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Politics and profit combine to force Arab families out of their Jaffa homes

Elana Sztokman
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Published: 26 July 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

ELANA SZTOKMAN talks to residents at the centre of a housing dispute based on whether Palestinians abandoned their homes when Israel was established.

Jerry As-Hamati is a fifth-generation resident of Jaffa.  But the house that his grandfather purchased in the 1940s before the state of Israel was established is now being claimed by Amidar, the public housing unit of the Israel Land’s Authority.

 His brother, his brother’s children, and his aunt, who live there, are facing a government-demanded ultimatum: buy the house from Amidar or leave. 

“This is our family home,” As-Hamati said. “It holds our family history. It’s where the people in my family were born, where they raised their children, where people died before Israel even existed. And they are trying to take that away from us.”

As-Hamati’s family is one of an estimated 1000 Palestinian families in Jaffa who live under threat of immediate eviction. They have been warned that if they do not pay sums determined by Amidar – sums based on estimated market values in what is one of the most expensive cities in the world – then they will be forced to leave the homes that many have been living in for decades and which they say they already own.

“The homes we are talking about are Palestinian homes from pre-1947 that the government just took...Now, 74 years later, we are having a reckoning."  

Amir Badran, lawyer for Jaffa residents

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 that the government determined to have been “abandoned”.

Why, how, and whether many of these properties were abandoned was decided by the Israel Lands Authority, which granted the public housing authority broad rights over selling, valuing, renovating, or destroying the properties.

“When people returned to their homes to reclaim their homes, the state took their homes – some say ‘took’, some say ‘robbed’,” said Professor Amnon Boehm, one of the founders of the fledgling organisation Kulna Yaffa – We are All Jaffa in Arabic – that was formed by a small group of Jewish and Palestinian residents of Jaffa in May 2021 following violent unrest over similar forced evictions in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Professor Amnon Boehm
Professor Amnon Boehm

Before 1947, there were 120,000 Palestinians living in Jaffa. Of the those who returned, 4000 were able to stay, but were not returned ownership of their homes. Instead, many were given a “key money” arrangement, a form of protected housing that would allow people to stay for up to three generations, effectively paying rent to stay in their own homes.

In the mid-1990s, Amidar and the Tel Aviv Municipality decided that the three-generation clause was coming to an end, that the neighbourhood needed “regentrification”, and it was time to end these arrangements. They began a campaign offering residents an ultimatum: either pay for at least a portion of your home based on market value – or move out.

At the time, many people paid market value to buy out between 60% and 100% of their homes. Buying out was particularly difficult for these residents, not only because the community is not an economically strong population to begin with, but also because the Israel Central Bank does not classify Arab residents of these homes as eligible for mortgages.

But the problem only got worse. The houses that were emptied were usually sold to developers for top dollar. 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. The Hagar Israel Affordable Housing Center at Tel Aviv University  puts prices today at NIS36,000 ($A15,300) on average per square meter – a 560% rise since 1996 – this means that a modest 100 square metre flat would cost NIS3.6 million (almost $2m).

While these prices may be unrealistic for locals, the potential for copious revenue did not escape the attention of governmental authorities. Over the past two years, Amidar has been returning to the Palestinian residents with a new ultimatum: pay the full price for your homes based on current prices, including land value and building rights – or leave.

Maha Ibrahim’s family is one of many facing this impossible situation. She purchased 65% of her home from Amidar 50 years ago and has been making monthly rent payments of NIS2000 ($845). Now the public housing authority is threatening the family with eviction if they cannot come up with an additional NIS7m ($2.96m) for the remaining 35%.

When Amidar gets ready to sell one of these homes to make way for developers, it typically approaches the residents with an offer to buy and 90 days to pay. Attorney Orly Ariav, Director of Hagar, said it was impossible for most Arab residents of Jaffa to meet the conditions set by Amidar.

“They do not qualify for loans, they are not allowed to do any repairs or renovations to make the homes more liveable, and the prices of the houses are determined using inflated measures of land value that continue to rise uncontrollably,” Ariav said.

Jaffa residents put their case to a Knesset committee
Jaffa residents put their case to a Knesset committee

Even some people who have tried to go along with the system have failed. Salwa Abed Algheni, for example, is a widowed mother of three who put a down payment NIS100,000 ($42,000) to purchase her house, and then could not get a loan for the rest. Her down payment was not refunded and Amidar wants NIS3m ($1.27m) for her home.

She is particularly upset because she feels she has sacrificed enough for the country. Her husband was killed during a terror attack in which he heroically intervened and saved a Jewish victim.

 “Families of people who died the way my husband did are supposed to be taken care of by the state,” she told a Knesset committee meeting that convened on this issue. “Despite everything I have been through, the state has left me with nothing. And now, where am I going to get that kind of money?”

Some families have also been dealing with absurdities of proving ownership to Amidar. The family of Abed Abu Shehadeh – one of two Jaffa-residing members of the Tel Aviv Municipality – lost their family home to Amidar because of a misunderstanding. His grandparents, who had been living in Jaffa since the 1920s, did not flee in 1947. Years later, when Amidar knocked on the door, his young mother answered the door. The officials asked her, “Do you own this house?” and she shakily said, “No, my brother owns it.”  The Amidar representative wrote that the residents were not the owners, and the family lost their claim to their home.

MK Sami Abu Shehadeh talks to Maha Ibrahim at the Knesset
MK Sami Abu Shehadeh talks to Maha Ibrahim at the Knesset

Jerry As-Hamati is trying to prove his family’s ownership of his whole house – even though they have been in the house continuously since the 1940s. “In 1952, representatives of the government came the house without warning, and asked how many people were living there,” he said. “When they discovered that seven people were living there, they made the family live in three rooms of the house, saying, ‘That’s enough for you.’”

Then, they placed Jewish immigrants into the other two rooms. His family accepted this arrangement for years. “My grandfather did not speak Hebrew and did not want to have a confrontation with the state, so he agreed.”

The Amidar representatives built a wall down the middle of the house and a separate entrance for the Jewish family. Years later, when the Jewish family left, the As-Hamati family took down the wall. Now, Amidar claims that they are “trespassing” in their own house, and that the two rooms belong to the state. Amidar is now working to cut the house into two and sell off the two rooms as its own unit.

“They don’t want to cut the house – they want to cut the heart of the family,” As-Hamati said.

“We are seeking justice and equality,” said Amir Badran, an Arab lawyer from Jaffa who often represents families. He is one of two Palestinians on the 31-member Tel Aviv Municipal Council and has been fighting for the municipality to take action.

“The homes we are talking about are Palestinian homes from pre-1947 that the government just took in 1948 without paying anyone for them. These are the facts. Now, 74 years later, we are having a reckoning. We need justice.”

Amidar did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the Tel Aviv Municipality said the municipality saw great importance in the ability of long-time residents of these homes to be able to purchase them at reasonable prices. There is now a government commission on the issue and, depending on the result, the city also plans to set up a fund to reduce the prices.


Israel's Top Court Postpones Eviction of Palestinian Family in East Jerusalem (Haaretz)

Photo: Maha Ibrahim and her daughter Nuran in front of the Jaffa home they may lose (supplied)

About the author

Elana Sztokman

Dr Elana Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, and activist. Her latest book is 'When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture'.

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