A ‘Paradise’ Is on Tap Outside an Israeli Village, but Not Necessarily for the Poor Arab Locals

Jisr al-Zarqa on the Mediterranean coast is one of Israel's poorest places, but with apartments at a new development starting at around $900,000, the village's housing shortage might last a while longer

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A sign portending a luxury development project at Jisr al-Zarqa.
A sign portending a luxury development project at Jisr al-Zarqa.Credit: Rami Shllush
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

A woman in a designer gown strides across sand dunes amid the occasional ancient-looking building or ruin. “Since the beginning of time, she had a magical power,” the narrator intones in English in the promotional video.

“She drew the most powerful people from all over the world. Emperors wanted to be around her, to feel, to touch.”

Galloping horses and Roman fighters then show up and give way to pictures of high-tech and computers – and then to the beach, paragliders and cocktails.

“As time went by, when Israel became a strong nation of resources, technology, progress and advancement, she stayed mysterious, but her ancient strength was still burning inside her – strength of magnificence and splendor, of luxury and pleasures,” beckons the video ad for a real estate project for which the developers have invented a new municipal entity: Northwest Caesarea – Jisr al-Zarqa.

Another ad for the planned apartments at this place, the Turquoise complex, refers to “the Caesarea shore” – Jisr al-Zarqa is just north of this very upscale town. (But at least the ad was accurate with its mention of “the first line on a virgin beach.”)

Only further on does the ad note that this “piece of paradise” is located at Jisr al-Zarqa on a land reserve that was supposed to alleviate, if only a little, the severe housing shortage in one of Israel’s poorest locales as part of the government’s Mechir L’Mishtaken (Buyer’s Price) housing program.

But with prices for an apartment starting at nearly 3 million shekels ($900,000), local people get the feeling that the project has passed them by. “No one here could dream of those amounts of money,” says Ahmed Jorban, a resident of the seaside Arab village.

A few weeks ago, the head of the local council, Morad Ammash, wrote to the Construction and Housing Ministry with a request to suspend the project. “We thought that salvation had come, and that the residents would be able to live respectably in the council and near the sea,” he wrote, but from the marketing of the project, “it turns out that the needs of our local population are being totally ignored.”

Only after the housing shortage for local residents is solved will it be possible “to think about people from outside the community,” Ammash added. The Construction and Housing Ministry responded that local people had won most of the apartments in the lottery for the first stage of the project, and that the ministry “is not a side in marketing the apartments, which are aimed at the free market.”

Around a decade ago the Israel Planning Administration, the Israel Land Authority and the Tourism Ministry developed a master plan for Jisr al-Zarqa. This included both a new neighborhood along the beach and a small fishermen’s complex of about 520 housing units (along with 200 guest rooms at a vacation village, four hotels and a campsite, in order to diversify job offerings).

‘The clear sea and a magical nature reserve’

Jisr’s housing density is one of the highest in Israel in a nearly hopeless chase for a roof over one’s head; the Planning Administration estimates that 80 to 85 percent of local people don’t have a housing solution.

The western neighborhood along the beach is about 300 meters from homes in Caesarea. A large earthen mound that was put about 20 years ago separates the two locales. Objections by Caesarea, among other things to an events hall, slowed the plan down, but after changes were made it was finally approved in December 2018.

A bit later, says council head Ammash, the Construction and Housing Ministry put up a large sign announcing “infrastructure and development work.” Three years have gone by and this work hasn’t progressed much beyond flattening the surface.

Unlike in other neighborhoods being planned, the land in the western neighborhood belongs to the state. The Housing Ministry decided to promote the plan via the Buyer’s Price program, in which apartment prices are subsidized.

The bid to develop there was won by the Geshem Holding Company, which is now offering “a unique living complex of 13 boutique buildings, overlooking the clear sea to the west and a magical nature reserve to the north.” Residents there will enjoy “being at home and feeling on vacation,” the advertisement adds.

So far, one Buyer’s Price lottery has been held for 62 of the 91 apartments. According to the Construction and Housing Ministry, about 80 percent of the lottery winners are Jisr residents, a higher percentage by far than in other lotteries. The 29 remaining apartments are intended for the free market.

Registration has opened for the second phase, which offers a similar number of apartments. The results will become clear in the coming weeks.

“I thought there was going to be paradise here. Today I’m not so optimistic,” says Ammash with a smile at the local council's offices. His joke barely conceals his frustration: Recent years have seen a series of plans for developing the locale rejected or delayed. Or they just plain evaporated.

Sometimes this has been the fault of the various government ministries, and often because the surrounding Jewish locales – Caesarea, Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael and Moshav Beit Hanania – heap objections on every application for the fishing village’s expansion.

According to Ammash, from the outset he opposed Buyer’s Price – and not only because of concerns that the apartments would be sold to people from outside the community. “We did a survey, and we saw that the residents wanted plots of land,” he says.

“I asked the Housing Ministry to let us build the homes, all in accordance with plans that would be approved. The request was denied. They told us that this was the only way to progress, that there was no other option and it would be too bad if the plan were shelved. This is our only reserve of land. I thought about all the people here who don’t have homes and I hoped to help them. What other option did I have?”

He says that in various discussions he warned “against forcing Buyer’s Price on us. I said ‘the poor of your city come first’ and the project has to benefit my residents. They’re the ones who need to get any solution first.”

According to Ammash, he received two kinds of answers, never in writing. In the first kind, he was told that “first we’ll approve the plan, then we’ll see to issues of the purchasers.” In the second kind of answer, it was hinted that “there’s no need to worry, they’ll find a way to ensure that all the apartments are offered to local people.”

The area earmarked for the project.Credit: Rami Shllush

‘We’ll oppose this madness’

The Construction and Housing Ministry denies this and says that any such promise contradicts the attorney general’s instructions under which 20 percent of the apartments are reserved for local residents.

In the meantime, a delay in upgrading a joint waste treatment plant in the area might postpone even further the construction of the neighborhood – and damage the local people’s trust.

“We’ve had so many disappointments. Without cranes on the ground here, the residents have stopped believing in the promises that the project is for their benefit,” Ammash says, adding that the promotional video for Turquoise is damaging the remnants of their trust.

“What’s the connection between it and Jisr? The poorest local council now has to absorb residents from elsewhere?” he asks. “All of a sudden I’m told that there’s no way of preventing people like that from buying homes here. And what will we tell our young people, who need to leave this place because of the housing shortage? We’ll oppose this madness in every way.”

According to Jorban, the Jisr resident, “I don’t understand the reasoning. Finally they’re building a new neighborhood here – and it isn’t going to be for us?”

According to another resident of Jisr, the absence of advertising in Arabic and mainly the starting price make it clear that “this project isn’t for us. Before the coronavirus, the situation was difficult, and now it’s even worse. I don’t think there’s a single person here who doesn’t have big debts. People have seen the video and realize that they’re doing a number on us. The feeling that the advertising is beckoning people who want to buy a vacation home is only stoking more anger.”

In recent years Prof. Neta Ziv of Tel Aviv University's law faculty, and Prof. Ayala Ronel of the architecture department have taken part in the local council’s discussions with the crafters of the master plan, the researcher who examined the objections and the Interior Ministry’s boundaries committee.

The master plan grappled with the shortage of land for developing the locale, they say, adding that of three new areas for development, the western neighborhood is the most available. It’s clear that this land was earmarked for the area’s critical need for residential space, they say, adding that these aims had to be appropriately combined with the marketing of the plots of land.

For its part, the Housing Ministry says Buyer’s Price “aims for the purchase of apartments by local people, and to our delight about 80 percent of the winners [of the lottery for the first phase] are indeed locals. We hope that many residents of Jisr al-Zarqa will also enter the upcoming lottery.”

Commenting on council head Ammash’s request to suspend the project, the ministry says “a number of conversations were held between him and senior ministry people. At his request, the ministry is working with the council to encourage registration of local people for the upcoming lottery.”

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