North Africa, West Asia

An excursion to Wadi Ara

I came away from this trip with a lot of food for thought. One thing for sure, the situation of the Israeli Arab community in Wadi Ara is much more complex than I had imagined.

Efraim Perlmutter
18 March 2014

Once again I am indebted to my wife who drags me off to various attractions around the country, otherwise I would probably spend all of my free time debating various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict over the internet. These excursions usually include trips to various museums and art galleries for special exhibits. Every now and then we go on an adventure in nature to see some particular wild flower in bloom or a migrating species of bird that is passing through. Usually I greet my wife's announcement of some new trip with a requisite amount of grumbling but more often than not I enjoy myself and come away with just a bit more knowledge about the world than I had before.

A couple of weeks ago I was recruited for another foray. In truth, this one sounded particularly uninviting as it was to the area of Wadi Ara. This is the site of highway #65 which is a main traffic conduit through the Iron Hills and Manasseh Heights. It begins at the edge of the coastal plain at its southern end and at its northern end silently sits biblical Megiddo, the supposed site of the future battle of Armageddon. I had passed through the area on highway #65 numerous times. Along the highway are located several Arab towns and villages including Kfar Kara, Ararah, Ara, and the largest of all, Umm al-Fahm. They boast some fine restaurants located on the highway and along with many Israelis I have often stopped in Wadi Ara to enjoy some very good Middle Eastern food.  But again, like most Israelis, I have never had cause to enter the Arab towns. The whole area of Wadi Ara was ceded to Israel during the 1949 armistice negotiations in exchange for land that Israel held south of Hebron. It is the area that Avigdor Lieberman has proposed to be ceded to a Palestinian state in exchange for settlement blocks on the West bank.

So at 7:00 AM on a bright and sunny day my wife and I boarded a bus along with four men and about 40 older women, looking very much like a retired English teachers convention, and off we went on our adventure. Our first stop was in Umm al-Fahm. This is now a recognized city of 50,000 people and has the largest population in the Wadi Ara area. It is a city of contradictions. The Northern Islamic Movement, the more radical of the Israel's two Islamic movements has a large following in the city and has elected several mayors. Sheikh Raed Salah was elected mayor three times and has also served time in Israeli prison for various offenses. At the same time a survey carried out in Umm al-Fahm in the year 2000, showed that 83% of the respondents opposed transferring the city from Israeli to Palestinian jurisdiction.

After traveling in and around the town we ended up on the peak of the highest hill in Umm al-Fahm for an overlook of the town itself and a good part of the surrounding countryside. At the top is the tomb of some notable person whose real identity has been lost in time. Adjacent to the tomb is a small mosque and nearby is a Sufi Mosque. In the center of town are four large mosques, one for each of the four hamulot (extended families) which make up the town's population. Several years ago I met a fellow from Umm al-Fahm. He told me that tradition has it that the town was founded by four brothers who had gotten into some sort of trouble and fled to the densely wooded hilly area, now occupied by the town. Taking advantage of the presence of the forests, they began producing charcoal for sale to the surrounding villages. This gave us the name of the Umm al-Fahm, which translates as the Mother of Charcoal.

The 1949 armistice line (the green line) runs along the southeastern municipal boundary of the town as does the Israeli defensive barrier ("the Wall") which in this area mostly follows the armistice line with a short detour here and there to encompass some small Israeli settlements nearby. In another seeming contradiction, the residents of Umm al-Fahm are quite pleased with the presence of the barrier. Prior to its construction, thousands of Palestinians would cross into Israel passing through the town. Often, because they were willing to work for lower wages, they took jobs in the town and in the nearby Israeli cities that had traditionally been held by locals. In addition every now and then a terrorist would come through which didn't bode well for the town's reputation in the eyes of the Israeli public or as a safe place for tourists. The barrier ended these problems and you won't hear complaints about it from the residents of the town.

Near Umm al-Fahm is the small Israeli Jewish village of Mei Ami, which can be translated from the Hebrew as The Waters of My People. I thought that this might have something to do with some biblical spring or other historical water source nearby. It turns out that the Jewish Community of Miami, Florida contributed a large sum of money for the village's infrastructure and in return the village was given a Hebrew name that sounds like Miami. This explanation reminded me of the old story about the time Willy Brandt was being shown around Tel Aviv when he passed the Mann Auditorium. He remarked to his host how wonderful it was that Israel would name its largest concert hall after Thomas Mann, the famous German author. However he was quickly informed that the building was named after Frederic Mann. Brandt asked with some agitation, "Well, what did he write?" and he was answered, "A cheque." Recently it was announced that the Mann Auditorium's name is being changed to the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in honour of another author of significant cheques.

Our tour finally took us to Kfar Kara, located at the southwestern end of Wadi Ara. This town is distinguished for several reasons; one is that its population contains what may be the highest percentage of college graduates in the country. Another is that one of four Jewish-Arab schools in the country is located there and it is the only one located in an Arab town. Each class is staffed by an Arabic speaking teacher and a Hebrew speaking teacher and the children learn in both languages. The object of the education is not to transform Jews into Arabs or Arabs into Jews but allow for the maintenance of separate national identities while making "the other" familiar. The project has had its ups and downs. At the moment it seems to be in an up phase. As an English teacher in a Bedouin school I was interested in the technical question of how the school managed to keep open the proper number of days even though each segment of the student body celebrates its own holidays at different times. The answer was flexibility.

While in Kfar Kara we visited the home of Amneh, a local personality. Dressed in traditional clothes she is an observant Muslim woman who is an activist for women's rights. She told us about her life, including not being married until the age of 28 – or as she put it, at an age when it was thought that she had not only missed the train but had forgotten where the station was. Her life story was quite an inspiring tale. However, what seemed most significant to me is that she has organized 900 Arab women in Wadi Ara, who engage in all sorts of activities advancing the status of women in society.

I came away from this trip with a lot of food for thought. One thing for sure, the situation of the Israeli Arab community in Wadi Ara is much more complex than I had imagined and simplistic solutions to finding a realistic basis for their status in the State of Israel or elsewhere will simply not do.

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