This Luxury Home Epitomizes the Erasure of Jaffa's Historical Landscape

The fast spreading gentrification taking over Jaffa is eradicating the 'city of the Palestinian bourgeoisie'

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The house is seen from the air.
The renovated house is seen from the air.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Tali Lunai’s Facebook page shows pictures of her home back in 2011. Now she lives in Ajami, a neighborhood in Jaffa. But then she lived and had done for years on the corner of the streets Hashahaf and Hatzedef. That house, with its special door and windows, decorative tiling, its balcony and view of the Old City of Jaffa is gone. It was torn down, as are many buildings in Jaffa not earmarked for conservation plans, for replacement by luxury apartments. The new edifice is almost completed, with concrete and terracotta facades, a style whose connection to Jaffa is questionable at best, and which is totally different from the houses around it.

Lunai had been a “key money” tenant, like her father before her, and left the house under a compensation agreement reached with the Israel Land Authority. “The building was sold by the Amidar housing company, which has been auctioning off property in Jaffa for two decades now, effectively raising the housing prices. The first to purchase the house on Hashahaf Street was a businessman named Moshe Dadash. According to the Israel Tax Authority website, he bought it in 2010 for 5.8 million shekels (around $1.55 million at that year’s exchange rate). He planned to substantially redo the property, demolishing external and internal walls and building significant extensions. To this end he hired Alboirat Forsan, one of the leading architects in Jaffa. Forsan’s plan was characterized by local style like other work he has done in Jaffa. But the plan never reached fruition and Dadash sold the property to Prof. Yakoub Hanna for more than 6.4 million shekels.

Hanna says that when he returned to Israel after finishing a post-doc in Boston, his family offered to help him buy an apartment. “I looked in Tel Aviv at first, and I didn’t like what I saw,” he says. “I started to look in Jaffa and Dadash showed me this house. I like the original structure, but it wasn’t designated as a building for preservation. With the house there had been a lot of later divisions and we realized that to renovate it would be problematic. I didn’t want a house that recalled the contemporary architecture of Jaffa, with arches and plaster. That’s orientalism.”

The house on the corner of the streets Hashahaf and Hatzedef, in Jaffa. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Hanna, 42, a senior molecular geneticist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, hired the architect Pitsou Kedem, who designed the homes of Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan, Melisron chairman and owner Liora Ofer, the owner of Keter Plastic Sami Sagol and attorney Dori Klagsbald.

Pitsou Kedem Architects’ Instagram page shows eye-popping pictures of luxury housing. All have private swimming pools, unusual construction, and materials that aren’t exactly common in the typical Israeli residential building.

The new project at Hashahaf 4 is also grandiose and expensive. It has two stories, a basement and a pool on the roof. A letter from the municipal preservation department, issued when the home’s planning began, says, “There is no obstacle in principle to the plan – the facades of the structure as presented to the preservation department are recommended.” During the discussions in the municipal planning department, a permit was granted to demolish the historic structure.

'I didn’t want a house that recalled the contemporary architecture of Jaffa, with arches and plaster. That’s orientalism'

The new owner, Prof. Yakoub Hanna, a senior molecular geneticist at the Weizmann Institute of Science.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“I studied Jaffa’s architecture for years and I work closely with the preservation team,” says Kedem. “I’ve looked at the book, ‘A View of Ajami – An Architectural Portrait’ and I studied Ajami and its architectural components. I thought about how to create contemporary architecture that assimilates in the context. The result here respects Ajami, fulfills the desires of the client, integrates the values of hospitality and architectural elements like a patio and a mashrabiya [a projecting window enclosed with latticework]. It’s a collected, restrained building and I’m proud of it.”

But does this house constitute a cultural act? Documents of the municipality’s Jaffa team contain clear instructions for designing buildings in the historic Jaffa environment, which call for the use of “Finishing materials that are suited to the character of local construction, and these are: Plaster on a lime base, kurkar stone or local stone.”

Kedem, being Kedem, produced a project that’s aesthetic but devoid of context. The pictures of the house on the office’s Instagram page don’t show its urban backdrop. Unlike in Neveh Tzedek, another neighborhood in which the cultural and societal context was erased, nowhere in Jaffa was care taken to maintain a unified aesthetic language that integrates in the space. Accordingly, the neighbors have already taken to calling Hanna’s new home “the jail,” “the house of holes,” “the community center,” “the cemetery” and more.

The house during construction, earlier this year.Credit: Avshalom Halutz
The house before it was renovated. It was sold for 6.4 million shekels.

A sclerotic problem

Architect and historian Shmuel Giller, who has studied Jaffa for many years, claims that the house on Hashahaf Street contravenes the municipality’s policy documents. “It’s hard to explain what the eye sees at 4 Hashahaf Street, other than as an optical problem or sclerosis,” he says. “Someone either didn’t read what was written, or forgot. Because in this case the original house was planned by one of the top architects in Jaffa, for a respected family. If this is a harbinger of what’s to come, woe unto us!”

The original building had been designed by Ibrahim Hajjar, one of the most important architects working in Jaffa during the British Mandate. Architect Shmuel Groag researched his projects for his doctoral thesis. “This is apparently the first building he designed in Jaffa,” Groag said.

New buildings in Jaffa. 'In Tel Aviv at that time, the international style [i.e., Bauhaus] predominated. In Jaffa, there was more freedom. This was a city of the Palestinian bourgeoisie.'Credit: Moti Milrod

Hajjar designed buildings for Haifa’s Arab elite. His works include a monumental apartment building he designed in 1933 for merchant Hanna Suidan at 33 Hatzalbanim Street, on the northern slope of Mount Carmel; the Hassan Deek house on Avicenna Street (Deek was one of the owners of the city’s eponymous tobacco business Karaman, Deek, Waslati); and a house at the corner of Herzliya and Hanevi’im streets that he designed for Ibrahim Sahyoun, the city’s deputy mayor in the 1930s.

In her book “The Boulevard,” Vered Navon wrote that in Jaffa, Hajjar designed the Al-Rasheed move theater (which later became the Tzlil movie theater), the Khalaf hotel at 29 Jerusalem Blvd. (whose construction was halted during the 1948 War of Independence) and the Kanaan family home at 62 Jerusalem Blvd.

“I think he was the best architect working in the vicinity of the boulevard and had the highest concentration of buildings,” Groag said. “He’s an outstanding example of the integration of traditional and modern architecture. The Palestinian architects excelled at this, and they weren’t ashamed to adopt contemporary styles and integrate them with local elements. In Tel Aviv at that time, the international style [i.e., Bauhaus] predominated. In Jaffa, there was more freedom. This was a city of the Palestinian bourgeoisie.”

A magnificent community

According to the construction file, the house at 4 Hashahaf St. was occupied by a family from Beirut until 1946. Giller said the family was Catholic, “one of the richest in Jaffa, and belonged to the French community that would meet to celebrate Bastille Day on July 14. Other participants in this group included Meir Dizengoff and members of the Chelouche family.”

The building on 62 Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa.Credit: Moti Milrod

The best-known members of the Lebanese family, he added, were the brothers Michel, Najib and Nicolas, “whose magnificent tombs are still standing today in the Catholic cemetery, guarded by statues of winged angels.”

From 1946 to 1948, the house was occupied by members of the Alluah family, which then moved to Jordan. “Michel served as the first president of the Muslim-Christian Association, which the British founded in 1919,” Giller continued. “Najib was a major citrus exporter and represented French shipping companies, while Nicolas managed the railroad. He died in 1928, and his name on the gravestone is Nicolas Antoine. Antoine, who built his house on Hatzedef Street in 1937, may have been his son. The family’s other members included lawyers and even tennis players who participated in tournaments at the Jaffa sports club.”

In the early 1990s, the Israel Lands Authority hired architect Nahum Cohen to prepare a plan for the Ajami neighborhood. The plan marked only four buildings for preservation – which, Cohen said, is all the authority wanted at that time.

A building on Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa.Credit: Moti Milrod

Ajami came into being in the 1830s, after the city’s walls were broken down in the 1870s, and became a settlement for Egyptians who arrived with Ibrahim Pasha, who conquered Palestine in 1831 and ruled it for 10 years. It was called Saknet Ibrahim, after the holy man Ibrahim al-Ajami. Hatzadaf Street was called Habib Street at that time.

The neighborhood was built by wealthy merchants and financiers, mainly Christians and a few Jews. It was not a poor neighborhood. Its construction was of a type common throughout the Mediterranean basin – liwan houses covered in pinkish plaster, sometimes with decorations.

This is the area that developed first, and from it, Jaffa continued to develop in the direction of Bat Yam. The farther south you get, the less impressive the houses look.

As time went by following Israel’s establishment in 1948, sharp-eyed individuals identified several beautiful homes in the neighborhood that were in poor condition. People like Uri Zohar, Adam Baruch and Uri Lifschitz. It became a combination of slums and palaces.

“At one point, people started calling the area ‘the Maronite Quarter,’ because it had a connection to the Maronite community and the church that was there,” Giller said. “It wasn’t attractive to called it Ajami or Al-Hureish, as the area had been called in the past.”

“If when the gentrification process started in Jaffa, the first buildings were like poking local residents in the eye, 4 Hashahaf was like poking a whole hand in,” he added. “This time, it was impossible to blame the Jews alone.”

Architect to the super-rich: Pitsou Kedem, the architect behind the new house on the corner of the streets Hashahaf and Hatzedef, in Jaffa.

Hanna, in contrast, sees himself as engaged in what he termed “reverse gentrification.” He said he even contacted the house’s original owners, who had moved to Jordan.

“I can’t solve all the problems of gentrification in Jaffa,” he added. “I’m not rich enough to buy houses from Amidar and return their original owners to them. But I have a kind of sentimental feeling that I’m building a home for a new Palestinian family.”

An alien presence

I asked the Tel Aviv municipality why it approved the demolition of a building with historical value without preparing a documentation file first, in violation of Jaffa’s planning regulations. It responded that “the original building on the lot in question wasn’t earmarked for preservation in a valid master plan. Given this, there was also no need for a documentation file for the original building, which wasn’t slated for preservation, and the permit was issued legally in accordance with the master plan’s rules and the committee’s decision.”

Asked why the city is promoting the construction of private villas in Jaffa, which furthers the gentrification process, it responded, “The city isn’t promoting the construction of villas in Jaffa. Jaffa has plans that encourage the preservation of existing buildings while enabling floors to be added to historic buildings. The plans for historic Jaffa allow the construction of four to five floors, and under these plans, many construction permits have been issued. In addition, plans that include affordable housing are being advanced.”

Architect and historian Shmuel Giller, who has studied Jaffa for many years, claims that the house on Hashahaf Street contravenes the municipality’s policy documents.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The redesign of the house and the handling of the space around it have sparked a dispute between Hanna, the current owner, and his neighbors. An open public area surrounded by trees lies between his home and its neighbors, and for years, this area has served as a parking lot.

The neighbors complain that Hanna has trespassed on the open area by paving a sidewalk, planting bushes and building steps leading to his house’s doorway. They also claim that he has poisoned the trees and vegetation that adorned the open area, causing them to die. The neighbors finally filed a crimnal complaint about the dead trees and alleged infringement on public open space. The case will be heard in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court in September..

“There’s a pattern here of creating violence in the public space and creating an irreversible situation – the violent one wins and we become a society that fights over parking,” says attorney Lior Epstein, who filed the complaint on the neighbors’ behalf.

The neighbors also filed objections with the municipality against the construction and changes to the public open space. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The neighbors also filed objections with the municipality against the construction and changes to the public open space. “The Maronite neighborhood is notable for its careful architectural planning, which preserves its beauty and uniqueness, based on values of respect for the environment and for the neighborhood’s history, maintaining low-rise building with consideration for the Jaffa aesthetic,” one neighbor wrote in the objections presented to the municipality. Another neighbor wrote that Hanna expanded the garden around his house at the expense of the public space. In a third objection, a neighbor wrote that the construction “constitutes a danger to her home and had caused serious damage.”

Another neighbor tells Haaretz, “This house is a totally different creature, with a presence that doesn’t fit in the Jaffa landscape, that violently clashes with the historic fabric of the neighborhood’s old streets and makes a laughingstock out of the Jaffa team’s policy paper.”

Hanna’s lawyers Gilad and Hedva Baum responded that the complaint is baseless, “part of the harassment and humiliation campaign being waged by a group of a few neighbors. As part of the harassment campaign, the police were contacted numerous times and false complaints were filed, which were then closed.”

They also claim that the people complaining against Hanna are the ones who are actually encroaching on public space, and accuse one neighbor of “illegally encroaching on the northern section of the public open space near her home” and using it as though it belonged to her.

In an interview Hanna said, “Ultimately, these are people who live in Jaffa but don’t want an Arab near them because he ruins their ‘fabric of life.’”

The Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa's main boulevard, which is getting a major facelift. Credit: Moti Milrod

The municipality stated that there is no legal impediment to Hanna’s works in the public open space because he’s doing it in cooperation with them.

“As for the vegetation, there was full cooperation from the municipality regarding this matter. The municipality worked to plant trees in places where previous trees were uprooted or destroyed,” it stated.

Hanna also claims that the footage showing him and his workers pouring stuff on the ground is because the municipality required that liquids be disposed of outside the construction site. The municipality also sent him a letter saying that failure to do so would constitute a violation of the permit.

He asserts that one of the residents, the chef and food photographer Limor Laniado-Tirosh, has been waging a harassment campaign against him and persuaded other neighbors to join her in this, because of a complaint he filed with the municipality regarding a business run out of her home.

“The lawsuit concerning the vegetation and the poisoning is a ridiculous made-up story that was examined by the municipality and other authorities – and came to nothing,” he says.

Laniado-Tirosh responds: “Everyone is entitled to live in the neighborhood, but no one is entitled to break the law. I am a law-abiding citizen. Hanna is trying to make it look like this is just a dispute between neighbors in order to keep law enforcement away from him. Things will be clarified by the authorities and the courts and I have full faith in them.”

Kedem says that the first problem is the cost of the land. “It’s not like people think – that contractors and builders and architects are getting rich. Ultimately, the government has neglected the citizens and the housing issue. In this specific project, my client purchased the property second-hand. There was a derelict building there with broken surroundings and we end up with a building that adds honor and development for the whole area. I believe that the situation of the property is better now and this was not where the remedy for the housing crisis needed to be.”

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