It’s a holiday in Jisr al-Zarqa, one of the poorest villages in Israel: Last week, after months of preparation, the first guesthouse opened here – the only Arab village remaining on the Mediterranean coast.
I was summoned twice to write about this village: Once after the Mekorot Water Company cut it off from the water system for several hours a day, over a period of a few weeks – because some residents had not paid their bills – and once when Education Ministry placed Jisr at the bottom of the national list of average grades on matriculation exams. People almost always write about the village when bad things happen there. But when the Juha Guesthouse opened I rushed there and was one of the first guests, actually the second guest to sleep there. I won’t be exaggerating if I write that the modest guesthouse is a miracle for this beaten and battered place, which has only the beach for consolation.
The guesthouse, two private rooms and one dormitory-style room, is located in the heart of the village’s main street, on the second floor of a bustling café. It was built by two partners, Neta Hanien, 34, of Moshav Aviel, and Ahmad Juha, 43, who is the owner of the café and an indefatigable local entrepreneur. The influence of the new guesthouse on its surroundings has been immediate: Hanien says the nearby pizzeria decided to undergo renovation in honor of the fact that the village is becoming a tourist destination. And Hayfa, Ahmad’s wife, has started to give lectures about her wonderful cooking, with the help of chef Erez Komarovsky; this collaborative project was originally launched to help raise money to build the Juha Guesthouse.
Hanien arrived in Jisr via a film that her mother, Ruth Frankel, shot about local fishermen: “I fell in love with the place immediately. It reminded me of remote villages in Guatemala - one small initiative is enough to turn it into a jewel. For half a year I knocked on doors looking for a place. Nobody imagined that tourists would actually sleep in this village, until they referred me to Ahmad, who has the soul of an entrepreneur and already organizes tours during Ramadan. He became involved immediately.”
According to Juha, “For years we felt in Jisr as though we were on a desert island. Both the government and the Arab sector scorned us. Until the 1980s people from other Arab communities didn’t marry residents of the village, but now things are changing,” he says.
For a tourist, the main attraction in the village is its wonderful beach. I went to sit on the sand there. Everyone was friendly and a group of local youngsters tried out their Hebrew vocabulary on me. I decided to walk to Caesarea, a pleasant 15 minutes away. The transition from the neglect in Jisr, where garbage is burned in the streets, to luxurious and well-kept Caesarea is very strange. I passed the prime minister’s villa on Hadar Street, which is surrounded by a wall and flags. The guard didn’t make any fuss when I passed by, so I assumed that Netanyahu wasn’t there.
The next day I took a Shabbat hike to the nearby Nahal Taninim nature reserve. This time, too, everyone was nice and Jisr folks invited me in for coffee. At a certain point next to the stream the path was filled with sewage. I waded through the mud back to the village and someone explained to me that the pump is constantly getting stolen, so the sewer gets clogged. Suddenly a fire broke out in the nature reserve and the children came to see; such is the lot of a guesthouse that situates itself in such a poor place. Juha Guesthouse will also be forced to deal with fear of Jisr among the Israeli public, the result of years of negative reports.
I meet a group of friendly pensioners who know each other from their service in the Israel Defense Forces Armored Corps. They arrived at the Juhas' home to eat some of Hayfa’s delicacies and to hear about the new guesthouse. The guide for the group is local council member Sami Ali. He tells them about the day in 2002 when he was informed about construction beginning near the village's border with Caesarea. He rushed to the site excitedly because he thought a shared promenade was being built, but then realized that it was a wall.
“Someone probably bought a villa for a few million dollars, and then discovered that he sees Arabs from his window,” says Ali. “How can they put such a wall between two communities that talk about good neighborly relations? This wall makes us feel as though we’re in a ghetto. Under siege.
The guesthouse, on the other hand, is an answer to all the people who slandered the community,” he explains. “It shows that it’s possible to do something in partnership between Jews and Arabs if you want to, and that even in the poorest place in the country there are people with a desire for change.”