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(photo credit: Mati Milstein)
'Gush Katif without compensation" is how onlookers described the forced eviction of residents from southeastern Tel Aviv's Kfar Shalem neighborhood last week.
Houses on a four-dunam (one acre) plot of land near the intersection of Moshe Dayan and Machal Streets were demolished last Tuesday after years of legal wrangling and unresolved differences.
According to Dr. Gerardo Leibner, a history professor at Tel Aviv University who lives near the evacuated compound, shortly after Israel's independence was declared in 1948, the Jewish Agency brought new immigrants from Yemen to a Tel Aviv neighborhood formerly known as Salame, which had previously been populated by Arabs. The new immigrants were placed in the existing homes and the neighborhood was renamed Kfar Shalem.
Following the passage of Absentee Property laws in the early 1950s, Kfar Shalem was declared state property and the Israel Lands Authority assumed control of the area, along with the Housing Ministry. After some years, responsibility for Kfar Shalem was transferred to Amidar, a company that oversees rent-controlled housing. Contracts were signed and for decades residents paid a price-controlled rent of some NIS 30 each month to Amidar, as well as municipality tax each month.
In the 1990s, Leibner explains, eviction notices were given to 30 families - many of them the descendants of the Yemenite immigrants who arrived in Israel almost 60 years ago and were taken to Kfar Shalem - and who until last week resided on the four dunams that were evacuated. They were told that while the rest of the land in the complex was controlled either by the Israel Lands Authority or the Tel Aviv Municipality, those four dunams were purchased by a land developer two decades ago and are privately owned. At present, Ruma Efrati, whose husband purchased the land and later bequeathed it to her, wants to start construction and has reissued eviction notices.
According to social activist Einat Podjarny, several evacuations have taken place in Kfar Shalem in recent decades. In 1965, the government proposed a construction-evacuation law recognizing residents' rights to compensation. Since 1965, hundreds of families have been evicted and compensated, though this has not always gone smoothly. In 1983, police officers shot and killed a resident protesting the proceedings.
Individuals who resided on the four dunams in question are confused and angry. They have paid rent to Amidar for decades and are now being told that the land that they live on was actually sold to private investors decades ago. The fact that they are being told that they must leave their family homes and that no one is willing to discuss compensation or alternate housing for them has left them feeling frustrated and dejected.
Speaking at a Knesset Economic Affairs Committee meeting on the forced evictions of impoverished neighborhoods, MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) said that the Public Housing Law stipulates that people who live in a specified residence for decades have at least partial rights of possession.
Kfar Shalem residents believe that they should be fairly compensated with commensurate apartments or houses in close proximity to the home they were forced to leave, especially in light of the fact that the state placed them there.
According to Leibner, when Efrati purchased the land, government authorities classified the compound as "inhabited," and therefore the evicted residents deserve a just compensation deal.
Kfar Shalem residents have appealed to various authorities, including Amidar, the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Knesset and even the Supreme Court in an effort to resolve the matter. According to prominent Kfar Shalem figure Dudi Balassi, neighborhood residents have spent hundreds of thousands of shekels on legal fees in an effort to remain in their homes. He said that the last court battle determined that residents could not be evicted from Amidar and municipality-controlled land, but that the four privately owned dunams are a separate matter. The courts have stipulated that as landowner, Efrati has the right to evict the residents.
Efrati's attorney, Moshe Herzog, told Channel 2 that his client's late husband legally purchased the land two decades ago, and later transferred the land registry to his wife. Herzog claims that the current residents of Kfar Shalem are squatters who moved into the homes in question in the 1990s in an effort to try to gain future compensation payments.
According to the MK, residents should not be evicted until both collective and private agreements are reached. But evicted residents say that state authorities are shirking responsibility for compensation payments, as they claim that since the land is privately owned it is not up to them to provide reparations.
"We don't want castles, we just want a roof over our heads," Balassi said on the eve of the eviction. He clarified that those evicted are not demanding financial compensation, but rather a home or apartment near their homes that were razed. Balassi spoke to the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on the matter, saying that when he met with Amidar's director, he was told that the company was not responsible for the four-dunam complex, which he found infuriating, as he and other residents continued to pay rent to the housing company.
"We did nothing wrong. Why did settlers living in occupied land get compensated? The state brought our families here in 1948. If they're evicting us, why can't we be compensated?" a resident asked.
Podjarny explains that the residents are in a difficult legal bind, as Efrati has documents proving that the land was purchased from a private citizen, who has since passed away.
On the night preceding the eviction, Balassi described residents of the compound as "emotionally and financially drained." He expressed his disappointment and bitterness with the State of Israel, calling the government corrupt and the legal system unfair.
He discussed the conditions that he and his neighbors live in, pointing out the fact that the municipality and state never put a proper sewage system in place and that they still use septic tanks.
Residents are cognizant of the fact that real estate prices in Tel Aviv have skyrocketed in recent years and that the land they live on is very valuable. Chen Cohen heads the nearby Neveh Sha'anan Residents' Council and fears that he, too, will be evicted in the future. He believes that the evictions are an ethnic matter. "In the 1940s, Ashkenazi Jews were sent out to the kibbutzim and were considered pioneers. We were directed to these neighborhoods. The government bailed the kibbutzim out of millions of shekels of debt, and now it doesn't even want to compensate us. These days, kibbutzim are privatized, they sell and rent out their land and make millions of shekels. The government isn't taking responsibility for its citizens," Cohen tells Metro.
Balassi says he was determined to thwart the evictions and spoke to the Tel Aviv Municipality Attorney General, who told him that his proposal to alter the land registry could not be enacted. He spoke to Councilwoman Yael Dayan, who tried to draft a statement proposing a delay in the eviction for humanitarian reasons, but, according to Balassi, Deputy Mayor Doron Sapir refused to sign the document.
On the night preceding the evacuation, residents gathered in one of the houses that was later razed. They complained bitterly that the municipality sent representatives from the veterinary department to ensure the safety of cats and dogs in the area following the evacuation, but that no one was taking responsibility for the people slated to be uprooted from their homes. To this, Leibner says, the municipality is continuing its tradition of neglecting residents of Kfar Shalem, sometimes referred to as "Tel Aviv's backyard." The municipality said that members of its Social Services Department went to the area to aid the families and provide any assistance possible.
The municipality has also completely disassociated itself from the evictions and demolitions, saying it cannot prevent them because the developers are free to do as they please on privately owned land. The municipality went on to tell Metro that the evictions were carried out in accordance with court orders following legal proceedings that lasted upwards of a decade.
The courts are currently discussing the matter of compensation, according to the municipality, though Efrati's attorney said that no payments were offered because providing compensation to 30 families would amount to six times the value of the property.
Meanwhile, police officers arrived at the compound on the night prior to the evacuation and arrested four residents, among them three youths and one adult. The four were charged with "intent to create public disturbance" and were later accused of having a small amount of marijuana in their possession.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, hundreds of regular police officers and special forces arrived at the compound and started ushering the residents and protesters out. Angry social activists yelled at police officers evacuating the houses, shouting that their job was to protect and serve citizens who had been residing there for 40 to 50 years rather than serve the interests of a wealthy real estate developer. Security forces forcibly removed the residents and protesters, arresting three people, two of them activists.
Nearby residents assembled outside the compound as violent confrontations took place between protesters and the Yasam special forces, who were described as particularly aggressive. The latter, according to protesters and photographers present, had removed their identification tags and refused protesters' demands that they identify themselves.
"This is the second Gush Katif," nearby residents said of the forced removal of their friends, alluding to the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip in August 2005. "What is this? Gush Katif without compensation? You're throwing them out on the streets!" they shouted at police officers.
By 10 a.m., an Electric Company technician had arrived on the premises to cut off electricity in the homes slated for evacuation. Shortly thereafter, a moving truck arrived and porters began hauling out evicted residents' furniture and possessions. At 10:30 a.m. a bulldozer tore through the asbestos fence surrounding the compound and started razing the shacks inside.
Efrati's attorney commended the police for doing an admirable job ensuring that the private property remains in the hands of its owners and is not seized by squatters.
On the day their homes were razed, residents were unsure what they would do or where they would go. They said they felt helpless in the face of a real estate developer they had never met and municipal and government authorities that removed themselves from their plight.
While watching police officers evacuate Kfar Shalem residents, Cohen, of the Neveh Sha'anan Residents' Council, said that law enforcement officials should be investigating why his friends were paying rent when the land was privately owned, why they didn't know the status of the land, and how Efrati even came to own the property.
According to Balassi, the actual evictions were not what embittered him and his compatriots, but rather the manner in which they were carried out. He brought up the matter of ethnicity, reiterating that Sephardim and Yemenites were mistreated in Israel.
In the days following the evacuation, the evicted residents set up tents outside the compound that had been cleared, adjacent to the local synagogue. According to Balassi, some sleep in the tents, some sleep among the ruins and some have found relatives willing to host them. Balassi says that they will not give up, they will keep demonstrating and appealing to the government in an effort to get what they believe they rightly deserve, though, he admits, "Talking to government officials is like talking to the wall. Actually, talking to the wall is more effective."