Israel’s Haifa municipality is unveiling major plans to transform the city in northern Israel into a Barcelona of the Middle East – a city with captivating ancient architecture redolent of a storied past.
However, there is one problem: these homes belonged to Palestinians. Most of whom were among some 750,000 who fled or were expelled from their homes and lands in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war that marked Israel’s creation – referred to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” by Palestinians.
During Israel’s first years of statehood, the buildings, including many large villas, were shuttered and blocked up with concrete, left that way for decades. Palestinians often kept records of their original deeds and house keys, yet they were never allowed to return to their homes.
Other homes were until recently rented to Palestinians by Israeli companies that acquired Palestinian properties in the years after the Nakba. These decrepit buildings were often neglected until the city deemed them unliveable, and evicted the Palestinian residents. Now the homes are being flipped into luxury units.
Many of the refugees from Haifa and their descendants now reside in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jenin in the occupied West Bank. In 1948, some 40,000 Palestinians also became internally displaced within the borders of the newly established Israeli state.
“They are essentially turning the ruins of the Nakba into economic projects for Israel’s free market,” said Orwa Switat, a Haifa-based activist and urban planner. Switat told Mondoweiss the municipality’s new projects in the historic Palestinian areas in Haifa include the development of “luxury apartments, prestige condos, an artist village and galleries, and a commercial area and offices.”
“Now the municipality is reshaping and turning this space into a center for leisure and art, and luxury and boutique apartments in order to gentrify it and turn it into projects that the Israeli market profits from,” he said.
Wadi Salib: ‘Demolishing our Palestinian heritage’
Gentrification hit Haifa about 20 years ago, but it was gradual at first. That process has increased significantly in the past five years, according to Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center in Haifa. The change in speed came when the municipality opened more homes for purchase from private developers, selling sometimes 45 homes in one bid, Farah said.
“In this case, no Arab investor or family can buy these houses. The target is big companies,” he said, adding that many Palestinian residents of the city suffer from poverty and are therefore unable to purchase the homes.
Most of the development is in Wadi Salib, which was the largest Palestinian neighborhood in Haifa before 1948, when it was depopulated of its Palestinian residents.
In Wadi Salib, 14 Israeli developers purchased the whole neighborhood, amounting to hundreds of housing units, between 2010 and 2012. The purchased houses were either demolished with modern structures built in their place or the historic homes were renovated and marketed for their so-called authenticity.
They are “demolishing our Palestinian heritage,” Johnny Mansour, a Haifa-based author and historian, told Mondoweiss.
Switat noted that Wadi Salib is “not just a place of gentrification.” But it is also a “historical Palestinian area that was captured, neglected for decades, and now is being gentrified and recreated into new Israeli projects that do not serve the indigenous Palestinian community.”
“This change will change the meaning of the neighborhood itself and the historical Palestinian center of Haifa into an orientalist project, where the municipality uses that Arab style of architecture and heritage, and then depoliticizes and neutralizes it from its political context and historical displacement,” Switat said.
Meanwhile, “the actual owners of the houses are still refugees today in Lebanon.”
According to Farah, vacant refugee buildings in the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas also in Haifa have recently been targeted for development.
Hadar: ‘I still remember the families who used to live there’
Uphill from Wadi Salib, Emil Afara, 90, was 20 years old when Zionist militias expelled his family from their home in the Hadar neighborhood in Haifa city.
He and his family sought refuge, along with some 13 other families, at the Stella Maris Monastery nestled on the slopes of Mount Carmel, about five miles away from their home. They survived on bread made of ingredients donated by the priests at the religious compound, Afara said from his home in Wadi Nisnas in central Haifa where he lives today. It is walking distance from his original home.
“I know the families who own these homes. It’s not easy. When I look at the homes, I still remember all the families in Haifa that used to live there,” Afara continued, “It’s very sad, because they are not here anymore.”
Activists and rights groups are challenging this “ethnic gentrification” in Haifa. Several organizations in Haifa are attempting to convince the new mayor, Einat Kalisch-Rotem, to include the Palestinian communities into their development plans and halt economic projects that would destroy the Palestinian history and heritage of the city.
The Israeli municipalities often do not include Palestinian communities into their strategic plans for development, even if the plans are laid on top of Palestinian neighborhoods or in cities with sizable Palestinian populations. Oftentimes, Palestinian residents become aware of the municipality’s plans only after they are implemented.
Afara, however, does not hold much hope that the municipality’s plans will change. “I saw them take the homes from us. They gave them to Jews or blocked them up so their owners could never come back,” he said. “Now they are demolishing them and some of our beautiful [Palestinian] homes are being renovated and sold.”
“Israel has taken everything from us,” he said.
In Haifa, out of 75,000 Palestinian residents only 3,000 remained in the city after 1948. According to Mansour, the historian, during the fighting Palestinians were pushed into Wadi Nisnas where they were placed under a siege for about two months, unable to leave the area unless receiving special permission from authorities.
“Those who remained in Wadi Nisnas lost all of their properties to the Israeli state,” Mansour said. “They became strangers in their own city.”
Mansour added that the original Palestinian owners, some of whom are still within the boundaries of Haifa, are “very afraid and conscious about what is happening to their properties.”
After Israel passed the Absentees’ Property Law in 1950, the properties of Palestinian refugees and those internally displaced, who were referred to as “present absentees”, were transferred to Israel’s General Custodian.
Amidar, a state-owned and state-run housing company, was created by Israel and tasked with managing these properties. In 1953 Israel passed the Land Acquisition Law, allowing the state to use these confiscated properties and assets for Jewish settlement, development, and Israeli security and military interests.
This was the last step to “complete the process of formal transfer of ownership of confiscated [Palestinian] land,” Switat said, paving the way for historic Palestinian neighborhoods to be transformed into profitable economic ventures for private Israeli companies and the state.
Barcelona, Israeli style
A major plan for Haifa’s municipality is to develop the coastal area in order to create a touristic port similar to Barcelona. This project is called “Haifa waterfront,” Switat told Mondoweiss, and will result in the eviction of an entire Palestinian neighborhood.
The development project involves moving the port, which is now disconnected from the city, to the east of Haifa city. Throughout this project, residents of the al-Mahatta neighborhood — located near the port — are being evicted and their homes demolished to make room for 700 luxury apartments and a touristic area including bars, restaurants and hotels.
The al-Mahatta neighborhood, according to Switat, is one of the oldest Palestinian neighborhoods in Haifa, representing the origins of the city.
Many of the residents in al-Mahatta were evicted under the pretense that their homes were “too dangerous” for them to continue to reside in, owing to Amidar — which owns almost half of the homes in al-Mahatta, failing to repair or improve the buildings, Mansour said. The company then uses the dilapidated state of the buildings as an excuse to kick residents out.
Meanwhile, others were evicted after losing their protected tenancy rights, which had permitted them to live in the homes for a fixed, reduced rent. These policies in the city are “creating a reality in which people [Palestinians] are being slowly pushed out of their historical neighborhoods,” Switat said.
According to Mansour, out of 600 apartments in the neighborhood, only 28 remain standing.
It starts with the artists
The gentrification taking hold in Haifa city has been implemented by Israel’s municipalities and government in other Palestinian urban areas in Israel, particularly Jaffa and Akka.
Jaffa was one of the first Palestinian urban areas to undergo major transformations. The Israeli government began destroying Palestinian homes and evicting families as early as the 1960s, Switat explained.
From 1949 to 1992 it was illegal for Palestinians to repair homes built before Israel declared statehood in 1948, thus forcing Palestinians to live in units where lack of repairs caused them to fail to meet zoning codes.
Much like the plans for Haifa today, the city of Tel Aviv approved an urban renewal plan in 1992 that catered to Israelis seeking to buy and renovate homes that were priced out of reach for most Palestinians. The plan made no specific accommodation to Palestinians renting homes in Absentee properties. It further created cumbersome terms for Palestinians who inherited houses in Jaffa.
In 1996, Israel then approved a policy that legalized the sale of all remaining Palestinian Absentee houses. This created a fire sale. More than 900 shuttered homes belonging to Palestinian refugees in Haifa, Jaffa, and Akka were privatized and sold at auctions between 2010 and 2015, Switat said.
As a result of this gentrification process, “Jaffa today is no longer Palestinian,” Switat said.
In Jaffa, this same gentrification process is almost complete, transforming the historical Palestinian city into an affluent Israeli neighborhood. Switat tells Mondoweiss that Israeli artists are often the “pioneers” of this “ethnic gentrification” in historic Palestinian areas in Israel.
“The artists are the ones willing to live in buildings that are in bad shape, where they can make it an art gallery. And then they create a coffee shop and then restaurants,” he said. “They start the movement through festivals in order to attract students and middle class young couples who are attracted to that kind of ‘authentic’ cultural atmosphere that the artists create.”
In a similar process, “the Palestinian identity of [Haifa] city is being reinvested and reshaped for the benefit of the hegemonic Zionist narrative,” Switat noted.
Haifa city was founded some 250 years ago by Daher el-Omar, a Palestinian who ruled the Galilee during the Ottoman Empire. However, the city’s Palestinian history does not exist in Haifa’s public spaces.
“In Haifa, you have museums for exhibiting Japanese art, but you can’t find an exhibition that describes the Palestinian history of the city,” Switat said.
This gentrification process, Switat added, is aimed at “erasing the Palestinian narrative” from the city.