A place in the sun

Residents of the only Arab village built by the state, long considered outcasts in the Israeli-Arab community, are trying to increase tourism and fight unemployment.

Jisr e-Zarka (photo credit: TAMAR DRESSLER)
Jisr e-Zarka
(photo credit: TAMAR DRESSLER)
It’s Friday, 5:30 am. The main street in Jisr e-Zarka, a coastal village in the northern Sharon region, is bustling with morning traffic. Workers are hurrying into the dozens of cars waiting for them. Thousands of men and women leave every morning to work outside the village – anywhere from Haifa to Ra’anana – mostly as household help and cleaners. Almost everyone in Jisr e-Zarka who’s employed works outside the village. Although the unemployment rate is 30 percent, the percentage of women who work is double the national average for Arab women. About 34% of women in Jisr e-Zarka work. Almost 60% of residents are 19 and younger, but the number of people there with a college education is extremely low. And as for their dreams for the future? They’re busy fighting to make them come true.
New high schools, a new soccer field, a recently reopened community center, joint cultural activities and a new guest house have all been created in the last five years and are just some of the changes that residents are carrying out in the village. Jisr e-Zarka leaders are aiming to develop the tourism sector, due to its fantastic location: just north of ancient Caesarea, west of the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve and right on the beach.
The Israel National Trail also passes through the middle of the village.
And yet, despite the beautiful beach and its proximity to Tel Aviv, Israelis do not flock to the village in droves.
The village is not accessible from the coastal highway but only from Route 4. The streets of the village have not been repaved in ages, and despite efforts by some of the residents, the local municipality has not been able to keep the village litter-free. Lots between buildings that sit empty have turned into makeshift garbage dumps, and the few sidewalks that do exist are often blocked.
On the other hand, the few tourist bed-and-breakfasts that operate in the village have received excellent reviews on Internet sites, and nary a visitor has found anything to complain about. As guests walk along the streets of the village in the evening or take an early morning stroll on the beach, it is doubtful that they would encounter anything other than smiles from residents. Tourism in Jisr e-Zarka has suffered, though, from the stigma that is still attached to the village from earlier days.
The village of Jisr e-Zarka was established in the 1920s. Beduin of the Gharwarina tribe were given the land in exchange for their help in draining the swamps. Apparently, they carried the sickle-cell anemia gene, which made them immune to malaria and other tropical diseases. After the swamps were drained, PICA (Palestine Jewish Colonization Association) recorded the sandstone hill where the village lay in the land registry under its name and gave them 300 acres to build the only Arab village ever established by the Zionist movement. This could be the reason that residents of Jisr e-Zarka have been treated as “collaborators” with the Jewish regime.
In 1961, the village was officially declared a local council. Jisr e-Zarka means “bridge over the blue river,” and the village was given this name due to its proximity to Nahal Taninim, which is called al wadi az zarka (blue river in Arabic).
Today, the village has a school dropout rate that is among the highest in Israel, and despite the fact that it borders two of the wealthiest communities in Israel – Caesarea in the south and Ma’agan Michael in the north – 60% of the families in Jisr e-Zarka are on welfare. It is the women, most of whom work as cleaners in factories, hospitals and private homes, who are the main breadwinners.
HAYFA JUHA, who lives in the village, is leading the fight against the stigma and promoting change in Jisr e-Zarka.
“When Israelis come here, they discover something completely different.
We love hosting guests. Sometimes we even invite guests who’ve stayed here to our family weddings and to our homes. I am active in the Nights of Ramadan project in which we offer tours of the village during Ramadan so Israelis can learn about our culture. Part of the experience is being hosted for the dinners in which we break the daily fast with family members. Sometimes I host up to 100 people in my house,” she says.
Juha dreams of starting her own venture – a women-only coffee house in the village. She and dozens of other women from Jisr e-Zarka have been participating in an empowerment project called Sheen that promotes women gaining knowledge about their political and social rights.
However, the project was discontinued this year due to budgetary constraints. According to Watfa, the project coordinator, the number of women in the village who are illiterate is high.
“We conducted a survey among the village women, and the greatest need is for them to learn to read and write.
They don’t even know how to read Arabic, our own language. On the other hand, some of the women who participated in the project are working on academic degrees through the Open University. I have no doubt that if the project were to be continued, more and more women from Jisr e-Zarka would continue on to higher education,” says Watfa.
Prof. Esther Herzog, one of the founders of Sheen, which has been in operation in Jisr e-Zarka for more than a decade, knows well the difficulties of fighting the stigma about the village.
“It’s similar to the situation we dealt with in Or Akiva a few decades ago. Residents we worked with there would say that they were ashamed to tell people they were from Or Akiva.
The women of Jisr e-Zarka are strong.
They are a leading force, and they are capable of carrying out change. But this can only happen if they are allocated the resources necessary to make a real change in the village,” she says.
Muhammad Hamdan, a native of the village and one of the first residents to engage in academic studies, is the official responsible for informal education in Jisr e-Zarka. He knows all about the stigma and the daily struggle to make a change.
“Many people living here feel very insecure about themselves,” Hamdan says. “For years we’ve been called ‘a village of thieves,’ ‘a village of traitors.’ Of course, none of this is true, but we’re considered outcasts in the Arab-Israeli community. But I won’t give up. Today we have schools here, some people even go on to university, many of the village girls now work as teachers. We’ve reopened the community center, and we built a professional soccer field. We aren’t about to give up.”
One of the projects in Jisr e-Zarka that Hamdan is involved in, which has been taking place for five years, is called Bridge to Arabic in which guests come to learn Arabic and practice speaking with the locals. Some of those who attend are university students who receive stipends in exchange for volunteering in Jisr e-Zarka to help children with their homework.
NETA HANIEN welcomes the visitors to her guest house in the village center with a warm smile and her large, pregnant belly. Her six-year-old son is enjoying the weekend as he plays near the café on the ground floor of the guest house. Although Hanien looks young, she already has three children, a law degree and six years of experience working as a prosecutor in the Police Internal Investigations Unit, which is about as far away from Jisr e-Zarka as you can get.
The beach here is a dream come true for nature lovers. Hanien says that it reminds her of the quiet serenity she experienced on the beaches in Sinai.
A few small fishing boats are moored in the shallow water, and a tin hut for the fisherman to store their gear sits on the sand. These are the only objects that remind guests that they are not completely out in the middle of nature. Is Jisr e-Zarka a pastoral fishing village? Not exactly. Only about 30 families from the village make a living from fishing.
Hanien built the guest house a year ago with Ahmed Juha – Hayfa’s husband – who has seven children and had also searched for an opportunity to promote the village and rescue it from isolation.
“I always felt like we were living in a bubble, isolated from the rest of the country, that all we did was offer cleaning services to businesses and families in the area without ever getting ahead,” Juha says. “I used to sit for hours trying to come up with an idea that would stimulate activity here in the village. When I met Neta, we immediately came up with the idea of the guest house. With the help of friends we built this place, and now we attract guests from Israel and overseas. The situation in the village is much more complicated than it seems on the surface. Just a few years back, I recall that hikers walking the Israel National Trail would hurry through the village because they were a little scared of its reputation. I used to stop them, offer them water, talk to them some. Slowly people have become more familiar with our village, and now they realize that there is nothing here to fear.”
Today, Hanien and Juha are also trying to promote other projects together with village residents in an effort to raise awareness, increase tourism and fight unemployment. One program they’ve started is an employment workshop in which residents sell their handmade wares, and another is a free room and board program for people who are willing to teach in the local school. A young American volunteer named Douglas has been living in the village guest house for two months and teaches English and sports at the school.
“This has been a fantastic way for me to get to know the area without having to look through the filters like most tourists do when they visit foreign countries,” Douglas says. “The kids and I get along beautifully.”
When asked about their neighbors to the south, Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael residents raise an eyebrow. “A lot of crime” is the most common response.
However, recently more and more kibbutz members are studying Arabic at the Jisr e-Zarka community center, and the two communities hold joint meetings during which they discuss how to bridge the gaps.
Their neighbors in Caesarea, however, are hardly involved with village life at all. The two communities are physically separated by a tall embankment that was built by Caesarea residents a few years ago.
“Apparently, some people there decided that our homes were an eyesore,” Juha says. “In the past, we attempted to arrange mediation meetings with residents of Caesarea, but we didn’t succeed.”
Juha does not intend to give up even for a moment, though. He is working hard to widen the scope of tourism in the village and to promote more local businesses.
“For years I felt like I was living on an island, cut off from everyone – from Israeli society and also from the Arab community. But no more!” Juha concludes with a smile.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.