Squatters in Their Own Home

Arab residents of Old Acre have an eviction order hanging over their heads. The authorities want them out so the properties can go to interested outsiders, they say

Eight-year-old Jamil Haladi gets up late during the summer. With bleary blue eyes, the same color as the peeling walls in the living room of his parents home, which Jamil and his parents share as a bedroom, he asks his mother, Amuna, about the journalists who have come to visit.

"Mom, have they come to take our house?"

The family has received an eviction notice, as have dozens of families in the Old City of Acre, and Jamil is scared that at any moment officials from the Amidar government housing will show up with the police to force his family out of the house, as happened to their neighbors a few weeks ago.

The Haladi family has six members, who live in a protected apartment that is defined as absentee property - property left by the Palestinians who fled in 1948 when the state was established, and they hve since been considered absentee landlords. Their property was transferred to the Custodian General and later to the Old Acre Development Authority. Today their home falls under the auspices of the Israel Lands Administration, which took over from the development authority, and in practice is administered by Amidar. The residents of the area's properties have certain ownership rights and pay rent of several dozen shekels to several hundred shekels a month. In addition, the state participates in half the cost of external renovations.

Unprotected tenants

The Haladi family is defined as having "squatted" in their home, according to Amidar. In fact, Jamil's father, Bilal, was born in the house and so were his children. His father lived there till he died in the year 2000. At the end of the 1980s, the family moved into a smaller neighboring apartment and bought key money rights there. The family grew bigger, and the local Amidar official suggested they build another unit on the roof.

"I am not educated, and I don't know how to read Hebrew," Amuna says. "I said, 'If he suggests this, he must know. ' We tore down the roof and wanted to build another story but in the end, the Antiquities Authority didn't give us a permit." The roof was rebuilt but, as the law demands, the family was required to pay the costs - NIS 18,000 - a sum they have not yet paid since they live on a National Insurance Institute allowance.

Because of overcrowding, the family went back to live with the grandfather in the larger apartment. Simultaneously, and without their knowledge, the small apartment they had acquired with key money was defined as unoccupied, and an eviction order was issued.

"I don't understand all the documents," says Amuna. "I used to go to pay the rent and every time they gave me another paper. One time it was for my father-in-law's apartment and another time for mine." When the grandfather died, the family tried to arrange its rights to the larger apartment but their request was turned down because they already had rights, so it seemed, to the smaller apartment and could not be considered as continuing to live in the grandfather's apartment according to Amidar's criteria. They were also left with the debt from fixing the roof.

"We suggested we would give up our rights to the small apartment, that we would pay the difference [between the bigger apartment] and the key money [apartment] and get rights to my father-in-law's apartment," she says. For this, she says, Amidar wanted some NIS 80,000.

"I turned to the banks," says Amuna, "but no bank would give me a loan because we have no income. I sold my jewelry, but that was not enough."

Now Amidar is demanding the family forgo the rights of protected tenants in both apartments and take on a rental contract, which means they are no longer protected tenants. Amidar says there is indeed an eviction order against the family "that was issued during a legal procedure because the family has no rights to the property. They moved into the father's home after he died, without authority." The housing company adds that "the family owes the state money since the tenants did not pay their rent or for the renovation. It must be pointed out that the debts that have accumulated from the time of the [grandfather] are passed on to the heirs if and when they are recognized as protected tenants in the [grandfather's] property where they are living today."

The neighborhood tenants are convinced this situation is part of a policy to evict Arab residents to make room for a Jewish national-religious population and building entrepreneurs, like in Jaffa. Several factors strengthen their fears - the appearance in the neighborhood of the Ayalim association, whose aim is setting up residental groups of young people in the Galilee and Negev [though not necessarily of just Jews]; the establishment of a hesder yeshiva; and the remarks of Mayor Shimon Lankari a month ago to the effect that the Arabs were causing the Jews to flee and therefore more Jews had to be brought in. And still felt are the clashes of last Yom Kippur between Arab and Jewish residents.

Nowhere to go

From afar, even before one reaches the entrance to the port, the Old City of Acre stands out with its Ottoman-period stone buildings and palm trees. Children on bicycles sell pitta bread, and the alleyways leading to homes suggest a dark labyrinth.

The Abassi family lives in one of these alleys, in a basement that serves as a makeshift apartment. Even though it was painted three months ago, dampness makes the walls peel. They are facing an eviction order, but do not want to leave. "There is nowhere to go," the mother, Priel, says. Her father gave up his rights so she would have rights but, she claims, Amidar does not accept this. Amidar responds: "The file has been sent to the committee for key money headed by Amidar and the Israel Lands Administration to see whether they can be recognized as protected tenants - subject to the payment, according to the law, they must make to Amidar for its part of the property." Meanwhile the eviction order is still in force.

Some 6,000 Arab residents live in Acre's Old City. The NII supports 40 percent of them with NIS 2,300 per month. Many of the Arab residents do not speak Hebrew, and some of them cannot read or write, "and this leads to a lack of awarenees of their situation and rights and certainly makes it more difficult for them to go the authorities and the courts," states a paper prepared by the Legal Clinic for Law and Social Change at Haifa University.

Another issue is the Lands Administration's decision to get rid of the properties and put them up for sale. There is hardly a tenant who can afford to buy or get a bank loan so the ILA is marketing the properties in an open tender to outsiders.

Fahri Albashtawi, who head a local residents committee, wants the state to offer loans with easy terms so residents will be able to pay them back."

Amidar says it clearly has has no intention of evicting anyone. "Amidar prefers to reach compromise agreements and payment arrangements and not to evict because of a debt, as far as possible and in accordance with the law," says the company.

But attorney Orly Ariav of the legal clinic, who is representing the Haladi family, says that if there is a court ruling, it is extremely difficult to go against it, even if Amidar wishes to do so.

Meanwhile, she says, the tenants have the threat of eviction over their heads. A position paper from the clinic sent to the ILA and the Knesset Finance Committee, proposes that an inter-ministerial committee be set up similar to the one set up to settle the problems of the Bedouin communities in the Negev, and that it decide on the rights of the tenants.

"These places have historic and cultural value, they are not just a roof over their heads," says attorney Ronit Haramati-Alpern, who heads the clinic. "This is a very important point in time to find a solution before they begin evicting people in a dramatic way because even if the situation does not look like that, there is a fear Acre could in the long run be left without its Arab population."

Amidar: A vicious rumor

When Amidar was asked about the issue of absentee property, it addressed the public housing issue though it did not refer to the properties discussed here. It said it did not have information about the time set for eviction orders and that vicious rumors are being spread about eviction of the entire compound of Acre's Old City - "to incite the area's residents who live there legally, so a handful of illegal squatters will not be evicted. In the past 10 or 20 years there have not been tenders for public housing in the Old City of Acre for those who are entitled to public housing. A number of tenders for vacant properties of the development authority were bought by members of the minorities. The sale of apartments on the basis of the Public Housing Law is carried out for protected tenants who are living in the property according to the law.

"The sale to protected tenants is on the basis of 26 percent of the value of the property. Most of the tenants who have been living in the apartments for years never even paid key money according to the law, and therefore the cost of every apartment is between NIS 50,000 and NIS 60,000 - a price that can be defined as a gift from the state to its citizens.

"As for renovations, these are [done] at the lowest possible cost and according to tenders the company publishes. To carry out the renovations, the tenants are required to pay a total of 50 percent of the basic cost of the repairs. This sum constitutes a total of 20 percent of the full repairs costs,as demanded by the Antiquities Authority. This compound in Acre's Old City has been defined as, and declared, an antiquities site also by UNESCO. It should be stressed the repairs also raise the value of the properties to the benefit of the residents."