Saving the Last Arab Fishing Village in Israel

It’s one of Israel’s poorest towns, but a new plan to make Jisr al-Zarqa’s picturesque, old fishing village the centerpiece of a tourism industry aims to change that

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The small fishing village next to Jisr al-Zarqa. A dreamlike place.
The small fishing village next to Jisr al-Zarqa. A dreamlike place.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The small fishing village near Jisr al-Zarqa is a dreamlike place. It’s a circular bay with fishing boats anchored in the water, a few shacks on the beach, greenish fishing nets and children running through it all. Anywhere else in the world, it would be called “picturesque.”

But in Jisr al-Zarqa, that description sounds like a bad joke. The town has a population of just 10,000, and it’s ranked one of the lowest in Israel on the socioeconomic scale. Only 23 percent of its high-school students receive matriculation certificates (which are generally required for admission to university in Israel), an extremely low proportion.

Nevertheless, one of Israel’s poorest and most troubled places is also stunningly beautiful. That’s apparently why residents have refused for some time now to heed the authorities’ order that the nearby fishing village be demolished.

But for the first time in many years, an effort is now being made to change the nature of the town’s long-running battle against the Israel Lands Administration, the Interior Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry and every other possible player. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, with which Jisr al-Zarqa residents have also quarreled in the past, has taken on the fishing village as a project, for one simple reason — it’s located in the heart of a national park.

Old fishing boats at Jisr al-Zarqa. Credit: rami shllush
A visit to the village and conversations with the people who work there seem to offer cause for new optimism.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Now, residents must decide whether to view its plan as an important, even heroic, rescue operation, or as a well-disguised takeover attempt.

Aside from the fishing village of this town sandwiched between Caesarea and Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, there are no longer any other Arab villages on Israel’s coastline.

Only 30 Jisr al-Zarqa families still earn their living from fishing. They have 30 boats and 130 workers, and each family also has a hut on the beach, though nobody lives in them. Rather, they serve as warehouses for equipment and places where the fisherman can both work and relax.

They’re built of corrugated tin, cement blocks, two concrete pillars and some mats. Some of them have paved verandas. Each could serve as an entertainment venue.

Credit: David Bachar

A few dozen meters to the north, Nahal Taninim flows into the sea. Nearby is Tel Taninim — Crocodilopolis in Greek — and next to it the remains of a stone bridge built in 1898 in anticipation of a visit by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. A plan to reconstruct it is currently moving forward.

A visit to the village and conversations with the people who work there seem to offer cause for new optimism about a place that has known decades of despair. The big question is whether it’s still possible to fix things and restore the trust of both residents and visitors. Is it possible to turn this neglected fishing village into a pleasant place to visit, where people can swim, eat fish and drink coffee?

Jisr al-Zarqa's fishing village from above.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Kids play next to the fishing boats at Jisr al-Zarqa. Credit: Nir Kafri

Zeev Margalit, an architect working for the Nature and Parks Authority, is responsible for this unusual rescue operation.

“Everything we see is an approved national park,” he said. “Seven kilometers of magnificent coastline, from the Nahal Taninim reserve to the aqueduct beach and the Caesarea National Park.

“We knew how to deal with Nahal Taninim and how to deal with the aqueduct, but in Jisr, the situation is different,” he continued. “At the other sites, the main draw was nature or archaeology — that is, trees and stones. Here, we’re dealing with people, not stones. I’d be the first to admit that the nature authority didn’t know how to deal with a national park whose main value lies in its population.”

Welcome to Jisr al-Zarqa. Worlds apart from its neighboring town of Caesarea, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resides with his family. Credit: David Bachar

This led to the realization that Jisr al-Zarqa had to operate differently than other national parks, Margalit said.

“We began with a massive clean-up operation. We removed 50 containers of trash from the beach, and today it’s completely clean. We also recruited a team of four workers from the town who are responsible for maintaining the beach’s cleanliness.

“Recruiting workers is a complex process in Jisr,” he added. “There’s a great deal of distrust and suspicion here toward the authorities in general, and toward the Nature and Parks Authority in particular. This is a slow process that will take years, but we have patience.

Small and charming. The Jisr al-Zarqa fishing area from the air.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“The project’s top goal is to preserve the local fishing business by making the place more touristic,” Margalit stressed. “This combination, I believe with all my heart, will be good for the place and its residents. The examples we have in mind are similar villages in Greece and Portugal, with a better livelihood for the residents and a deeper, better marina for the boats.

“We have no intention of destroying the houses in the fishing village. It’s clear to us that the minute we touch a single building, we’ll destroy the residents’ trust. Our idea is to develop unplanned building with local materials, without architects or engineers. That’s the charm of this place. The other agencies are mad at us now, because this is very irregular, but we truly want to bring some soul here, something that’s absent in the world of standard planning.”

A window to the Mediterranean Sea

Sari Jerban, a fisherman from Jisr, stands on the covered balcony of his fishing storeroom. Above it there is a pergola, there’s a mosaic floor, the walls have been whitewashed and the interior of the storeroom is decorated with shells and old fishing equipment. Margalit says that Jerban’s structure is “our pilot.” The main idea is to allow the residents to express themselves.

Houses in Jisr al-Zarqa. One of Israel’s poorest and most troubled places.Credit: נמרוד גליקמן

“Nothing has changed here since I was a child,” says Jerban, whose entire family worked at sea and who goes out to fish almost every day. “What has changed is that the fish have disappeared on us. My father used to cast a single net and catch fish all day long. We cast six nets and barely get one carton. It’s important to understand that fishing has to be preserved, and along with it we have to develop tourism. Without fishermen, there will be no tourism. You can swim anywhere, but this is the only place that you can spend time with fishermen.”

The main figure in the project being led by Margalit in Jisr al-Zarqa is Saidah Ali. A local resident with a master’s degree in administration, Ali was in the past a teacher and educator in the village. At present she works as a community and education coordinator in the Nature and Parks Authority. In the context of a large-scale community program that she is promoting, Ali isn’t concentrating solely on the fishing village, but sees it as a lever for overall social change in Jisr. As a resident of the village who works for the authority, her position is a complicated one — and that is evident during the course of our conversation.

“In Jisr, there’s a desire to change, but there’s also fear of change, due to what happened here in the past,” she begins. “For many years people in Jisr thought that the Nature and Parks Authority was the enemy. Trust was destroyed during the development of the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve, and now it’s hard to restore it.”

Ali is referring to the promise made to the residents at the time, that the development of the stream wouldn’t change anything. In fact, when the stream was reopened, they were required to pay entry fees like all the other visitors.

“The feeling is that it’s hard for us to rely on the Israeli system and establishment,” she continues. “After all, the authorities always want to tell you how to run your life, and we, the residents of Jisr, are afraid that they’ll deny us the right to be here. The community program will enable us to carry out the change with great sensitivity. There shouldn’t be too much intervention here.”

Beautiful but poor: Jisr al-Zarqa. Credit: rami shllush

Ali says that the change will require a lot of energy and faith, adding that many residents support the restoration of the beach, but oppose changes in the buildings. Many of them are in favor of developing tourism in the fishing village because they understand that that’s the future. That’s why they also support Ali’s wider program for the community, which deals with education, the local community and its institutions, and the fishing village. She says that the message is, “We’re here for your benefit. Explain your difficulties to us and we’ll try to help.”

Among the prominent initiatives in the new approach is a first aid course being held in the little port that is meant to enable the residents to help vacationers. Also being considered is a course in conversational English, which would enable them to talk to tourists from abroad. Other future initiatives include obtaining licenses for the fishing boats, which some residents lack, encouraging artists and artisans to display their works in the village, training local residents to serve as guides for visitors to the nearby nature reserve and the fishing village itself, and training local teens to be surfing guides for visitors to the beach.

To all these Margalit adds the substantial effort being made at present to open to visitors the ancient underground tunnel, which passes beneath the village homes and leads to the aqueduct. This step, which Margalit says will take place “very soon” (a period of time that in Jisr, he says, could even be a year or two), and the creation of an attractive tourist route along the course of the aqueduct, from Beit Hananya to Caesarea. Those walking along this new-old path will of course pass through the Jisr fishing village.

Another important part of the plan is to be inclusive of the town’s women. There have already been courses for them in weaving baskets and straw mats, and other traditional crafts. “A woman in Jisr deals with unique problems,” explains Ali. “This is the first time that such an initiative has been conducted here. We live in a conservative and masculine society, and such changes require patience and sensitivity. These are changes that have to come from within, from the local society and not as an external initiative that is forced on us. That’s the only way that we have a chance to succeed.”

In addition, a poor self-image and years of hostile and humiliating treatment by Israeli society have, according to Ali, led to serious fears of change among the locals. Many of them would prefer not to deal with the renewal at all, she says, to avoid being hurt once again. In this aspect there has been a significant change in the past year, she says, when Jewish society began to develop a different perception of Jisr residents. “Now they see us as people who have taken themselves in hand,” she says, noting that in light of that, Arab society has also completely changed its attitude toward the residents of Jisr.

Jisr al-Zarqa. An effort is now being made to change the nature of the town’s long-running battle against the Israel Lands Administration.Credit: rami shllush

Don’t touch my home

A reminder of the residents’ difficulties and distrust mentioned by Ali comes a few days later. Musa Jerban, another villager who describes himself as one of the veteran fishermen, met Haaretz photographer Rami Shlush, who came to Jisr to take pictures for this article. Jerban asked to speak to this reporter, and during our long conversation he made it clear that he is firmly opposed to the plan being promoted by the Nature and Parks Authority.

Jerban stressed that he doesn’t see it as a rescue plan, but rather as a plot of the establishment designed to dispossess him of his home. Jerban, 45, who is married with eight children, has earned his livelihood from the sea all his life. On Shabbat he opens an improvised restaurant on the balcony of his home and serves grilled fish. He thinks that developing local tourism is a wonderful idea and he’s all for it because it’s the future, but the problem is that he has absolutely no confidence in the Nature and Parks Authority.

“Today they say that they want to improve and organize the place, but I’m convinced that in the future they’ll take it away from us and say that because they paid for the rehabilitation, the place belongs to them. I don’t trust that organization. I saw what they did to us when they developed the nature reserve, and then locked us out of it. We live in Israel and love the country, but show me another place where they force you to renovate your house. All I’m saying is let us live in peace. We’ll develop, we’ll do, we’ll build without help. Just don’t take by force.”

Between Sari Jerban, who is fixing up his fisherman’s hut with the help of the Nature and Parks Authority, and Musa Jerban, who sees the rehabilitation plan as a plot – there’s one blue, round and beautiful bay. There are still differences of opinion, but for the first time it seems that Jisr’s future is saner and brighter than in the past.


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