Deal of the century'It’s planting the seeds for the next war'

At Israeli Jewish-Arab school, parents say Trump plan would ruin their peace

If the Bridge Over The Valley school and the rest of Israel’s Triangle region ends up in Palestine, one Jewish mom says she’d still send her kids; other residents far less sanguine

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Bridge Over The Valley school, Kafr Qara, Israel, on February 4, 2019.  (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)
Bridge Over The Valley school, Kafr Qara, Israel, on February 4, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

KAFR QARA — Jewish parents in northern Israel are outraged after learning that US President Donald Trump may want to transfer their kids’ school to Palestine.

Miri Klein said that parents at Bridge Over The Valley — a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew school with 280 students, around half of them Jewish and half Arab — were shocked to realize that Trump’s plan suggests borders that would put the school in a Palestinian state. She called the idea “despicable and terrible.”

When Gadi Chetrit, who has two children at the Kafr Qara school, realized what Trump’s plan could mean for the institution, “it made me angry.” He said: “This is not the way, and I’m afraid that the school could close.”

Lena Turel said she is “very disappointed” about the prospect of Trump’s “strange” plan placing a border between her Pardes Hanna home and the school where she sends two kids. “We’ll do everything we can to ensure this doesn’t happen,” she vowed.

The Trump peace plan unveiled last week controversially “contemplates the possibility” of redrawing borders so that Arab communities in the Triangle region, an area southeast of Haifa where more than 260,000 Arab Israelis live, stop being Israeli and become part of a new Palestinian state.

Hassan Agbaria in his office at the Bridge Over The Valley school, Kafr Qara, Israel, on February 4, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

It names several towns, including Kafr Qara, where Bridge Over The Valley operates. Jewish and Arab parents are united in their dismay at the potential impact on their children’s education.

Hussam Abu Baker said he chose the school for his daughter even though it’s a 30-minute drive from the family home in Zalafa. “Every morning we take our children to a school where we’re not just talking about shared society, but creating one,” he said, arguing that if the school ends up in Palestine “it’ll feel like those in power treat our ideal like it’s a game.”

Like his neighbors in Zalafa, he is also concerned about the possibility that Trump’s peace plan could assign their village to Palestine, but his worry is accentuated by the possible implications for the school. He said, “To parents like me who choose a shared education with Jews, it would feel like stab in the back.”

Headteacher Hassan Agbaria called the plan a “disaster,” adding that there was no way his school could survive if Kafr Qara were reassigned to Palestine. “This plan would close the school, 100%,” he said.

Trump’s team presents the Israeli Triangle as ripe for such reassignation, given that the communities in question “largely self-identify as Palestinian.” In the wake of the plan’s unveiling, local Arabs have been protesting, Bridge Over The Valley parents among them, saying that their lives are intertwined with Israeli Jews. Agbaria says the fact that the Trump suggestion would impact his Jewish students as well as his Arab students underscores this argument.

Agbaria is a veteran Arab educator, a pioneer of coexistence curriculums who runs the school together with a Jewish deputy head. He spoke to The Times of Israel on Tuesday as Arab students studied Arabic and Quran and Jewish pupils studied Hebrew and Torah. Agbaria lamented: “The plan is a tragedy to me, as head of a school that Jews and Arabs have built together.”

Illustrative: Students learning in an Israeli Hand in Hand school, where the curriculum is both in Hebrew and Arabic. (Courtesy: Debbie Hill)

The institution, the only Israeli school in an Arab town with a sizable Jewish attendance, is part of the nonprofit Hand in Hand network, operating under the Education Ministry. Agbaria said that if the borders were redrawn and local Arabs were reassigned to Palestine, regardless of any practical challenges, it would undermine the raison d’être of the school, namely to unite young citizens of Israel.

But some parents say they would fight to keep the school open even if the Trump suggestion for the Triangle comes to fruition.

Klein, the mother of two students, maintained that “the school would continue to exist and parents would continue to send their children.” She would apply pressure to keep it running, she said, and wouldn’t worry about the security implications of sending her children to school in Palestine.

A fire safety officer who lives in the Jewish town of Katzir, Klein said that Jews and Arabs in her region are too intertwined to be cut off by borders. “I have two kids studying at the school, and my office is also in Kafr Qara, so I feel very connected.”

Downtown Kafr Qara, decorated for Ramadan, June 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Agbaria said that implementing the Trump suggestion in the Triangle region could radicalize the region’s youth.

“It’s planting the seeds for the next war,” Agbaria said. “Nobody can ensure that my grandson won’t go and fight Israel.”

The sense of rejection that Triangle residents would feel from Israel will, he predicted, create a new source of friction in the conflict, and achieve the “absolute opposite” of the intended peace.

Masalah Ashem in Kafr Qara, Israel, on February 4, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

Some in the Triangle region fear that violence would erupt as soon as steps are taken to implement the suggestion for the area. Matzri Matzri, 72, insisted that Trump’s vision “is not a peace plan, it’s transfer,” and said: “Of course there will be violence.”

Matzri, a retired bus driver, shared his views at Kafr Qara’s retirees’ center, where members said they disapprove of violence but would take part in protests if the Triangle is moved to Palestine. Masalah Ashem, 69, said that “under no circumstances will we agree,” and predicted “demonstrations will be huge” — much larger than the protests of a few hundred people that have taken place since the Trump plan was released.

Inverted attitudes

The discussion around the Triangle region has created a topsy-turvy discourse in which people are taking up surprising arguments.

On the Israeli right, where there has long been resistance to transferring Israeli-controlled territory to Palestinians, there is strong support for carving out the Triangle and flying the Palestinian flag there. And the standard right-wing argument that giving up land will harm Israel’s security is being raised most passionately by Arabs.

Garwi Zahadi, 64, said: “Let’s say they give the Triangle to the Palestinians. What has been achieved? It’s more dangerous for Israel. Israel is too narrow without this land.”

Garwi Zahadi (center) with friends in Kafr Qara, Israel, on February 4, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

In a similar vein, the Israeli establishment has long wanted Arab citizens to identify as Israeli rather than Palestinian, yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is championing Trump’s plan, and reportedly proposed the section on the Triangle. The White House suggested assigning the Triangle to Palestine based on the logic that its communities “largely self-identify as Palestinian.”

Ashem, a retired teacher, said, “It’s difficult emotionally. For years they say we’re Israeli and now they say we’re Palestinian. Yet normally, if we say we’re Palestinian, people respond, ‘You’re from the camp of the enemy.’”

The retirees said they feared a drop in living standards under Palestinian rule. Matzri commented: “Life is good for us in Israel. We have democracy, work and a good life.”

Arab Israelis protest against US President Donald Trump’s peace plan in the northern city of Umm al-Fahm on January 31, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The sentiment is echoed on the streets and in cafes. Suzan Atama, 47, was at a Kfar Qara cafe drinking hot sachlav with her daughter. “We’re really against being moved to Palestine,” she said. “I hear everyone saying this. It’s a very hard prospect.”

Zahadi is convinced that if the Triangle were integrated into a Palestinian state it would lower the economic level and increase social ills. His son works in high-tech in Netanya, and he said his entire family is accustomed to an Israeli lifestyle.

Zahadi is so determined to remain Israeli that he would leave Kafr Qara, where he has lived all his life, for another Israeli town or city. “If it happens I think we’ll all move to Netanya, Haifa, Pardes Hana or Binyamina.

“If I lived in Netanya or Haifa I’d be ‘at home,’ but it isn’t a real future to stay in the Triangle and be in a Palestinian state.”

Illustrative: An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote during elections for the Knesset on April 9, 2019, at a polling station in the northern town of Tayibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

A 15-minute drive away from Kafr Qara lies one of the most unusual towns in the area: Barta’a. Cut in two, West Barta’a is Israeli and East Barta’a is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. But even here, where Arabs with Israeli citizenship live so close to their Palestinian neighbors and without border controls or roadblocks, there’s still a feeling they are worlds apart.

Mahmoud El-Khattib, an Israeli citizen, said of his neighbors who carry Palestinian IDs: “They look at us as odd, they see us as a strange species.” How does he relate to them? “They are family — but they are different.”

The 35-year-old spoke in his family’s hardware store, and said that he can’t imagine living under Palestinian rule. “We’re used to the ways here — it’s so different there,” said El-Khattib.

“Everything there is different — insurance. education, health, and there’s a lower quality of life there,” said El-Khattib. As well as working in the family store, he is a nurse at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, and said that this has strengthened the Israeli side of his identity.

Mahmoud El-Khattib at his store in Barta’a, Israel, on February 3, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

He said of Trump’s plan for the Triangle: “At the moment of truth we won’t let it happen. We’ll go out and demonstrate.”

His customer Rabiya Marae, a 44-year-old builder, agreed, and added that Arabs across the country will strike. “If there’s a need we can bring the whole country to a stop with strikes,” Marae said.

A few doors down from his hardware shop, tobacconist Andy Alyones takes a very different view. Alyones, 42, is a Palestinian who lives near Jenin and travels here daily to run his shop of hookahs and flavored tobaccos. He doesn’t care about Trump’s plan.

“It doesn’t bother me if it’s Brazil here,” he said sarcastically, elaborating: “It doesn’t bother me where I am as long as there’s no tension, friction and daily stress.”

Andy Alyones at his store in Barta’a, Israel, on February 3, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

Alyones has no patience for talk of compromises, and thinks it inevitable that the stronger side will triumph. “Whoever is stronger should take the other side out,” He said. “It is what it is.”

Alyones has lost hope for any solution that will bring about the calm he yearns for, and wants “to get the hell out of the Middle East.” He emphasized: “Not just out of Israel or Palestine, but out of the whole Middle East.”

Most Popular
read more: