Small Arab and Jewish Towns Team Up to Solve Big Problems

Disparate communities are starting to cooperate, leading to solutions that can improve the environment, education and even school dropouts' options.

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The guesthouse in Jisr al-Zarqa.
The guesthouse in Jisr al-Zarqa.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

Nahal Taninim (“River Crocodile”) has no crocodiles – they’ve been gone for decades. It doesn’t usually have water, either. Old-timers wistfully recall when it had both, but newcomers to the region barely even know the riverbed exists nearby.

Rivers going dry because of overpumping, or groundwater depletion, are hardly a rarity in Israel. The only surprise about Nahal Taninim is that a revival effort is in effect. For the water, that is, not the reptiles.

Nahal Taninim today is a drainage canal for rainwater, says agriculture expert Dr. Ido Aviani, who lives in nearby Binyamina. We meet with him on a bench shaped like a crocodile, made of recycled materials, on the banks of the old river.

Rehabilitating Nahal Taninim is a complex project run by a partnership (which launched a steering committee to handle the multiple local and national government bodies involved). The partnership’s goal is to achieve regional sustainability. It consists of no less than 20 towns, including the Arab village of Jisr al-Zarqa, Carmel Beach regional council (with all its kibbutzim and moshavim), Alona regional council (with three community settlements), Binyamina and the city of Zichron Yaakov.

These 20 towns – including Arab villagers, farmers and city folk – have a shared interest in preserving the region’s fragile ecology. And it’s just part of a new trend of partnerships between local governments trying to solve shared problems.

Tiny Israel is divided into 257 local governments (some of which control just a few thousand people). The upshot is a lot of fighting about scarce resources – from water to budgets. Their division reflects divisions in Israeli society: ultra-Orthodox local authorities; municipal authorities of rich towns and poor ones; Druze, Bedouin and Arab villages; and more.

There are countless areas where the residents live alongside one another but never communicate – until recently. Although at the national level the split between the tribes constituting Israeli society seems to be greater than ever, at the local level – from south to north – new tunes are being heard.

Birthright does Jisr al-Zarqa

Nahal Taninim begins in the Megiddo regional council and passes through five or six more jurisdictions before reaching the sea, says Naomi Appel, head of the Regional Sustainability Partnership. The thing is, Israeli local governments don’t communicate, she says: The head of education in one town may never speak to the head of education in the adjacent town.

The first step was for each local government to appointment a coordinator, creating a shared forum, Appel says. Next, the Partnership convened a forum with about 100 interested parties – from engineers and planning committee members to representatives of government, tourism, industry, teachers, artists, Israel Railways, and many more. Then they set up three teams: sustainability of nature, agriculture and people; transportation; and economics.

Similar ventures failed in the past because they tried to dictate solutions from above. Residents have to be involved earlier because otherwise they may reject the solutions, Appel explains. There’s also value in tapping the locals for ideas. This year, some 30 plans were proposed to the Partnership by residents – including a community garden in Zichron and a plan to sow crops in public spaces in some towns.

Two weeks ago, the transportation team launched a pilot designed to reduce car use around a local train station: Israel Railways allocated a special lot for people who arrive with more than three in a car. The nature team is presently debating the farmers’ need to use pesticides, which unsettles newcomers who want to enjoy a more “natural” lifestyle.

Our tour reaches the beach at Jisr al-Zarqa. Bizarrely, a bus-full of American-Jewish Taglit-Birthright tourists passes through the neglected village’s streets and stops by the shore.

Birthright usually takes fledgling Zionists to places like Masada or the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. Three years ago, though, Ahmad Jubran and Neta Hanien set up a guesthouse in Jisr al-Zarqa, and then launched a small “future leaders” youth movement in the Arab village. (The goal of the “future leaders” organization is to empower the village, so the youngsters don’t move away, explains Hanien.) This movement contacted Birthright, since when the organization’s tours have started to stop at Jisr al-Zarqa to experience “what an Arab-Israeli village is like.”

The effort to save Nahal Taninim centers around Binyamina. Residents from the area convene for a community meal once a week. It’s a start: regional cooperation can be hard to achieve. Ya’ala Mazor, from Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, notes that plenty of the local leaders never met one another. In addition, Arab and Jewish towns probably have very different problems, but have a shared interest in ecological sustainability, promoting tourism, etc. They may need to be talked into cooperating, but it can be done.

Sigal Moran.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The era of the Negev

“The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts,” says Sigal Moran, head of the Bnei Shimon regional council, which is collaborating with the Bedouin council of Rahat and the Jewish council of Lehavim to set up an “employment park” called “Negev Era” (Eidan Hanegev) in the southern Israeli desert. “We lack Rahat’s abilities and Rahat lacks ours,” notes Moran. For one, with Rahat on board, the venture is eligible for government assistance from budgets earmarked to advancing the Arab community in Israel, she points out. Also, 50% of the entrepreneurs in the park are Bedouin. Behind all this is the sense that life in impoverished Rahat has to improve for the sake of the whole region, Moran adds.

Among other things, the park holds activities for the elderly – people who have lived by one another for decades but never met. The people of Rahat feel they’re being invested in for the first time, she says.

Collaborations can arise not only through local and government initiatives, but through philanthropic organizations like Ramat Hanadiv (a nature park and garden just south of Mount Carmel, between Zichron Yaakov to the north and Binyamina to the south).

Local government has been getting involved through the Regional Clusters Act sponsored by MK Roy Folkman (Kulanu). Every regional council covets an industrial zone of its own, but they don’t all have enough people to sustain one, Folkman explains. The upshot has been a bunch of small, underdeveloped industrial zones, resulting in empty spaces and wasted money. His solution is regional collaborations, creating hubs not only for industrial zones but for ventures in tourism, high-tech, and even social development.

“Take the Eastern Galilee cluster, which raised 8 million shekels ($2.1 million) for joint scientific research by outstanding children in preschools and schools,” he says. “It’s a beautiful project that no local company could have established alone.”

It isn’t that his Regional Clusters Act won blanket approval. Some local governments are concerned about loss of power, leading the Union of Local Authorities to oppose the legislation. The Negev and Galilee Development Ministry wasn’t exactly jumping for joy, either. But the pilot started anyway.

The man originally behind the idea is Ma’alot-Tarshiha Mayor Shlomo Bohbot, who founded the “Western Galilee cluster” back in 2010. Three years later, the nonprofit organization JDC Israel issued a call to local governments interested in consolidating for a pilot. Nine applied and five were chosen.

One of the preconditions for creating clusters is multiculturalism – Arab and Jewish towns together. The Eastern Galilee cluster places emphasis on quality education for outstanding students, which can’t be offered by a small town on its own, but certainly can on a broad regional basis – especially in an area that already has a number of colleges. Now outstanding-student programs in the area handle about 15,000 students, says Keren Doron-Katz, head of municipal affairs at the JDC’s leadership and governance institute.

Social affairs can also be better handled together. In the Eastern Negev cluster, it turned out there were no solutions for 75% of the people with disabilities. Now a regional framework for disabled adults is being worked out.

“We have a lot of starts. The Western Galilee cluster decided to build a joint youth village. The Education Ministry gives each local government 15,000 shekels for cultural activities for youths in summer. What can you do with 15,000 shekels? You can’t even bring in a good entertainer. So the local governments decided to pool their money and do a joint activity in Acre, which donated use of its Extreme Park for the purpose. We set up a team of kids from all the different towns and they thought what sort of areas they’d like to set up, what sort of ‘Hyde Park.’ It’s a collaboration of Arab and Jewish teenagers that hadn’t existed here before.”

Ultimately, cooperation at the local level is a matter of need and economic incentive, which can seemingly surmount unbridgeable gaps at the national level.

Yeruham in southern Israel is a Jewish city surrounded by kibbutzim, and Arab and Bedouin towns. Despite their proximity, there’s precious little contact between any of them. Michael Biton, head of the Yeruham regional council, cofounded the Negev Council – a body designed to represent all these towns’ joint economic interests. Yeruham is also part of the Eastern Negev cluster.

Conflicts of interest can arise, Biton says, citing the example of squabbling over boundaries, but collaboration brings economies of scale. That can apply to things like building a swimming pool, or a concert hall, or other things. “For instance, we built a school for dropouts in the city,” he says. “Yeruham had only eight children like that, but together with Ramat Negev and Mitzpeh Ramon, we have 30. Maybe the three municipalities – Yeruham, Ramat Negev and Mitzpeh Ramon – should be consolidated outright. But until they are, we have to work together.”

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