To Jaffa Arabs, Sales of ‘Absentee Ownership’ Properties Aim to Expel Them From the City

When so-called absentee properties – homes whose owners fled in 1948 – in Jaffa are sold, the buyers are usually Jewish, leading to accusations that the government seeks to drive out the Arab population

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Graffiti in Jaffa reads 'Jaffa is not for sale,' two days ago.
Graffiti in Jaffa reads 'Jaffa is not for sale,' two days ago.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

For several weeks now, a few dozen people have been gathering in Jaffa every Friday to demonstrate against the sale by the state of so-called absentee properties.

Nearby, near the legendary Andre ice cream parlor, graffiti in Arabic and Hebrew can be found: “Jaffa is not for sale.” The location of these words is no coincidence. They were sprayed near the local office of the Amidar Public Housing Authority, which manages absentee properties for the state. The term refers to homes whose Arab owners fled during Israel’s 1947-48 War of Independence and which are now occupied by protected tenants.

Amidar recently issued requests for proposals for a handful of these buildings – between five and 10 – provoking great anger in Jaffa. This happened following three years in which Amidar offered these tenants an option to purchase the houses they were living in. According to the law, the state can notify residents of the intent to sell the property and give them first dibs on buying it at a discounted price. If they don’t declare their intention of doing so within 90 days, the state can sell the house after publishing a bid for offers. Tenants and their children have lifetime tenancy rights to the property.

Even though the law protects these tenants, they do not have the wherewithal to buy their homes, even at a discount. When the property is put up for sale, the buyers are usually Jewish. This is interpreted in Jaffa as proof that the state wishes to replace the city’s Arab population with a Jewish one. Amidar currently manages 4,800 such properties across the country, 1,200 of them in Jaffa.

Police officers watch as fireworks explode during protests in Jaffa, three days ago.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“In 1985, a planning team for Jaffa was set up, preparing the ground for the city’s development. Up to then the ideology was not to invest in Jaffa and its dilapidated buildings,” says historian Daniel Monterescu in conversation with Haaretz. His book on the subject, “Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine,” was published in September by Indiana University Press.

“In 1985, the city discovered Jaffa’s potential, and set up a cadre of people who understood its planning and real estate potential. This enabled the gentrification we see today, partly through the sale of assets by Amidar and government authorities to the free market. Amidar has long stopped being a housing company and its aim is to privatize state assets that were confiscated based on the law dealing with absentee owners,” Monterescu says.

The emotions evoked by this issue were also evident in clashes that took place in the city in recent days, which began with an assault on the director of a yeshiva, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali. Protesters kept repeating the words: “They’re trying to evict us from Jaffa,” and “Jaffa for Jaffans.” The demonstrations quickly escalated, when protesters believed Mali was there to buy a house when he was actually there about the sale of a private property.

Police officers in Jaffa during protesters, three days ago.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Two men who were arrested in the attack live in the derelict ground floor of an adjacent building. Their family has lived in a state-owned apartment since 1992. After the state demanded that they vacate the apartment, the court ruled that the family was squatting in the building illegally and must leave. “My family was sitting in the garden and someone entered without knocking,” said Ramadan Jarbou, whose two brothers confessed to having assaulted Mali. “Within 30 minutes the police were here, ransacking our house and threatening us. My mother and sister-in-law started crying. We’ve lived here for 30 years; we pay property tax and utility bills. We want to buy the house and reach an arrangement with them,” he says.

Ongoing frustration

The city, which some people view as responsible for the housing shortage in Jaffa, understands the anger of these tenants. Mayor Ron Huldai explained Monday that the situation in Jaffa is not a national conflict between Arabs and Jews. “It’s a result of ongoing frustration of a whole generation of Jaffans who cannot continue living there due to housing shortages and rising property prices, and recently due to protected tenants who are required to vacate or purchase the houses they live in for high prices. The difficulties are great for Jaffa’s Arab citizens, who have limited alternatives. This does not justify violence, but government neglect and a lack of addressing the issue among Israel’s Arabs in general will continue to stoke the unrest and the conflict,” said the mayor.

A driver speaks with police during protests in Jaffa, three days ago.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

A senior city official told Haaretz that viewing the situation in a technical, rational and routine manner, as Amidar and the Israel Land Authority are doing, is not good. “You’ll set the whole area on fire. Why not address their feelings, their difficulties, insights and history, and try and do this right? If we don’t resolve the second generation’s problems, they might be left without a place to live. Laws apply to all of us, but one can set criteria and convince the second generation to hurry up, lest they’re left with nothing. We feel that the ground is burning,” said the official, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity.

“You come to a family in a low socioeconomic level and offer them a purchasing price of 1.6 million shekels ($490,000). Even if it’s a good offer, they can’t afford it,” says attorney Mohammed Kabub in conversation with Haaretz. He represents dozens of Jaffa families who live in absentee properties and whose houses were put up for sale. “It’s an economic transfer of Arabs out of Jaffa. They were informed of this a month before Ramadan. What are they supposed to do?”

Kabub emphasizes that he is against violent demonstrations. “We’re supposed to be citizens of this country and enjoy our benefits. I’ve been dealing with Amidar for five years. Their aim is to make Jaffa Jewish. The city decided to invest hundreds of millions of shekels in Jaffa only after Jews started coming here. Everyone is against us – the city, the Land Authority, Amidar and the police.”

Police officers deployed in Jaffa during protests, three days ago.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Amidar denies spike in sales

Absentee ownership properties were confiscated with the establishment of the state and are now owned by the Israel Land Authority. Amidar says 25 properties are put up for sale in Jaffa annually – on average, half of them are absentee ownership properties. In comparison, Amidar sells 80 properties a year across the country, half of them absentee ownership properties. Despite claims that Arab Jaffans are leaving the city, between 2000 and 2019 their share in the city’s population in fact rose by 7 percent. The actual numbers grew to 17,203 Muslim and Christian Arabs, from 12,273. The proportion of Jews declined in that period. Amidar says it doesn’t decide when to sell a property it manages, adding that the rate of such sales has not changed.

According to a company source, during the coronavirus pandemic sales decreased, so that when things picked up again it seemed that there was an uptick in sales. “The state wants to sell and we’re abiding by the law,” says this source. “Any statement implying that the state wants to make the city Jewish is baseless. Because of the earlier slowdown it appears that there is more activity now compared to 2020, but the numbers are still small, there’s been no change in policy.”

The city has recently decided to intervene, after tenants living in such houses said they wanted to buy their houses but couldn’t. The city intends to map all these properties and examine the socioeconomic status of all tenants and set priorities in arranging these sales according to clear criteria. The city intends to facilitate pro bono legal aid for tenants in confronting the state through private law firms. “We’re dealing with human stories, we don’t want unnecessary pressure in Jaffa, we have enough trouble and want to calm things down,” said a senior city official.

Amidar says it is conducting its business according to Land Authority policies, based on an organized mapping of assets and on getting to know the tenants personally. “They were given an option of buying these houses before anyone else, at a significant discount. Any bid is published only after this stage. Even when a house is sold, tenants can remain in it as protected tenants. Further steps have been examined with the aim of increasing their trust and encouraging them to purchase houses. We suggested to the city that we collaborate in this matter.”

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