In July 2011, the military Yeshiva "Northern Wind" celebrated the opening of its fancy new building in Acre. Silvan Shalom, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development for the Negev and the Galilee, sent the yeshiva his blessings: "The establishment of the yeshiva in the city," said Shalom, "helps in strengthening the drive for the Judaization of the Galilee. There is nothing to be ashamed of in saying this! We want Jews to come and live in the Galilee and in the Negev, and you are helping me realize the vision I believe in." There is already a "non-Jewish" majority in the Galilee, Shalom said in a radio interview a few months earlier. Minister Shalom left no room for doubt: in the eyes of the Israeli government the Palestinian citizens of the Negev and the Galilee are a danger, and in order to cope with it, it is necessary to allot resources and settle Jews in these areas.
For this purpose the government has found loyal allies who do the work on the ground: settlers who have moved from the occupied territories to the mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel; city mayors who believe that the way to cope with hardship and poverty is to exchange the poor populations with "strong populations", and who have no qualms about using racist incitement to further their purposes; and finally, the mainstream gentrifiers, who seek nothing but to advance their businesses and "urban development." Acre finds itself at the forefront of this conflict.
Dispossession, Discrimination and Separation
Prior to 1948 the population of Acre numbered some 15,000, only a few hundred of whom were Jews. Most of the inhabitants lived in the old city, and a minority lived in the new Arab city established outside the walls (al-'Imarat or New Acre). In the course of the war most of the Palestinian inhabitants of the city were expelled; at the war's end some 3,000 Palestinians crowded into the old city, many of them refugees from Palestinian villages that had been erased from the map. New Jewish immigrants from Arab countries arrived in the city, and by the 1960s the population of the city had stabilized, with Palestinians comprising about 25% of the inhabitants. Acre was and has remained a poor city. Since the 1990s many immigrants from the former Soviet Union have joined the city, and at the same time, given the city's weak economy and lack of appropriate infrastructure, many Jewish residents who were able to find work and housing in the north, left Acre. The Palestinian population of the city grew and today numbers some 30% of Acre's 53,000 inhabitants.
The Palestinian inhabitants of Acre lost most of their property. In the old city the Custodian of Absentee Property holds approximately 85% of the houses; 10% are in the hands of Muslim and Christian religious institutions, and only 5% are in the hands of private property owners. As it did in other Palestinian cities (Jaffa, Ramle, Lydda), the Custodian of Absentee Property transferred Palestinian houses – the houses that belong to refugees to the government housing company Amidar. Hence, the Palestinian inhabitants of the old city do not own their houses; they rent them from the government company and live under its constant supervision.
In 1967 the Israeli government established the Old Acre Development Company. The company was assigned the task of transforming all of old Acre into a tourist site; till this very day, there is not a single Palestinian citizen on its board of directors. The city was intended to become a "living museum." The company aimed at emptying the old city of its Arab inhabitants in order to turn it into a reconstituted tourist area, similar to what the Company for the Development of Old Jaffa had managed to bring about in Jaffa: in the 1960s, it turned the old quarter of Jaffa, after emptying the area of all its Arab inhabitants, into a picturesque "artists' colony" with close ties to the government.
This was the model for Acre’s future. The poverty-stricken inhabitants of old Acre, so the company claimed, were an obstacle on the path of transforming the old city into a tourist haven. The deliberate neglect of the old city and its infrastructure and the imposition of draconian restrictions on building and renovations were intended to make the lives of the inhabitants of the old city impossible. In the 1970s about one-third of the housing units in the old city were considered uninhabitable. The Company for the Development of Old Acre tried to cause the Palestinian inhabitants to leave Acre and move to the village of Makr, but in the end many families who left Acre returned to the city. Acre has remained a "mixed city" – like Lod/al-Ludd, Ramle and Jaffa – and like them continues to suffer from poverty and hardship, and from a systematic policy of separation and discrimination.
"To Settle in People's Hearts": From the West Bank into Israel
For the last few years a group of settlers from the occupied territories have been operating in Acre; they have set themselves the goal of not only settling beyond the "Green Line" but also "to settle in people's hearts", that is to struggle to change the character of Israeli society. The focus of their activity is in the mixed cities – in Jaffa, Lod/al-Ludd, Ramle and Acre (and also in Upper Nazareth).
The basic pattern is recognizable: it begins with purchasing properties and organized settlement activity in Arab neighborhoods, with massive government aid. The settlers start a campaign for the strengthening of the "Jewish character" of the city and with a series of provocations against the Palestinian inhabitants in order to destroy the fragile fabric of co-existence, to the degree that it exists. The settlers in the mixed cities are very familiar with the social problems and exploit them for their purposes. In the face of the deepening social crisis in Israeli society and the disintegration of public welfare services, they can offer material aid and donations; they enter the void that has been created in the poor neighborhoods in order to win hearts and accumulate power. Their campaigns for "strengthening Jewish identity" time and again leads to a gradual escalation in relations with the Palestinian inhabitants, and just like in the West Bank, each clash serves as a pretext for expanding the settlements and obtaining additional property.
The pioneers of the organized settlement in Acre were a group of settlers – members of a religious movement called "Ometz" ("Fortitude", "Courage") – who moved into the eastern neighborhood of the city in 1997. Their leader hails from the "Shavei Hebron" Yeshiva – the settler yeshiva established in the heart of Hebron in 1982 that took over the Arab girls' school next to the Hebron market ("Beit Romano"), and is considered the driving force behind the settlers in Hebron. Other settlers from the South Hebron Hills joined him. The leader of the group declared openly that they had come to compensate for the weakening of the "Jewish character" of Acre caused by the departure of Jewish families. The initiative to establish the group was supported by Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu, the racist rabbi of Safed, who recently gained notoriety when he exhorted Jews not to rent apartments in Safed to Arabs.
The rabbi of Acre, Yosef Yashar, is of the same ilk. He announced in a media interview that "the Arabs are simply occupying us," that is, are buying apartments, and he continued: "We [the Jews] are losing the entire western Galilee. They [the Arabs] are coming from the villages and entering the cities, including Haifa." In 2003 Rabbi Yashar complained that it was difficult for him to speak his mind openly. The reporter replied: "It's impossible to say to someone interested in purchasing an apartment that you can't buy it because you're an Arab. That would be immediately categorized as racism." And the rabbi retorted:
"We are going to pay a heavy price because of these principles and because of our fear to say things clearly and openly. The creeping Arab occupation is the real problem. We can handle the violence of the Arab youth."
Acre suffers from a high unemployment rate and half of those who are employed barely earn the minimum wage. Members of the settlers' group were well aware of the economic distress and began to distribute food packages, thus winning the hearts and minds of the poor Jewish neighborhoods. From the fenced-in complex they established in the eastern neighborhood they run school programs for "strengthening of Jewish identity."
The settlers, acting in an organized manner to conquer the city, project their own pattern of activity upon the Palestinian inhabitants. They describe them as part of an organized conspiracy to conquer the city from the Jews, and spread the view that the Arab residents of Acre are "invaders" entering the Jewish neighborhoods. Many have forgotten the fact that many Palestinians lived in the new neighborhoods of Acre before 1948, and that the eastern neighborhoods sprang up on the Palestinian village of Manshiya, most of whose inhabitants became refugees.
The second active branch of the settlers is the military yeshiva "Northern Wind," which was established in 2003 in the Wolfsohn Neighborhood, a neighborhood most of whose residents are Arabs. The yeshiva numbers some 200 students who combine military service with Torah study and who wander around the neighborhood with their weapons. The rabbi of the yeshiva, Yossi Stern, comes from the West Bank settlement Alon Moreh. The people of "Northern Wind" describe Acre as a Jewish city which must be returned to its former glory. Co-existence between Jews and Arabs, declared Rabbi Stern, "is only a slogan," and Acre, like other Jewish cities, must preserve its Jewish identity. "Acre today is the Land of Israel ten years hence," claimed Stern, hinting at the danger lurking in the increasing number of Arab inhabitants: "What happens in Acre now is what will happen in Israel. We are the front guard giving honor to the state, and we must in every way stand firm and meet the national challenge with honor."
"In order to settle the Land of Israel," explained Stern, "we have to settle in people's hearts." For this purpose he and his students engage in "Judaizing" Jewish society, that is in active missionary work and in a struggle against the Arab inhabitants, who pose a "demographic danger." Palestinian residents of Acre tell of armed settlers with knitted yarmulkas roaming around the neighborhoods and sowing fear wherever they go. The website of the religious youth movement "Bnei Akiva," to which the "Northern Wind" yeshiva belongs, affirms that this is indeed their intention: "The yeshiva students project power, determination and confidence in everything related to the Jewish future of the city," they strengthen the Civil Guard and operate the "Jewish Route" in the old city – a guided tour of the old city which completely ignores its Palestinian, Islamic and Christian history, and instead offers a purified Jewish version.
As the fire breaks out: the pogrom and the expulsion
In October 2008, the tensions in Acre exploded. A tragic incident between neighbors during Yom Kippur was seized upon by settlers and right wingers, who incited against the Arab residents (see the detailed report here). What happened afterwards can only be described as an organized pogrom with thousands of participants. The clashes focused on the new city of Acre – the eastern neighborhood and the Wolfsohn neighborhood. In the northern neighborhoods, where Palestinians live alongside Jews, rioters gathered in the streets, shouted "Death to Arabs" and attacked Arab houses. Fourteen Palestinian apartments were attacked, some of which were set afire, and the inhabitants were forced to flee their homes.
Palestinian residents of the mixed neighborhoods in the new city relate that, in the course of the riots, the attack on Arabs was very targeted: "Dozens of buses transporting national-religious people in knitted yarmulkas descended on the neighborhood; they got off the buses, divided into groups and headed toward the houses. They knew where Palestinian families lived. They stood outside the houses in big groups and started shouting racist slogans: 'Death to Arabs,' 'We'll burn you, expel you…' This lasted for a few days. There were also Jewish residents of these neighborhoods who came down and said: 'The time has come – the Arabs must be sent to the old city or to Gaza.'"
Much was written at the time about the events in Acre. What evaded media coverage were the far-reaching consequences: The temporary evacuation of the families became an actual eviction. The 14 Palestinian families who were expelled and tried to return to their homes were met with a wall of resistance. The police refused to guarantee their safety if they returned, while the municipality reneged on its responsibility and offered the families to leave the neighborhood for alternative housing. Families who had lived in spacious private houses were offered small, crowded apartments. Families who had lived in public housing were forced to leave behind furnished apartments and received small, empty apartments. Most of the evicted gave in. Only a few families tried to return to their houses.
Johayna Seifi, a social activist from Acre, describes how the activists accompanied one of the evicted families back to their small neighborhood apartment. The police warned that they could not guarantee their safety, but the activists insisted: "We arrived, and in the stairwell we met two Jewish couples. They told us that they had been sent by the public housing company Amidar to see the apartments that had been evacuated by the Arab tenants. 'We have been living in public housing under very crowded conditions for years,' they said, 'and are waiting for our turn, waiting for an apartment to become available. We are on the waiting list and don't really have a chance. There is no available public housing. Just now Amidar called us and said to go and see the apartment.'"
Johayna continues: "One of the two couples left immediately; they didn't want to see the apartment. The second couple, whose economic situation was very difficult, asked just to go up and see the apartment. And this is the scene: We – the activists, the evicted family and the couple – go up, and in the meantime they tell us about their children. We are crowded together in a small elevator on whose walls are written "Death to Arabs." We all try to ignore it. We reach the apartment and a lot of neighbors surround us – all looking. The daughter of the Palestinian family we accompanied opens the door to her apartment with shaking hands – and then she says to the couple: I don't want you to enter the house. That's how we returned the family to their home, but they didn't last in the neighborhood and in the end they left. Only three Arab families remained in the neighborhood."
Gentrification and Dispossession
Alongside the ideological settlers with their blatant nationalist and anti-Arab agenda, the old city is undergoing a process of gentrification that is changing its character. Acre mayor Shimon Lankry openly promotes the process: like many other Israeli mayors he believes that the solution to the hardship of the poor lies in getting rid of them and bringing in a "strong population." He is investing the city's meager resources in developing a boardwalk in old Acre and in attracting investors to develop Acre's tourist potential. Under his leadership a tennis center with 13 courts was established in this poor city. The new infrastructure is not intended for Acre’s real, existing residents, Jews and Arabs. It is intended for the new residents who will come – if they come. And in the meanwhile, the welfare system ignores the needs of the inhabitants.
On the other hand, the Acre municipality is very proud of the new neighborhood whose construction began in 2006 – a gated community of private houses for military personnel and their families (read here about neighborhoods like this all over Israel). Anyone walking around the Naot-Yam neighborhood, amid the private homes surrounded by walls, would never know that they were in Acre. The neighborhood was built with massive state aid: with funding from the Defense Ministry and the support of Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and the Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee at the time – Shimon Peres.
The military personnel received huge tax reductions and in turn obligated themselves not to sell their apartments for five years, in order to "strengthen the city with a high quality population." With government aid like this, the temptation is to take advantage of the benefits, sell, and make a profit. Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri calls the residents of the neighborhood "pioneers" and referred to them as "the pride of the city."
The military neighborhood in Acre is an eye-opening example of how nationalist dispossession and gentrification go hand in hand in Israel. The residents of Ne'ot-Yam went ahead and built, without a permit, electronic checkpoints at the entrance to their neighborhood and surrounded it with security cameras. They explained this measure as preserving "the character of the neighborhood and its safety." The checkpoint was necessary, they claimed, because as military personnel they kept military equipment and confidential documents in their homes. The mayor supported their request, claiming that as a "military neighborhood" it had "unique qualities." Despite this, the local planning and building committee of Acre refused the request in January 2010.
In response, the military personnel announced that their struggle for the approval of the checkpoints was not over – and they had good reasons for optimism. A member of the neighborhood committee explained that it would be a mistake to damage the "high quality Jewish immigration to the city of Acre." The pressure succeeded and in June 2010 the municipal committee retroactively approved the construction of the checkpoints. When we visited the place in September 2011 the checkpoints stood at the entrance to the neighborhood and operated unhindered.
While in the new city the fenced-in community of military personnel was established, in the old city the public housing company Amidar, which rents the property of the 1948 Palestinian refugees to Palestinian residents, is furthering the process of dispossession. Amidar makes use of tactics well known from other cities: The company approaches the residents, many of whom suffer from economic hardship, demanding that they arrange their status and make back payments which, according to the company, they owe retroactively from 1948. If they cannot, they lose their rights and their apartments are taken from them.
Another method is to initiate a renovation of the old houses, "an exacting historical restoration," at great expense – and then to send the bill to the residents, who of course are unable to pay it. In this way, initiatives to save the old city from deterioration and to renovate the buildings can turn into a curse for the inhabitants. In other cases, Palestinian home owners, who do not live in Amidar rental apartments, are required to prove, after 60 years, that they were living in their houses in Acre on May 15, 1948 – and if they can't, they are designated refugees subject to the Absentee Property Law of 1950 – and their houses can be confiscated.
At the same time the Company for the Development of Old Acre is proceeding apace with the Judaization of the old city. They publish tenders that the Arab residents of the old city – of whom it is estimated that some 40% live on social security payments – have virtually no chance of winning. In the meanwhile an unknown number of houses in the old city have been handed over to the "Ayalim" Foundation, which is establishing a "students' village" for Jews only, and publicly declares that its purpose is to foster Jewish settlement. The organization's patrons are the Jewish Agency and the American Zionist billionaire David Merage (one of the architects of the detailed development plans for the Negev). The organization performs social work in the city and is the means for implementing the settlement project. Wandering around the old city it is impossible not to discern the huge gap between the renovated houses of the "Ayalim" people and the houses of the Palestinian inhabitants surrounding them.
Thus, far from the public eye, an unknown number of properties, including houses of historical value, have been transferred from hand to hand. In response to the protest of Palestinian residents of Acre that the company puts up for sale important pieces of real estate in the old city without notifying them of the tenders, the CEO of the company claimed that there was no need to give priority to Acre residents in the company's public biddings. But when asked about the transfer of real estate in the city to organizations close to the government, the CEO revealed the following procedure: "In the past we transferred properties to the Jewish Agency, which is exempt from the obligation to offer houses in open public biddings, and the Jewish Agency passed on the properties to, among others, an organization like Ayalim."
The activities of the Company for the Development of Old Acre fit in well with those of the private entrepreneurs. For example, Uri Yermias, who owns a famous fish restaurant in Acre, bought a number of houses in the old city and is turning them into boutique hotels. Residents tell of entrepreneurs who make offers they can't refuse. The market mechanism is at work here – and the market inclines to the benefit of the rich and those close to power. Yermias bought the building where the hotel will be from the development authority – the institution that maintains the "absentee property," the houses of the Palestinian refugees, and offers them up for sale.
Entrepreneurs, who have the capital needed to renovate old buildings and the connections necessary to win tenders, jump at the bargains and buy them up. This is how things work, not only in Acre, but in Haifa (in Wadi Salib, for example) and other places as well. Here is how Uri Yermias describes his purchase:
He approached the Company for the Development of Old Acre and the CEO Dudu Harari recommended that he look at a building located not far from his restaurant. "He sent the guy with the keys with me. I saw it and said 'I want it.' I felt elated," says Yarmias. "I don't believe in karma, but something inside me told me that this was the place." We are talking about two buildings – the Shukri building and the WIZO building, that were leased to him for generations so he could turn them into a boutique hotel. The buildings will be connected by a bridge and an external elevator will be installed. The hotel will have 12 suites with beautiful painted ceilings, a small restaurant and bar for guests, a renovated Turkish bath, and a roof veranda that will be used as a sundeck during the day and for barbeques in the evening. (Ha'aretz, 7.4.2006)
And thus, amidst all the hardship, he will build himself a "boutique hotel." This is a pattern of development that undermines the local community. Its negative consequences, writes city planner Dr. Galia Ben-Shitreet, have been pointed out in numerous studies: "The evacuation and uprooting of inhabitants for the purpose of developing tourist sites, the rise in the prices of land, food and fuel for the local population; many of the facilities that serve the tourists, such as golf courses and luxury hotels, are inaccessible to the local population, often out of bounds for the local community." She also mentions in this context the development of "reality tours," tours in poor neighborhoods.
The concept of Acre as a "living museum," where it is possible to observe the "natives" as if they were remnants of a former era, has not disappeared. "Part of the authenticity of the house and part of the contrast" between the street and the historic Shukri building that will become a boutique hotel, says Yermias, "is that it's like 100 or 200 years ago – the same women peeling garlic at the entrance to the house and the children playing with the same ball."
In the meantime, the highlight of the public-private gentrification is the leasing of Khan al-'Umdan, one of the most important historical sites of Acre. In 2008 the Company for the Development of Old Acre leased it to a Jewish entrepreneur from England so that he too could turn it into a boutique hotel. The residents of Acre were not asked their opinion and the company ignored the protests of Palestinian social activists. Now the residents of the houses next to the Khan fear for their fate. They have good reason: The Company for the Development of Old Acre now has a plan to sell Khan al-Shuna as well and turn it into a hotel.
The secretary of the company explains that, there, "it's possible to build two more floors, but it would require the evacuation of the tenants." A wealthy Arab entrepreneur also built a hotel in a historical asset in the city. How easy it is to privatize "public assets" after they have been robbed from the underdog community - buildings that were part of their tradition and the fabric of their lives.
The similarity between Jaffa and Acre doesn't end here. The mayor is promoting the establishment of an artists' quarter on the Acre seashore, while the Israel Lands Authority submitted a grandiose plan in 2008 that included drying out large areas of the sea in order to build residential, tourist and resort buildings that would include more than 4,000 apartment units. The plan was partially blocked by pressure from the Society for the Protection of Nature and the UNESCO committee in Israel, and instead a more modest plan was approved. This plan too promotes turning the old city into a tourist site geared toward "strong populations" and building apartment units for sale to foreign residents.
This is what development that undermines the local population looks like: Beautiful apartments on the sea shore that no Acre resident can buy, just like in Jaffa. 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.