Joint Jewish-Arab Initiatives Revitalize Neighbor Relations in Wadi Ara

The wounds of the second Intifada have yet to heal, but groups promoting Jewish-Arab cooperation are making a real difference.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

The plaque in Arabic above the door to the Kafr Kara home of the Athamneh family relates that the house was built in 1882, at the end of the Ottoman period. It is a beautiful stone building, and inside are walls painted blue and high ceilings supported by arches. But like many buildings of its kind in the area, the house has been standing empty for years and was supposed to have been demolished to make way for a new, more modern building.

The house is still standing mostly thanks to family member Bilal Athamneh, whose great grandfather built it. Athamneh, an architect, recruited individuals and public organizations to preserve the building, among them Marvad Yarok (Green Carpet), a tourism association active in the Wadi Ara area, which was happy to include the house in its list of sites.

The association is jointly run by Tal Raz, a tour guide who lives in Katzir, Mohammed Rabah of Umm al-Fahm and Doron Meirom from Mei Ami. "We want to make the house a tourism site that will serve as an historical center for Kafr Kara," relates Raz. She envisions groups of tourists and locals visiting the house and learning about the history of the village, trying traditional crafts and tasting local specialties.

The Athamneh house is still a site in the making, notes Raz, and therefore is not included in the association's latest tourism map, which covers 25 sites, entertainment and recreation venues, bed-and-breakfasts and names of tour guides. The first edition of the tourism map, which the association published more than three years ago, featured only 15 sites.

Marvad Yarok was born as an initiative by Sikkuy - the Association for the Advancement of Civil Equality in Israel, founded in 1991. Since 2004 the non-profit organization has been promoting a cooperation project between neighboring Jewish and Arab municipal councils in a variety of areas - industry, the environment and also tourism. There are quite a number of such councils, mostly in the Negev, the Galilee and the Triangle.

The government decision at the beginning of last week to approve the establishment of an ultra-Orthodox city called Harish at the edge of Wadi Ara brought Arab and Jewish residents from the area out to demonstrate together against the move. Largely thanks to Sikkuy's activity, opposition to the city's establishment is not the only area of cooperation between the two communities.

Not just a corridor

Wadi Ara was the first area in which it was decided to implement the cooperation program, despite its history of tension and suspicion between Jews and Arabs. In the riots of October 2000, thousands of inhabitants of the Arab locales went out to demonstrate. Some of them blocked the Wadi Ara road and entered into a confrontation with the police; three of them - two from Umm al-Fahm and one from Jatt - were killed. Since then, Jewish tourists hardly visit the area.

With encouragement from Sikkuy, Raz, Rabah and other tourism people in the area, both Arabs and Jews, began to work to change the situation. They organized unique tours, formulated itineraries and acted to open lodgings and entertainment spots. The tourism map, printed under the title "Walking in the Wadi," is one product of this activity.

"We have learned that it is our common interest to open Wadi Ara to Jews," says Hanan Erez, head of the Megiddo Regional Council and a key partner in the initiative. "We wanted the area to become desirable, a place people come to visit and tour in, and not only a transitional area between the center of the country and the Galilee and back."

"Wadi Ara was chosen because their is a real civic interest here," says Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy together with Ali Haider. "Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, is interested in changing borders. He wants the Arab inhabitants of Wadi Ara to stop being citizens of Israel. Sikkuy has chosen this area in order to create a counterweight to that position and show that Wadi Ara is part of the State of Israel."

The cooperation project between the local councils in the area, in several fields and on several levels, was initiated by previous Sikkuy co-director Shuli Dichter, who lives in Kibbutz Ma'anit, close to Wadi Ara. Dichter wanted to act to reduce the considerable gaps between the Jewish locales and their Arab neighbors in the area.

About 87,000 inhabitants live under the jurisdiction of the Arab local councils in Wadi Ara, crowded into about 42,000 dunams (about 10,000 acres). By way of comparison, in the two neighboring Jewish local councils and the large town Katzir-Harish, about 24,000 inhabitants live on approximately 303,00 dunams. There are hardly any industrial or commercial zones under Arab jurisdiction, a situation that limits their ability to benefit from property tax monies paid by businesses and factories, and of course constrains employment opportunities.

"When I'm asked how many inhabitants there are in Umm al-Fahm, I ask at what time of day," relates Deputy Mayor Mustafa Ghalin. "During the daytime there are barely 25,000 inhabits in the town. They all go to Tel Aviv and the center of the country to look for work. In the evening there are about 40,000."

In order to start narrowing the gaps, Sikkuy activists decided to act to establish industrial zones shared by Arab and Jewish local councils. To that end, inter alia, they convened a joint forum of council heads in the region. As in every other area in which Sikkuy is active, two co-directors were appointed for the project - town planners Naif Abu Sharkia and Hagit Naali-Josef.

Avoiding delicate issues

"The most severe problems between Jews and Arabs have to do with land and jurisdictions," says Abu Sharkia. "In order to narrow gaps, the Jewish councils would have to transfer areas to the Arab councils. When Sikkuy began to act in Wadi Ara in 2003, the wounds of October, 2000 were still fresh and there was alienation between the communities. Jews refrained from entering Arab locales and Wadi Ara, especially Umm al-Fahm, had the image of a hostile place."

Despite the tension, meetings of the forum of council heads were held in a positive and businesslike atmosphere. One reason for this was that the coordinators decided to avoid discussion of sensitive issues like apportionment of jurisdictions, and instead concentrated on a complex but solveable issue - dividing municipal property tax income between the councils.

At the end of lengthy discussions it was decided to establish two joint industrial zones: one adjacent to the offices of the Menashe Regional Council in western Wadi Ara, and the other in the eastern part of the wadi, in the area of the Megiddo Regional Council. For the first time in Israel, Abu Sharkia points out, it was decided that the Arab councils would receive higher percentages of the property taxes than the Jewish councils.

Ghalin, who is in charge of money management at the Umm al-Fahm municipality, places great hope in the joint industrial zones, which are still in the planning stage. "The Arab local councils are a crumbling economic enterprise," he declares. "Jewish local councils receive budgets from several government ministries. We get money only from the Interior Ministry and the Education Ministry. We need to improve services and bring resources into the city, but without factories or government facilities we don't have income. A joint industrial zone could lift the city."

Contributing largely to the move were the good working relations and personal contacts that developed between the heads of the Jewish and Arab councils, and the persistent work by Raz, Rabah and their colleagues in the area of tourism, which helped warm the atmosphere. Today, Jewish visitors are coming to the area in tours organized by Marvad Yarok.

Sikkuy activists established three frameworks for joint activity in Wadi Ara - the forum of council heads, an administration for the establishment of the joint industrial zones and a framework in the area of environmental quality. After these began to operate successfully, they were put into the hands of residents of the area and Sikkuy is following the activities, but not intervening in them directly.

Now Sikkuy working to establish similar frameworks in Hof HaCarmel, in which the partners are the Arab locales of Fureidis and Jisr al-Zarqa, the Hof HaCarmel Regional Council and Zichron Yaakov.

Sikkuy co-director Gerlitz believes that even if there are difficulties, the frameworks that have been established are functioning well and the organization he heads can move on. Erez, the head of the Megiddo council, has reservations: "I think Sikkuy pulled out too early. We haven't yet matured. For a process like this to deepen and permeate, more work is needed," he says.

United against Marzel

About a year ago the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, who also the head of the council heads' forum, Sheikh Hashem Abd al-Rahman, retired. In Kafr Kara, too, the council head was replaced. Since the new council heads have taken up office, the forum's activity has been limping slightly and its members can only hope that in the future it will return to more orderly and effective work.

Despite the difficulties, a number of events in recent years testify that the relationships created by the joint activities are deeper than disagreements over jurisdiction or property tax percentages. In December 2008, when right-wing activists planned to hold a march in Umm al-Fahm with the call to transfer it to the Palestinian Authority, among the first to object was Ilan Sadeh, head of the Menashe Regional Council and joint chair of the local council heads' forum. In advance of the Knesset election in February 2009, too, National Union activists led by Baruch Marzel intended to go to Umm al-Fahm. Sadeh and his colleague Erez were again the first to come out against the planned provocation.

Abu Sharkia notes that in advance of Marzel's planned visit the Arab and Jewish council heads met to consult and decided what to do. "They met at their own initiative, without intervention by Sikkuy," he relates. "To my mind this confirmed the project had succeeded."