Well before the current round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, entrepreneurs in a few Israeli-Arab towns had an idea. Why not use the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as a time to bring Israeli Arabs and Jews together, and generate a little extra cash for their towns.
The hope was that Jewish Israelis would spend time walking around an Arab town and participate in the festive Iftar meal that breaks the day's Ramadan fast. And that idea was going pretty well for a number of years.
But now, organizers face a challenge. The fighting between Hamas and Israel, and the ethnic tension between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, are sharply reducing the number of tours.
Fighter jets have flown over the beach of Jisr az-Zarqa, the only Arab Muslim village on the Israeli coast. This was not the background noise Mohammad Amash had in mind when he signed up to guide a Ramadan tour through his hometown.
“We want Israelis who come here this month to get to know Ramadan up close,” Amash said. “To see the people, what they do, what they eat, how they sit, how they act. … We are trying to create some relationships with our neighbors.”
Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab — including the people of Jisr az-Zarqa. This Muslim town of 14,000 residents is one of Israel’s poorest. Amash says Ramadan tours bring in much-needed money and build vital bridges between Jews and Muslims in Israel.
The first Ramadan Nights tour in Jisr az-Zarqa was six years ago. Tour guides walk visitors around town and then locals and tourists sit down for the traditional Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast. Over the years, the tour has brought in so many curious outsiders — Israelis and foreigners — that last year, Jisr az-Zarqa opened its first hostel.
Similar tours are held across Arab-Israeli towns. This year, Israel’s ministry of tourism invested $15,000 into marketing them to Israelis. But the timing could not have been worse.
More than 90 percent of Ramadan tours have been canceled in cities like Nazareth, Umm el Fahem and Taybeh, said Khalil Mari, who helps develop and promote the tours through the Sikkuy Association for Advancement of Civic Equality.
In Jisr az-Zarqa, the tour on a recent Friday was supposed to be for 25 people. Only eight showed up. And for those who made it, war was on the top of their minds.
Usually, Jewish visitors ask Amash about Islam and Arab culture. On this tour, Orit Gat said she needed to know how the residents of Jisr az-Zarqa feel about Jewish Israelis.
“I’m curious to know ... how they feel about us,” she said. “How they feel about this war. I hope they don't like it. I hope they're not happy when there are rockets here.”
In the center of town, local cooks set up long tables laden with falafel, pickled beets and spicy eggplant salad. A man in a long white robe rolled dough thinly and baked it on a domed griddle. Amash explained that the holy fasting month of Ramadan is also a month of food.
“There’s a stand there, there’s a stand here, there’s a stand here, and if you go up on this road, you’ll see another two or three like them,” Amash said. “What makes Ramadan special is that the woman has 30 days — it’s 30 days of cooking. She lives in the kitchen this month. It is some good hours, to cook and cook and cook.”
From the town center, Amash led the group down to a stream that emptied out into the Mediterranean. In Arabic, it is called Wadi Azzarqa — the blue river — and that’s also the source of the village’s name, which means "the bridge of the blue." The river was surrounded by tall green stands of reeds. They are the reminder of Jisr az-Zarqa’s romantic past as a village built of mud huts in a swampy coastal plain.
“Every family specialized in one occupation,” said Amash, whose ancestors were buffalo farmers. “If it was shepherding, they had herds, growing buffalo in the swamp. Fishing and hunting [involved] wild animals, and also crocodiles.”
Where the river meets the sea, colorful fishing boats made this impoverished town seem like a pastoral fishing village. Gilad Rosenfelder, from a suburb of Haifa, looked south in the direction of Gaza, while fighter jets flew overhead. “In the Gaza Strip, I’m sure there are people over there, listening to the waves," he said, "and wondering what will be the end of this horrible situation.”
Last stop on the Ramadan Nights tour was the evening meal, Iftar. Amash took the group to the home of Ahmad Juha, who first launched the tours six years ago.
The eight visitors passed around wide trays piled with rice, salads, eggplant and meatballs. Kobi Raifen, from the Israeli city of Haifa, broached a sensitive subject.
“When there’s a conflict, for example, with Hamas, we see them shooting us, shooting civilians — and we want to expel Hamas, or damage it,” Raifen said. “My question is, how do you see it? Are they part of the Palestinian nation, or today, in your situation, do you also see it as something that harms you?”
Juha, the host, said people in Jisr az-Zarqa feel threatened by the rockets Hamas shoots at Israel.
“Yesterday, we filmed the rocket that passed us,” Juha said. Air raid sirens have gone off in his town as well. “It landed in Atlit, but it could have landed here. [Hamas] puts us in danger, too.”
Amash, the tour guide, perhaps expressed the mix of feelings best. He said it’s hard when you can watch TV news in Hebrew and in Arabic — and your heart aches for both sides.