Diplomatic briefcases are unlikely to be dropped at news of Condoleezza Rice’s call, on the eve of the Riyadh summit, for Arab states to “reach out to Israel” and show they accept it. Israel’s insistence that negotiators begin by accepting its right to exist has already pushed normalisation up the political agenda.
The desire to become a nation like any other is strong among war-weary Israelis. The problem for Palestinians is that normalising relations with Israel also means normalising an ongoing occupation, the circumstances which led up to it, and the racism that engendered within Israel. And that’s before negotiations even start.
For secular Zionists though, the dream of becoming an ordinary nation with its own Jewish football hooligans and Jewish riot squads has deep roots. Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, believed that attaining statehood would be a guarantor of acceptance by gentile society. He may have been right, but it came at a price. In mandate Palestine, Jews constituted little more than 30% of the population and owned just 6% of its land. The statehood endeavour involved the brutal dispossession of another people.
It may have been the harshness of this reality that fostered a strain of naivety among secular Ashkenazi halutzim (pioneers). In Altneuland, Herzl himself imagined a future state where a proud Ottoman Muslim called Rashid Bey would embrace the Zionist enterprise and join his Jewish friends on sightseeing tours.
During one visit to the Valley of Jezreel, Herzl had Bey point out flourishing Arab villages and exclaim that they were impoverished hamlets before the advent of the Jews. “Would you call a man a robber who takes nothing from you, but brings you something instead?” Bey asks. “The Jews have enriched us.”
Herzl’s vision has now passed. But a “look at the pretty flowers” tradition of argument in Zionism continues. Last year, in the wake of the Lebanon war, Israel’s foreign minister Tzippi Livni launched a public relations campaign to spread a “more inviting” image of Israel abroad. Its fruits were on display during last week’s normalised coverage of the Israel-England football match, and in the news that Israel’s US consulate had successfully persuaded Maxim magazine to promote tourism by publishing a feature about the country’s stunning models. Maxim is now reportedly sending a team of top photographers to the beaches of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
While they are there, perhaps they will incidentally record what could be the final days of the 497 residential properties that are slated for demolition in Ajami, Jaffa’s last predominantly Arab district. According to Fady Shbita of the Arab-Jewish Sadaka-Reut (“Friendship”) organisation, as many as 2,000 people could be affected.
“There will be a serious struggle over this because it will change the whole structure of Jaffa if it succeeds,” he told me. “I would characterise it as a combination of ethnic cleansing or transfer and gentrification.” Most people in Ajami just call it ethnic cleansing.
The Palestinian-Israelis who live in Ajami will not be re-housed in Tel Aviv. Even if they could afford the rents here, it’s all but unheard of for Arabs to live in most parts of the city. They won’t receive compensation either, as they have technically been living in Ajami ‘illegally’ for decades. Before 1948, more than 70,000 Palestinians lived in Jaffa. During the Naqba, the majority fled and were not allowed to return. Under the Absentee Property Act of 1950, their abandoned houses were seized by the new Israeli state and rented to Jews. The few Arabs who remained were concentrated behind a fence in Ajami.
But times change. The fence came down and, in the 1970s, when beachfront property prices began to rise, Tel Aviv’s Mayor, Shlomo “Cheech” Lahat, announced a policy of “Judaising” Jaffa. Building permits in Ajami were frozen and ongoing demolitions funnelled residents into the slums of Lyd and Ramle. Many of the 15,000-20,000 Palestinian-Israelis who stayed in Jaffa were forced to build extensions to their family houses without permits. This practice is now being used as the excuse by the Israeli Lands Authority, a state actor which owns the properties for a new wave of the sort of soulless gentrification and transfer that has hollowed out Jaffa’s old town.
Much of the land reclaimed by house demolitions invariably gets sold on for luxury developments like the gated community of Andromeda Hill, “a virtual ‘city within a city’ surrounded by a wall and secured 24 hours a day,” according to its website. Local residents complain that Andromeda Hill was built on land which was formerly owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate “so that rich Jews can enjoy the magic of the sunset in Jaffa without seeing Arabs”.
The Jaffa sunset can be truly spectacular but Israel’s PR machine is unlikely to encourage photographers to wander the few yards down the road necessary to capture it from Ajami. In this part of the world, beneath the flowers of normalisation lies the rubble of demolished houses.
ARTHUR NESLEN is a journalist working in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Aljazeera.net and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and Red Pepper. His first book, Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche, was recently published by Pluto Press.