coastal highway, it is easy to overlook the small Arab village of Jisr e-Zarka, which lies wedged between the more well-known port cities of Caesarea and Haifa. Yet beyond the stony gray walls and slum-like streets, a remarkably colorful transformation is taking place.
Some of the cement buildings have been painted over entirely in bright shades of blue. Aptly, the name Jisr e-Zarka in English translates to “bridge over the blue,” a reference to the Taninim River and an ancient Roman aqueduct located at the village’s outskirts. Jisr e-Zarka is the last Arab coastal village in Israel and is home to many treasures and unique features not found elsewhere in the country. Among them is a picturesque fishing zone with huts and boats that the Israel Lands Authority has repeatedly threatened with demolition due to its establishment in the heart of a national park.
Notwithstanding spectacular beaches and unexplored archaeological ruins, this diamond in the rough has long been a place that Jewish and Arab Israelis have avoided entering due to the village’s negative image. A whopping 80% of the 14,000 residents live below the poverty line; unemployment is high at roughly 30%; most high-school students never matriculate; and the village has a reputation for being a hotbed of violent crime.
Thanks to the painting venture, spearheaded by Jewish- Israeli designer and architect Anat Cohen Halevi, residents have newfound hope.
“I saw the neglected houses on the highway and I had this idea that if they were colored, the village would look so much better,” Cohen Halevi recounted to The Media Line, noting that she was also inspired by similar places around the world like the famous blue-washed town of Chefchaouen in Morocco. “Actually, working with paint is quite simple because you don’t have to make plans and you don’t need a permit,” she said.
Relying on donations and some funding from the Tourism Ministry, Cohen Halevi and her team set to work. Though simple in theory, the designer faced resistance from villagers that were initially quite wary of outsiders and distrustful of her motives. But once the project got off the ground, they became increasingly enthusiastic and open to welcoming tourists that now regularly stop by to see the brightly colored houses. Over the past year, 23 homes have been painted, and Cohen Halevi says she now feels personally connected to the town and its residents.
“If you’re here for a while, you won’t leave this place and you’ll always have room for it in your heart,” she asserted. Those working in the local tourism industry stress that the initiative has breathed new life into the much-maligned village.
“Many people visit Jisr e-Zarka because of the blue houses that are located close to the highway,” Mar’i Gorban, a tour guide with the Blue Bridge Experience company, told The Media Line. “Many cars drive down this road every day. Whereas beforehand people would just pass by without even seeing the village, now they pay attention.”
Gorban guides hundreds of tourists – mostly Israelis but also some visitors from the United States, Canada and Europe – through the town each year, taking them to landmarks and to visit people’s homes. One of his goals is to shatter stereotypes and undo long-held stigmas associated with the place.
“For me it was very important to create a bridge between [Jewish- and Arab-Israeli] cultures, which requires a lot of work and resources,” he said. “Jisr faces many hardships: it’s at the lowest rank in the socioeconomic scale in Israel and most live below the poverty line. This place has many resources but doesn’t make use of them so this initiative is also a way to encourage people to help themselves.”
While Gorban founded his tourism company at roughly the same time as Cohen Halevi launched her blue paint campaign, they did not know each other personally but have since formed a fortuitous partnership based on a shared desire to re-brand the village.
“The biggest challenge here is to change the image,” he stressed. “Jisr is perceived as a violent place that is dangerous for tourists and some entrepreneurs have come together to change that.”
A recent Blue Bridge Experience tour, which included a few dozen Israelis, ended in the home of one of the locals who prepared a feast of grilled fish, homemade hummus and other Levantine specialties.
“This visit was a great experience,” Yifat, an Israeli tourist, related to The Media Line. “We came as part of a tour organized by our workplace and I felt that this was a very powerful and stirring day. I recommend other Israelis come and see it for themselves.”
Members of the Arab sector from outside the village, who have also generally avoided entering the town, are beginning to lend a hand.
Kassem Hamad – a musician from Nazareth, who, much like Cohen Halevi, fell in love with the village – now regularly takes part in Gorban’s tours and serenades visitors with traditional Arab songs played on his oud, a popular Middle Eastern stringed instrument. “I first came here a little over a year ago,” Hamad told The Media Line. “When I told people back home that I would be conducting a music workshop, they said to me: ‘What!? Are you crazy? If you go there they will beat you and they will steal from you.’ So when I arrived I was scared, but after getting to know the people I now feel like a resident.”
Despite the achievements, the blue-house initiative recently hit a snag after the Tourism Ministry pulled its funding.
“The ministry assisted in advancing the project, and now there is an expectation that other bodies for which the project is relevant and important will assist in financing,” the government body wrote in a statement provided to The Media Line.
“Their agenda is to bring more and more tourists from overseas to Israel. Therefore, they put all their funds into big attractions that can draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year,” Cohen Halevi stated, adding that she hopes to paint 200 houses in the coming years. Although reaching this goal would be relatively inexpensive – costing anywhere between $1.6 million and $1.8m. based on Cohen Halevi’s estimates – it has been put on hold indefinitely until money is raised to pay for materials and the necessary manpower.
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