Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Nakba Continues: The Ethnic Cleansing of Jaffa’s Ajami Neighborhood

By Isabelle Humphries - Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2008, p.14-15

60 Years of Al-Nakba

THE 1948 EXPULSION of 90 percent of the Palestinians of Jaffa destroyed one of the region’s most economically thriving and developed urban societies. Sixty years later Israel continues to evict Palestinians remaining in Jaffa—but this time it is targeting one of the weakest poverty-stricken Arab neighborhoods in the country.

In March 2008 the Jaffa Popular Committee Against Housing Demolition called for people to commemorate Land Day in the heart of Jaffa. Land Day recalls the killing of six Palestinians in the Galilee during protests in 1976 over land confiscation. Every year since, Palestinians have gathered on a day in late March to demonstrate against Israel’s ongoing land confiscation. Today around 500 families—the vast majority Arab—who live in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood are threatened by evictions or partial home demolition, representing just the latest stage in a policy of ethnic cleansing which has been followed for decades.

Israel’s “Mixed” Cities: Segregation And Dispossession

The coastal city of Jaffa, with its port and close proximity to Jerusalem, has served as an important settlement since the Bronze Age. In 1948 the city, world famous for its orange exports, was home to around 70,000 Palestinians. But after the 1948 Nakba, and decades of demolition and impoverishment, one of historic Palestine’s most important cities is unrecognizable—crumbling in the shadow of Tel Aviv.

While the vast majority of urban Palestinians were exiled outside the new state of Israel, in the aftermath of the May 1948 occupation of Jaffa, as happened in other cities such as Haifa, Lydda and Acre, the small number of Palestinians who remained were forced into one neighborhood. Under Israel’s military rule of its Arab population (1948-1966) such neighborhoods effectively served as ghettos.

In Jaffa, 4,000 Palestinians—a mixture of original inhabitants and refugees from surrounding villages—were gathered in the southern Ajami neighborhood while their houses in other parts of the city, or the surrounding villages, were occupied or destroyed. In June 1948 Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “Jaffa will be a Jewish city. War is war.” Less than a year later he reported to the Israeli parliament that 45,000 new Jewish immigrants had been settled in the city’s “abandoned” homes.

In 2008, Israel’s more than one million Arab citizens live largely segregated from Jewish Israelis in overcrowded villages and neighborhoods with significantly less municipal funding, services and employment opportunities than Jewish areas. Jaffa is one of Israel’s so-called “mixed” cities, but a simple walk around its neighborhoods shows the lack of “mixing”—the rundown and overcrowded streets are a stark contrast from those of Tel Aviv. Ajami is the lowest income neighborhood of all Tel Aviv/Jaffa’s 60 neighborhoods.

How has the Israeli government managed to stay within its own legal system and still concentrate so many demolition orders in one neighborhood? Explained Jaffa Popular Committee member Sami Shehadah: “Between the 1960s and the late 1980s municipal authorities placed a total freeze on all permits for new building or renovations with the intention of demolishing the whole area for redevelopment. Unfortunately for the Arab residents crowded into the Ajami neighborhood, 80 percent of these houses were built pre-1948, and without any renovations the ceilings would quite literally fall in on their heads. With a freeze on allocation of permits for renovations they had no choice for the safety of the families but to go ahead without permission from Israeli authorities.”

Thus Israeli authorities can claim that these families have contravened the law, and issue a demolition order. With no resources to rent or purchase new property, not only are people forced to move into overcrowded homes with relatives, they are even asked to foot the bill for demolition.

The vacated land is then used for new development—property way beyond the price range for the residents of Ajami. Near the heart of the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv, yet away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and with a view of the sea, new properties are seen as a prime location and thus sell at the top end of Israeli housing prices.

A look at the Judaization of Jaffa’s Old City illustrates something of what Israeli policymakers have in mind for the Ajami neighborhood. The heart of the Old City today has been totally renovated, with Palestinian residents long gone. Spotless pedestrian walkways weave between buildings that once served as Palestinian homes, shops and factories and now have been transformed into expensive restaurants, galleries and gift shops for foreign and Israeli tourists. The simple fact that the asking price is beyond the range of the average Jaffa Palestinian would prevent them from even attempting to move into the area.

Walking around Jaffa, our local Palestinian guide pointed out new exclusive building developments built upon the sites of recently demolished homes and buildings. Eviction orders are issued by Amidar, the housing company owned and operated by the Israeli government. Amidar claims to offer subsidized and rent-controlled housing in Israel, but the fact that its major stockholders are the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund—two institutions openly mandated to support the Jewish population only—shows that it is not simply financial gain that authorities are pursuing. Indeed, since 1948 Palestinian representatives have been excluded from all stages of the urban planning process. Ben-Gurion’s vow that “Jaffa will be a Jewish city” remains the guiding principle.

Grassroots Resistance

Any community organization which sets out to challenge such policy inevitably faces an uphill task, but the Popular Committee Against Housing Demolition has a clear program. A primary task, Shehadah explained, is to raise awareness among families themselves that their problem is a collective one. Many mistakenly believe they are alone in facing legal problems with the authorities, he said. Because many families cannot even afford to consult a lawyers, the committee is trying to offer free legal assistance. “We hope that in the future we will be able to actually offer practical support to people in renovating their homes,” the Jaffa activist said.

Beyond the families themselves, through events like the Land Day demonstration the committee is trying to raise awareness of the issue among the wider Arab public, politicians, as well as the Israeli and international community. Several Tel Aviv Jewish community activists have become actively involved in the committee’s work, Shehadah noted.

The situation in Jaffa cannot be viewed in isolation from broader policy toward Palestinians inside Israel (nor in the West Bank and Gaza). Israel is openly pursuing projects to develop Jewish towns in areas heavily populated by Palestinian citizens, such as the Galilee and the Negev—where, again, Arabs are notably absent from planning committees. Destruction and transfer within Arab neighborhoods of “mixed” cities must be seen in a wider context. What is happening in Jaffa’s Ajami neighbourhood is not simply a case of entrepreneur developers trying to make a profit, but is representative of a policy of dispossession being implemented across historic Palestine.

Isabelle Humphries is completing doctoral research on internally displaced Palestinian refugees.

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