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Israel's neglected Arab villages get some overdue urban planning

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Daniella Cheslow

(Read caption) Mayor Maazen Abu Gnaim wants Sakhnin to be like Paris. First, he is looking to build an economic base and invest in urban planning for his Arab village.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Sakhnin’s large houses, glitzy dress shops, and nationally renowned soccer team give this northern Arab city of 27,000 an air of affluence. But there are so few jobs that residents commute as much as six hours a day.

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It’s one symptom of the bumpy 60-year transition that Sakhnin residents and the rest of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens have made in moving from agrarian villages to small cities. Sakhnin recently hosted Israel’s first conference on Arab urban planning to look at that change and draw attention to the city’s needs.

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“We don’t have a city hall building,” said Mayor Maazen Abu Gnaim. “I would like to strengthen our industrial area. And we have 18 percent unemployment.”

Years of Israeli land confiscations reduced farming in Arab villages, while most jobs and government offices are based in Jewish towns. The result is bedroom communities of extended families rather than cosmopolitan small cities. Investing in Arab villages will help reverse what Avishay Braverman, Israel’s minister of minority affairs, sees as years of discrimination.

“If I don’t see opportunities for my kids in the wider world, I save my land,” said Rassem Khamaisi, an urban planning associate professor at the University of Haifa. “I don’t use all my building rights, and then there are pockets in the city that aren’t developed, and it strains the urban fabric.”

Others hoped that future urban planning would preserve some of the small-town character found in Arab neighborhoods, such as porches built directly over the sidewalk.

But without an economic base, Mr. Gnaim concedes, urban planning is secondary. His city is investing $5 million in developing its downtown and pushing for a new industrial area.

“We haven’t got the basic things, so to talk about urbanism … whether to allow villas or high building – when we reach that well we’ll drink from it. For now, we are far away from that well.”

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