The ground floor of Zaki Khimayl’s home is a cafe where patrons can drink mint tea or fresh juice as they smoke on a water pipe. Located by Jaffa’s beach, a stone’s throw from Tel Aviv, the business should be thriving.
Mr Khimayl, however, like hundreds of other families in the Arab neighbourhoods of Ajami and Jabaliya, is up to his eyes in debt and trapped in a world of bureaucratic regulations apparently designed with only one end in mind: his eviction from Jaffa.
Sitting on the cafe’s balcony, Mr Khimayl, 59, said he feels besieged. Bulldozers are tearing up the land by the beach for redevelopment and luxury apartments are springing up all around his dilapidated two-storey home.
He opened a briefcase, one of five he has stuffed with demands and fines from official bodies, as well as bills from four lawyers dealing with the flood of paperwork.
“I owe 1.8 million shekels [$500,000] in water and business rates alone,” he said in exasperation. “The crazy thing is the municipality recently valued the property and told me it’s worth much less than the sum I owe.”
Jaffa is one of half a dozen “mixed cities” in Israel, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens supposedly live together. The rest of Israel’s Palestinian minority, relatives of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, live in their own separate and deprived communities.
Despite the image of coexistence cultivated by the Israeli authorities, Jaffa is far from offering a shared space for Jews and Palestinians, according to Sami Shehadeh of the Popular Committee for the Defence of Jaffa’s Homes. Instead, Palestinian residents live in their own largely segregated neighbourhoods, especially Ajami, the city’s poorest district.
Only last month, Mr Shehadeh said, the Jewish residents’ committees proposed creating days when the municipal pool could be used only by Jews.
Although Jaffa’s 18,000 Palestinian residents constitute one-third of the city’s population, they have been left powerless politically since a municipal fusion with Jaffa’s much larger neighbour, Tel Aviv, in 1950. Of the cities’ joint population, Palestinians are just three per cent.
After years of neglect, Mr Shehadeh said, the residents are finally attracting attention from the authorities – but the interest is far from benign. A “renewal plan” for Jaffa, ostensibly designed to improve the inhabitants’ quality of life, is in fact seeking the Palestinian residents’ removal on the harshest terms possible, he said.
“The municipality talks a lot about ‘developing’ and ‘rehabilitating’ the area, but what it means by development is attracting wealthy Jews looking to live close by Tel Aviv but within view of the sea,” he said.
“The Palestinian residents here are simply seen as an obstacle to the plan, so they are being evicted from their homes under any pretext that can be devised.
“Some of the families have lived in these homes since well before the state of Israel was established, and yet they are being left with nothing.”
The current pressure on the residents to leave Ajami has painful echoes of the 1948 war that followed Israel’s declaration of its existence. Once, Jaffa was the most powerful city in Palestine, its wealth derived from the area’s huge orange exports.
As Israeli historians have noted, however, one of the Jewish leadership’s main aims in the 1948 war was the expulsion of the Palestinian population from Jaffa, especially given its proximity to Tel Aviv, the new Jewish state’s largest city.
Ilan Pappe, an historian, writes that the people of Jaffa were “literally pushed into the sea” to board fishing boats destined for Gaza as “Jewish troops shot over their heads to hasten their expulsion”.
By the end of the war, no more than 4,000 of Jaffa’s 70,000 Palestinians remained. The Israeli government nationalised all their property and corralled the residents into the Ajami neighbourhood, south of Jaffa port. For two years they were sealed off from the rest of Jaffa behind barbed wire.
In the meantime, Jaffa’s properties were either demolished or redistributed to new Jewish immigrants. The heart of old Jaffa, next to the port, was developed as a touristic playground, with palatial Palestinian homes turned into exclusive restaurants and art galleries run by Jewish entrepreneurs.
The Ajami district, on the other hand, was quickly transformed from a distinguished neighbourhood of Jaffa into its most deprived area, which became a magnet for crime and drugs. “The municipality showed its disdain for us by dumping all the city’s waste, even dangerous chemicals, on our beach,” Mr Shehadeh said.
The residents – even those who continued to live in their families’ original homes – lost their status as owners and overnight became tenants in confiscated property, forced to pay rent to a state-controlled company, Amidar.
Today, Amidar wants the families out to make way for wealthy Jewish investors and real estate developers.
Over the past 18 months, it has issued 497 eviction orders against Ajami families, threatening to make 3,000 people homeless.
“The problem for the families is that for six decades they have been ignored,” said Mr Shehadeh, who is standing in the local elections to the council next month.
“Four-fifths of Ajami’s population is Palestinian and no investments were made by the municipality. Amidar refused to renovate the homes, and the planning authorities refused to issue permits to the families to build new properties or alter existing ones.”
Faced with crumbling old homes and growing families, the residents had little choice but to fix and extend their properties themselves. Now years, sometimes decades, later Amidar is using these alterations as grounds for eviction, arguing that the residents have broken the terms of their rental agreements.
Mental Lahavi, vice-chairman of the local building and planning committee, recently admitted to the local media: “The municipality froze all [building] permits in the area for a long period and would not even let people replace an asbestos roof. They turned all the residents of the neighbourhood into offenders.”
Mr Khimayl has amassed large debts because he used parts of his home that, according to Amidar, were not covered by his contract – even though the house has been owned by his family since 1902.
Amidar has also been waging a legal battle over a minor alteration he made to the property.
Many years ago, Mr Khimayl rebuilt the dangerous external stone steps that provided the only access to the house’s second floor. In 2005, Amidar inspectors told him he had broken the terms of his contract and should remove the new steps.
Unable to reach his home in any other way, he replaced the stone steps with a metal staircase. Another inspector declared the staircase a violation of the agreement, too.
Mr Khimayl is currently using a metal staircase on wheels, arguing that the moveable steps are not a permanent alteration. Nonetheless, Amidar is pursuing him through the courts. Other families face similar problems.
A recent report by the Human Rights Association in Nazareth concluded the government was seeking to use a “quiet” form of ethnic cleansing, using administrative and legal pressure, to make Jaffa entirely Jewish.
Amidar has said it is simply upholding the law. “In cases in which the law has been broken, the company acts to protect the state’s rights, regardless of the value of the property or the religion or nationality of the tenants.”
JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
This article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.