A renovation on shaky ground
Arab citizens of Acre claim they are being evicted from the city’s state-owned buildings as part of a lucrative gentrification plan.
Take a walk between Old Acre’s Khan al-Umdan complex and the lighthouse at the western end of the city and you’ll find a tent pitched at the entrance to a large, ancient building. The tent was erected by the building’s residents and social activists, protesting eviction notices given to the residents by the Amidar Company.
Amidar − the state-owned housing company − says the eviction is to allow for the building to be renovated and made safe for its residents. They, however, suspect that Amidar, the Old Acre Development Company and the Israel Lands Authority, who manage the city’s properties, want to evict as many Arab families as possible for the benefit of developers and potential buyers, mostly Jews and foreigners.
Most of the buildings within the walls of the Old City of Acre are state-owned. Their residents paid key money and are protected tenants. The building in question is a three-story building which is currently occupied by four families and six businesses. All received eviction notices from Amidar stating that the building might collapse. Khaled Sliman, one of the business-owners working there, rejects this idea. “In the past few years, the building was renovated,” Sliman says. “This is clearly visible and we also presented this in an expert opinion from an engineer.”
From the roof of the building, it is indeed apparent that work was done to reinforce and seal the roof, and the outside walls were shored up. According to Sliman, only one part of the building requires repairs now, and doing it does not require evacuating all the residents; moreover the company did not present a plan and permits, and it is unclear how long the renovations will take and how much they will cost. “It seems that what’s most important to them is evacuating people as quickly as possible. It raises some questions,” says Sliman.
Legally, protected tenants must pay half the cost of renovations, but most residents of the Acre building are poor and almost certainly will not be able to make the payment. Whoever does not pay may accumulate debt and face an eviction order, or else the company will purchase his share of the apartment, leaving him without a place to live and without the ability to acquire an alternative apartment.
Veteran Acre residents say that, over the past decade, there have been increasing attempts to evict Arab residents, either by designating them squatters or with eviction orders. These can be issued to tenants who have accumulated rent debts or did not pay their share of the cost of building renovations. They say it is not coincidental. In 2001, the Old City of Acre was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, generating great interest on the part of developers and the wealthy in the city’s buildings and properties.
City councillor Ahmed Oudeh (Hadash), one of those involved in pitching the protest tent, says the building is located between the Khan al-Umdan complex and the Khan a-Shuna complex and the Turkish baths, near where the city plans to build a tourist center, including a hotel. Leaving the tenants in the building may disrupt these plans. “The residents will be on the alert for any step that could lead to a massive evacuation,” Oudeh says, adding they will fight it.
The residents appealed to the Haifa Magistrate’s Court against the eviction orders and the claim that the building is unsafe, but their appeal was rejected. Attorney Shadi Shawir submitted an appeal on their behalf to the Haifa District Court, which is to be heard on Tuesday.
The residents are also planning to visit the Knesset to attend a special hearing in the Knesset Finance Committee. On Wednesday, they will hold an emergency meeting in the Old City of Acre, to discuss the protection of tenants’ rights. Sami Huari, one of the initiators of the gathering, told Haaretz the situation in Acre is getting worse: “Last week Amidar organized a tour for potential buyers, which was conducted with a police escort. It shows that the situation is very volatile. We hope Amidar and the city reconsider and not bring about confrontation in Acre. We want to live in and develop the city like in any normal place and to enjoy the tourism, but not at the expense of Arab citizens’ rights to live in the Old City of Acre.”
Amidar rejects the claims. The tour, company officials say, did not even visit the building in question, but another vacant property and the police escort was needed because on a previous occasion, the visit was disrupted and abruptly stopped by local residents. The company stressed: “Since the beginning of the year, 46 properties in Acre were sold, 35 to protected tenants, at a cost of, on average, NIS 56,000.”
Asked about the disputed building, Amidar claimed to be following a court ruling that determined the building should be evacuated because it is in danger of collapsing. This was after Amidar visited the site and rejected the testimony presented by the expert acting on behalf of the residents. As for the renovations, Amidar officials said the building can only be thoroughly inspected and the length and cost of the renovations be determined after the building’s evacuation. Regarding the plans for a tourist center, Amidar said: “The building is not included in the area covered by a tender that was issued, and in any case, the tender has been canceled for now and a decision on issuing a tender is up to the Israel Lands Administration.”
The Acre municipality said the eviction order was issued due to concern for the welfare of the residents of several buildings in the Old City that were found to be dangerous, and that the renovations are “the sole responsibility of the State of Israel, via the Amidar Company.”