If we close our eyes and ignore the political, social and economic problems plaguing Shfaram and Sakhnin, those two Arab cities in the Galilee can suddenly seem like exotic tourism destinations.
In Shfaram, for example, there is a huge fortress, the Saraya, built in the mid-18th century by the Ottoman regional governor. There are also five colorful churches, one monastery, an old mosque, and an ancient synagogue from when Shfaram was the headquarters of the Sanhedrin.
But despite all that, foreign tourists and Israeli Jewish tourists are still something of a dream, especially in recent months when Jewish-Arab relations have suffered amid the upsurge of violence.
Then there are the two historic events etched in Sakhnin’s memory. The first happened 40 years ago, on March 30, 1976, when three city residents were killed in clashes with the army. It’s now called Land Day.
And in October 2000, during the second intifada, two city residents were killed in clashes with the police. Next to a central square is a stone monument designed by Abed Abdi and Gershon Knispel in memory of the Land Day events.
The two cities, about 20 kilometers apart, share many similarities, but there are important differences. About 30,000 people live in Sakhnin, 95 percent of them Muslims and 5 percent Christians. The population is far more homogeneous than in Shfaram, where about two-thirds of the 40,000 residents are Muslims, a quarter Christians and about 15 percent Druze.
“Look what treasures there are here,” says Daher Nasrallah, a tour guide in Shfaram. The city is a major coffee center, so when he speaks the aroma of roasted coffee wafts from the alleyways.
“Every Jew should come here and see that the place is interesting and that everything is completely quiet here,” he says. “It’s actually strange that people are deterred from coming here now. This is the safest place.”
Noam Horowitz, director of the Shared Regional Tourism project, has a similar view.
“It’s true that it’s hard to get Israelis to visit Arab communities, but even now we have to give it a chance,” he says. “Tourism is developed on a regional level and we mustn’t create a separation based on municipal boundaries.”
Four joint groups of Arabs and Jews are active in Shared Regional Tourism, which promotes tourism and leads tours in Arab and Jewish cities and villages. The emphasis is on cooperation between the two communities.
The Tourism Ministry and the Authority for the Economic Development of Minority Sectors have invested 8 million shekels ($2.1 million) in recent years to develop tourism in Shfaram.
The beautiful ‘90s
My tour’s starting point in Sakhnin is a museum established 25 years ago by Amin Abu Raya, a native of the city. In his small office at the entrance to the Museum of the Heritage of Arab Culture, Abu Raya explains how the place “lets visitors understand the unique nature of the Palestinian people as part of general Arab culture. We have 2,500 items on display here on two floors of a historic building.”
The museum displays tools, a family room, dishes, Arab crafts and in a separate wing, traditional dress. When he speaks about the golden age of the 1990s, Abu Raya flashes a smile.
“Between 1994 and 2000 I didn’t have a free hour. There were thousands of visitors here, and on Fridays we would order buses to transport the visitors from Hamovil Junction to the museum,” he says.
“But then came October 2000, and in one day everything died. Until then there were 50 bed-and-breakfasts in Sakhnin that were fully occupied. They all closed in October 2000 and today there isn’t a single active B&B in the city.”
Abu Raya says there’s no contradiction between the thorny history and the development of tourism.
“Residents of Sakhnin want people to come and visit. We’re trying to honestly promote better relations between Jews and Arabs,” he says. “We have no intention of forgetting or concealing the historical events, but we want to progress to new and better relations.”
Mahmoud Badarna is a well-known artist in Sakhnin. Dozens of works are on display in his studio in the city center, where three young female artists have set up a workspace. Badarna says there’s an unfair stigma about Arab towns and villages in the Galilee.
“Israelis are afraid to come here, but the fear is groundless. It’s very important for visitors to come here, whether Israelis or foreign tourists. The most popular exhibition ever held in Sakhnin was a joint Jewish and Arab exhibition about olive trees.”
Sakhnin's regional center for environmental research and education is a stone building that has won a raft of prizes; it combines traditional Arab architecture with modern technology.
Last June the first Arab museum for contemporary art opened there. Its directors and founders are Jews – artist Belu Simion Fainaru and his wife, architect Avital Bar-Shay. They see it as a lever for developing art and tourism in the city.
Fainaru notes that in the past eight months the museum has been attracting art lovers from Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israelis tell him it’s easier to travel to Europe than to Sakhnin, but that doesn’t stop him.
At the outskirts of the city, not far from the Doha soccer stadium, a giant and very expensive church is being completed. It features a large golden dome, fine marble floors and auditoriums that can hold thousands – even though only a few hundred Christians live in the city.
“This church symbolizes precisely what makes Sakhnin special,” says Horowitz. “This is a real city, very competitive and not easy to digest. Some people may be deterred, but that’s actually the most charming aspect of this place.”