The Only Place Where a Palestinian Can Give Orders to an Israeli

The Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, also offers the only beach open to West Bank Palestinians

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The Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea.Credit: \ Alex Levac

“Lie on your back” – in 12 languages. In Korean, for example: “Tora do.” It’s only in Japanese that he doesn’t know how to say it, because the Japanese don’t come here, he says. They work hard, he explains, so they don’t have time to travel. On top of which, their Foreign Ministry warns that it’s dangerous here.

Welcome to the realm of hallucination, the place where most notions unravel, the lowest place in the world, and apparently the only place where a Palestinian can give orders to an Israeli. It’s also the only seashore to which West Bank Palestinians have access; in their language, too, it’s called the Dead Sea.

Tens of thousands of children who live less than an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean grow up without ever seeing this body of water. Even at this sea of death, they can only get to the leftovers – the only sliver of the beach that’s in their territory and is supposed to be under their control – although it is under Jewish ownership, of course. “Lie on your back” in 12 languages, courtesy of Mohammed Haddad, a Palestinian lifeguard from Jericho, who’s been working at Kalya beach, at the Dead Sea, for the past 11 years.

The Dead Sea is dying here, too, receding apace from the land in a melancholy scene. There are three regulated beaches along the Palestinian Dead Sea, north of the checkpoint at Dragot that prevents them from entering Israel proper. These three beaches are Jewish-owned. They were all buzzing this week, during Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice – marking Ibraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, out of obedience to God. The area was packed with Palestinian cars, Israeli cars and bus loads of tourists from around the world.

This is their only sea, yet in the past few years there has been a decline in the number of Palestinian vacationers coming here. That is due to the high prices charged for entry, combined with the deterioration of their economy, as well as the opening of more and more water parks and swimming pools in West Bank cities.

The Dead Sea.Credit: \ Alex Levac

The initial enthusiasm over this place has worn off, too. About 12 years ago, after access to these beaches was denied during the second intifada – despite the fact that they are under official Palestinian control – they were reopened. At first the Palestinians came in their masses to see the wonder: the sea. “But now they’ve gotten used to it,” says Haddad, the lifeguard. Even so, here on the shores of the Dead Sea,in the broiling August heat, scenes were played out this week that you won’t see anywhere else.

The beach at Kalya originated in 1929 as a place where miners working for the Palestine Potash Company at the Dead Sea would sleep during the week. Three years later, the Kalya Seaside and Health Resort, Ltd. was founded under joint British, Jewish and Arab ownership – something rare, even for those days. Some years later, a hotel opened at the site; its guests included the king of Jordan, David Ben-Gurion and Arturo Toscanini. Following the years of Jordanian rule, an Israeli army base was established there, which in 1974 morphed into a kibbutz – a settlement in every respect.

The source of the name is the Latin word for potassium, kalium. But it is also said that Kalya is a Hebrew acronym for “the Dead Sea returns to life,” and the government names committee maintained in 1980 that the origin of the name is a local plant, mentioned in the Talmud. But such a plant was never found here. Kibbutz-settlement Kalya owns the beach.

The late Prime Minister Shimon Peres once waxed poetic in praise of Kalya: “City of refuge, realm of the imagination, end command post, desperate hope… You can travel to it, but never reach it.” This week we reached it. It’s unlikely that Peres had in mind what we saw.

A ghost camp leads to the beach that disappeared. These are the huts of the Jordanian Army, which became the barracks of the Israel Defense Forces Nahal Brigade outpost that preceded the kibbutz, completely desolate now for decades. About a year and a half ago, artists from all over the world were recruited to paint colorful wall pictures on the remaining structures there as part of something called Gallery Minus 430, the lowest artistic project in the world, like everything else here. Only Palestinian and Jordanian painters couldn’t be found for the undertaking, which was supposed to signify coexistence. It's not really a gallery but a collection of buildings, not all of which were painted, but it’s still a very colorful sight.

Above the abandoned base is another abandoned project, Atraktsia (Attraction) water park, which shut down in the early 2000s, when the second intifada erupted.

Itai Maor, 32, who manages the beach and was one of the initiators of the gallery project, was born in Kalya to parents who were among the founders of the settlement. In his eyes, as in the eyes of most Israelis, this is a kibbutz, no way it’s a settlement. But, I ask, we're in the occupied territories, right?

“That’s a joke. I promote peace more than all the politicians. My parents established a home in the desert," says Maor. "No one would have settled here in their place” – the age-old claim of Zionism. He sees the beach he manages as a microcosm. In the morning there are Palestinian vacationers celebrating the Festival of the Sacrifice. And in the evening there is separate bathing for the ultra-Orthodox, during the period of bein hazmanim, the “between the times” vacation period for yeshiva students, lasting nearly three weeks from the fast day of Tisha B’Av until the start of the Hebrew month of Elul. "And the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb." Maybe the country will look like that some day.

The Dead Sea.Credit: \ Alex Levac

Almost all of the 60 employees of the beach site are from nearby Jericho. Muhand Hawati, from Tul Karm, is in the bar – “the lowest bar in the world” – drinking a Heineken. A driver who transports workers to a checkpoint and back, he can drink beer here without getting snide looks. There’s no beer to be had in his city; the closest place to buy alcohol is Nablus, thanks to the Samaritans residing there. The bar here offers mojitos, margaritas and Aperol Spritz for inflated prices almost like those at Tel Aviv's Banana Beach.

Hawati is wearing a large, gilded Versace watch, maybe genuine, maybe fake. He says he left his wife and children at home and is here with friends. It’s not his first visit. The entrance price of 60 shekels ($17) for an adult makes a family outing here impossible for most Palestinians. Only those who work in Israel can afford it, says Mahmoud Hisham, a 39-year-old construction worker from A-Ram, which abuts Jerusalem on the northeast. He has an entry permit to Israel and of late has been working in Rishon Letzion.

“This is our only sea,” he says, “but bringing your family here will run you 500 shekels. If you work in the territories, that’s 10 workdays. I work in Israel, so I can come here once or twice a year. We only have two holidays, not like you. If I worked in Ramallah, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. For you people, 500 shekels isn’t a lot; for us it’s a great deal.”

Hisham is here with his wife, Halima, and their three daughters. Two other children stayed home; his car holds only five people. The swimming pools in Jericho have a cold-water fountain, but there isn’t one here, he complains.

The beach offers a somewhat surrealistic panorama: There are bathers smeared in grayish mud from head to foot. The color of the mud matches the uniform of the Border Police – though only we make that connection. Most of the Palestinians don’t do the mud thing. With the body covered in it, identity is obscured and it’s hard to tell who’s who – a tourist from Mexico, a pilgrim from Korea, an Israeli from Sakhnin or a Palestinian from Jenin. Everyone is mired in it. Women in their traditional black dresses float on the surface of the water. Nearby are women in bikinis. A national-religious Jewish family occupy easy chairs. The smoke of barbecues rises from above.

Atop his tower, Haddad, the lifeguard, bides his time in a straw hammock, swaying from side to side, his eyes darting about ceaselessly in every direction. He issues orders constantly through a loudspeaker in his host of languages. “Don’t go far, it’s dangerous,” in Hebrew. “Lie on your back,” in Arabic. “Lie on your back and relax,” in Russian. “Pay attention, there are holes,” in Italian. “Don’t go past the buoys,” in Spanish. “It’s very hot today, you need to drink,” in Chinese. “Roll, or just relax,” in English.

Haddad, 39, was a driver who transported workers from Jericho to Kalya, until 11 years ago a friend from Kalya told him that they were looking for a lifeguard. He learned the profession at a pool in Jericho. Since then he’s been here, at the beach he loves.

The Dead Sea.Credit: \ Alex Levac

He is less muscle-bound than a typical Israeli lifeguard, with Ray-Ban shades covering his eyes and binoculars on a tripod. “People think it’s like a swimming pool and that you can do anything here,” he says, in an annoyed voice. One person a year dies here on average, usually from a heart attack in the water. No Palestinian or Israeli has drowned here, however. “People from this country know how to swim,” says Haddad.

About 85 percent of the visitors are from abroad, Maor, the manager, says.

Haddad: “The Palestinians aren’t like the Israelis. The Palestinian sees the sea and is thrilled. They jump into the water, don’t know it’s salt. For those things, there are lifeguards. The best are the Americans. They do exactly what they’re told. They have a brain. After them come the Russians. Disciplined. Japanese don’t come here, so I didn’t learn Japanese.”

A few times a year, Haddad obtains a permit and goes to the beach in Tel Aviv. “Here it’s a closed sea. It’s not an open ocean, like in Tel Aviv.” There have been no fights here between Arabs and Jews over national-political issues, he says. “Arabs will sometimes go and look at a bikini. For the Arab the bikini is forbidden. Sometimes they will take a picture of the bikini. That sometimes causes tension, but it’s not connected to politics.” To work here, Haddad needs a permit from the Civil Administration – “Work Permit for Judea and Samaria Region” – as in every settlement.

People come here from every part of the West Bank, most of all from Hebron, notes Haddad: “In Hebron they have money. The Hebronites are like the Israelis – they know how to make money.”

Opposite us are the luxury hotels on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Haddad’s sister lives in Jordan, he’s been there quite a few times. One time he rented a water motorcycle and rode around in the water next to his well-kept beach in Kalya.

The menu of the lowest bar in the world is in English and Hebrew only. Almost the whole staff is from Jericho. Falafel, sabih and schnitzel, “Israeli” food. Greek music. The internet site of the neighboring beach, Neve Midbar (Desert Oasis), declares, “The beach hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year: tourists from every part of the world, as well as Israeli families and organized groups.” Are the hundreds of Palestinians who this week filled the parking lot of Neve Midbar beach counted among the Israelis, or perhaps among the organized groups?

Says Hawati, the driver from Tul Karm: “The way we’re sitting here together, Jews and Arabs – what’s the big deal?”

A blue Star of David is emblazoned on the sign of the third beach here, which is called Biankini. In Jericho, a huge line has formed at the entrance to Water Land park, and local ushers are directing the traffic. The sculpture of the "Key of the Return," at the entrance to the city, is hidden in the shade of the trees. The casino has been shut down for a long time, Mickey Mouse is handing out flyers for the water park on the main highway, and sheep sprawl miserably in a narrow, makeshift pen by the side of the road, waiting their turn to be slaughtered.

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