Acre, Israel – Paying no heed to the warning signs plastered on the stone walls of Acre’s Old City, Barjes Qurdi lifted himself over a police barrier and entered a rubble-filled stairwell. He climbed atop the jagged concrete remains of the building until reaching his second-storey apartment.
An explosion had torn through the building next door at around 1:30am on February 17. Five Palestinian residents aged between eight and 51 years died in the blast, and another 11 were taken to the hospital for their injuries. Dozens more lost their homes due to the damage.
Israeli authorities believe the blast was caused by a gas leak, but they have yet to rule out criminal motives. An investigation is under way.
He cannot afford to go to the hospital, but 62-year-old Qurdi is still having trouble hearing. “I’ve felt nauseous for the past week, and I’ve thrown up every day,” he said.
Although several buildings collapsed, Qurdi’s apartment remains partially intact. Saying they have nowhere else to go, he and his disabled brother have been living in the two-room apartment for the past week without gas, electricity or water.
According to engineers from the local municipality, a damaged wall from an adjacent building could fall on his home at any minute. When the engineers told Qurdi that he was not allowed to be in the home, he responded: “If you’re so concerned for my safety, you should let me sleep at your place. If not, this is my home. Get out of here.”
While 70 percent of Acre’s population is Jewish, almost all of the Old City’s residents are Palestinian citizens. The area was designated a Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001.
We are going to provide alternative housing until they can go back to their homes.
Adham Jamal, Acre’s deputy mayor, told Al Jazeera that they were “doing everything we can to help the victims. We paid for hotels for four days and nights full board… and we are going to provide alternative housing until they can go back to their homes”.
Yet after the four days were up, the long-term alternative housing had not been established, and the displaced residents had to find room and shelter for themselves. “If [Qurdi] wants to live in his decaying home despite the danger, we cannot drag him from it,” Jamal said. “That’s his problem.”
Nidal Nijem also lost his home during the blast. The 33-year-old, his wife and their six-month-old daughter have been staying with relatives since they left the hotel. Standing by and watching the engineers dig through the rubble, he commented: “The government needs to help us get our lives back in order as quick as possible. We are legitimate renters and pay monthly taxes. It’s the responsibility of the municipality.”
Klay Amara, a municipality employee, is part of a group of locals who are helping those displaced by the blast. “Providing housing is not enough,” he said. “People have suffered serious trauma, the children in particular. We are putting together activities for the kids to get their mind off this disaster, like trips outside of the city.”
The consequences of the explosion have been heightened for Palestinian inhabitants of the Old City, who are already suffering from a high crime rate, rampant poverty and a lack of economic opportunities. According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, 51 percent of Arabs in the Northern District of Israel live below the poverty line, as compared with just 16 percent of their Jewish compatriots.
In recent years, living costs have soared as Israeli and foreign investment companies buy up blocks of buildings and renovate the area. Over the past decade, hundreds of families have been evicted from their homes by the Acre Development Company and Amidar, state-owned housing management companies. Across the Old City, building after building is dead-bolted shut. Gentrified restaurants, cafes, boutique hotels and other tourist attractions have begun to spring up in their place.
Amara added that the effects of the blast were worsened by the repeated refusals of Amidar and the municipality to permit local residents to implement their own housing renovations.
Local grassroots groups from Acre and across Israel have banded together to provide assistance.
On February 23, representatives of Acre’s Islamic Waqf Society, the Northern Islamic Movement in Israel and other community leaders met with displaced families at the historic Jazzar Pasha Mosque in the Old City.
We are providing monetary assistance to all of the families who have been affected by this tragedy.
“We will all work together and not as separate movements,” Salim Najamy of the Islamic Waqf Society told the crowd. “Our first priority is to help the people who are sleeping in the streets tonight.”
Abdul Hakim Mufeed is a policy analyst for the Northern Islamic Movement, based in Umm al-Fahm under the leadership of Sheikh Raed Salah. Since the blast, Mufeed explained, the movement has raised funds in Muslim communities across the country to provide relief for the victims.
“We are providing monetary assistance to all of the families who have been affected by this tragedy,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that getting residents back in their homes was essential to “preserving our identity as Arabs in this city for generations to come”.
Representatives of the Islamic movement also inspected the buildings and documented the damage in detail to ensure that victims receive proper compensation.
“We are not talking about fixing Acre just for the sake of the buildings, but we are hoping to help rebuild part of a city that should preserve our identity as Arabs in this country for generations to come.”
A group of local housing rights activists echoed his sentiments in a list of demands released shortly after the incident. They called on the municipality to treat the displaced residents “in a sensitive and respectful manner, including providing compensation for their losses”.
The statement also issued a warning to Israeli authorities, urging against “using this incident as a reason to displace the indigenous Arab population and further gentrify the city”.
Salah Masri, 30, lives with his wife and two infant children in Acre’s Old City. The blast and fallen rubble destroyed their home – except for one room, where they were trapped together for hours before eventually being rescued. “I screamed for hours until someone finally heard me. I kept yelling that I was stuck with my wife and babies. They had to dig through the rubble and pull us out of a window.”
Many of the displaced residents are worried they will not be able to return to their homes at all. “I fear that [the authorities] will use this as an excuse to make us move,” Masri concluded. “I don’t want to move anywhere else, but I don’t imagine we’ll be returning to our home. There was already pressure to kick us out.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_