Jisr az-Zarqa could be a beautiful place. It is the only purely Arab settlement in Israel lying on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. To the north, it borders on the fish ponds of Kibbutz Maagan Michal, to the south on the city of Caesarea. To the northeast lies the „Taninim (Crocodile) Stream National Park”. The last living crocodile was killed there at the end of the 19th century, and since that time visitors no longer need to fear for their lives in the region. „Crocodile Stream“, the border between Jisr az-Zarqa and Maagan Michael, is one of the cleanest rivers in Israel. The name Jisr az-Zarqa means „Bridge of the Blue (= the blue river)“. For the thin trickle of water that reaches the coast, this label is rather questionable. It is only noticeable as a stream during the few weeks of the rainy season each year. To the east, the settlement borders on a highway.
In the 4th century, BCE there was a city here by the name „Crocodilopolis“. Some remains can still be explored in the national park. In 1834, around 700 colonizers came here with the army of Muhammad Ali, who wanted to conquer the country for himself as vice-king following the revolt of the peasants against the Egyptian rulers.
The majority of the original population were members of the Bedouin Clan Ghawarina, who came from the Jordan Valley at the end of the 19th century and settled in the malarial swamps that made the coastal strip uninhabitable. When Jewish families started settling in the region of today’s Zichron Yaacov from 1882, on an extensive strip along the coast and the foothills of the Carmel that had been legally acquired by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, they employed the Bedouins living in the swamps to drain them.
At the entrance to the Zichron Yaacov cemetery, a plaque reminds us that a great number of the first settlers were struck down by malaria, but the Bedouin seemed to be immune to the malaria pathogens.
The project was completed in 1928. In gratitude for their invaluable help that had made permanent settlement possible, the Bedouin were given a strip of land bordering on the former swamps. The strip encompassed 12,000 dunams, about 150 ha, lying on a hill near the beach. That was how the boundaries of Jisr az-Zarqa were determined.
And that was the beginning of the first problem, which the village has not yet been able to resolve.
Even when in other similar cases one says that a settlement „lies between…“ in this case it can only be called cynical. Nowadays there is only one way of reaching the village. The much too narrow and much too low path passes under a bridge, which has been decorated by art loving inhabitants. But the ceramic has long ago been damaged by the trucks who leave their marks in the cement.
Once upon a time there was a second bridge that was built for Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit in 1898. It spanned the estuary of the Crocodile Stream and was intended for the Emperor to travel from Haifa to Jerusalem without getting his wet feet. There is no documentation showing whether he ever rode over the bridge and its former location can only be discerned from the ruins.
The second problem started with the alleged total expulsion of the Arab population from their villages and towns by Jews during the 1948 war, referred to by the Arabs as the „Nakba“ (catastrophe). In fact, in most cases, the Arabs were told by their own leaders to leave their settlements, the underlying idea being that the Jews would be defeated and expelled within a few days, and then the population that had run away would be able to return and take over, with big and profitable benefits. That decision did not produce the desired result. The army of the young Israeli State won the war, and around 750,000 Arabs – whether due to the intervention of their own compatriots or expulsion by the Jews – lost their homes.
Those 750,000 refugees have now, 69 years later, become more than 5 million. They are being taken care of by the UN organization, UNWRA, and are financed by taxpayers‘ money from all over the world as well as by donations from anti-Israel NGOs.
One tends to forget that, at the same time, in 1948, 780,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries. They came to Israel and were completely integrated into society as rapidly as possible, without the assistance of any special UN organization.
But the Arabs were not forced to flee everywhere. In the two villages Jisr az-Zarqa and the neighboring Fureidis, the mayors of Binyamina and Zichron Yaacov saw to it that the inhabitants remained in their homes. Fureidis, which lies a few kilometers further inland, developed into a prosperous township. The population of both settlements is similar in size, but Fureidis has almost twice the area.
The third problem was the good relationship between those two Arab settlements with their Jewish neighbors during the period of the British Mandate. While the inhabitants of Fureidis were soon forgiven by the Palestinians for this circumstance, the people in Jisr az-Zarqa are still being condemned as collaborators.
The fourth problem is the ethnic composition of the population. Both Jews and Arabs have been calling them „black“ and „Sudanese“ for decades, despite the fact that the population includes Bedouins, Jordanians, Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians as well as Sudanese. They are referred to as Africans, or even swamp dwellers, and until recently there were practically no marriages between the inhabitants of Jisr az-Zarqa and those of other Arab settlements.
Due to all those circumstances, the village has not been able to develop and become a modern town.
There has not been any connection to public transport. Those who want to take a bus must walk several kilometers to the next bus stop. The sea has long been overfished, so that the fishermen sometimes come home with such a small catch that it is barely enough for their own consumption.
Until a few years ago there was only a primary school in the village. Those who wanted to go on to high school had to take into account long rides on the school bus. Now at least there is a Junior High School, but still the number of dropouts and illiterates is very high. Only a few have completed a college education.
There are no empty building plots. If a family increases in size, a second or even third floor is added onto the existing one.
The crime rate is high. Israeli taxi drivers try to avoid trips to Jisr az-Zarqa.
Conditions of life in the village are not really favorable to achieving economic success. The village is the at the bottom of the gross social product scale.
Caesarea, one of the richest communities in Israel, demonstratively separated from its poor neighbor a few years ago. In a cloak and dagger operation a barrier was built between the two municipal areas, allegedly in order to reduce the muezzin’s volume, which had been disturbing the holy rest of the villa owners five times a day. More probably it was in order to hide the naked poverty from their eyes.
Actually the village has good potential. The beach leading gently down to crystal clear water could be developed. The Israel Trail, leading from the far north to the far south, goes through Jisr az-Zarqa.
A few years ago, a guesthouse was opened in the village – an ideal layover for backpackers. The idea originated with Neta Hanien, a Jewish Israeli lawyer. Ahmad Juha, the owner of an ice-cream parlor and coffee shop, was the partner who managed to open the closed doors of the uncooperative villagers. The two of them played with the idea, collected the necessary amounts through crowdfunding. The plan seems to have succeeded. The small hostel with two sleeping halls and two double-rooms has been adopted by backpackers.
Movie crews have come twice to the village, looking for the „perfect location“ to make a movie about the „refugee camp in Gaza“.
But this alone will not save Jisr.
Twice the name of the settlement has been mentioned in the media during recent years: Once, when the possibly oldest woman on earth, Mariam Anmash, died in 2012 at the age of 124. Her Israeli ID gave 1888 as the year of her birth; the day and month were not given, as they were unknown. She left ten children and about 300 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The second time was in 2016: when the Israeli National Soccer League player Taleb Tawatha went to play for Eintracht Frankfurt, he was mentioned in Wikipedia as a „famous citizen“ on the Jisr az-Zarqa page.
Not much good resulted from a school trip when children from Caesarea visited the neighboring village of Jisr az-Zarqa. The trip was organized by the „New Way“ organization, which is firmly established in the Ministry of Education’s program. The village children showed the children from Caesarea their mosque – so far so good. They also showed them their prayer rituals. Whether invited to do so or not, the Jewish children knelt on the prayer rugs and bowed during prayers according to Islamic ritual. Grown-ups are free to decide to what extent they wish to open up to new experiences. Children are easily influenced, and may not understand the consequences of such decisions. So this was a rather problematic incident, which became scandalous when account was taken of the fact that one of the notoriously anti-Israeli NGOs, the „NIF“ (New Israel Fund) had supported New Way with US$ 94,000 in the year 2015 alone. Hopefully Minister Naftali Bennet will get the message and will immediately put an end to cooperation with „New Way“.
It is also to be hoped that the relationship between these neighbors will not deteriorate following this incident provoked by NIF.
© esther scheiner, israel
© translated by: Translation International, Herzliyah