Once ignored, Israeli Arabs working to develop tourism

SAKHNIN, Israel — Omar Ayadi believes that the path to Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel is paved with good food.

On most weekends, his Peace Tent restaurant is filled to capacity with more than 200 Arabs and Jews, and often some foreign tourists. Everyone reclines Bedouin-style on colorful cushions, feasting on a variety of Middle Eastern dishes.

Perched on a hill in Arrabe, overlooking the Arab town of Sakhnin and several hilltop Jewish communities in northern Israel, the Peace Tent is situated in an idyllic location conducive to "the spirituality of relaxing," as Ayadi puts it.

Business has been so brisk since Ayadi opened his restaurant three years ago — some 30,000 people, he said, have dined in his tent — that he is expanding. Next to the tent, Ayadi is constructing a building that will house an expanded kitchen for the restaurant, and a bed-and-breakfast so he can accommodate overnight guests.

In a country renowned for its tourism industry, Arab communities have been virtually ignored on travel itineraries.

But in recent years, Israeli Arabs have begun developing facilities that cater to tourists. That is especially true here in the Galilee, a mountainous region rich in nature and archaeological sites that has become a weekend escape destination for Israelis from the overcrowded Tel Aviv area.

"The Arabs are very suitable for bed-and-breakfasts because it is in their nature," said Philip Kaldawi of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, referring to the traditional Arab hospitality of opening one's home to visitors.

Some 100 bed-and-breakfast rooms have opened in Arab communities since 1992, according to the center.

Fathi Haleilah opened the Brotherhood Bed and Breakfast — one of six bed-and-breakfasts in Sakhnin — in March 1997, after using a business loan to build two guest rooms with private bathrooms in the lower level of his home. Haleilah, who has cut back his teaching load in a local school to part time, is now considering retiring and devoting all of his energies to his business.

He charges about $70 for two on a weekend night, including a full Arab breakfast of breads, cheeses, fruit and homemade jams.

Both Ayadi and Haleilah say they would not have been able to launch these ventures without the assistance of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that has pioneered grassroots economic initiatives in Israeli Arab communities.

The center was founded by Sarah Kreimer, who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1984. Observing the economic disparities between Jews and Arabs, Kreimer decided to do what she could to help Arab businesses.

For Arab entrepreneurs, the center's arrangement with an Israeli bank to provide small business loans has been critical.

Haleilah received a $15,000 loan from the Mercantile Discount Bank and Ayadi obtained about $20,000. Kreimer's center guarantees one-third of each loan.

An Arab who lives in Haifa, Kaldawi is constantly on the road, encouraging Israeli Arabs to start business ventures. There is a lot of potential for establishing businesses, he said, but it often is difficult to overcome cultural obstacles.

He cites the Bedouin town of Tuba-Zangria, located near Kiryat Shmona, the partner city of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. The area in northern Israel receives some 1 million visitors a year. About 250,000 of them come to Tuba-Zangria itself, Kaldawi said.

But there has been resistance to establish any bed-and-breakfasts there because, according to Bedouin culture, a guest is welcome to stay for free.

Ayadi, who is of Bedouin descent, had no such qualms. Using skills honed working in a Jewish restaurant and later as a stone-cutter, Ayadi built the Peace Tent next to his own home in Arrabe.

Haleilah knew little about the tourism business when he got started. While motivated, in part, by a desire to make money, he also believes that Sakhnin has much to offer visitors and the town's lodgings can be used as a basis for exploring this picturesque region of the Galilee.

Sakhnin boasts the Museum of Palestinian Folk Heritage, opened in 1990. According to director Amin Abu Raia, it is the only museum of its kind in an Israeli Arab community.

Housed in what was his grandfather's home, the museum has expanded from two to seven exhibit rooms. It receives some 10,000 visitors a year.

Sakhnin is also home to the studio of one of Israel's leading Arab artists, Mahmoud Bardarny, who wants to turn part of his studio into a museum.

Mustafa Abu Raia, the new mayor of Sakhnin, feels strongly that the municipality should back such entrepreneurs. "We need to support every ambition," he said. "With this painter we can make Sakhnin famous."