Alex Brummer visits the Israeli-Arab village of Jisr Azarqa and witnesses the social and political obstacles that create uneasy relations between Jews and Muslims
Seen from the steep sandbank which divides the dilapidated Arab village of Jisr Azarqa from the swish villas of Caesarea, the contrast could not be starker. On one side, Israel’s wealthiest town, where Benjamin Netanyahu has his private home, sits amid verdant lawns. On the other side of a barrier erected hurriedly in 2001 is an Arab village ignored by signs on the highway, an enclave trapped in poverty and poor health by its history.
Rubbish haphazardly strewn below the Arab side of the sandbank is a symbol of municipal deprivation. Out to sea is a common vista of sand dunes and a moody Mediterranean with the surf skimming across the surface like a cavalry charge of white horses.
It is in the decaying, modern community hall of Jisr Azarqua that a unique dialogue takes place. Israel’s best and brightest from the Rabin Pre-army Leadership Academy, on a gap year before military service, are being exposed to the problems of besieged Israeli-Arab citizens.
Having been briefed and walked the village, the young Israelis earmarked after tough testing for future leadership in the IDF and broader society are confronted directly by Arab contemporaries.
The disgust of the young Israelis at what they have witnessed is palpable: “If we had the time and means we would dig up that sandbank,” declares one of the cadets.
The dialogue with the impressive young Arabs is wide ranging. Furwaz, a thick-set Arab youth studying nursing at a nearby college, talks emotionally of discrimination on campus, describing some members of the faculty as “racist”. He describes how he sought to build bridges with Israeli-Jewish students by organising a party with free beer. None of the Jewish students showed up.
Furwaz is asked by the young army recruits if he supports a Palestinian state. “I have Israeli citizenship,” he declared. “I was born into the reality of Israel. If I were a Palestinian, I wouldn’t be studying nursing.”
In another corner of the room, a testing debate is taking place on why the Israeli-Jews feel it incumbent to put on uniform and go into the army and how they reconcile that with their studies of Arabic and goals of social leadership in Israel.
The conversation is a critical pilot for a programme known as ‘Education for the Next Generation’ piloted by the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an NGO that seeks to improve the education and understanding of Israeli-Arab and Jewish communities.
It has taken delicate negotiations with the Rabin pre-Army Academy and even more sensitive talks with Jisr Azarqa’s leaders to identify sufficiently thoughtful and articulate Arab youngsters ready to engage with Jewish Israel’s elite. The goal is to expose the best of Israeli-Jewish army recruits sufficiently to the hardships of their Arab contemporaries. It is hoped that when they are promoted to become officers and leaders in civil society, post their military commissions, they will be sufficiently aware of the needs of Israel’s Arabs to make a difference.
Just how much that difference could make is well illustrated by the history, geography and social structures of Jisr Azarqa. Most of the 14,500 residents are the direct descendants of two families who travelled to Ottoman Palestine in the early 19th century from North Africa. They are darker skinned than most Palestinians and have been shunned as a lower caste, with little marital and social mingling with nearby Arab villages. The result has been inter-family marriage with its problems of infant mortality, short lifespans and hereditary disease.
Until a bridge across the main Tel Aviv-Haifa highway was built recently, the only way in and out of the village was via a single-lane tunnel beneath the highway. Housing is in short supply in a village hemmed in on the west by the sea; to the east by the highway; to the south by the Caesarea sandbank and to the north by the Nachal Taninim nature reserve and Kibbutz Maagan Michael.
Jobs in and around the area are few, with ‘Fisherman’s Village’ providing work for a handful of men and just one village native working in the adjacent nature reserve. Much of the private income flows from the women, who are bussed into Tel Aviv at 3am to clean the university campus and city hospitals.
Male unemployment is endemic. Security cameras adorn buildings. Almost a quarter of the families live on state payments and 1,500 are under special welfare supervision.
There are small signs of hope. A jointly-owned Jewish-Arab guesthouse used largely by NGOs and volunteers; schools catering for the 5,000 village kids offering a route out. But the chance to develop a stunning coastline is impossible – it is controlled by the Interior Ministry, not the municipality.
The contrast between Jisr Azarqa’s humiliation and the conspicuous prosperity of neighbouring Caesarea could not be greater.
That is why it was chosen by the Abraham Fund as a good place to educate Israel’s next leadership generation – it highlights the social and political obstacles to be overcome if Israel is to be a more equal society.
• Alex Brummer is chairman of the UK Friends of the Abraham Fund Initiatives. He is city editor of the Daily Mail.