Co-existence in Jaffa Could Cost Arab Residents Their Homes

At the heart of the tensions in Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Jewish part of Tel Aviv, is also a move to push its inhabitants out of their homes. Here are the stories of three of them

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Jaffa resident Nur Dasuki, who is threatened with eviction, standing in front of her home.
Jaffa resident Nur Dasuki, who is threatened with eviction, standing in front of her home.
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

As the cost of housing skyrockets and real estate projects for the wealthy sprout from every corner, the veteran residents of Jaffa are feeling as if they are being driven out of their city. Thousands of them live in public housing apartments and absentee properties  (owned by Arabs who fled or were expelled in 1948 and subsequently confiscated by the state), and pay rent to the State of Israel. Numerous other Jaffa residents are awaiting public housing, but the state is not building new apartments and the line only gets longer.

A resolution by the Israel Lands Authority to sell properties in the free market (while protecting the rights of protected tenants) has enraged Jaffa residents. In mid-April there were violent clashes in the city against the backdrop of plans to sell a building in the traditionally Arab neighborhood of Ajami to a Jewish yeshiva, seen by some as part of an attempt to push Arab residents out. Tel Aviv municipality officials feel the latest step to sell properties in the free market could lead to an explosive situation that will make the recent riots in the city seem like a mere promo.

In the wake of those disturbances, a first meeting was held between the police and officials of Amidar – the government-owned housing company that manages the absentee properties in Jaffa – in order to defuse tensions. Indeed, the first wave of riots in April did subside, but the more recent escalation between Israel and the Palestinians threatens to reignite the street, and could be sparked by the eviction of a single family.

Three stories about three families affected by the sale of housing in Jaffa show the complexity of the problem.

Nur Dasuki in the Jaffa home she has lived in for 15 years.

Evicted from the house she renovated

Next week, Nur Dasuki is supposed to evacuate her apartment, which has always been a state-owned property but has now been sold to a private entrepreneur. Dasuki, 54, has lived in the apartment, which is situated in the Maccabi Jaffa compound, for the past 15 years or so.

The rebuilt compound is planned to include over 1,000 housing units, as part of a government-sponsored housing initiative called Mehir Lamishtaken (the “Buyer’s Price” program). The handling of the eviction of the existing residents was assigned, in accordance with the sales agreement, to the project’s developers.

Dasuki, a mother of three, was the victim of physical and emotional abuse by her husband for decades. She left him in 2004, and then squatted in an Amidar-owned property. She was evicted from that property two years later, and moved into another apartment owned by the company, subject to an arrangement by which she was to repay the debt for the time spent living in the previous property. She subsequently became ill with cancer, from which she has now recovered.

She now lives in the apartment to which she was moved by Amidar, paying free-market – not “protected” – monthly rent. She claims that at the time she signed the contract, she was assured that she would not be evicted from the apartment, but Dasuki has not been able to provide any evidence of this assurance. The contract she signed (in Hebrew, which is not her mother tongue) includes a section according to which the state may evict her from the property with a 60-day warning.

Since she believed that the state had committed not to ever throw her out of the apartment, she invested tens of thousands of shekels in its renovation. “They told me that the property is not for sale. Sit, rest, relax with the children. Everything is fine. So I made home improvements and set up the house as if it were mine. I was so excited that they were allowing me to live in this apartment at a low cost that I paid no attention to what I was signing. They told me that this was my house for life,” she says.

Ahmed al-Gamal in his Jaffa home.

Dasuki works as a cleaner from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., day in, day out. Despite the difficult conditions in which she is living and the repayment of her debt to Amidar, she has managed to save some money, and plans to purchase the apartment in which she lives. She applied to Amidar and asked to buy the apartment, but they responded that the property was not for sale. This negative response did not discourage her, and she decided to rent from Amidar the storeroom adjacent to her apartment, which is where her son and his wife and children now live. They, too, are meant to evacuate their home next week. All told, seven individuals live in the home.

“I have no life. All of my money goes to lawyers. I never thought such a dark day would ever come,” she says, referring to the day in 2018 that she received the eviction notice. A year or so later, after Dasuki failed to prove that the state had promised to provide her an alternative housing solution, the developer of the new project filed for a court order to evict the family from the property.

The Tel Aviv Magistrates Court accepted the company’s request, and even ruled that Dasuki had to cover the expenses of the court proceeding. Dasuki appealed the decision and asked to postpone execution of the court ruling until the decision on the appeal, but that request was turned down.

Nevertheless, as part of a compromise deal proposed by the court, the development company committed to pay Dasuki 5,000 shekels a month as a rent subsidy, until the appeal is ruled upon. “I am the bone that is stuck in their throat,” she says, adding that she does not know what she will do if the appeal is rejected.

Dasuki has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which she asked to reverse the decision of the district court and postpone her eviction from the apartment. Justice Alex Stein determined, without asking for a response, that “the [lower] court has come a long way toward helping the plaintiff. That court’s decision is correct, and I cannot find any fault with it.”

Ismail Atrash in front of his home in the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami.

“The courts do not understand us,” says Dasuki, pained. “They [the developers] are making millions on their buildings. Let them all be healthy and well. But what about me? Don’t I have any rights? I’m not here to whine; I can pay rent. But to be thrown into the street after all the money I poured into this apartment? All I want is a corner of my own in this world. They are going to get me out of here only if I am dead.”

The land developers’ response: “Mrs. Nur Dasuki resides in a building that is slated for preservation in the public areas of the project, and her evacuation is required for the purpose of carrying out the work… The companies offered Mrs. Dasuki several compromise proposals, but she rejected the offers, leaving no choice but to carry out the court ruling.”

Dasuki was supposed to be evicted from her home this past Sunday, in the midst of the Ramadan fast. After Haaretz appealed to the land development company, the company agreed to push off the eviction until after the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Dasuki’s attorney, Maryam Kaboub, had expected the judicial system to show some compassion. “I’m very disappointed that the Supreme Court could not understand what this person has gone through, and made do with a technical inquiry of the legal regulations,” she says.

A third-floor apartment for a disabled couple

Ahmed and Samer al-Gamal live with their five children in a dilapidated public housing apartment on Chabad Street in Jaffa. The walls of their home are musty and the pipes leak.

A man walking past a wall with Hebrew and Arabic graffiti that says: "Jaffa is not for sale."

Ahmed was injured in two work-related accidents that left him disabled in both hands. Samer is confined to a wheelchair, and defined by the National Insurance Institute as 68 percent handicapped. The couple support themselves with a tiny NII allowance that does not cover their expenses. They are also recognized by the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services. Three of their children are treated by the mental health care system, and their youngest son is handicapped, as well.

The family is entitled to public housing at state expense, but Halamish – the company that administers state-owned properties in Jaffa – now seeks to evict them from the apartment in which they reside. Until an alternate public housing solution is found for them, Samer and Ahmed will have to rent an apartment at their own expense on the private market.

Of about 2,000 apartments in Tel Aviv that are designated for public housing, only 22 are vacant. Most of the apartments are situated in Jaffa and southern Tel Aviv. Some of the vacant apartments are not even suitable for residential use, and the others have only recently been vacated. No fewer than 158 families are on the waiting list for these 22 apartments. Thirty-three of the families require a ground-floor apartment, due to members who are disabled.

Ahmed and Samer rented the apartment in which they reside in 2014, from a woman who represented herself as possessing the rights to it. Only in retrospect, after Halamish filed in 2016 for their eviction from the apartment, did it become apparent that they’d been swindled, and that the woman had no authority to rent the property to them.

In November 2018, Judge Carmela Haft ruled that it was not possible to disregard the “personal and challenging” circumstances of the couple, or their entitlement to public housing. The judge instructed Halamish that the company had to find a solution for them within two years. Halamish elected to pay the couple 3,900 shekels a month as rental assistance until a new apartment was found for them. How would they pay full rent in Jaffa when their entire income is no more than the tiny allowance they receive as handicapped persons? That would already be Ahmed and Samer al-Gamal’s problem.

Last June, a Ministry of Housing committee decided that the two were entitled to a public housing apartment, but one on the third floor, not the ground floor. The committee disregarded the fact that Samer is confined to a wheelchair.

In November, Halamish issued its demand that Ahmed and Samer evacuate their home. They refused, arguing that the company had not offered them a solution, as the court had instructed. In a telephone call two weeks ago, a company representative demanded that Ahmed evacuate the apartment, claiming that the family was squatting in the property. In response, Ahmed said: “Halamish has not acted in accordance with the verdicts of the court.”

Workers at a construction site for a luxury residence in Jaffa, this month.

Halamish offered this response to Haaretz: “In 2005, the family began squatting in a Halamish public housing apartment and has refused to evacuate it after numerous requests to do so. Given these circumstances, Halamish was compelled to submit a request for the family’s eviction. According to the court ruling, the family had until November 1, 2020 to evacuate the apartment. Given the circumstances, since June 2020 the family has been entitled to an increased rent allowance and has the option of locating an alternate apartment for itself. We stress that the apartment is needed for housing families entitled to public housing who are waiting for this apartment, and in this specific case we are referring to a ground-floor apartment that is meant for handicapped persons confined to a wheelchair.”

“If only Halamish had concerned itself with realizing their right to an apartment, according to law, and not sending a family of handicapped persons to compete in the private market, this situation would never have occurred,” said Udi Zilberman, director of the public housing department at Halev, the Movement against Poverty in Israel, which has been aiding the family. “Even after the matter was clarified in the court ruling, Halamish chose not to solve the problem, but instead chose to go to war with the family. Even if they granted assistance to the family, the family still lacks the wherewithal to find an apartment in its natural environment, which is needed by their children,”

‘Where will I get the money to buy this place?’

Ismail Atrash lives with his wife and three children in an absentee-property apartment administered by Amidar. The 50-square-meter apartment is on Lotus Street in the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami, next to his parents’ home. The apartment is one of hundreds of apartments in Jaffa defined as absentee properties – houses whose Arab residents fled or were expelled during the War of Independence, and which now house residents legally defined as protected tenants. Not long ago, Amidar issued several tenders for the sale of absentee properties in Jaffa. The move was met by an outpouring of rage in the city.

At age 17, Atrash, a fisherman and diver who is an employee of the Tel Aviv Municipality, paid the residents who were living in an apartment to move in, in their place. Ever since then, he has been defined as a protected tenant. “I did not exactly know what an Amidar apartment is. I thought it was my home,” he says.

One year ago, an Amidar field coordinator contacted Atrash and told him that he could purchase the apartment in which he lives at a 40 percent discount. Atrash was one of hundreds of protected tenants in Jaffa to receive such an offer. In the past three years, the Israel Lands Authority has offered residents of Jaffa living in protected housing (in Jaffa there are some 1,000 – 1,200 absentee property apartments) a chance to purchase the property in which they live, prior to putting the properties up for sale by tender.

According to Amidar data, approximately 25 absentee apartments are sold in Jaffa each year. Recently, Jaffa residents have been demonstrating in front of the local branch of Amidar against the sale of the apartments, a move that in their opinion is part of an effort to drive them out of the city.

Demonstrators at a protest in Jaffa in April, holding a banner that reads: "Jaffa is not for sale."

“I told him, listen, this is new for me. I have to check it out,” Atrash recalls the conversation with the Amidar rep. “He said that he would arrange a discount for me on the fee for opening a file to purchase the apartment and that it was a real bargain, so I went for it. I’m a diver, and I know how to dive down to a depth of 50 meters, but this was like diving into a bottomless ocean.”

Atrash paid the fee and opened a file. He says that he waited many months until he officially received the sales proposal. Every month, he would contact the field coordinator and ask to find out where things were. The coordinator repeatedly rebuffed him. “Six months passed. Nobody spoke to me. I started to get worried. Nearly a year after that first conversation, I said to him that I feel that this is one big bluff. That there’s something going on that I am missing.”

Last month, the proposal to purchase the apartment finally arrived. Only then did he understand how the state relates to properties that are considered “absentee properties” by law. When the state wants to sell a property in its possession, the Israel Lands Authority approaches Amidar, which then offers the protected tenant a chance to purchase the property at a substantial discount within 90 days. Should the tenant not take any steps to purchase the apartment, it is then put up to tender. The rights of the tenants and of their children to housing are preserved, but they can no longer purchase their own apartment at a discount. “I did not know that I had to arrange for a mortgage. I did not know that only within 30 days of the issuing of the proposal could I file an appeal,” says Atrash.

Two weeks ago, he received an offer to purchase his home for 580,000 shekels ($177,000), and also add another 15 square meters to its area. If he does not respond to the offer, the home will be put up for tender in another two and a half months.

It is certainly a worthwhile financial offer, but is not suitable for everyone. “Where am I going to come up with this money now? For me, that is a significant outlay, this is expensive,” he says. “I waited for a full year to receive an offer. I did not know that this is how it works, and I did not have an opportunity to appeal it.”

The field coordinator telephoned Atrash this month and said: “I am calling to update you that you missed the date for submitting an appeal. Are you moving ahead with the transaction? What do you think? Do you want to buy the apartment or not?”

Atrash replied: “You’re sitting there with a gun to my head.”

To which the coordinator added: “I am afraid that we’ll get to the end and there won’t be any time.”

Atrash is waiting to see if the bank will approve a mortgage so that he can purchase the home. “I am worried that I won’t be able to buy my property. I don’t want to think what will happen if they sell the house to someone else. I’m not threatening. But it’s my house, I am from Jaffa. I will not live in Ramle.”

In response, Amidar offered this statement: “As a rule, we are flexible with the residents, with the aim of making it easier for them to complete the transaction. Such was the case in this instance, in which there was a need to renew the transaction and extend it. We will make every effort to approve it.

“As for the essence of the matter, the proposal was presented in March. It explicitly noted that the tenant had 30 days to appeal the amount of the proposal (and three months to complete the transaction). Aside from that, he did receive an appeals form about two weeks after the proposal was first given, and that was for the purpose of advancing the procedure. We remain at his disposal.”

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