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The Lost Dreams Of Sakhnin By Ori Nir from Ha'aretz
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Posted by Ms. Zbidat on May 14, 2001
Not far from the impressive monument commemorating the three citizens who were shot dead here on the first Land Day, in 1976, on the main road of the town of Sakhnin in Lower Galilee, the municipality has begun to prepare the ground for a new monument in memory of the two victims of the violent events that took place here at the beginning of October 2000. The memorial will be built in Sakhnin's central square, which is now called the Square of the Martyrs of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.The outbreak of violence three months ago evokes harsh memories here, sour relations with neighboring Jewish localities and hampers Sakhnin's efforts to cultivate a successful tourism industry. "Sakhnin is a wounded and disappointed town," says Mayor Mustafa Abu Raya. It is in 18th place on the list of the localities with the highest unemployment rates in the country (10.9 percent). It is flanked on three sides by Jewish settlements and military installations. Its efforts to expand its area of municipal jurisdiction encounter resistance from the neighboring Misgav Regional Council, and now the residents are watching as Israel Defense Forces bulldozers prepare the ground for the establishment of a huge base at the main entrance to their town. Sakhnin's public leaders expended considerable time and effort in an attempt to dissipate the tension that remained in the town from the period of the clashes over "Area 9," an IDF training zone, most of which lies on the farm land of Sakhnin. It was that confrontation that brought about the first Land Day nearly a quarter of a century ago. In the meantime, a generation that did not experience those events has grown up. The young people of Sakhnin take for granted the large secret facility of Raphael (Israel Armament Development Authority) on the outskirts of the town, even though it too was built 20 years ago on agricultural land that was worked by the townspeople. Since the plant became operational, Sakhnin has been rife with rumors that the production of certain items there has brought about an increase in the incidence of cancer in the town. The Defense Ministry has persistently denied this. The shrinkage of the town's farmland in the wake of the growth in population and a series of land expropriations by the state caused most of the population to shift from agriculture to the service sector. In 1948 more than 90 percent of the residents made a living from agriculture; today fewer than 10 percent earn their living from farming. In the mid-1990s, when domestic tourism began to flourish in the area, Sakhnin decided to get on the bandwagon and make the town an attractive choice for tourists. In addition to the handsome restaurants that were established, some 80 guest rooms also opened. The idea that Jews would stay in bed and breakfast establishments in Arab settlements seemed perfectly natural at the time, and a few other Arab towns and villages emulated the Sakhnin model.

A league of their own

A tourism committee, set up by the municipality a year ago, decided to take advantage of the initial development of a tourism industry in the town, which was the work of individual initiatives by local residents. The committee formulated a strategy to attract tourists. Parks were to be developed, along with a series of sites including the local Arab heritage museum, the ancient mosque, the Byzantine church, an olive press, a flour mill, a gallery of traditional art and the tomb of Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin, a member of the Sanhedrin, who fled the Romans from his home in Yodfat and found a haven in Sakhnin, where he was later buried along with his daughters in the first century BCE. "When we established the tourism committee, we had dreams of a very serious initiative. We wanted to put Sakhnin on the map after we had already put it on the food map," says Jamal Sid-Ahmed, the manager of the Sakhnin Tours travel agency. The combination of rootedness, tradition, history and antiquities with the Galilee landscape and the Arab kitchen appeared extremely promising. It was tried out successfully on groups of teachers and students from the Kibbutz Seminar in Tel Aviv and from the Givat Havivah education center of the Kibbutz Artzi movement near Hadera. "Dozens of buses would arrive every week," Sid-Ahmed recalls. "A lot of teachers and students came. They ate shawarma in the town center and visited the museum, the mosque, the catacombs. We thought we could make a living from tourism and fit in with the Jewish population around us." The residents of Sakhnin also cultivated an ambassador among the Jewish public in Israel: the local soccer team, which was in first place in the National League and had prospects of moving up to the Premier League in the coming year. The soccer teams from Jewish localities that came to play in Sakhnin were treated according to the Arab tradition of hospitality. One problem, though, is that the local soccer field is suitable for a team from the C or D league, at best. "Naturally, we are eager to move up to the Premier League, but we are also embarrassed," says Razal Abu Raya, who is in charge of external relations for the Sakhnin municipality. "There are people here who say seriously that maybe we should not make an effort and not move up to the highest league until something is done about the stadium." The mayor, Mustafa Abu Raya, has already done a lot with regard to the stadium. He got a go-ahead from the Science and Sport Ministry to build a regional stadium in Sakhnin and also ensured the necessary funding for the project. A year ago he asked the head of the Misgav Regional Council, Erez Kraisler, to allot him 50 to 70 dunams (12.5 to 17.5 acres) for the purpose, as the narrow confines of Sakhnin leave no room for a project on that scale. The approval of the Misgav Council is needed because according to the regulations of the Interior Ministry, it is responsible for the land around its settlements that is not privately owned. Abu Raya's request was discussed several times by the Misgav Council but was repeatedly rejected, because the proposed site of the stadium is reserved for the expansion of the Jewish community of Ashbel, which is contiguous with Sakhnin. Kraisler promised to find an alternative site. But then came the October riots, which made the yuppies of Misgav feel like they were living in frontier settlements. Many of them demanded weapons for self-defense, and Kraisler decided to suspend the discussions of the council concerning land for neighboring Arab localities. In a letter he sent to Interior Minister Haim Ramon on October 5, 2000, a week after the disturbances began, Kraisler described the violent events in the Misgav area and stated: "Against the background of this harsh new reality, the Misgav Regional Council will not discuss the requests of its neighbors for changes in the municipal boundaries during the coming year. We have no intention of holding discussions under pressure, terrorism and threats." The cool but correct dialogue between Abu Raya and Kraisler was broken off. A month ago, in a meeting of the heads of Arab local councils with Ramon, Abu Raya was informed that the Interior Ministry had acceded to Kraisler's call and would not appoint a boundaries commission to consider the dispute between Sakhnin and Misgav over the town's land demands.

Trampled honor

The frustration Abu Raya feels in connection with Sakhnin's relations with Misgav pale in comparison to the outrage over the ongoing construction of the army base at the entrance to the town. That nightmare began in May 1999, when the IDF suddenly began excavating there. When Abu Raya looked into the matter, he was told that the Defense Ministry had decided to move the Kurdani base, a huge maintenance and emergency depots facility, from its present location in Kiryat Motzkin, next to Haifa, to the gates of Sakhnin. "They decided to build a residential neighborhood in order to expand Motskin. I guess they think we have no need to expand our residential neighborhoods," Abu Raya says. "We held a demonstration, we threatened to go to the High Court of Justice, but it was made clear to us that there was simply no chance of getting the decision changed." Still, the Defense Ministry promised that the camp would be distant from the handsome residential area in the west of Sakhnin and from the junior high school there. But the promise was not kept. The perimeter fence of the base lies just ten meters from the schoolyard. The dirt road on the other side of the fence is filled with vehicles that are engaged in building the base, a serious blow to the 680 students in the school. "We, the adults, feel that our honor has been trampled. The message is: You are nothings and we will do what we want," says the council's treasurer, Fahri Abu Raya. "The students look at us scornfully and say, 'You couldn't stop that, either - what kind of leadership are you?' What can we say to them? That the government does whatever it feels like without any consideration for the citizens?" The residents of Sakhnin believe that an attempt is being made "to push this locality into a corner," Fahri Abu Raya says, that the idea is to block the development efforts and the attempt to achieve equality with the Jewish yuppie settlements that have sprung up in the area in recent years. Mayor Mustafa Abu Raya, who is one of the leaders of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party, says the government has not yet decided whether Sakhnin is classified as an A, B or C area in terms of its development status. "They sometimes forget that we are citizens of Israel, that we have an interest in integration." The parents of the new elementary school in Sakhnin, which was built less than two years ago, met two weeks ago for a dinner at the end of the Ramadan fast. The parents' committee prepared schnitzel and rice, salads and stew. The schoolchildren made a racket in the gym. The parents ate quietly. It was not a happy holiday this year, explained Khaled Trabiya, a former principal of the school and, in the 1970s, one of the founders of the short-lived Democratic Party for Change, which was led by Yigael Yadin. There is still a sense of mourning for the two residents of the town who were killed in the October demonstrations. The residents are also in shock at the fierce reaction of their Jewish neighbors, who have stopped visiting Sakhnin. "There is a gloomy mood. We are trying to do what has to be done, and to do it in the right way, but we are being made to feel like inferior citizens.
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