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In Israel, secluded Arab village wants to be a tourist must-see

The freeway that hugs Israel's Mediterranean coast doesn't have an entrance or exit for Jisr az-Zarqa. To reach the Arab village, people use a one-lane tunnel that passes under the highway.

Growing up, fifth-generation Jisr resident Ahmad Jarban felt marooned. Jisr had no high school of its own back in the 1980s, and he had to take two buses to get to school in another village 15 miles away.

When the students from Jisr got off the bus, he said, the local Arab children would shout "Ghawarna!" The Arabic word means "valley dwellers," but people from other villages who looked down on the people of Jisr used it as an insult.

"Imagine traveling by bus two hours to get to school and the first thing that happens is other kids sitting on the wall chanting at you, 'Ghawarna, ghawarna!'" said the 46-year-old Jarban — or Ahmad Juha, as everyone in the village calls him, after a popular character in Arab folk stories.

Nearly all of the villagers come from one of two clans; they are either a Jarban or an Ammash. Most live in gray cinder-block homes packed into narrow streets. There is no room to build out, so families build up, adding second and third floors as their children grow up, marry and start families of their own.

The last remaining all-Arab village on the coast of Israel and one of the poorest communities in the country, Jisr has been isolated from its Jewish and Arab neighbors for decades.

Now, Juha and some of the other 14,000 Arab Israeli residents want to use the village's seclusion as a selling point.

They hope to attract tourists looking for an untouched beach on the country's northern coast or curious about life in an undisturbed Arab Israeli enclave — and, in the process, bring an end to the isolation of Jisr az-Zarqa.

But those against-the-odds efforts are jeopardized by turmoil playing out beyond the village's boundaries.

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Jisr is bounded to the east by the freeway; to the west by the Mediterranean, where children play soccer on the beach and a handful of fishermen continue to eke out a living; to the north by a nature preserve that includes old Roman ruins; and to the south by Caesarea, a Jewish resort town whose homeowners include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A decade ago, the Caesarea Development Corp. built an earthen barrier on the beach between the communities, blocking the view of Jisr from beach houses on the northern end of Caesarea and the sound of the call to prayer at the local mosque.

"We woke up one day and came to work at City Hall, and suddenly there were tractors working," said Yaacob Jarban, Jisr's civil engineer.

Caesarea maintained that it was an acoustic wall, Jarban said, but he, like many of the villagers, believes the homeowners of Caesarea were worried about the view of an Arab village dragging down their property values. A spokeswoman for the development corporation did not respond to a request for comment.

In a country where Arabs make up about 20% of the population, the village is separated from other Arab communities nearly as much as from its Jewish neighbors.

In 1948, amid fighting between Arabs and Jews surrounding the creation of Israel, there was no fighting in Jisr.

Arabs living in nearby villages fled, but "we didn't even think about it, never even thought about leaving our lands," said Gamil Jarban, 72, a retired fisherman, who said his father built the first house in Jisr. He said the people of Jisr were left alone because they were peaceful.

"Even when the Jews came here, they didn't want these people to leave the village," he said.

Because of this, residents said, other Arabs saw the people of Jisr as collaborators. Until a decade or so ago, people from other Arab towns refused to marry people from Jisr, local historian Mohammed Ammash said.

Ammash insists that the earlier residents of the area weren't collaborators, but were duped into giving up their land. In the 1920s, Jewish settlers hired residents to drain adjacent swampland. The residents agreed to give up that eastern portion of their traditional lands and settle where the village is today, Ammash said.

He refers to the arrangement as "our Nakba," or catastrophe, referring to the word used by Arabs for their 1948 exodus.

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Juha has always believed that his village has potential. He opened his first business, an electrical repair shop, after high school. Later, he ran a pool hall, a cafe for men and a grocery store, where he met his wife, Haifa.

Now Juha operates Jisr's first backpackers' hostel, a project that many residents hope will jump-start tourism and transform the village. Juha calls the hostel a "social business." Volunteers are sometimes allowed to stay for free in exchange for working on community projects or teaching English to the village children.

Juha opened the hostel in collaboration with Neta Hanien, a Jewish Israeli woman who had visited Jisr and also saw potential. The pair shrug off the unusual cross-cultural nature of their partnership, but Juha said he was surprised and touched by the support they received when they launched a crowd-funding campaign.

"We feel that today, more than ever, our vision is important," Hanien said. That vision, she said, is "using tourism as a means to create interaction between the residents of the village and others — Jewish Israelis or other tourists."

Natan Uriely, chairman of the tourism department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva, said Jisr is in an ideal location, but he's skeptical of the village's ability to build a thriving tourism industry.

Many Jewish Israelis still remember that a Jewish motorist was killed by a rock thrown from a bridge in Jisr during the second intifada, a period of Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2000, Uriely said.

"Although there is potential, the place is marked by Jewish Israelis as a place that might be unsafe," he said.

At the same time, there was no unrest in Jisr during the war in the Gaza Strip last summer or in the months that followed, unlike in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

"There's a very small impact, if at all," said Jarban, the engineer. "It's not something you feel. People here are busy with their own problems."

Still, tourism in the village — both by Israelis and foreigners — dropped off dramatically after the Gaza warfare. Hanien said business was brisk for the first six months at the hostel, which opened in January 2014, but then slowed.

A week before Christmas, although the hostel was nearly empty, Ammash led a group of Jewish tourists through the village. Others passed through while hiking the nearby Israel Trail, or stopped to visit the cluster of huts on the beach where Jisr's fishermen dock their boats.

Jisr now has its own high school for youngsters such as 16-year-old Maisan Jarban, who said he learned his nearly fluent English by playing video games.

He said he plans to go to college in Jordan. At this point, fewer than 10% of locally educated students attend universities, high school principal Murad Ammash said.

The teenager hopes to earn a nursing degree and return to Jisr to get married and start a family in the top two floors of his parents' home.

"It is my village; this is where I grew up," he said. "So I can't just leave here."

In the future, Juha said, he hopes there will be more reasons for ambitious young adults to remain here.

"In a matter of 10 years, the change is going to be here," he said. "Because the new generation is already getting the seeds of the change and the sense that they can make the change themselves."

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