A fight for the future of Acre’s Old City

With artists’ quarter in the works, some locals are optimistic about progress, while others worry it will only benefit tourists.

El-Jazzar Mosque (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
El-Jazzar Mosque
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For 30 years Shimon Malka has been the only Jewish storekeeper in Acre’s Old City market, running a business that has belonged to his family for more than half a century.
He sells an assortment of spices, dried fruits, canned goods and other items one might find in a corner store.
Malka lives outside of the old city and says his relationship with both Arab and Jewish customers is good and that business and tourism have remained stable for years.
When asked about his relations with the Arab shop owners, he appears hesitant but says, “everything is ok.” He does not want any problems. According to Malka, when there is a Jewish boycott of the market it negatively impacts his business.
The Old City of Acre can trace its history through periods of Jewish, Roman, Greek, Muslim and Crusader rule. It was a base for the Romans when they put down the Jewish revolt of 66 CE and was later conquered by the Persians in 614, the Arabs in 638, and the Crusaders in 1104 – who named it St. Jean d’Acre.
In 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 1,500-year-old ceramic stamp seal near Acre with the image of a seven-branched Temple Menorah. It is presumed to have been used to identify kosher bread. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (known both as Maimonides and the Rambam) passed through Acre’s port upon his arrival in Israel.
Today, its permanent residents are mostly Arab, though many shoppers are Jews and foreign tourists.
It was not always this way, but most Jews sold their property and moved out to the modern city of Acre and its sprawling neighborhoods.
In an attempt to increase tourism the Old City has developed a multilingual website as well as the new boutique hotel, Efendi. The dingy feel of the place mixes with elegant restaurants and modern structures.
Walking through the maze of alleyways, Arabic is the language most spoken, and the central market has a definite Arab feel to it. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, almost 100 percent of the residents of the Old City are Arabs, as is about one-fifth of the entire city’s population. But on Fridays it is packed with residents from Acre and other towns, evenly split between Arabs and Jews.
The strong smell of fish pervades the surrounding streets and the adjacent port area.
Lawrence, an Arab merchant in a stall across from Shimon Malka, tells the Post that tourism has picked up a little, but that people are not buying much. He thinks plans to develop the Old City are a good idea and says for the right price, he would sell his shop.
Ali Ahmed, the Arab owner of a kiosk at the edge of the Old City market, says business is not great, “but if I had a humous restaurant, then things would be good.”
“You would need to move a lot of people in order to [develop the city],” he says, adding, “It would be good to bring more Jews and more money.”
Yossi Moshe – who immigrated to Israel when he was three and a half from Basra, Iraq – says the last Jewish boycott of the market took place in 2008. During the second intifada in 2000, Jews boycotted Arab businesses as well as the Old City.
Moshe grew up in the Old City – which today looks almost the same as when he was a child – and has lived in Acre for 62 years. He says that when his father sold vegetables at the market “there were some Jews living there, but over time they left for the new neighborhoods,” which include larger houses.
He did not have any real Arab friends, but remembers playing with Arab children in the streets.
“Most of the problems at that time were not between Jews and Arabs but among the Arabs themselves,” he notes.
At some point, he says, many Jewish residents left Acre for Nahariya, which is not a mixed Arab-Jewish town like Acre.
An Arab resident of the Old City tells the Post that “artistic types are moving in and remodeling the old buildings. People are paying around $350,000 for a property with a view of the sea.”
In 2011, the Hesder Yeshiva (affiliated with the national religious movement), opened a new building so its followers could settle in Acre.
The website of Tarabut, an Arab-Jewish organization for social and political change, criticizes the developments in Acre and its plan for an artists’ quarter in the Old City.
“This is ‘development’ that is not geared toward the benefit of the inhabitants living in the city, Jews and Arabs, but toward the benefit of future settlers, real estate investors and tourists. There are good reasons to rise up and oppose this process – before it’s too late,” the group’s site states.
Sami Hawary, the general manager of Al-Yater Association for Social and Cultural Promotion-Acre, which is supported by the New Israel Fund, wrote the Post, "Our organization manages a project called 'Acre our Home,' to protect the rights of housing and planning in Acre.
"First, I want to emphasize that we the Arab citizens of Acre support the development efforts of the city and we want to be an integral part of these efforts from the early stages of planning to the implementation of the ideas. Our requirement is that the development of the city will not be at our expense."
The statement went on to argue that according to the current system, only large contractors or large companies have the option to buy property.
"We are opposed to any forced evacuation of occupants and call on the authorities to speak with the residents and try to cooperate with them instead of dictating actions," read the statement.
Acre Municipality spokesman Sharon Dahan, says there are no plans to “bring or not to bring more Jews” to the Old City, whoever has the money and wants to buy, can buy.
David Harari, who is responsible for tourism in Acre, says the city is a model when it comes to success in developing tourism.
“Other places in the country come to Acre to speak to us. We are a flagship,” he says.
Harari rolls off a mind-numbing amount of facts off the top of his head, one of which is that the marina has just been remodeled. A number of other projects are planned, such as fixing up run-down parts of the Old City.
In terms of numbers, Harari says 100,000 tourists visit Acre annually.
In September 1993, when he started working for the municipality, the city sold 24,000 tickets a year to tourist attractions, and today they sell 400,000. The tourism industry has become very important for the city, providing 1,855 places of business, he says.
Harari explains that 6% of properties in the old city are privately owned, 15% are owned by the Islamic Waqf, and 91% by the state.
As to tensions between Arabs and Jews, he plays down any problems stating, “There are 17,000 Arabs in [greater] Acre, 4,500 in the Old City, and they have moved to the new parts of Acre in order to live next to Jews because they want to live a better life.”
Ben Mayost, the CEO of the Economic Company of Acre, a municipality-owned entity seeking to develop the Old City and attract wealthy investors, says he does not want to change the city’s character.
“We want to keep Acre’s soul, its soul is its ethnic traditional people, it is part of the scenery and essence of the city, not just a headline that I am telling you,” he said.
Mayost said many of the crumbling walls in the Old City are covered with temporary paste. Renovation, he explains, is expensive and so he sees only two options to deal with the issue: either have people turn their homes into small businesses, or bring in wealthy investors to fix and maintain the buildings.
“There is a market failure in Acre,” Mayost emphasized, saying that business investors are needed “to pave the road for others, doing things that people who live here cannot do.”
He adds, “Investors will not invest unless they feel their investment is a safe one.” It is his job to advise these investors.
A main sticking point is that 80% of the residents in the Old City are “protected tenants,” but, he says, “we do not want people in the Old City to move, we want them to take responsibility of assets and not depend on the state to do it for them.”
The state’s plan is to sell the property rights to the protected tenants’s dwellings which are on state property.
In the last three to four years, Mayost says, the pace has begun to pick up. If homeowners want to start a small business out of their homes, they need to own the property and get the proper licenses. Bed-and-breakfasts, boutique hotels and restaurants are the perfect business options for local homeowners to go into, he advised.
As to the Jewish-Arab tensions in the city, he believes it’s largely a media-made issue, which has been exaggerated.
“The media is always writing the same stories, interviewing the one person [Sami Hawary], who is a one-man NGO, always saying the same things because that is the way he gets funds,” he says.
He continues, somewhat heatedly, “When there is no conflict, there is no need to bring money. What has he done in the past five years, name one project?” Responding to a question about the new yeshiva, Mayost retorts, “The yeshiva is doing good work, but since when has it been the representative of Jews in Acre? There are 35,000 Jews in Acre and less than 500 in the yeshiva.”
He goes on to counter any discrimination in the way the development project is being carried out. He said every businessman – whatever their religion – receives the same assistance.
“We are not dealing with old politics, we are in a different era,” concluded Mayost.