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Israel’s biggest problem: Poor economic situation of its Arab minority



Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (27 of 29)
A road in Jisr az-Zarqa, a
coastal Arab village that is one of the poorest towns in

Jacobs/Business Insider

  • Israel’s Arabs, who make up 21% of the population,
    suffer a litany of issues, from rampant crime and poverty to
    poor health.
  • One of the hardest-hit Arab villages and towns is the coastal
    town of Jisr az-Zarqa, which is believed to be Israel’s poorest
  • I visited Jisr with human rights activist Jafar Farah, who
    talked to me about the town’s numerous, interconnected issues and
    the need for the international community and the Israeli
    government to help Arab communities as they attempt to extricate
    themselves from poverty.
  • While the international media focuses on issues related to
    the Israel-Palestine conflict, after visiting Jisr with Farah, I
    am convinced the country’s struggle to improve the lives of its
    Arab minority might be even more pressing.

In Jisr az-Zarqa, a coastal town in Israel, violence, poverty,
and neglect have long been the norm.

On a sunny Thursday morning, I drove with the Israeli
human-rights activist Jafar Farah to the coastal Arab village,
considered by many to be
the poorest town
in Israel. It’s prone
to gang warfare, shootings, stabbings, and arson
, and 80% of
the 14,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line.

While most of the focus on Israel in the international news
is related to the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, the
situation facing the country’s Arab minority, which makes up 21%
of the population, is perhaps even more pressing. 

Arabs have a
lower life expectancy
than Jews, a higher
worse infrastructure services
, and
lower incomes
, particularly among those with higher
education. Nearly
50% of Arab-Israelis fall below the poverty line
, compared to

13% of Jews
, according to the most recent report, though that
number is an improvement over recent years.

The situation is so bad that the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development said in its 2018 report that Israel

needs to better integrate its Arab-Israelis
or risk economic
stagnation and declining living standards for all of

Jisr is a village with a popualtion density akin to Cairo,
Egypt, but with nowhere to grow

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (23 of 29)
A road in Jisr az-Zarqa, a
coastal Arab village that is one of the poorest towns in

Jacobs/Business Insider

Farah, who’s 52 and has a head of curly gray-black hair, has
devoted his life to improving the situation of Arabs in Israel.
In 1997, he founded the Mossawa Center, in Haifa, a city long
heralded as Israel’s “model” city of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Farah winced as he shifted to get comfortable in his car seat.
His leg had been in pain for months. In May, Farah was detained
by police while he was looking for his son at
a Gaza-solidarity protest
. After seeing his son covered in
blood at the police station, Farah demanded to know why. Farah
said the officer’s response was to kick him and break his knee.
The Police Investigation Unit
has opened a probe looking into the incident
. The officer in
question has been placed on administrative leave.

We drove down Highway 2, the primary artery connecting Tel Aviv
and Haifa. Farah pointed at a crowded expanse of gray cinderblock
structures overlooking the highway. Though Jisr az-Zarqa abuts
the highway, there’s no exit. There were exits for the towns
before and after. We drove farther south, doubled back on an
interior road, and exited to a small two-lane access road that is
the only way into the impoverished village.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (28 of 29)
Because Jisr az-Zarqa is
not connected to the nearby highway, drivers must pass through
this single-car tunnel to enter the town.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Farah told me to pull over. A police car was idling at the mouth
of the road, stopping any car heading toward the highway.

“I want to see how the police … ” he said, trailing off. His
eyes were fixed on the officer talking to a man in a newish white
sedan. “Policing is a big issue in the village.”

Residents have complained for decades of police neglect — a
police station for the village was opened for the first time in
November — and said that when police are around, they treat
residents as “a
security threat or potential criminal
.” The distrust is

Farah has an acerbic sense of humor, honed after years of
fighting what he sees as thinly veiled racist attacks on Arab
communities. We drove through the one-lane tunnel that passes
under Highway 2 and forms the entrance to Jisr. Farah pointed in
each direction.

To the east,he said, Jisr is bounded by the highway. To the
south, Jisr is bounded by Caesarea, Netanyahu’s hometown and a
wealthy enclave of villas and private pools. An earthen
embankment, nearly a mile long, 30 feet high, and 15 feet wide,
was built more than a decade ago to separate the communities.
Caesarea residents said they wanted to block the sound of the
call to prayer from Jisr’s mosques and to prevent thieves. Jisr
residents see it as another example of official discrimination: a
separation wall built so wealthy Caesareans don’t have to look at
the dilapidated town.

To the west there is the sea and the
Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve, created in 2000
amid much
consternation from Jisr’s fishermen who used the lands and
waters. To the north there’s Ma’agan Michael, considered Israel’s richest
, or collective community. The 1,400-person kibbutz
covers a landmass five times that of Jisr, whose population
density is more akin to Cairo than a fishing village. The town’s
mayor has estimated Jisr
would need to double in size
to properly accommodate its
fast-growing population. Plans to
add land to Jisr by moving the highway
or from unused land
near Caesarea or nearby Beit Hanania have been blocked by those

“The kibbutzim can’t give back its agricultural lands, of course.
Their fathers promised them those lands 3,000 years ago,” Farah
said with an acidic laugh as he looked out to Ma’agan Michael.
“But, remember, they vote for Meretz,” the social-democratic
left-wing party.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (13 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa mayor Morad
Amash (L), EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret, and Mossawa
founder Jafar Farah, among others at a meeting to discuss efforts
to improve Jisr az-Zarqa.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (21 of 29)
A view of Jisr

Jacobs/Business Insider

The problems that plague Jisr are extensive and interconnected: a
weak education system, high crime rates, a lack of public
services, insufficient housing, and high rates of unemployment,
particularly among men. The men in the town used to make a living
fishing off the coast, but
scarcity and increased restrictions from the state
pushed most out. Many families now rely on income from the town’s
women, who pile into shuttles at dawn every morning to take on
menial jobs all over the country.

The majority of Farah’s advocacy in Jisr and other Arab
communities is about basic services: In 2013, Mossawa
successfully lobbied to have Jisr connected by public buses.
Other recent successes include the building of an early childhood
center and a building for the social welfare department. But the
center and department will be housed in the same location. “Not
good,” Farah said, shaking his head.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (24 of 29)
A public bus in Jisr
az-Zarqa. Activists say it took them years to get the town
connected to Israel’s public bus system

Jacobs/Business Insider

Sewage systems, water, and electricity are other major

In 2015, a 100-page government report detailed underfunding
in nearly every facet of Arab public life, from policing to
infrastructure. The report
found that the per capita budget
for residents of Arab towns
was 10% less than residents of the poorest Jewish towns and as
much as 45% less than wealthier ones.

Shortly after, the government
approved a $4.3 billion five-year plan, Resolution 922, to
improve education, housing, and policing
in Arab communities.
About one-third of the money has been spent so far. Rather than
specify the amounts of money used for programs, it
directs government agencies
to allocate 20% of their budget
to minority populations. Some in Arab society, like Farah, have
suggested the
plan was a fraction
of the funding needed to bring about real

Near the southern edge of the town, Farah showed me how squat
houses alternated with unfinished multistory concrete structures
and ramshackle houses were built on top of one another. The
government won’t approve permits for new buildings because of the
proximity to Caesarea, Farah said, so residents build upward
illegally. The houses are linked by looping green cables that
carry electricity from one legal structure to half a dozen
illegal ones, like a perverse game of telephone.

“At a certain point, we need to be advocating for higher
education and not for sewage systems, you know?” he said.

‘Maximizing’ Jisr’s potential is easier said than done

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (26 of 29)
A newly-built police
station in Jisr az-Zarqa.

Jacobs/Business Insider

We parked at the city-council building, which is a series of
trailers. The new police station, opened in November, is next
door. Residents weary of violence applauded the development, but
there was frustration, Farah said, that the city council had
asked unsuccessfully for years for a permanent structure. It
still isn’t built. At the government’s direction, the police
station was built on land that the town council had hoped to use
for development.

That day, Farah and the town council were due to show Emanuele
Giaufret, the EU’s ambassador to Israel, the progress made by an
EU-funded, Mossawa-coordinated project to empower the town to
“maximize the economic potential.” One of the main plans, in the
works for years, is to turn the village into a tourist
destination. Its coastline is spectacular, and the thought is
that it could become a beach town.

After a short presentation, residents led Giaufret and the other
attendees on a guided tour. We drove down a sand road to the
coast, flanked by scrub plants and the Taninim Stream. The tour
guide, a young Arab woman, pointed out the ruins of a stone
bridge and explained that the town derives its name, which means
“bridge over the blue,” from the bridge built to commemorate
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Palestine, in 1898.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (14 of 29)
A view of Taninim Nature
Preserve near Jisr Az-Zarqa.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (15 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa derives its
name, which means “bridge over the blue,” from this bridge built
to commemorate Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit to Palestine, in

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (18 of 29)
Attendees walk along Tel
Taninim, a small hill on the coast of Jisr Az-Zarqa with ruins of
an ancient city.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (16 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa mayor Morad
Amash (second-L) and EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret
(R) stand atop Tel Taninim.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (17 of 29)
Two residents of the town
take photos in front of the coastline.

Jacobs/Business Insider

As we walked along Tel Taninim, an ancient hill overlooking a
wild and untouched Mediterranean beach, one of the women on
the tour fainted. Her son splashed water on her face. She woke up
and fainted again. It was ascertained that she was diabetic and
didn’t have insulin with her. Others tried to shield her from the
sun with a scarf.

Marwa Zoubi, Mossawa’s social and economic program coordinator,
turned to me.

“This is the problem: The closest ambulance has to come from
Caesarea,” she said. “Because the highway doesn’t connect to
Jisr, it is 20 minutes away. The closest hospital is in Hadera,
30 minutes away.” Jisr has no hospital, no post office, no
social-security office, no bank, and no ATM, she added. There’s
little land to add any of those things.

Ten minutes passed before a lifeguard came from a nearby beach
and administered first aid. Later, a paramedic showed up to take
the woman away. The tour continued.

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (19 of 29)
Jisr Az-Zarqa mayor Morad
Amash (R) calls paramedics after a woman on the tour faints in
the sun.

Jacobs/Business Insider

Israel News AymanOdeh Arab (20 of 29)
A paramedic and a
lifeguard from a nearby beach attend to a woman who has fainted
while on the tour. EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret (R)
speaks to others in the group.

Jacobs/Business Insider

When it ended, the ambassador met the town council in a community
center. Farah gave a speech and pulled no punches.

“I know it’s not an easy time to be an ambassador to this
country,” Farah said as he leaned between the lectern and a
crutch. “Your position is either you support us here or we become
refugees in Europe. I hope to not become a refugee in Europe.”

To some, Farah’s statement might have sounded like hyperbole.
But, after walking through Jisr and seeing the desperate poverty
first-hand, it was clear to me that fixing the interconnected
issues of crime, poverty, and poor health in Arab society needs
to be at the top of Israel’s priorities.

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