An Israeli religious group plans to build flats in a historic area, threatening to overturn an uneasy balance with local Arabs and reviving memories of past traumas.
An Israeli religious group plans to build flats in a historic area, threatening to overturn an uneasy balance with local Arabs and reviving memories of past traumas
- The Observer, Sunday 18 July 2010
Almost anywhere else, it would be exactly what it seems: an empty plot of land behind a wire fence where weeds sprout and rubbish blows about while it awaits the concrete mixers.
But here every stone and blade of grass comes with a bitter and contested history. This unremarkable plot on Jaffa's Etrog Road is at the centre of a struggle that touches on social, religious, nationalist, economic and legal questions and which – whatever the outcome – will inevitably result in further strife.
Jaffa is one of the few areas of Israel where Muslims and Jews have coexisted, albeit often uneasily, for decades. But the determination of an organisation of national-religious Jews to build a 20-apartment development, exclusively for subscribers to a rigidly Zionist ideology, is threatening to destabilise the delicate balance in this troubled area of Israel's main city, Tel Aviv.
This week the high court in Jerusalem is set to rule on a case brought by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel claiming that the project discriminates against Arabs and non-religious Jews. The organisation behind the development, Bemuna, says it merely wants to create a religious community free from non-Jewish and secular influences.
The activists fear the newcomers intend to impose their observances on the neighbourhood – such as a prohibition on driving cars on the Jewish sabbath. They blame the state of Israel for leasing the land to Bemuna in the full knowledge that it planned to build housing barred to locals.
"If they come, the community will be polarised," local historian and political activist Sami Abu Shehadeh told the Observer. "Those people that say Jaffa is a model of coexistence will be silenced." Their objective, he claims, is to "Judaise" a mainly Arab neighbourhood.
Bemuna rejects this, saying it aims to "spread Torah" (religious texts) among secular Jews. "Jewish families buy properties in [Jaffa] all the time, but when a religious company decides to do so it is unfortunately considered to be racism," Israel Zeira, the company's chief executive, told the Observer. He earlier told the Jerusalem Post that claims of Judaisation were "a ridiculous incitement by radical Muslim elements who make their money from strife and conflict".
Jaffa – the "Bride of Palestine" – was the country's commercial and cultural centre in the first half of the last century. All that changed in 1948 when, according to an "abridged history" displayed by the Tel Aviv city authority on a boulevard overlooking the Mediterranean, "Jaffa was liberated" in the war that led to the creation of the state of Israel.
The Arab population saw it rather differently. The vast majority of the 100,000 Arabs in Jaffa were forced to leave in fear for their lives; the port and beaches were packed with families scrambling for places on ships to Gaza or Lebanon. Others fled on foot to Nablus in the West Bank or Jordan. Within days, only 4,000 remained; the rest were destined to be lifelong refugees.
"All the Palestinians in Jaffa were rounded up and brought to the Ajami neighbourhood, surrounded by a fence with soldiers and dogs," said Abu Shehadeh. "The Jews called our neighbourhood a ghetto. My grandfather, who used to get a taxi from Jaffa to Beirut, needed military permission to leave Ajami."
A year later Israel decreed that properties whose owners were "absent" would pass to the state. Not only did all of Jaffa's refugees lose their property, but so did those forced into Ajami who owned property in other areas of the city: "1948 was the first naqba [catastrophe]," said Abu Shehadeh. "The absentee law was the second."
An Israeli policy of moving new, poor Jewish immigrants into Ajami during the 1950s worsened the overcrowding. Ajami became the most deprived and criminal neighbourhood of Tel Aviv.
After decades of neglect, developers spotted Jaffa's potential. Work began on renovating the Old City in the 1960s; today it is a charming area of bijou shops, galleries, museums and restaurants. Even this has not been without controversy. Not one of the artists in the "artists' quarter" is Arab, says Abu Shehadeh.
Developers have moved beyond the Old City. There is a plan for the former Ottoman-era prison in the grounds of Jaffa's main mosque to be converted into a boutique hotel. A shopping mall has been proposed. Gated apartment blocks are being built for Jews from abroad.
"The whole neighbourhood is a construction site," said Abu Shehadeh. "We – the Arabs – are being forced out again, but we have nowhere else to go. Usually in gentrification projects at least part of the community enjoys the benefits. Not here."
Arabs who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948 were subsequently only allowed to part-own property in Jaffa, he said. For three decades, no permits were granted by the city authority for Arabs to extend homes. Many did so illegally, as their families expanded. Now, locals say, 500 families have been issued with eviction or destruction orders and more are facing huge fines.
Abu Shehadeh estimated that 5-10% of local Arabs had benefited from tourism and gentrification schemes. This comes on top of overcrowding, poor education, inadequate policing, crime and poverty – all graphically depicted in the Oscar-nominated film Ajami.
These issues are not being addressed, activists say. The authorities, they claim, are only interested in advancing the interests of Jewish incomers.
Abu Shehadeh does not expect Ajami's Arabs to win their case on Wednesday. "We have no power. Economically and politically we're at the margins," he said. Recounting a recent episode when, he claimed, national-religious Jews marched through Ajami, carrying Israeli flags and abusing Arabs, he said: "After the court case, it will only be a question of time. They will come, and this will be our daily life."