Jaffa, Israel – Yasmin Abu Kawad, a Palestinian single mother of six, relies on social benefits and whatever jobs she can find to make ends meet. Earlier this year, her landlord changed the locks after she couldn’t make rent; with nowhere to go, she and her children found shelter in the Wolfson Medical Center for two weeks. “For the first five days, no one even noticed we were there,” she told Al Jazeera.
Two weeks later, thanks to a fundraising effort by Palestinian-Jewish organisation Darna – the Popular Committee for Housing Rights in Jaffa, they moved into an apartment in south Jaffa. But for a tiny, 20sqr m dwelling, Abu Kawad pays NIS 3,000 ($860) a month. Her children, aged 1-15, sleep side-by-side on mattresses in one room, while she sleeps on the porch. “I am convinced I’ll be out on the street again soon,” Abu Kawad said.
While gentrification has affected both Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel, middle and working class, it has hit Palestinians much harder: They have fewer alternatives, less socioeconomic mobility, and on average, are poorer than Jews in Israel. Those forced to move out of Jaffa normally go to Ramle and Lod – mixed cities that lack the funds and resources of Tel Aviv.
This is ethnic cleansing. At this rate, Palestinian Jaffa as we know it will cease to exist.
“This is ethnic cleansing,” said Yudit Ilany, the coordinator of legal defence at Darna. “At this rate, Palestinian Jaffa as we know it will cease to exist.”
She said she has seen countless cases over the years in which Palestinian families were evicted from their homes.
Jaffa, like other Palestinian cities, came under Israeli occupation after the 1948 war. This led to the expulsion of much of the city’s 120,000 residents – more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly evicted from their homes at the time. Many had their properties confiscated by the newly-formed Israeli state, and its Absentee Property Law (1950). Approximately 15 percent of all Palestinian refugees trace their origins back to Jaffa.
From 1949 to 1992, the Tel Aviv municipality – which officially absorbed Jaffa following Israel’s establishment in 1948 and forced the city’s Palestinian population into one fenced-off area – declared it a slum zone slated for demolition.
It was illegal for the population, comprised of middle- and low-income Palestinians and Jewish immigrants (mostly from Bulgaria, Romania and Arab countries), to renovate or expand, forcing them to live in neglected homes, or to turn to illegal construction.
Jaffa – one of the oldest port cities in the world, dating back to the Bronze Age – is currently home to around 18,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel, about a third of the total population of Jaffa and four percent of Tel Aviv.
Abu Hasan, a veteran Palestinian family restaurant serving hummus, is one of the few vestiges of pre-gentrified Jaffa that has survived the transition to what is now a trendy neighbourhood with burgeoning rental prices, upscale cafes and organic markets.
A ritzy new hotel is being built across from the Ottoman-Era clock tower at the entrance to Jaffa, and further south, a towering new construction site overlooking the sea will soon be a W Hotel and Residences. The Jaffa Port, still inhabited by old-timer fishmongers, is now a marketed tourist location dominated by Israeli chains and trendy eateries.
These changes have all taken place in the last decade.
As opposed to other “mixed” cities in Israel, Jaffa is unique in its proximity to Tel Aviv and the sea, so it has especially high land values. The inflated housing prices that forced middle class Jews to move to cheaper areas were the pretence for the massive tent protests of 2011, and have already taken their toll on the low-income residents of Jaffa – both Palestinian and Jewish.
The difference between them, however, is that Palestinians cannot relocate to cheaper communities, such as neighbouring Bat Yam, because they require Palestinian schools, mosques, services and centres that only an area with a strong Palestinian population can offer.
The Israeli government has created few new public or affordable housing projects in recent years, and rent control tools are anachronistic, leaving the market essentially unregulated. According to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund, housing prices in Israel surged by 80 percent in the last seven years.
Jesse Fox, an urban planner living in Jaffa, said although the state is responsible for providing public housing, it stopped building such apartments about 20 years ago, while the list of those waiting for public housing continues to grow. “Efforts by city governments, including Tel Aviv’s, to provide affordable housing for the young and middle class have been repeatedly blocked by the national government, which has thus far refused to pass legislation giving cities the power to do so,” Fox told Al Jazeera.
According to Mira Marcus, international press director for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, 76 affordable housing units were built throughout the city in 2013. She said the city takes the special needs of the Palestinian community into account when investing in development. For example, a youth centre being built in Jaffa will have “an Arab manager” and the revamping of the promenade “did not disrupt the fishermen’s areas”, she told Al Jazeera.
Asked about the dynamics between local and national policies on the housing crisis, and whether the city is concerned about Palestinians being forced out of Jaffa, Marcus said: “The municipality does not distinguish between Arabs and Jews. Everyone is a resident.”
The municipality does not distinguish between Arabs and Jews. Everyone is a resident.
Ilany said that around 60 percent of residents of the Ajami neighbourhood of Jaffa require monthly social security stipends just to make ends meet.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that in recent years, the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) issued hundreds of eviction orders to tenants who breached contract conditions, even if they had little other choice. For example, any tenant who renovated without permit, or overstayed the protected tenancy agreements (which expire past the third generation) were forced out.
According to a report by Israeli organisation Bimkom-Planners for Planning Rights, about 40 percent of the Palestinian population in Jaffa live in homes expropriated by the ILA following the 1948 war, and one in four of these homes currently face demolition.
Asked why this is the case, Shani Agami-Cohen, the spokesperson for the public housing authority Amidar, told Al Jazeera that as the operating arm of the government, they are subject to its policies, which do not include any plans to expand public housing.
While there are cases in which Jewish-Israeli contractors or companies try – and at times succeed – to build Jewish-only residential projects in Jaffa with the explicit goal of Judaising the area, they have been resisted by local residents.
Efforts by various NGOs in Jaffa have prevented some evictions of both Palestinian and Jewish residents, and managed to amend new housing projects so as to limit the damage to low-income communities. But this has only taken place on a case-by-case basis.
Muhammad Jabali, a Palestinian artist and activist involved in myriad educational and cultural projects in Jaffa for the last decade, said the problem goes much deeper than gentrification. “I’m interested in contributing to Arab culture, not Israeli culture, and that is hard to find in Jaffa,” Jabali, who ultimately left Jaffa due to the high cost of living, told Al Jazeera.
In recent years, several locations opened up that cater to young Palestinians and strive to revive Arab culture in Jaffa – from the AnnaLouLou bar, which plays Middle Eastern music, to the Yafa Cafe, which sells contemporary books in Arabic and offers Arabic language classes, to projects like “Echoing Jaffa”, which offer tours of pre-1948 Jaffa.
Ironically, some of these initiatives were launched by young Jewish Israelis who moved in. While Jabali believes any initiatives encouraging intellectual and cultural exchanges between Palestinians and Jews are positive, they are not sufficient. “There is not a single independent public Arab institution in Jaffa,” he said.