First We'll Take Ajami

The city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa was jealous of the Holiday of Holidays that Haifa has been holding for years, and decided that it too would hold an event for its Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents this weekend. The mayor himself, Ron Huldai, personally blessed the mixed residents of the city: His signature graces the "Happy Holidays" posters that were put up in Jaffa.

However, for visitors to the city and the mayor himself, there was a surprise that was not quite a holiday gift. Among the decorations adorning the streets were posters stating in large letters, "Ron Huldai wishes the Arabs of Jaffa, happy expulsion." Brutal? Annoying? That's precisely the intention of the people behind Jaffa Struggle, a group of social activists that has been fighting to stop the eviction of residents and the scheduled demolition of 497 homes.

The group received the latest list of "occupied assets" from the housing company that manages the assets, Amidar, in March 2007. These homes have a broad common denominator, aside from the fact that the vast majority are occupied by Arabs. Most of the building irregularities and extensions that are the grounds for the evictions were carried out 30-40 years ago. Almost all of the homes are in the Ajami neighborhood, by the seaside, and Jabaliya in central Jaffa, both of which are becoming prime real estate development sites.

The "Bride of Palestine," one of Jaffa's many nicknames, has become hot property, and its long-term residents have become an obstacle nationalistically, and economically too. Recently, an old woman living in Ajami received an eviction notice based on renovations done to her apartment. When she had entered the home as bride, however, she could not locate the changes, which had been carried out by the previous tenant, who had been gone for almost 50 years. If it was not so sad, it would be funny.

Sami Bukhari came to a meeting with the Jaffa Struggle activists straight from a tour of Jaffa for Jewish youngsters in the Taglit-birthright Israel program. Bukhari, 42, is an artist and art historian, and an expert on Jaffa. Shams Kalboni came to the meeting straight from her job at "Windows," an Israeli-Palestinian association that promotes peace and democracy. In the past, she had been accepted to a management position but lost the job when her employer discovered she was Arab. Attorney Hisham Shabaita works at Tel Aviv University's human rights clinic.

The three are part of a 15-person group that established Jaffa Struggle about a year ago, once they understood that the issuing of these eviction notices was not a coincidence, but was instead a pattern. Amidar and the Israel Lands Administration call it "getting things in order, finally," but the activists say it's expulsion and transfer of Jaffa's Arabs. Though the issue of Jaffa's land and houses traces its origins to 1948, they don't push their Jewish partners in dialog into the corner. The immediate problem is happening here and now. Their activity is entirely voluntary. Costs ? for instance, for making the posters ? are covered in part by the Heinrich Boll Foundation and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement.

They got organized to fill the aching void into which Jaffa sank following the events of October 2000. "After that trauma, nobody goes out to demonstrate in the streets," says Kalboni bitterly. "People don't even dare to talk politics." The difficulty of the Jaffa Struggle activists isn't confined to the establishment: It is also an effort to get the city's residents, including victims of the system, to protest. That also explains the extra caution that the activists have imposed on themselves, in order not to compromise the income of the Jaffa merchants, many of whom have barely recovered from the October 2000 blow. If not for that consideration, the protest over the Holiday of Holidays on Shabbat would not have ended with an annoying poster on which tiny bulldozers indicate homes slated for evacuation.

A tour of Ajami and Jabaliya is enough to show that the process of Jaffa's Judaization is happening fast. Whereas in other areas, Judaization is an overtly-stated goal, in Jaffa it's part of an economic process: It is a combination of gentrification and Judaization that can no longer be distinguished. "At the ILA, they said it really isn't racism, that their sole interest is to sell," says Shabaita. "In practice, they're selling Jaffa at a discount."

Shabaita believes the timing of the "getting things in order" and resulting evictions truly is a matter of economics. "The ILA simply wants to make money," he says. Everybody agrees the talk about "painful concessions" in an agreement with the Palestinians is spurring the demographic debate, and at stake in Jaffa are 497 "occupied assets." In 195 of these cases, the domiciles really have been taken over by squatters, but all of the rest are cases of storage rooms and rooms added for expansion, "occupancy" of assets whose heirs claim to have rights (claims still being investigated) and "invasion" by people who Amidar defines as non-entitled heirs. It is all very complicated.

This was the situation in Jaffa post-1948: Only some of the original residents remained in their homes. Others came as refugees and took up residence in properties that had been defined as abandoned. During the 1950s, families bought their apartments from Amidar in exchange for two-thirds of the assets' value. However, they did not thereby become the apartments' owners: It bought them protected tenancy, and that meant they were prohibited from making any change to the homes. Many never understood what this arrangement meant.

Shabaita remembers that as a boy, he noticed there was a problem. His father explained, "We have the walls, the state has the land." That was not accurate either. During the years, based on a lack of understanding and the exigencies of reality, the tenants divided their homes into smaller and smaller rooms, and built extensions as their families grew. For 30 years, nobody complained. Sometimes Amidar even forgot to collect the low rent it charged.

Now, after a considerably delay, driven by the cold logic of the real estate market and politics, the residents are receiving the notices. "At some date you instituted a change in the apartment without the consent of the owners," they read. The sanction: Get out. Several dozen families have received such eviction notices. Dozens of others are involved in legal proceedings.

Amidar disclaims involvement, blaming it all on the ILA. The ILA says Amidar is the one that decided to make get things in order, it is not a move aimed at Arabs and the figures are wrong anyway. But official documents from Amidar and the ILA support the activists' contentions.

You do not need to wait for the end of the process to feel the Judaization of Jaffa. Malachim Street in Ajami is being developed. Three new buildings are rising fast. Soon they will be occupied by Jewish families of means. In between them is the Khateb family's meager home. They never did leave Jaffa and their home is like a bone in the developers' throats. In the Khateb's yard is a small structure with a red tiled roof, which had its asbestos sheeting replaced. It is barely noticeable. You need eagle eyes to spot it, but now it is serving as grounds for a lawsuit that may end in eviction.

A few dozen meters away, near the house of ironmonger Harabi Nablusi's home, a new home is going up. Its building irregularities are screamingly obvious, but nobody seems to have noticed them. Nablusi presents papers attesting that this new edifice is rising on land that he owns, but the documents have convinced nobody. In his home, decorated with awards and certificates that his wife received for excellence in her pedagogical activities, and that his sons got for their social activity, sits Nablusi, a man in anger and pain. The new building almost touches the house he has lived in all his life and hides his view of the sea. "Not only the land. They took the sea from me too," he says with despair. The little building available to Arabs in Jaffa is eastward, far from the shoreline.

Opposite Nablusi's home lives a Jewish neighbor whose wall bears a sticker, "Fighting for the home." He moved there from a settlement.

Some of the evicted Arabs move to Ramle or Lod, but not to Tel Aviv. "There is no place more alien to Arabs than Tel Aviv," says Nablusi. "It's even worse than Jerusalem." His colleagues nod in agreement but refuse to give up. The Jewish dream is their nightmare.

Nor do they feel that the 20,000 Arabs in Jaffa, whose Palestinian identity is disappearing, in fact make Tel Aviv an integrated city. They are a third of the residents in Jaffa and make up 80 percent of Jabaliya and Ajami. Yet if the great eviction plan is carried out, the proportion reverses to 20 percent Arabs and 80 percent Jews.

The ILA continues to insist that the issue is not nationalism at all: It is a purely economic matter. One of the officials even whipped out a winning argument: "Like I can't live in Savyon, you can't afford to live in Jaffa," he said pleasantly.

It is hard to say that the public is captivated by Jaffa Struggle's battle. Even more so than the Jewish population, the Arab residents have sunk into a feeling of helplessness and inability to wield influence. Some 500 did show up for the first protest, but most were Jewish left-wing activists.

A rather more interesting alliance is being forged between the residents of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, who are also feeling elbowed out by the wealthy. During our meeting last week, suddenly Kalboni and Bukhari were summoned to a spontaneous protest organized in the evening by residents of Kfar Shalem.

One is compelled to wonder where the residents of Kfar Shalem will be the next time there is a protest in Jaffa.