How Israel Is Trying to Keep This Gorgeous Yet Extremely Poor Arab Town From Gentrifying

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Jisr al-Zarqa
Jisr al-Zarqa.Credit: Rami Shllush
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Jisr al-Zarqa is one of Israel’s smaller Arab communities, but also one of the best-known. Its location – on the coastal highway, near Caesarea, with a gorgeous beach – makes it truly special, and also truly anomalous. In contrast to both its geographical conditions and its rich neighbors, Jisr al-Zarqa is distinguished for being one of the country’s poorest communities. That’s due in no small part to its distinctive population, some of whom are descendants of Arab migrants of Sudanese origin who have always been outsiders among Israel’s indigenous fellahin (farmers). The result is that the community is socially isolated and has a problem of intermarriage among cousins.

For years, the authorities have been trying to help the outcast, poverty-stricken town in various ways. In recent weeks, the Construction and Housing Ministry issued a request for bids for the building of apartments in Jisr al-Zarqa, on the shoreline. The intention was to relieve slightly a housing crunch in the town of some 15,000 residents. However, the bidding process was canceled. The reason: Jewish businesspeople spotted an opportunity to acquire reduced-price apartments on the seashore, and apparently intended to buy up most of the units that would have been offered. Although Jisr al-Zarqa is a strikingly poor community, its attractive location makes it a golden real estate opportunity for nimble entrepreneurs.

The Housing Ministry is considering restarting the bidding process, but this time under different conditions: namely, a guarantee that most, if not all, the residential units will be allocated to locals, that is, to people who live in Jisr al-Zarqa. The new tender would be issued within the framework of a revised policy being adopted by the ministry, one intended to resolve the chaotic situation surrounding housing construction in the Arab community in general by considerably mitigating the conditions, including lowering prices, for local residents to buy homes.

Effectively, the Construction and Housing Ministry, under the leadership of Zeev Elkin (New Hope), is initiating affirmative action for the Arab public. Whereas in Jewish communities, at least 32 percent of residential units in such proposals must be marketed to existing resident of the community, and a 50 percent cap exists only for single-family detached housing, in Arab communities a general rule of 50 percent was set. That too proved insufficient, so the Justice Ministry recently raised it to 75 percent. Consequently, in every Housing Ministry bid for residential construction in Arab locales, 75 percent of the dwellings will be offered solely to the community’s residents; only 25 percent will be sold on the open market.

This is an effort to placate the heads of the Arab local authorities, who refused to cooperate with the marketing projects of the Housing Ministry unless an absolute majority of the units in each proposal were set aside for locals. Raising the bar to 50 percent did not induce a change of mind, because the risk that half the housing units would be auctioned off to outsiders was perceived as intolerable. Not to put too fine a point on it, hardly any Arab locales in Israel have Jisr al-Zarqa’s amazing shoreline, and overall, the fear is not that large numbers of well-off Jews will be flocking to them to buy apartments. The danger is that affluent Arab residents from nearby locales will buy them, and the prices of units will rise.

Limited mobility

What’s so bad about Arabs from different communities moving in? Explaining, Mudar Younes, who heads the coucil of Arab local governments, cites the large social disparities within Arab society. On one hand are indigent local residents who can’t even get a mortgage from the bank, and on the other, Arabs who got rich fast.

Yunes: “We are apprehensive that only persons of means will be able to buy apartments, while those who lack the means, the ones who have a genuine need, won’t be able to compete with them.” To which he adds “the feeling of insecurity that prevails in Arab society, and the fear that ‘undesirable’ strangers will enter the community” – a clear allusion to organized crime families.

Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin.Credit: Ilan Assayag

However, the crime families are only part of the story. One of the weakest points of Arab society is its tribal conservatism and its hamula (clan) structure. It’s not the general practice for members of the Arab population to leave their communities and thus remove themselves from the clan’s embrace. Arab society is made up of Druze, Christians and Muslims, and each such division contains internal splits into families or tribes. Jews, too, find it convenient to live close to their parents, and that’s the argument for selling only to locals that’s put forward by the residents, but while for the Jews it’s a balance of convenience, for the Arabs, it’s a social necessity.

Of course, not all this is carved in stone. After all, the fact is that the leaders of the Arab local authorities are apprehensive about prosperous Arab outsiders coming in and outbidding local residents. Furthermore, today members of the developing Arab middle class are even daring to migrate to Jewish cities – Carmiel, Nof Hagalil, Afula – in search of quality of life. Arab society is developing in at least two directions – but even so, mobility is far lower than in Jewish society.

Ministerial dilemmas

This situation gave rise to the dilemma faced by the housing and justice ministries over new construction. On the one hand, the preference for local residents is inegalitarian. In practice, it amounts to a closed bidding process for a small, preferential group that will benefit from lower demand, and hence, lower prices.

In addition, it’s hard not to be annoyed over the social failings that arise from the attachment of original community members to a particular territory. It puts a brake on social mobility and also gives rise to covert racism, as expressed, for example, in the attitude toward the descendants of the original Sudanese arrivals to Jisr al-Zarqa. The government has no desire to have wealthy Jews buy homes in Jisr al-Zarqa, and thus set in motion a process of gentrification in the small, otherwise-shunned community – because its residents don’t really have anywhere to go. But would other Arab towns be hurt if different populations were to enter them – even, perish the thought, Jewish populations?

Nor can the balance of political interests be ignored. It’s convenient for the heads of the Arab local governments to insist that proposals sin their locality be earmarked exclusively for the members of that particular community, as this benefits them politically. They are perceived as providing a generous supply of residential units, something that will presumably encourage the townspeople to vote for them in the next election.

The other side of the dilemma faced by the ministries is the complex situation in Arab society, of limited mobility and the refusal of local government heads to move ahead with bidding processes unless there is a decided preference for local citizens.

Elkin, a Jew and a resident of a West Bank settlement, decided to take action and grant to Arab communities a benefit that Jewish locales do not get. That is testimony to Elkin’s openness, but also to the altered status of Israel’s Arab citizens. The Israeli government has learned how to court Arab voters – and to try to satisfy them. At a time when Arab citizens refused to assist escaped Palestinian security prisoners, and thereby proved their Israeliness, even right-wing politicians are accepting their Israeli essence unquestioningly.

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