Is Jaffa the next Sheikh Jarrah? -opinion

Polls show that the Arab community is disappointed, angry and unmotivated to vote. But they also understand what is at stake. Grassroots campaigns are underway to encourage voting, which is crucial.

 MK SAMI Abu Shehadeh of the Joint List (wearing a jacket) poses at a meeting he chaired in the Knesset recently on the issue of Jaffa evictions. (photo credit: ELANA SZTOKMAN)
MK SAMI Abu Shehadeh of the Joint List (wearing a jacket) poses at a meeting he chaired in the Knesset recently on the issue of Jaffa evictions.
(photo credit: ELANA SZTOKMAN)

In May 2021, with Israel in a no-government limbo, the Arab-Israeli community broke out in massive countrywide protests. Even in Jaffa, a place considered a model of a peaceful, shared society between Jews and Palestinians, protests erupted, bursting a revered bubble of coexistence. But even today, most of the non-Palestinian community in Israel still does not fully grasp the sentiments and motivation that drove those protests. As Israel enters yet another round of elections, politicians would be wise to attend to what Arab-Israelis are saying, before their pain and anger explode again.

Abed Abu Shehadeh, a 32-year-old new father whose family has lived in Jaffa since the 1920s, and one of two Arab members of the Tel Aviv Municipality who has been an activist his entire life, offered his interpretation of last May’s protest. In a three-hour English-language walking tour of Jaffa, he said that the May 2021 protest is viewed by Palestinians as one of the most defining moments in their communal history, on par with Oslo and the Second Intifada. The two causes of the uproar, he said, were Palestinian evictions and Benny Gantz.

“The home I live in today is the same one I grew up in – where I got married and where I raised my children.”

Masri Abudim, a 65-year-old father of nine whose family is facing eviction

Palestinian evictions

The Sheikh Jarrah evictions last year, which sparked the initial protest, represent only a small part of the eviction story. All around the country, including the seemingly idyllic Jaffa, Palestinian families who have been living in their homes for decades – some since before the State of Israel was established – are being threatened with eviction. An estimated 1,000 families in Jaffa currently face this predicament, according to activists from the fledgling organization Kulna Yaffa, which was established last May after the protests and has been fighting the evictions.

 JAFFA PORT (credit: MEITAL SHARABI) JAFFA PORT (credit: MEITAL SHARABI)

Masri Abudim, a 65-year-old father of nine whose family is facing eviction, calls Jaffa a “powder keg.” I spoke with him at a recent happening in Jaffa aimed at raising awareness about this story. “My mother lived in Jaffa during the British Mandate,” he told me. In 1947, some of his family members fled to Jordan, some stayed, and some were killed in the war. 

“The home I live in today is the same one I grew up in – where I got married and where I raised my children.” Now representatives of Amidar, the housing arm of the Israel Lands Authority, are knocking on his door, saying it’s time for them to go.

THE CAUSE of this situation is the 1950 Law of Abandoned Properties, in which the then-newly formed Israeli government granted itself guardianship over properties that had been owned by Arabs in 1947 and which the government determined to have been “abandoned.” Why, how, and whether many of these properties were actually abandoned were issues that the ILA decided, based on its own criteria. And the guardianship granted by this law includes broad rights over selling, valuing, renovating or destroying the properties.

“When people returned to Israel to reclaim their homes, the state took their homes – some say ‘took’, some say ‘robbed’,” explained Prof. Amnon Boehm, one of the founders of Kulna Yaffa. “Many were given a ‘key money’ arrangement, a form of protected housing that would allow people to stay in homes for up to three generations. Others were labeled as trespassers, and some were not recognized at all.” 

In the “key money” arrangement, Palestinian families were thus effectively paying the Israeli government monthly rent to stay in their own homes.

Over the years, Amidar has given residents opportunities to purchase 60-100% of their own homes for market prices. Even many of those who paid enormous sums continue to pay monthly fees  and are still facing eviction – like Maha Ibrahim, whose family paid NIS 1 million for their home years ago. Today, Amidar is demanding another NIS 7 million, or eviction.

Gentrification of Jaffa

Jaffa has evolved into the latest trendy hipster location in Tel Aviv and has many wealthy foreign investors and residents. Housing prices in Jaffa have risen so much that they are prohibitive to most local Palestinian residents. A conservative assessment by the Hagar Israel Affordable Housing Center at Tel Aviv University puts prices today at NIS 36,000 on average per square meter – a 560% rise since 1996. This means that a modest 100 sq.m. apartment would cost NIS 3,600,000, over $1 million.

Despite the pain, anger and frustration of Palestinians around the country who are facing eviction – not only in Sheikh Jarrah, but also in Ramle/Lod, Acre, and other locations – politicians do not seem to be paying much attention. Even after repeated pleas to the Housing Ministry, the Tel Aviv Municipality and Amidar to find solutions, none are forthcoming. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has pledged to establish a fund to help families purchase their homes, but his proposal is currently stuck in committees.

Benny Gantz

WHICH BRINGS us to council member Abed Abu Shehadeh’s second point: Benny Gantz.

“We all had high hopes when an Arab party was going to join the coalition,” Masir Abudim said, “and then those hopes were shattered.” After that, “the police came to our holy places with violence, and the evictions continued. People were angry. They still are.”

The Joint List eventually made it into the government, but the damage was done. “The Palestinian community gets the most frustrated when they are given hope, and that hope is followed by betrayal,” explained Abed Abu Shehadeh, describing Gantz’s promise of “change” that was followed by a sense of same-old, same-old.  

Moreover, many people in the Palestinian community are frustrated by the inability of their Knesset members to advance their constituents’ agenda. At a recent Knesset lobby meeting about the Jaffa evictions, lobby chair MK Sami Abu Shehadeh of the Joint List told the frustrated crowd, “Believe me, we are on your side. But we cannot do the things we wish we could.”

People noticed. Polls show that the Arab community is disappointed, angry and unmotivated to vote. But they also understand what is at stake. Grassroots campaigns are underway to encourage voting, which is undoubtedly crucial.

Because voting is much better than the alternative, which would be igniting the powder keg.

The writer is an award-winning Israeli-American writer, researcher, and activist, two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and a long-time commentator on Israeli social and cultural trends. Her most recent book, When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture, was released in June.