A chance for change?

Israel’s only coastal Arab town, Jisr e-Zarka, has a high crime rate, no ATM and no buses, but may be about to get the opportunities it needs.

Jisr e-Zarka 521 (photo credit: Maurice Picow)
Jisr e-Zarka 521
(photo credit: Maurice Picow)
Imagine a town of nearly 13,000 residents that has no banks, no gas stations, no public transport connection, and only one main access to it via a tunnel under the main highway. Welcome to the town of Jisr e- Zarka (“Bridge over the Blue Stream”), Israel’s only coastal Arab town – which just happens to be sandwiched between one of the country’s richest residential communities, Caesarea, and Ma’agan Michael, its richest kibbutz, whose fishponds adjoin Jisr’s backyard.
“Jisr e-Zarka’s origin is important to tell to everyone,” said the town’s bureau chief, Muhammad Amash, during a December 8 media tour, sponsored jointly by Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel – and the Jisr e-Zarka Municipality.
“This town has been here, in the same location, for more than 500 years. It was settled by people who lived in the Kabar swamps, which covered areas now including the Jewish cities of Hadera and Binyamina.
“The original inhabitants were known as ‘swamp people,’ and made their livelihood from the natural reeds and other products of the swamp. In other words,” said Amash, “people literally lived from these swamps.”
Amash, a congenial man who began his civic career as a youth project worker in Jerusalem, told his guests that although his town gets along with its more affluent neighbors, the relationship between Jisr and the communities of Caesarea and Ma’agan Michael “is more like an employer-employee one, as many of the outside jobs that Jisr residents have are cleaning jobs in shopping malls, offices, and industrial centers.”
Sixty percent of the employment of Jisr residents is in low-paying jobs that often pay less than the national minimum wage.
“Even though we no longer have bus service due to the Egged Bus Cooperative discontinuing it a few years back due to lack of users, our residents are able to get to their jobs via carpools. These jobs only pay an average of NS 3,000 a month, which is not much to raise a growing family on,” Amash added.
NAIF ABU Sharkia, a Sikkuy staff worker and resident of the Wadi Ara community of Ara, is co-director of Sikkuy’s Project for Municipal Cooperation. Sharkia, who was present on the tour, said “it is very difficult to satisfy the conflicts of interest between Jews and Arabs, partially due to economic factors as well as ideological problems.”
There are plans to build a new industrial park in the Hof Hacarmel region, and intense efforts to make Jisr e-Zarka a part of it.
“Five years ago, it was decided to focus on developing outlying areas, and not just those in large population centers,” Abu Sharkia said. He considers the Wadi Ara area a case study for relations between Jews and Arabs, and says that in this area efforts are being made to find ways to coexist, despite media reports to the contrary.
“Many Jews come to Wadi Ara to shop and eat in area restaurants. We are trying to develop joint projects in the area for the benefit of both peoples, including infrastructure projects like sewage reclamation and water resources.”
Abu Sharkia noted that one of the main factors that has had an adverse influence on planned tourism projects in Jisr e-Zarka is access to the town, which is now possible only through an underpass beneath the Coastal Highway, also known as Highway 2, and by a bridge built to provide easy access to the Nahal Taninim nature reserve. Both can be reached only from the secondary Highway 4, and not from the main Haifa- Tel Aviv Highway No. 2.
The access issue, which also affects neighboring Ma’agan Michael, has been in the offices of the Transportation Ministry for many years, according to Ron Gerlitz, Sikkuy co-executive director.
Gerlitz added that Sikkuy’s work to advance
equality between Jewish and Arab citizens is reflected in its organizational structure as a shared Jewish- Arab organization, with its staff, management and board of directors divided equally between Jews and Arabs. Gerlitz shares management responsibilities for Sikkuy with an Arab co-executive director, Ali Haider.
“The town of Or Akiva, only a few kilometers south of Jisr, now has an access road from the main coastal highway, as does Caesarea,’ Gerlitz said. “But apparently, due to Or Akiva’s location and population makeup [a mixture of North African Jews and immigrants from the former Soviet Union], the ministry chose to build a twoway exit to Or Akiva only and not extend it to Jisr e-Zarka, just a short distance away.
“Having a direct access to the Coastal Highway would make a big difference in developing tourism and other industries in Jisr, thereby affording easier mobility to Jisr residents seeking work outside the town.”
Upon reaching Jisr e-Zarka, one immediately notes the blue underpass, decorated with colorful symbols. The narrow, single-lane underpass can accommodate only one vehicle at a time, causing traffic jams at certain times of the day when residents are traveling to or from work. Another landmark is a large fish statue advertising the Fishermen’s Village, located just west of Jisr on the coast.
The town’s interior is similar to that of other Arab villages, with narrow, winding streets and an appearance of overcrowding, with virtually every square meter of available space in use to accommodate the town’s growing population. Although many of the streets are now paved, there are still sections with dirt roads, which present a problem during winter rainstorms.
Electricity and sewerage infrastructure are available to the town residents, except for the “quaint” Fishermen’s Village, which lacks both sewerage connection and electricity.
Signs of progress in Jisr include a new elementary and high school complex, paid for by funds from Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, health fund clinics and a new municipal office complex.
“The government pledged NS 40 million towards completing the sewerage and electricity infrastructure we need. But in actuality, we received only a third of this amount,” said Az-Adin Amash, Jisr’s mayor, a tall, very friendly man, who told the tour participants that he considers Jisr to be “the most beautiful place on earth.”
When asked why more people don’t come to Jisr, he replied: “I’m not a politician; I’m a career professional.
But I feel we don’t do enough media advertising through Internet sites like Ynet and Walla.”
The mayor said Jisr is planning some events to attract more visitors to the town, including special four-hour tours that will include a “royal meal” with types of food indigenous to the Middle East.
Tours will focus on the historical aspects of the village and the immediate vicinity, going back to Roman times. Joint tours with Caesarea’s historical sites are also planned.
One of Sikkuy’s more successful endeavors in Jisr is a tourism project which initially was connected with Ramadan. Jisr now receives 100 to 200 visitors a week who stop there on the way to touring other sites, including Zichron Ya’acov, Amash said.
“We have now succeeded in introducing people to this town, and hopefully it will develop even further and provide both jobs and needed income to the town's inhabitants,” said Gerlitz.
Regarding development plans, including tourism and development of Jisr’s untouched beach area, Amash said: “We don’t need to receive money from the government for infrastructure development, as foreign investors are planning to invest up to 50 million Euro in development projects.”
He pointed out on a map a section located on the seashore just south of the Ma’agan Michael fishponds.
“We are still waiting for a permit from the government to begin the work. We have the investors, and all we need now is obtaining the permission from the Israel Lands Administration to do the development. We own the land bordering the highway in front of our town, and yet we still do not have an access road,” the mayor said.
When asked about incidents of stone-throwing at passing cars on the highway by Jisr residents (during the second intifada), Amash replied: “People in Jisr don’t throw stones. The incidents that were noted so much in the media were never proven to have been caused by Jisr residents. We want peace here, not confrontation!” One noticeable issue that needs to be dealt with is the fact that no banking services exist in Jisr e- Zarka. “Unfortunately, there are no banks in our town. You have to go to Or Akiva, Zichron or Binyamina to find an ATM,” said the mayor.
JISR’S FUTURE is centered on bringing new development to the town and educating the town’s youth, who have one of the highest secondary school dropout rates in Israel. Increasing educational opportunities is a priority for the mayor, who states: “Investment begins with education.”
They eventually hope to build a college in Jisr, he said.
Violence among Jisr residents, occasionally noted in the media, is caused by lack of education (5% of the population are completely illiterate, the mayor said) and low economic standards. The lack of housing for young couples is also a cause.
“Between 200 and 250 students drop out between the ninth and 10th grades every year,” he said.
Gerlitz feels that important actions need to be undertaken to improve the socioeconomic situation in Jisr e-Zarka. These include helping the local leadership convince the residents that change is possible in their town. In addition, the government should allot the resources needed to create a physical and economic base in the town, which will enable it to benefit from the planned Hof Hacarmel Industrial Park. NGOs like Sikkuy should be enabled to contribute their professionalism in communities like Jisr, to create a framework to implement social and economic change.
“All of the negative aspects of this town, including high crime rate, high dropout rates in schools, and low incomes of many of the inhabitants are due to a combination of factors that still weigh heavily on the people who live here and hamper their ability to improve their lot. I believe that strengthening the local community, as we in Sikkuy do, creating cooperation on the regional level, and investment by the government can change the picture significantly within a decade,” said Gerlitz.
“The government needs to give more attention to the needs of Arab citizens and not just to the needs of the haredim and other favored groups.
We need more educational and economic opportunities, and we feel that organizations like Sikkuy can help us achieve these goals,” said Amash.