Israeli-Arab Town Haunted by History of Violence Looks for Way Out

Jisr al-Zarqa has always endured a bad reputation, but a spate of shootings in the past two months has forced locals to look for solutions.

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Young men in Jisr al-Zarqa.
Young men in Jisr al-Zarqa.Credit: Rami Shllush
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Anwar Amash, 11, is playing in the street near his home in the town of Jisr al-Zarqa, as he always does. It is almost impossible to discern that he finds some movements difficult. Yet only two weeks ago, some 100 meters (328 feet) from where he is playing now, Anwar was shot in the stomach. He and his friends had been caught in the cross fire between cars.

“We heard shooting,” says Kahir Amash, Anwar’s uncle, who was nearby at the time. His young son was also playing with Anwar. “I opened the window and called for them to come in,” he recalls. When the two came running, Kahir noticed that Anwar was wounded in the stomach. Only after taking him to hospital did the doctors discover that the boy had been hit by two bullets, one on each side of the waist.

After he was discharged from hospital, Anwar returned to the village. Now he has two bandages, one on each side. He says he is “not afraid,” but when he hears shots he is more careful.

Anwar is the latest in a long line of gunshot victims in the Arab town, located north of Caesarea and with a population of some 14,000. Since the beginning of the year, the police have been called to the village 30 times following reported gunfire. In the past two months alone, seven people have been shot in Jisr al-Zarqa – one of them 13 – and taken to the Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center, Hadera. Four others have been stabbed.

“A month and a half ago, a youth of 17 was sitting with friends in the yard and was shot,” relates Kahir. “He died two weeks later. A week before Anwar was shot, another youth, 18, was shot in the yard, and now he’s in a wheelchair. A month ago, they burned down a house and two cars. The children in it were hospitalized due to smoke inhalation.”

The town, located on the Mediterranean coastline, is used to frequent acts of violence. But things have become insufferable in the last two months, Kahir says.

Nasham Amash, another relative, says Jisr al-Zarqa was once a quiet town. “Today there are problems,” he says. “All the children are out in the street.”

Anwar’s mother, Osana, is still in shock over the shooting incident. Her friend, Safa Najar, says another friend of theirs was shot in the head and has been unable to walk since. She says she’s afraid. She tells her children not to go outside, and when she wanted to visit a friend on the other side of the town this week, her 20-year-old son insisted on driving her there.

“I have a son in Germany, I feel safer knowing that he’s there,” Najar says. “If I had the money, I’d send them all there.”

She’s in despair and doesn’t know who to turn to for help. “When there’s a war, you know you have to go to the shelter,” she notes. “But when the children are shot while playing – where can we go?” she asks.

The authorities appear to be aware that the town’s situation has become untenable. At the town entrance, a police car checks identity cards, while a helicopter hovers overhead. Numerous police cars now patrol the town. In the evening, a 40-minute traffic jam is formed in the town center because a police car is stopping and searching people. Contrary to expectations, nobody hoots and no one seems irritable. Youngsters stand on the road to help direct the traffic.

“It’s good that the police are here,” one of them says.

“Let a police car stand outside every house,” adds Najar. “I’ll make them coffee and lunch. We want them here.”

“We don’t have factories or lands, no succession wars, it’s all a matter of control,” Kahir says, trying to explain the violence.

But not everyone agrees. Sami al-Ali, a council member, says it’s not because of “a dispute or underworld fight.” Things blow up for two main reasons: the absence of a comprehensive plan on the authorities’ part to deal with the violence; and the silence of the residents, who didn’t complain about events for many years.

“Violence has become an inseparable part of the atmosphere here,” he says. “Those involved are youngsters under the age of 25. They grew up in such harsh conditions that for them it doesn’t feel dangerous. At the age of 15-20, their desire is to get a car and a gun,” he adds.

“If I had a fight with you 10 years ago, I’d slap you,” he continues. “Today, there are weapons, gang members who set cars on fire, and people use their ‘services,’” he notes. Since 2013, some 75 cars have been burned in the town. The police have yet to solve a single incident, he adds.

Ali says the townsfolk have been consumed by frustration ever since the state’s foundation, but more so recently in view of the ongoing neglect and discriminatory policies. “Sixty percent of the residents live below the poverty line. In 1994, the first school was built in the town. I think we’re two decades behind Arab society [in the rest of the country],” he reflects.

After the murder of young Rami Eskandar last July, something happened in Jisr al-Zarqa. “We started to go on parades, we conducted a media campaign, we shouted. Then the police came in,” Ali explains.

Since Anwar Amash was shot two weeks ago, some of the residents have convened every evening in a tent erected near a mosque to try and find a solution. Last Friday, the three mosques’ prayers were held together with the children, and the public held a parade and ceremony. They are planning to hold lectures and workshops in the local school.

“Without unity and coordination, we won’t succeed,” says Ali, who remains optimistic. “We must have a process. With a plan, we’ll overcome it.”

A senior police source tells Haaretz that cooperation between the residents and police is the only way to end the violence. “In one of the recent events when people were shot, the crime scene had been cleaned up [when the police arrived]. It was washed and the gun shells were collected to hide the evidence,” he says.

“The law-abiding citizens must denounce the violence culture and help the police find the weapons. Only together will we be able to reduce these acts of violence,” he adds.

However, he says the police must stop complaining of a “lack of cooperation” with Arab communities. “In Jewish communities, this doesn’t even come up,” he explains. “When we’re dealing with crime families, for example, nobody expects anyone to rat on his neighbor.”

Many of the town’s children don’t go to school. When you ask them what they want to be, “they say they want to be criminals,” says Kahir. “That’s how they live. They want to be in control.

“Our town has a bad reputation,” Kahir adds, but admits to feeling pride that he was born in Jisr al-Zarqa. “I want to go on living here and clean the place up, get rid of all the bad elements. There are good people here,” he concludes.

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