Suddenly They Are Called 'Squatters'

In 1949 the Harazi and Maoudeh families were moved into the same building in the village of Salameh, which became the Kfar Shalem neighborhood in South Tel Aviv overnight. The contracts the heads of the families signed with the Custodian of Absentee Property testify that the Jewish Agency sent them to Salameh after they had immigrated from Yemen. The documents also indicate that they moved into the abandoned Arab house legally and with permission. Nevertheless, unless something extraordinary happens, they will be evicted at the beginning of this week, together with another 30 families, who live in the area between Mahal Street and Moshe Dayan Street. None of them will receive compensation.

This eviction-without-compensation received a legal seal of approval from the Supreme Court, after it was determined that the land on which the families are living is privately owned. While the Mahal-Moshe Dayan area is perhaps an extreme case, it is but another stage in the bitter battle many inhabitants of Kfar Shalem have been waging, for several decades already, to receive suitable compensation for being evicted from their old homes in the neighborhood. The authorities argue that the evacuation is aimed at improving the neighborhood. But the residents find it hard to shake off the feeling that the state, which sent them to the village in order to prevent its Palestinian inhabitants from returning, is now sloughing them off.

This feeling was reinforced two weeks ago, when the government decided that inhabitants of moshavim (cooperative agricultural villages), who had received lands intended for agricultural purposes from the state in the past - without having to pay for these lands - can now build on them and sell them. Simply put, had the Harazi and Maoudeh families been residents of a moshav, their status would have been different. But they are merely inhabitants of a poor neighborhood in South Tel Aviv and after living here for nearly 60 years, they have now been defined as squatters whose fate is eviction.

The Israel Land Administration (ILA), Amidar (the National Housing Corporation) and Halamish (the government corporation responsible for clearing Kfar Shalem) define the inhabitants of the Mahal-Moshe Dayan area first and foremost as "squatters." Explaining the difference between Kfar Shalem and the kibbutzim and moshavim, the ILA's Eli Moran says, "They settled the kibbutzim and the moshavim on the frontier. These neighborhoods were not frontier zones. The state just wanted to give those immigrants a roof over their heads. Who was thinking about rights at that time?" Therefore, he says, the ILA is entitled to sell the lands to private entrepreneurs without regularizing the rights of the people who are living there now. "The contracts state that the buyer must evacuate the inhabitants, but it doesn't say how and the amount of compensation to which those who are holding the land are entitled is also not specified."

Don't you have a problem with the buyer evicting the residents without compensation?

"This isn't our business. This is the contractors' problem."

When the State of Israel was established, Salameh was one of the largest villages in the Jaffa area. Its lands stretched as far as the environs of the old central bus station. The village's 7,000 inhabitants included many of Jaffa's wealthy families, who had built houses in Salameh. Inhabitants of the nearby Hatikvah Quarter have told Effi Banai, a native of Kfar Shalem who is making a documentary film about the area's history, that their neighborhood was fired upon from the direction of Salameh when fighting broke out in 1948. Therefore, when the rumor spread that the inhabitants of Salameh had fled, the inhabitants of the Hatikvah Quarter rejoiced.

The Palestinian inhabitants of the abandoned village were quickly replaced by 20,000 Jews, some of them refugees from the battle zones, most of them immigrants from Yemen. The new neighborhood was overcrowded, there were no paved roads and no sewage system. Most of the people who settled in Kfar Shalem worked in agriculture. The institutions of the Jewish Agency, the Histadrut labor federation and the Tel Aviv municipality wanted to find housing solutions for the immigrants but they also wanted to seize the area to avoid the Arabs coming back to a place located so close to the big city.

"It was a mitzvah [a good deed] to settle this place," says Miriam Harazi, who recalled how she had evicted an Arab woman from Jaffa, who had offered to sell her home to her. The state wanted the remnants of Arab Salameh to disappear and for a new neighborhood to arise in their stead. It was for this reason that the evacuation-compensation law for Kfar Shalem was legislated in 1965 and the densely populated neighborhood began to disappear. There have been ups and downs in the process of evacuating the inhabitants who live in the old houses. One of the low points occurred in December 1982, when a policeman shot and killed an inhabitant of the neighborhood who had tried to prevent his home from being demolished. The high points occurred at the beginning of the 1990s, when hundreds of families were moved out and given generous compensation.

Too generous, they are now saying at Halamish. "Check why the ILA froze the project in 1996 and look into its controller's reports on the subject," says Halamish Director General Eitan Padan. In recent years relations between Padan and the inhabitants of Kfar Shalem have been murky, to say the least. About a month ago, after Halamish sent orders to dozens of inhabitants ahead of their forcible eviction, the Knesset Finance Committee discussed the issue at the initiative of MKs Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Moshe Kahlon (Likud). One of the more moderate accusations the inhabitants have made against Padan is that he is "too big for his britches" and that the company he manages is "corrupt."

Padan, a public figure, does not conceal his hostility toward the inhabitants and says the neighborhood committee is trying "to extort money from the public coffers." He does acknowledge that among the hundreds of inhabitants slated for eviction there is a "group" that is acting reasonably. But he says that "as long as there have been certain other elements fanning expectations, the evacuation process has been encountering violence."

The inhabitants of Kfar Shalem say Padan is betraying his public responsibility. Their stance, which they back up with documents, is that in 2004 Halamish secretly set harsher criteria for giving compensation to evacuees, contrary to previous decisions by the ILA. The secretary of the neighborhood committee, Aharon Maduel, says that no one has the authority to change the criteria the ILA had decided upon and therefore Padan and Halamish have lost their moral and legal authority to operate in the neighborhood. Padan admits that the criteria have become harsher but he claims this move was undertaken in accordance with ILA instructions. At the ILA they were in fact surprised this week by the change in criteria. "Only the ILA board is allowed to set criteria and not any other body," said the ILA spokeswoman.

In any case, Padan says that during the two years he has been working as director general, only 15 of the 400 families that live in the areas slated for demolition have been evicted and compensated. This although the ILA determined in 2004 that 200 families would have been evacuated by the end of 2006. Maduel accuses Halamish of dragging its feet and making insulting offers to the inhabitants, so the matter will go to the courts. According to him, "They want to exhaust us and show us that if we don't accept their conditions, we will end up like the inhabitants of Mahal-Moshe Dayan, without compensation."

Halamish has nothing to do with the expected eviction of the 30 families living in that area. The courts, which have ruled that the inhabitants should be evicted without compensation, have determined that this is not a matter of squatters but rather of offspring of the immigrants who settled there when the state was established. The problem with these families is of another nature: The judges decided that the state had given them an area it had never owned and that the land is privately owned. Therefore the inhabitants are not protected tenants and there is no obligation to compensate them.

This ruling is strange. As noted, Salameh was an Arab village and therefore it was possible to assume that all its property was transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property after the Palestinians left. But in this case the judges accepted the argument of the owner of the parcel of land, Ruma Efrati, to the effect that the lands were not confiscated in 1948 because they belonged to a British investor who was not considered an absentee. However, the court ruled that the 30 families who lived on this particular portion of land all those years were simply sold from hand to hand, together with the land, until they came into Efrati's hands - like vassals in the Middle Ages. The ILA has told Haaretz this week that at least one of the plots the court determined was always privately owned had been in state hands and was sold to private hands in the 1950s, with the tenants on it.

The affair becomes stranger still when one considers that some of the families living in the area have been paying rent for years to Amidar - a government company in every respect - and have nevertheless been issued eviction orders. How did Amidar tenants come into the hands of private landowners? Is this a mistake or did Amidar sell the land with the protected tenants on it? The inhabitants relate that Amidar officials had told them that the rent had been charged by mistake and that it would be returned to them. However, this week the chairman of Amidar, Doron Cohen, was surprised to learn of this. "If it turns out that they have been paying rent for 60 years by mistake, we will stand behind them, because they are clients of ours," he says.

Dr. Sandy Kedar, a lawyer who teaches at Haifa University and is active in the Israel Association for Distributive Justice, says that if one adopts a narrow view, it is possible to agree with the magistrates' court's decision that ruled that the inhabitants should not be compensated. However, he says, "If you look at what is happening in Kfar Shalem and compare it to, for example, Kibbutz Galil Yam, then it is possible to argue that this is a discriminatory policy that verges on illegality."

Kedar notes the government decision of two weeks ago: "This is a gift of about a million dollars to every owner of an estate in the moshavim, even if we deduct the payments to the state for the use of the lands." Padan, it should be said, angrily rejects the comparison between the worsening of the conditions for the inhabitants of Kfar Shalem and the improvement in conditions for the moshavim and kibbutzim. Kedar adds that the Kfar Shalem story embodies the "ethnic-class injustice" on which Israel is built: Arabs whose lands were confiscated, moshavim and kibbutzim that transformed those lands into a gold mine, neighborhoods populated by Mizrahi immigrants (Jews from the Muslim countries) whom the state is disowning after having used them upon its establishment, and an accelerated process of privatization.

"Those poor Ashkenazim," (Jews of European origin) says Miriam Harazi, as she displays yellowing documents to prove that the crumbling piece of land has been her home for the past 60 years. "They suffered so much from anti-Semitism in Europe. Why are they taking it out on us?"