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The delicate balance of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Jaffa could soon shatter if plans go forward to construct homes for national-religious Jews in a predominantly Arab neighborhood, sources in the Tel Aviv Municipality told The Jerusalem Post this week.
The Bemuna company has been accused of pursuing a racist agenda, aimed at diluting Arab Israeli population centers by establishing national-religious communities in the heart of Arab neighborhoods.
But Bemuna (Hebrew for 'with faith'), which is active in mixed cities such as Ramle, Lod and Acre, denies the allegations, saying it is merely interested in establishing "residential neighborhoods for the national religious public," and in improving run-down areas plagued with crime and drugs.
To the ire of local residents and the Tel Aviv Municipality alike, Bemuna won two land sale tenders recently from the Israel Lands Administration, in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood.
Bemuna immediately announced plans to build housing units open to sale only to national Orthodox Jews. The resulting wave of opposition saw ILA cancel one of the tenders earlier this week, to the relief of Kamal Agbehia, chairman of the Ajami residents committee.
Agbehia has spearheaded efforts to block Bemuna's entrance to the neighborhood. "I'm certainly happy about the cancellation of the second tender," he told the Post on Wednesday. "We have been asking Tel Aviv's mayor [Ron Huldai] to stop this. He met with Minorities Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman, and they both then met with the chairman of the Israel Lands Administration, Yaron Bibi. This produced the cancellation."
Agbehia stressed he had nothing against Jews coming to live in Jaffa (it already has a clear Jewish majority). "But this group has etched on its flag the goal of getting rid of Arabs.
"They believe that to liberate Jerusalem, one must liberate Jaffa. This has set off alarms," he said.
"We understand they want 200 housing units in the heart of Ajami," he continued. "This is not a Jew versus Arab story, but a sane camp of Arab and Jewish moderates who want to safeguard a delicate coexistence against an insane camp which wants to enter Ajami."
"Tensions are already rising," Agbehia warned. "We believe settlers are coming to Jaffa. We won't rest on our laurels. We want to alert the residents here to the existential threat posed by the arrival of the settlers. We are fighting for our home."
Agbehia said that if his campaign failed, Jaffa's poorer Arab population, already struggling to find housing, might respond violently.
"This is a zero sum game. Usually life is not black and white - this situation is black and white," he said.
Yehoshua Mor-Yossef, of Bemuna, told the Post the construction project was simply about "Jews going back to the place where they lived 40 years ago."
"We don't want to get rid of anyone," he said. "Experience teaches that everyone is benefited when Jews enter an area. In drug- and crime-ridden Lod, we went into action, and we're helping to clean up the area."
"We have an agenda that Jews should live in Israel. This is not racist. It's the normal thing to do for a nation that returns to its homeland," he said.
Mor-Yossef said there was nothing wrong with offering buildings to sale for national-religious Jews only, adding that Bemuna was considering a petition to the High Court of Justice against the cancellation of the second tender.
"We're looking for more investments to buy more lands we located in Jaffa," he continued.
"We are coming to live as good neighbors. If things get violent, the police and government are there to handle those who do not wish to be good neighbors."
Gilad Peleg, head of the Jaffa Development Authority in the Tel Aviv Municipality, said he was "deeply concerned over the activity of extreme organizations who come from outside of Jaffa and who shake up the local community. The Arab and Jewish communities of Jaffa are very moderate, and are looking for a quiet life. There have been attempts by extreme elements from both sides to exploit existing tensions and to capitalize politically on them."
Peleg said the municipality would do everything in its power to maintain the status quo of coexistence in Jaffa, where Jewish and Arab children attend the same schools, and sometimes live in the same apartment buildings.
Gil Ganmor, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said his organization has filed a High Court petition against Bemuna's activities in Jaffa.
"We believe the phenomenon of private contractors taking public land and selling it only to a certain community has to stop," Ganmor said.
"Our opposition on this is universal, and it is directed against any group which engages in such action, whether they are setting up neighborhoods for hi-tech employees only, or for the national-religious," he added.
The association has taken legal action against previous attempts to build residential areas exclusively for hi-tech employees in north Tel Aviv.
Ganmor said Jaffa's housing problem and years of neglect of its Arab population by the authorities had exasperated the current state of affairs.