Half a million Palestinian citizens in Israel and East Jerusalem face displacement as a result of Israeli demolitions.
Jisr al-Zarqa – Unfinished, multistorey buildings are densely packed along the narrow roads of the coastal Palestinian village of Jisr al-Zarqa. Named after the river that flows beside it, the impoverished village, home to 14,000 people, is one of the poorest and most crowded in Israel.
“Living in Jisr [al-Zarqa] is like living in jail,” 15-year-old Jalal, who was born in the Arab town, told Al Jazeera.
With the village virtually under siege on all sides, leaving no more territory on which to expand, Jalal is doubtful that he will be able to find space to build his own house someday. Other Arab towns in Israel are also overpopulated, and Jewish towns make it difficult for Arabs to buy or rent houses.
“Those who can, are leaving Jisr because of the absence of land,” he said. “Look around. Everyone builds upwards here, on top of one another.”
Murad Amash, the head of Jisr’s local council, noted that the town is effectively imprisoned. “It’s surrounded by wealthy Jewish towns, state-initiated natural reserves, the sea and a major highway,” he told Al Jazeera, pointing at a large map.
Along with human rights groups, Amash is leading a bureaucratic fight aimed at pressuring Israel to provide Jisr with more land and an updated urban plan – but he faces fierce opposition from a coalition of actors, including neighbouring Jewish towns.
The village is enclosed by three Jewish towns: Beit Hanania to the east, Maagan Michael to the north and Caesarea, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s hometown, to the south. Jisr’s residents say they owned some of these lands in the past, but they were expropriated after the 1948 founding of Israel.
A busy highway parallel to the coast, paved by the state in the sixties, runs along and seals the village’s eastern border, while the Mediterranean Sea lies to the west of the village.
Erez Tzfadia, a board member of Bimkom, a group that promotes human rights-centred urban planning, told Haaretz that “historically, the route of the road was designed so it blocks Jisr from the east”.
Exacerbating the situation, Israel has inaugurated three nature reserves in the past two decades on some of Jisr’s territory, making the land legally unusable.
“We’re talking about land that belonged to locals who still hold ownership documents. It was expropriated for ‘ecological needs’,” Amash said. “There’s no logical balance.”
The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority says that the three reserves were initiated to protect a nearby river, a strip of coast and an ancient waterway system unearthed in recent years.
“[But] what about us?” Amash said. “Where can I build kindergartens and schools?”
Critics say the reserves, road and other obstacles were motivated by Israel’s long-standing settler-colonial policies, aimed at suppressing the growth of Palestinian towns and Judaising the space.
Following the 1948 Nakba, when Palestinians were forced to leave their lands, the few who remained in Israel were subjected to mass land expropriation. While over 700 new towns have been built for Jews since 1948, almost none have been built for Arabs.
“Jisr isn’t alone. This has been the policy since 1948 towards all Arab towns in Israel,” Ahmed Joha, who manages the town’s only hostel, told Al Jazeera.
“The entire Palestinian people will revolt eventually. If you [clamp] down on a population, it will explode … This situation isn’t good for Jews either. It can’t continue forever.”
After a decade of bureaucratic hurdles, the state in 2016 approved a new urban plan for Jisr, which joins an existing plan already approved on its western side.
“The plan doesn’t answer our needs, but it will temporarily give us air to breathe, maybe for 10 years,” Amash said. “We’ll have [land] to build kindergartens, a school, a new neighbourhood, a celebration hall and some workshops.”
Under the plan, the coastal highway would be moved eastwards, freeing up 230 dunams of land for Jisr – but that land currently belongs to Beit Hanania, which filed a petition against the plan to the high court several months ago.
“We are fighting for our lands. They are important for our crops; we make a living from them,” Yoram Sagi, the chairman of Beit Hanania’s council, told Al Jazeera, noting that the diversion of the road would cost tens of millions of dollars. “There’s plenty more room to build in Jisr – to build upwards, develop on the territory they currently occupy.”
Many locals on both sides were puzzled by the proposal to move the road, considering the amount of effort and resources it would entail.
Meanwhile, the Caesarea Fund, a partnership between Israel and the wealthy Rothschild family, recently sent a letter to Israel’s interior ministry, fiercely protesting another aspect of the plan.
A bypass road connecting Jisr’s southern neighbourhood to the highway would be built on a narrow, 80-dunam strip of land, situated north of Caesarea and part of territories gifted to Israel by the Rothschilds. Currently empty and unused, it is part of a towering land-wall Caesarea built to separate itself from the Arab town.
The fund said in its letter that the move would be a “violation of an historic agreement between the Rothschild house and the state of Israel”, which prohibits a transfer of land out of the regional municipality to the Arab town, Haaretz reported.
Caesarea’s villas and lush gardens starkly contrast with the poverty-stricken landscape of Jisr.
“If the plan is cancelled due to these pressures, [Jisr] is doomed, because we’ve been in a bubble for 10 years, working on the plan,” Amash said.
Meanwhile, Jisr’s residents must cope with their own realities.
“If I have a boy, I’ll have to cut my apartment in half,” Ayat Abu Shiab told Al Jazeera, standing next to her two young daughters. “We don’t have a garden, no space to park the car; there’s no nursery for my daughters to go to in Jisr. It’s hard.”
Many are forced to build illegally, she said.
“My brother took loans and built a beautiful house, located closer to Caesarea, around where they put up the land barrier,” Abu Shiab said. “He owns the land, and he waited for approval, but Israel doesn’t allow us to build there. They already demolished another house of ours 10 years ago, because it was close to the natural reserve.
“He doesn’t know what to do now,” she added. “He just got a demolition order.”