Jaffa neighborhood undergoes further Judaization
Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood is home to roughly 20,000 Palestinians, 40 percent of whom live in refugee – or “absentee owner” – property, in the partitioned homes of Jaffa’s pre-1948 elite. The Absentee Property Law was implemented back in 1950 and enshrined in law Israel’s control over this property.
The deal struck by the state after 1948 allowed these people – many of them displaced from villages surrounding Jaffa – to live in some of the city’s newly-empty homes as “protected tenants.”
In reality they had very few rights. They lived there virtually at the goodwill of the authorities. Jaffa’s remaining Palestinians were thus prevented from owning their homes, paying rent to the state for life.
Tenants’ vulnerability was underlined by the contracts drawn up under the protected tenancy clause, which were amorphous and ill-defined.
But the authorities paid scant attention to the goings on in Ajami, considered a decrepit backwater of Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Jaffa lingered in squalor. Until, that is, a variety of factors combined to create the auspices for offloading the problematic space while making a huge profit.
Four years ago the ILA issued 500 eviction orders to residents in Ajami – most of them Palestinian, with a handful of Jewish families.
The 1990s saw the privatization of public housing en masse throughout Israel as the government began to commit to economic neoliberalism. Constructed in the ’50s and ’60s for Jewish immigrants, public housing came to be seen as a drain on state resources. So the state began to sell these old buildings to private investors.
The same was true of absentee property.
Meanwhile the exclusivist character of Jaffa’s development has forced up real estate prices and attracted Israel’s elite to the environs, while a downtrodden and increasingly visible Palestinian community sits on highly valuable land.
Now the state is taking steps to remove these people using the protected tenancy law, which was – at least in theory – supposed to provide some security for their housing needs.
After 1948, when the new authorities were rounding up and calculating the spoils of war, Zionist representatives went to the doors of those Jaffans that had remained in the city. If the residents were not at home the moment officials came knocking, the building became “absentee” and treated as state property.
The fledgling state was confronted with the question of how to deal with the vast amount of empty properties now under its control.
In response they set up housing companies to manage the properties of Jaffa in the state’s name. These companies, Amidar and Halamish, worked under the ILA as landlords, leasing rights to the Palestinians that remained in Jaffa and to the wave of Jewish immigrants..
Tenants that break any part of their rental contract become squatters, according to ILA rules. Conditions equivalent to “squatting” include failure to pay rent, remaining in a property after the death of the original tenant, and any construction or renovation without a permit.
Between 1949 and 1992 the planning authorities denied all requests for extensions and renovations in Ajami, forcing people to proceed with their own ad hoc repairs. Most of the pending eviction orders have thus been issued on grounds of illegal construction.
Jaffa’s large, patriarchal homes were cut up into apartments to house poor Jewish immigrants and displaced Palestinians from surrounding villages and other areas of Jaffa.. Each family took a room and shared the kitchen. Rental contracts were vague due to the impossibility of clearing delineating apartments.
As the Jewish families left for the newly erected public housing, their Palestinian neighbors moved in to the empty rooms, for which Amidar now defines them as squatters.
“For years no one cared,” says Yudit Ilany, legal coordinator for the Popular Committee for Housing Rights in Jaffa (or Darna), the body that came into being as a response to the tide of evictions. “Amidar knew its management was haphazard.”
Most residents of Ajami today, who inherited protected tenancy rights from ancestors, have been in their homes for decades.
Since the alleged violations took place 20 to 30 years ago they question why Amidar is penalizing them now and not when they occurred.
A sturdy resistance movement has materialised as anger builds towards Amidar. Locals point to the malleability of the protected tenancy contracts, which they believe is being used as a ploy to get rid of them.
The experience of Estelle Saba acted as a catalyst in grabbing the community’s attention as to Amidar’s agenda.
One Thursday in March, 2007, police arrived at Saba’s home in Ajami informing her that the house was to be demolished in three days time. Desperate, Saba looked to the local community for help. On Sunday, the day marked for demolition, about 150 people barricaded themselves in the house throughout the day, preventing the small band of police and bulldozers from proceeding.
“That day it became clear that everyone knew someone facing the same situation. We realised these were not individual cases but a policy,” Ilany recalls. From this the committee emerged and now provides legal representation to roughly 260 families.
Some families Darna is trying to help still live in their original pre-1948 homes. These people, at home when Zionist representatives came knocking in 1948, were nevertheless dispossessed. The property would become “absentee” with people tenants in their own home. The Khatab family is one example.
Yousef Khatab’s Ajami home – a compound of several sections – has been in the family for as long as 150 years, he says. Both Yousef’s grandparents were born in the house, situated off the narrow street that hugs the Jaffan coast.
In 1949, Yousef’s grandfather, at work when officials arrived, was forced to sign a contract agreeing to protected tenancy status. The contract was in Hebrew and he gave his fingerprint by way of signature.
Several families – those of Yousef and his brothers – live in the compound, along with their mother. In 2007 they all received separate eviction orders.
“All legal problems are combined in this one house,” Ilany notes wryly. There are multiple cases in court simultaneously: “It’s a legal nightmare,” she says.
Yousef’s mother inherited tenancy after her husband’s death. “Now Amidar claims she is only a protected tenant of the room in which she lives but we say tenancy is valid for the whole compound,” Ilany explains.
Yousef and his brothers are third generation, which means they lose all rights to their home. If Amidar wins in this case the family will be turned out of all but one room.
Further, Amidar points to violations pertaining to illegal restoration. In 2005 the roof on part of the compound had become so dangerous that the municipality asked the Khatabs to repair it. They would not, however, issue the necessary restoration permit.
The family asked Amidar to fix the roof but to no avail. Finally, one stormy night the roof collapsed, injuring Yousef’s grandmother and landing her in hospital. The family took matters into their own hands and built a new roof.
The municipality responded by issuing a demolition order for part of the house as the penalty for renovating without a permit.
The new roof sticks out slightly from the house, compared to the old one, which reached no further than the perimeter of the walls. This violates the rental contract, Amidar claims, by taking up more space than the original. The offence thus amounts to illegal construction as well as illegal repair.
When the family failed to demolish the roof, the court opted to criminally sue them for not implementing a court order. Darna hopes to negotiate a deal with Amidar but the case remains open.
The Khatabs feel an ever-growing sense of alienation as their home becomes engulfed by a tide of ultra-rich urbanites, attracted to Jaffa as a residential refuge from the bustle of Tel Aviv.
Five years ago the area was empty, most infrastructure torn down during the demolition frenzy of the ’60s and ’70s. Today it is the most expensive area of Jaffa, according to Ilany, saturated with tall and sleek apartment buildings that boast an enviable sea view.
The sense of injustice is strong. “They hate us from the inside,” Yousef says of the state’s treatment of Palestinians in Israel. “But we’re the same people.”
He holds his hands up, at a loss. “They don’t want Arabs here.”
Though he recognizes the difficulties in continuing to struggle against the might of the ILA, Yousef is determined to stay in Jaffa.
Palestinians make up 80 percent of Ajami’s population, the remaining 20 being Jewish Israelis. The concern for locals is the likelihood that, should the ILA and Amidar continue unhindered to implement their vision for Ajami, this statistic will be reversed and the Judaization of Jaffa will finally be complete.
The evictions, whose numbers continue to climb, are, for local Palestinians, a continuation by other means of the project begun in 1948.
Contemporary Jaffa has been almost entirely re-imagined in the image of a Jewish state, an “artists’ colony” filling the old city, where Palestinian homes and mosques once stood.