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Palestinians Hope A New Israeli Government Means Progress For This Poor Town

Jul 7, 2021
Originally published on July 9, 2021 6:59 pm

Updated July 7, 2021 at 10:01 AM ET

JISR AL-ZARQA, Israel — Entering this coastal village, smooth asphalt gives way to a part-dirt road. Drivers struggle to steer along the bumps and around the pedestrians in cramped streets. Many buildings are unfinished and crumbling.

Jisr al-Zarqa, a fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea, is home to Palestinian citizens of Israel and one of the poorest parts of the country. In a stark contrast, it's hemmed in by Jewish Israeli areas with expensive real estate and popular tourist sites.

But these days, some residents say they hope for a change in the village. Israel's new government includes an Arab political party for the first time — and it promises to invest in Palestinian communities in Israel. That could help a place like Jisr al-Zarqa, where the Mediterranean shines bright but residents say services and opportunity are few.

People feel discriminated against

"We have nothing in this village, nothing," says Dr. Ayyat Rageh, who works at an elite hospital in Tel Aviv but is back in Jisr al-Zarqa for a reunion with childhood friends, who are also doctors. The friends chime in saying the village needs land, buildings, streets, money and jobs.

Dr. Ayyat Rageh (left) works at an elite hospital in Tel Aviv but is back in Jisr al-Zarqa for a reunion with childhood friends, who are also doctors.
Fatma Tanis / NPR

Residents also complain they lack other basic amenities like a post office, a bank, sidewalks and parking for the village's 15,000 people.

The village was even used as a set for the deeply impoverished Gaza Strip in the Israeli Netflix series, Fauda.

Crime is a concern as well, but the village only received a police station in 2017, with just two police officers, according to the head of Jisr al-Zarqa local council, Murad Ammash.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, also called Arab Israelis, are estimated to make up just over one-fifth of the Israeli population. More than 80% of them believe that most Arab citizens of the country want to integrate within Israeli society, according to a 2020 study by the think tank the Israel Democracy Institute.

Unlike Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian citizens of Israel are supposed to have the same rights as Jewish Israelis. They can vote, hold office and start businesses, for example.

Yet, many Palestinian Israelis say they are treated as second-class citizens at best.

Murad Ammash is the head of Jisr al-Zarqa local council
Fatma Tanis / NPR

"People feel neglected and discriminated by the government and they don't think the government can help them in any way," says the local elected leader Ammash.

The village is increasingly hemmed in by Jewish Israeli towns. Human Rights Watch has reported that the Israeli government uses discriminatory land policies that allow Jewish citizens to expand their areas while the policies restrict Arab citizens to smaller, densely populated communities in Israel, like Jisr al-Zarqa.

Unfinished multistory buildings are a sign families have to build up because there's no more land for the growing population.

The predominantly Jewish town next door, Caesarea, put up a raised mound of land topped with trees between it and the Palestinian village. "What you see before you is a racist separation wall," Ammash says, "so they won't see the ugly Jisr."

On the other side, Caesarea has bustling beaches, a golf club and restored remains of an ancient Roman port city that draw tourists. Visitors stroll over stone steps to restaurants, bars and luxury gift shops. Tourism is big business in this part of Israel.

A general view of some of the ancient Roman ruins of Caesarea, which is south of Jisr al-Zarqa.
Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Arabs enter government

Israel held legislative elections in March that resulted in new national leadership after 12 years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In June, lawmakers approved a coalition "government of change" led by Naftali Bennett and including politicians from the right, center and left, as well as Arab parties.

Ammash says the election turnout was low in Jisr al-Zarqa. He says nearly 3,000 people cast votes, about half of them for Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List.

Lawmaker Abbas joined the governing coalition and negotiated billions of dollars for development projects for Palestinian citizens in Israel.

Rageh, the Palestinian doctor who works in Tel Aviv, says he voted for Abbas. He sees it as a test: Will it finally make a difference to have an Arab in government? Will it bring much-needed public funding to impoverished Arab towns and neighborhoods in Israel?

"I see a ton of potential"

With government funding, Jisr al-Zarqa could partake in the local tourism economy, according to Heather Heldman, who was an adviser for the U.S. State Department and is now a partner in the Luminae Group for risk assessment in the Middle East.

The village has many things to offer, such as beautiful beaches and fresh seafood.

There is one guest house already receiving tourists. Its owners raised money in a Kickstarter campaign and their clientele has largely been young Israeli backpackers and international guests.

"You have a community that has faced a lot of adversity but found a way to make itself a diamond in the rough by capitalizing on the gifts that it has. I see a ton of potential also — a real potential PR win for the Israeli government — that it needs right now and it ought to be capitalizing on," she says.

At a picnic spot for locals, one of the very few green spaces in the village, Arabic music plays as families and friends eat barbecue and socialize. Ru'a Jorban is there with her partner. He makes ice cream and she's studying chemical engineering at a university outside the village. Both were born and raised in Jisr al-Zarqa.

They both voted in the elections but declined to say whom they voted for.

Jorban hopes the promised development money will reach the village.

"I wish we could use our education to come back and work here and contribute to the economy and help make our city a better place," she says.

But she knows that when she graduates, she says, she'll have to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Along Israel's coast, there's an Arab town set in the middle of Jewish areas. Residents there say it sums up a lot about life for Palestinian citizens of Israel. They're Israelis, unlike the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. And they hope that a new government that includes a Palestinian political party for the first time will bring progress for this town, where Mediterranean waters shine bright, but the services and opportunities are few. NPR's Deborah Amos went to visit.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The water is blue. The unspoiled beaches gleam. Fresh fish is plentiful for the Israeli tourists who come to this Arab-run cafe.

MOSES MUSA NAIM: My name is Moses Musa - Musa Naim (ph).

AMOS: Naim, a fisherman, cooks what he catches.

NAIM: This very good. I'm love the Jewish. No have a problem.

AMOS: This is the problem - Jisr al-Zarqa is one of the poorest villages in the country. Residents complain they lack a post office, a bank, not even an ATM for the 15,000 residents here. Those who have jobs mostly work in Israeli towns nearby. The new Israeli government promised change for its Palestinian citizens, also known as Israeli Arabs. Lawmaker Abbas joined the government after he was promised billions of dollars for projects in Arab towns. In a waterfront coffee shop, old friends who grew up together here gather for a weekend reunion. They introduce themselves by profession.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's a doctor. He's a doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: And you're all from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: From Jisr, yeah.

AMOS: OK.

Dr. Bassem Jorban (ph) is a dentist. He now works in Italy. Dr. Ayyat Rageh works in a Tel Aviv hospital. He still runs a clinic here.

AYYAT RAGEH: We have nothing in this village, nothing. If you ask me what you need, we have nothing. Jisr need land, building, streets, money, jobs.

AMOS: It's a bleak assessment. Still, Dr. Rageh backed Mansour Abbas' United Arab List. It's a test, he says, to see if Arab politicians can deliver for the constituents the same way the Jewish parties do for theirs.

RAGEH: We want to do all thing to take...

AMOS: You want your rights.

RAGEH: ...To take our rights.

AMOS: Under law, Palestinian citizens of Israel are supposed to have the same rights as Jewish Israelis, unlike Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. These Arab citizens of Israel have the right to vote, hold office, start businesses. A recent poll shows 80% of them want to integrate into the country. Still, many consider themselves second-class citizens at best.

MURAD AMMASH: Nice to meet you (laughter) in English.

AMOS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Murad Ammash heads Jisr's local council, an elected office. But residents here rarely turn out for national elections even with Arab parties on the ballot.

AMMASH: (Through interpreter) People feel neglected and discriminated by the government. And they don't think the government can help them in any way. So the turnout is very low.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE STARTING)

AMOS: On a drive through town, Ammash points out the neglect along the narrow streets with no sidewalks. He complains that Jisr didn't get a police station until 2017. Unfinished multi-story buildings are a sign families have to build up because there's no more land for the expanding population. Jisr is hemmed in by Jewish cities. The wealthy town of Caesarea built a looming land berm to separate the Jewish residents from their Arab neighbors in Jisr, says Ammash.

AMMASH: (Through interpreter) What you see before you is a racist separation wall, so they won't see the ugly Jisr.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: On the other side, Caesarea has bustling beaches and tourists who come to see the restored remains of an ancient port city of the Roman Empire. Visitors stroll over stone steps to restaurants, bars and luxury gift shops. Tourism is big business in this part of the country. Back in Jisr, there's just one guesthouse for tourists.

AHMED JUHA: Hello. Hello, hello.

AMOS: So how many people can stay here?

JUHA: Two private room.

AMOS: Opened in 2015 by Ahmed Juha (ph) and his Jewish business partner, they raised money in a Kickstarter campaign. The clientele is mostly young Jewish Israelis, backpackers and international guests.

So it looks like you have a full house.

JUHA: Fully booked.

AMOS: Government development funds would go a long way to make Jisr a bigger part of the tourism economy, says Heather Heldman, a former State Department adviser, now a partner in the Luminae Group that assesses political risk in the Middle East.

HEATHER HELDMAN: You have a community that has faced a lot of adversity but has found a way to make itself a diamond in the rough by capitalizing on the gifts that it has. I see a ton of potential, also, you know, a real potential PR win for the Israeli government that it needs right now and it ought to be capitalizing on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: In this picnic spot for Jisr locals, we meet Ru'a Jorban. She says she's studying to be a chemical engineer. She voted but won't say which party. She hopes the development money is more than a promise and that Jisr's economy will grow.

RU'A JORBAN: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: "It would be really good if we could study and work here," she tells me, "so we can help develop our city." But she knows that when she graduates, she'll have to leave to look for opportunities somewhere else.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Jisr al-Zarqa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE TRIO JOUBRAN'S "SHAJAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.