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 neighborhoods
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 felt besieged. Bulldozers
are tearing up the land by the beach for redevelopment and luxury apartments
are springing up all around his dilapidated two-story 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
"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 Defense of Jaffa's Homes. Instead,
Palestinian residents live in their own largely segregated neighborhoods, 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 neighbor, Tel Aviv, in 1950. Of the cities'
joint population, Palestinians are just three percent.
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
"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
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 nationalized all their property and corralled the residents
into the Ajami neighborhood, 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
neighborhood 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
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 neighborhood 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
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."
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.