In the middle of one of Tel Aviv’s most affluent suburbs, a neighborhood exists where the streets have no name. Although the residents pay property taxes, they had to fight for years to get hooked up to the water and electricity grids. Until today, they use boreholes they dug to dispose of sewage. Without fortified rooms, they take shelter from rockets under flimsy asbestos roofing. Weeds that have overrun the empty plots where residents used to live now offer a refuge to snakes.
Instead of door numbers, the veteran residents hang family names above their entrances. But then, this neighborhood has always been a distinctly family affair, occupied mostly by the same group (or their descendants) that first populated it in the late 1940s. When 80 of the families were forcibly evicted in 2014, “it was like losing a limb,” says Rachel Levy, 80, who moved here as a child before the formation of the state.
This is Givat Amal Bet, a poor neighborhood of single-story shacks with corroded metal roofs, set amid the sprawling high-rises of north Tel Aviv. And these could be its dying days.
The first of two rounds of eviction notices came into force for the 45 families on the site recently, with evictions originally slated to commence on Wednesday. Late on Monday, though, the government announced a three week delay, in a last attempt to try and resolve the tense situation.
It is the culmination of a long-running legal battle whose roots lie in 2005, when a massive development project was approved for Givat Amal, eventually tripling in size to include seven high-rise buildings.
Ever since, the residents’ lives have been overshadowed by the high-rises, two of which have already been built. When they need to direct services or visitors to their homes, they often give the addresses of the very buildings that threaten their future here.
Even the unpaved, unlit road to Givat Amal Bet is illuminated by the looming towers. The strongest light, metaphorically at least, emanates from the deluxe penthouse suite of billionaire businessman Yitzhak Tshuva. His company, Elad Israel Residence Ltd., which he is in the process of selling, served the eviction notices on the area’s remaining families.
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Outside his tower a few weeks ago, residents and activists could be found protesting on the front lawn – policemen clasping hands to form a chain to block them from entering the building. One of the protest leaders, Ronit Aldoudy, cried out that in all her years in Givat Amal Bet, residents were never granted the luxury of grass. “We weren’t given a single bench,” she shouted.
Ex-Joint List lawmaker Dov Khenin told the demonstrators that the story of this neighborhood is “symbolic – a fight over the very character of the country.” The poor residents facing eviction from one of richest parts of the country have managed to unite an unlikely coalition behind them. But whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
‘A home in exchange for a home’
The residents of Givat Amal Bet were originally moved to the Arab village of Al-Jammasin al-Gharbi during the Israeli War of Independence, after the local Palestinian population fled in fear of an attack and was later denied the right to return. Arriving from the Jaffa and Neveh Tzedek neighborhoods, the 25 families – whose roots all lay in countries in the Middle East or North Africa – were evacuated from the fighting in the south of the city, but also served as a “buffer” on what was then Tel Aviv’s northern border.
They were hailed as “pioneers” and David Ben-Gurion himself promised that they could remain at the site, at least until they were provided alternative housing nearby, and that any relocation would be done by “mutual agreement.”
In 1950, the village was transferred to the Israel Land Authority via the Absentee Property Law and the residents banded together to request the right to purchase the land.
Yet while the residents of Givat Amal Aleph and Bet never received a response, and even faced eviction efforts from the Tel Aviv municipality, the other neighborhood established on the village’s land, Shikun Hatzameret, managed to secure leaseholder rights.
Eleven years later, in 1961, the land was sold to Diur B.P. without a tender and without the knowledge of the residents. The undeveloped land was sold again to Dankner Investments in 1987, and then ended up in the hands of Tshuva’s Elad Israel Residence when it took over the company in 2004.
The rallying cry for the demonstrators has not changed since: “A home in exchange for a home.” However, under a ruling issued last year by Tel Aviv District Court, the residents would receive much less: each of the 11 remaining plots, featuring a varied number of homes on them, would receive 3 million shekels ($935,000) in compensation.
The residents want to stay in situ, but with eviction possibly arriving, the discussion now is more geared toward receiving fair compensation. For some, about a sixth of the compensation would go on lawyers’ fees, leaving 2.5 million shekels between each family per plot.
In an April 2021 ruling on the evictions, following a class action lawsuit, a rare acknowledgement was made by Tel Aviv District Court Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen: “Promises made were not fulfilled, and where compensation was given, it was only partial, unregulated, after 70 years and only in lawsuits filed against the residents for eviction.”
‘Not everybody who cries is right’
“I don’t sleep at night,” says Rachel Levy, whose labyrinthine neighborhood home is filled with 14 people spanning four generations. In her case, the proposed compensation would need to be split between several families. “To survive, we would need at least four times that amount,” she says.
She remembers the neighborhood before Israel was founded: engulfed by groves, feeling a mixture of fear and pity toward the departed Palestinians, and sitting on her doorstep watching troops marching past.
Today, though, it is different boots that haunt her imagination, and Levy says it is the potential violence she fears the most: the last round of evictions saw doors kicked down and homes stormed. Ex-Meretz lawmaker Ilan Gilon was pushed out of his wheelchair and five of her family members were detained. “I don’t want the children to see this,” she says.
Why does she believe they were treated differently to other neighborhoods like Shikun Hatzameret? “Because we are Mizrahi,” she responds, matter-of-factly.
“Likud didn’t help us once,” she adds, referring to the right-wing party that has historically drawn much of its support from working-class Mizrahim. “The right benefited from our cause, but never had any intention of resolving it.” When she broke down in tears in Likud lawmaker David Amsalem’s office while explaining her predicament a few years ago, he responded bluntly: “Not everybody who cries is right.”
She hasn’t yet thought about a contingency plan if the worst happens. “We will have nothing to live for. They don’t know what I’m capable of doing. I will shock the country,” she warns.
Her daughter chimes in, saying that Rachel’s 90-year-old sister, Ruth, has been renting a flat in nearby Ramat Gan since her 2014 eviction, noting that she is one of the lucky ones.
Indeed, one of those evictees, Menashe Khalifa, could also be found at the demonstration, sad eyes protruding between a blue peak cap and face mask. He received no compensation when he was evicted, and now divides his time between sleeping in his car and a tent that he pitches anywhere he can.
When police officers kicked down his door in 2014, they found him holding two gas canisters and threatening to self-immolate. They managed to knock him out before he set himself and the house ablaze.
Khalifa’s family arrived in Israel from Baghdad in 1951, one of several Iraqi and Yemenite families to join the neighborhood in the ’50s. “We were rich in Iraq, but had to leave everything behind. We came to Israel to build a country – and then they chuck us out of it,” he sighs.
Carmen Elmakiyes Amos, an unapologetic Mizrahi activist, believes that while criticism of Tshuva and his company is justified, the “blame mainly lies with the state, which isn’t taking responsibility for the injustice it has committed. You can see it across all of history,” she says. “All of the neighborhoods fighting eviction are Mizrahi. Not some of them – all of them.”
Harel Nachmany researches government housing policy at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy, and confirms that many residents facing eviction are Mizrahi. However, his research with Dr. Ravit Hananel positions this policy as part of a broader move toward privately owned housing.
When the state first sold the land to private developers in 1961 without clearly defining the rights of existing residents, it turned it “from a political to a legal issue,” he says. Givat Amal was left in a state of limbo: the state washed its hands of the problem, leaving the courts to regard the situation through legal eyes – and the residents didn’t have their residency rights enshrined.
Nachmany notes that in contrast to Shikun Hatzameret, whose residents included clerks and municipal workers, the residents of Givat Amal “were not identified with the ruling [left-wing] party, they were not part of the Histadrut labor federation, and many were illiterate.”
Shikun Hatzameret, he argues, “had direct access to the relevant authorities,” the potential to take out public loans and some of its residents even worked for the Custodian of Absentee Property, which administered the land. These initial inequalities magnified over time: one group benefited from rising land prices, while the same hike became an obstacle for the poor residents of Givat Amal.
Historical documents also reveal the attitude of the local municipality. A year before the lands was first sold in the early ’60s, Tel Aviv’s then-Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Rabinowitz said the Mizrahi residents of Givat Amal Bet were “of a different human material” than those in the surrounding Ashkenazi neighborhoods. And minutes from a Tel Aviv City Hall meeting in 1988 saw then-Mayor Shlomo Lahat (Likud) admitting that the municipality deliberately neglected the area’s infrastructure, “so that they understand I do not intend for them to continue living there forever.”
Residents charge that this attitude is still prevalent today. “Not once did the mayor of the city [Ron Huldai] meet with us,” Levy says, despite numerous efforts to reach him. According to Levy, activists did manage to elicit one single sentence out of him when he told them: “I’ll see you in court.” The municipality did not respond to queries on the matter.
In 2013, the municipality signed an agreement with Elad Israel Residence passing on the legal obligation to evict the residents to them – even though the municipality itself had rights to 166 housing units in two of the seven high-rises that will be built, and owns 12 percent of the land in total. That agreement only came to light after pressure from the Knesset Interior Committee in 2014.
In response to this article, Tel Aviv City Hall said the matter “was discussed and decided upon in court,” and that it was taking steps “to ensure every tenant receives the compensation they are entitled to, as part of the  court ruling.”
It added: “The municipality has made multiple efforts to advance the modernization of the area, by promoting orderly planning and, as mentioned, arranging fair compensation for those families entitled to it.”
The coalition fighting for Givat Amal Bet is as diverse as it is united: Kippa-wearing men from southeast Tel Aviv’s Kfar Shalem neighborhood, which faces a similar plight, stand alongside socialist activists wearing face masks sporting hammer-and-sickle insignias. Even Palestinians who work in the framework of Jewish-Arab partnerships have been showing solidarity. While some signs connect the plight with the Palestinian struggle – one sign states that “The Absentee Property Law is a tactic for ethnic cleansing” – others cite Givat Amal Bet’s history as “pioneers” in founding the state.
There have been bipartisan Knesset attempts to resolve the issue in the past decade, but all have been stymied due to overall political deadlock.
Khenin, who was visiting the neighborhood “twice a week” during the worst periods according to residents, believes the reason for the interest is simple: “The injustice is just so obvious.”
Current efforts to pass legislation are coming from within the coalition, spearheaded by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Labor MK Naama Lazimi and Meretz MK Gaby Lasky. Lazimi, a first-time lawmaker of Mizrahi descent, toured Givat Amal Bet just two weeks after she was sworn-in to the Knesset in June 2021.
“The tour shook me, and I felt it was impossible to leave there without responding in some way to an injustice that cries out to the heavens,” she recounts. When she raised the issue with the party leadership, they came on board immediately and then recruited Meretz for their efforts to reach a solution that included the state, the municipality and the developers.
“At first there was a lot of interest from the municipality and the developers,” she says. They initially responded positively to the outline from Saar’s office, but when it became clear the process was moving forward and had gained consent from the families, they distanced themselves and claimed they didn’t have compensation, according to Lazimi. Neither the municipality or the Elad Group had responded to questions on the matter by press time.
With time running out to restart the legislative process, the lawmakers are pushing to include the compensation deal as an amendment to the state budget, whose passing is already the subject of much speculation given the razor-thin Knesset majority of the motley coalition. According to Lazimi, the Finance Ministry has authorized the inclusion of the compensation, but they still need a legal opinion on the matter
Levy and her 85-year-old husband, Chaim, visited the Knesset recently and spoke with Justice Minister Sa’ar. He was forthcoming, she said, but told them they would continue talks in another meeting.
“It will be too late by then,” Levy told him.
In the meantime, the remaining homes of Givat Amal Bet are being filled with activists. Before the last demonstration, the residents created a flaming sign that read “Milchama b’givat” (“War on the Hill”). Elmakiyes Amos echoes that message with one of her own: “Anybody who comes to evict will face resistance.”