False Dichotomies



Umm-el-Fahm is up and down, down and up, urban planning as chaos, a city of squiggles. Rising high over Wadi Ara, its back to the Green Line, the Mother of Coal sits as a sober reminder to those who offer up easy solutions for the conflict. In the headlines following Baruch Marzel’s aborted far-right march through the city, it seemed the perfect place to launch Falsedi’s attempt to reconnect with Zion, with its towns and its countryside and its people.

Sitting in Tel Aviv Central Bus Station on Friday morning, waiting for the Binge Trader, I felt like a bandwagon jumper. According to Haaretz, hundreds of Israeli Jews had visited Umm-el-Fahm throughout the week, filling its restaurants and shops, an unexpected blowback to Mr Marzel’s attempts at further dividing an already fragmented population. Umm-el-Fahm has always been the symbol of Jewish suspicions towards the Arabs in their midst, becoming the place right-wing politicians turn when they want to state their policies on the Arab question: Apart from Bazza Marzel, Meir Kahane paid a visit during the 1980s, while Avigdor Lieberman has made redrawing the border to make the city part of Palestine one of the centrepieces of his security policy.

Standing near the top of the city, one wonders how Lieberman can be so strategically naive.  Umm-el-Fahm, founded in 1265 as the centre of a burgeoning charcoal industry, surveys the surrounding region with ease. Barely two hundred metres from the Separation Fence (which, in this part of the country, sits more or less on the Green Line), you can easily see Jenin, as well as points to the north, east, and west. It’s easy to forget that the Jordanians actually conquered Wadi Ara in 1948; a quick think about geopolitics makes it easier to understand why Israel was so keen to have it back as part of the armistice deal, even when you consider that the area was almost exclusively populated by Palestinians.

Today, Umm-el-Fahm is known as a deeply conservative city (it achieved this status in 1985), a stronghold of Israel’s Islamic Movement. Green flags fly everywhere, and on Friday silence reigns, the call to prayer the only sign of life. It very much feels like a Palestinian space, more so than other Israeli-Arab towns I’ve visited, like a town severed by history from its natural origins, although I suppose that could be said about anywhere that finds its status changed as a result of partition.

Umm-el-Fahm, though, is part of Israel, and it’s another tragic reminder of the second-class status of the country’s Arab citizens. As I’ve mentioned, there is no order to the city, its pock-marked streets rise and fall, at rollercoaster inclines, a claustrophobic sprawl out over the ridge, a mere afterthought. In a city of 50,000 potentially radicalised citizens, this is abject stupidity. The western edge of town is demarcated by heaps of rubbish that wouldn’t look out of place in an Indian slum, more visual evidence of the endemic discrimination towards Arab municipalities. Whatever your politics, this is a national disgrace.

It’s even more tragic because Umm-el-Fahm is strangely beautiful, a place full of potential. The chaos leads to charm, the views are breathtaking, the people are friendly. A recent article in Yediot Ahranot said that the city council was investing heavily in tourism. This was confirmed by the owner of the guesthouse in which we stayed, who told us that he regularly receives scores of Israeli-Jewish visitors. Truth be told, though, I saw only another three Israeli-Jews during the whole weekend – one at the art gallery (which houses a fascinating collection of photographs documenting the city’s history), and the other two at a hummus joint on the edge of town, a hop and a skip from the main road leading through Wadi Ara.

13 Palestinian-Israelis were killed during the October Awakening, a spontaneous outpouring of Israeli-Arab support for the Second Intifada, responded to with insanely excessive force by the Israeli authorities. It’s generally a quiet place, but it should give pause for thought to anyone who thinks Arabs can be easily integrated into the Israeli mainstream, or that creating a bi-national state would be easy. There is a clear cultural gap here, one that will be hard to transcend. Only by reaching out to the younger generation - a generation at once more radicalised and more Arab and yet more Israeli and more liberal and hence more capable of reconciliation – will even a modicum of progress be possible.

There is a slender mall at the edge of town. We had our bags ironically checked by a Qaffiyeh-wearing man, and then took a quick look around. Even this mall, a recent modernist insertion into an underdeveloped cityscape, seemed ill thought-out. The escalators lead upwards but not downwards, the shops cram in on each other, the people float by, devoid of purpose. The cliche is that Umm-el-Fahm is neither here nor there, stuck on a ridge between Israel and Palestine, wanting to have its cake and eat it. The truth is that Umm-el-Fahm is a mongrelised creation, an unexpected result of a century of conflict and failed peace attempts. If peace – on any kind – comes, then Umm-el-Fahm may yet thrive. If it doesn’t, it will become a place of ugliness, a place with a thousand of its own Baruch Marzels, waiting to march.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Noah December 20th, 2008 10:38 pm

    very thoughtful

    1) you come in solidarity with the residents, that’s nice
    2) you mention the stupidity of the idea to give the place up — from an Israeli security perspective
    3) you mention urban planning disparities

    but what a cliche at the end, fit for a BBC broadcast… “a place with a thousand of its own Baruch Marzels, waiting to march.” oooh, we are on the edge of our seats…

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