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Akka: A Palestinian Priority
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Posted by BADIL Organization on February 2, 2009
General view of Acre (Akka) from the sea, Matson Collection (before 1920)

by Eyad Barghouti

Arab Palestinians still live in the old city of Akka, with their buildings, cultural, religious and historic sites largely intact as a result of these Palestinian residents' tireless efforts. With the exception of Nazareth, Akka is the only historic Palestinian city within the green line where this is the case. For various reasons, this strong Palestinian presence in Akka is an uncomfortable fact for Zionist and Israeli authorities who have expanded and escalated their Judaization efforts in the city over recent years.

We can consider the continuation of a strong Palestinian presence in Akka, and the commitment of the city's Palestinian residents to stay in their city, as a national and historic achievement. This presence is also evidence of a partial failure of old and new Zionist plans to evict them from the city, transforming it into a tourist attraction empty of its indigenous population. It is true that this achievement can continue into the future and grow stronger, but it is also true that what has failed in the past may yet see success.

What is Judaization? How is it manifested in Palestinian cities in general, and Akka in particular? What are the projects encapsulated in such a plan? Will the Israeli regime really succeed in clearing the ancient city of its indigenous people and its identity?

On Judaization

Judaization is the policy and practice of implanting, or more accurately, forcibly replacing Palestinians with Jewish settlers in areas with an Arab-Palestinian majority. The effect of Judaization transforms the demographic composition and cultural identity of a place from Palestinian to Jewish-Israeli. Looked at on the ground, Judaization usually involves either the displacement of indigenous Palestinians from their homes and subsequently housing Jewish-Israelis in these homes; or establishing brand new residential areas in Palestinian cities exclusively for Jewish-Israelis with the purpose of overall demographic superiority and absorption of Jewish immigrants.

On the political level, Israel's Judaization projects aim to win the "demographic battle" by entrenching and expanding the Jewish majority, which provides a semblance of legitimacy for the Jewish monopoly on decision-making authority over the land and people of Palestine. Zionists see Judaization as a strategy and as an integral part of the larger Jewish-colonization project; it is an Israeli national priority, a foundation of the entire historical Zionist project.

There are currently no Israeli campaigns to Judaize remaining Palestinian towns and villages within the 'green line' per se; there are no plans to settle Jews within the towns of Sakhnin or Um al-Fahm, for example. For in the case of these Palestinian towns and villages, the colonial project involves the confiscation of the land around these areas populated with Palestinian, and on this land new settlements are built and old settlements are expanded. The Palestinian population of the town will increase, but the geographic size of the town will shrink, inevitably suffocating under its own ever-increasing population density. Palestinian towns and villages are not Judaized, but various educational, cultural, economic and security policies ensure the constant erosion of the Arab Palestinian residents of these population centers, and the de-development of these places; where the population continues to grow while no planning or investment is contributed to residents' quality of life. Meanwhile, the nearby hilltops are transformed into ever more planned, neat and growing settlements for exclusively Jewish residents, or ever-quieter lookout points in the ever-greener national parks and forests of the Jewish National Fund.


Rooftop view of Acre (Akka) looking West to the sea, Matson Collection (before 1920)

Historic and ancient Palestinian cities within the "green line," often referred to as "mixed cities," have their own unique scenario, their own dynamics involving historical and economic dimensions that cannot be ignored, and which call for increasingly complex levels of struggle. There are four general pillars of the policies and practices of Judaization in Palestinian cities within the green line (Yaffa, Haifa, al-Lydd, Ramleh, Nazareth and Akka):

Tightening the noose around the Arab-Palestinian residents of these cities by policies of economic, cultural and social marginalization, discrimination in the provision of services and law enforcement, all aimed at reducing Palestinian quality of life to the point where Palestinians "voluntarily" leave their old neighborhoods;

Erasing the Arab-Palestinian identity of the city by practices of writing-out the Palestinian in the official histories of the place, systematic neglect and demolition of old Palestinian buildings, and the Hebraization of the names of public spaces and streets;

Seizure of Palestinian homes and real estate through governmental agencies and corporations through legislation and policies that hinder inheritance rights for Palestinians, maintenance of Palestinian control over Muslim and Christian religious endowments, and facilitate the transfer of property titles to Zionist capital and institutions;

Transformation of very old Palestinian neighborhoods into tourist and cultural attractions (notably artists' colonies) emptied of the indigenous residents, and transferring ownership of larger buildings and landmarks to Jewish tourism entrepreneurs.

All too often, Judaization projects don the mask of "development," and it is no coincidence that the government has a ministry called the ؟Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee؟ with the clear goal of Judaizing these areas. Nor is it by chance that the past few decades have seen the growth of the development industry in historic Palestinian cities, and that this industry attracts investors and residents to projects that use the language of development to cloak their racist intentions and effects.

The Judaization of Akka: Live Examples

The Judaization of Akka, with its various colonial and cultural components, did not suddenly begin in the last few years. The vast majority of Akka's indigenous Palestinian residents, as well as those who had sought refuge in the walled city after their communities had been depopulated by Zionist forces (mostly from Haifa and the towns and villages of the Western Galilee), were expelled from Akka during the 1948 Nakba. This despite the city being considered part of the Arab-majority state proposed in the 1947 Partition Plan (UNGA Resolution 181).

Jewish colonial settlement in Akka began in the early 1950s, with a large wave of Arab and Eastern Jews being settled in one of Akka's old city neighborhoods in the early 1970s, although the Israeli government pulled many of those new immigrants out when it became apparent that they were integrating into their new Palestinian surroundings rather than imposing the Jewish character of the state. During the British mandate period, middle and upper class Palestinians in Akka established a new neighborhood outside the city walls that they called al-Rashadiyyah, with beautifully built homes. In the 1970s, the Israeli government began settling thousands of Jewish immigrants in this area and expanding it onto the agricultural land to the north and east of the city.

From the perspective of Israeli government authorities, Akka is the city beyond the walls, the buildings and people inside the walls constitute ؟old Akka.؟ For the Palestinians of Akka, and Palestinians in general, Akka is the city inside the walls, the area outside the walls is ؟new Akka؟ or al-'Imarat (the tall buildings). Jewish Israelis consider Akka to be theirs, a Jewish city with an annoyingly increasing number of Arabs. As such, the city's municipal authorities work with the support of the Jewish Agency to do all they can maintain a growing Jewish population in the city, and to initiate an increasing number of housing, cultural, athletic and religious projects to attract larger numbers of Jewish Israelis to the city.

Al-Jazzare Mosque's courtyard, 2007

In 2001, UNESCO recognized the old city of Akka as a world heritage site. This became a major incentive for Israeli authorities develop, implement and expand its Judaization plans for the city. Besides the potential influx of tourist dollars that could result from the UNESCO recognition; a central impetus for accelerating the Judaization plans has been the fear that the world might discover the actual rich Arab-Palestinian cultural heritage of the city which poses a direct threat to the official Israeli narrative that denies the collective history and existence of Arabs and Palestinians on this land.

The main priorities of Akka's municipal and Jewish religious authorities, predating but accelerated by the UNESCO recognition, have been to stop the migration of Jews from Akka to Nahariya, Krayot, and the cities and towns of the center; increasing the number of Jews moving into the city, and preventing the growth of the Palestinian population in the city beyond thirty percent (according to the 2006 statistics, Palestinians accounted for 15,000 of the 46,000 residents of Akka). These priorities are not part of a secret plot, but are quite openly stated: the current mayor of Akka boasts that his most important achievement has been reversing the migration trend ؟ that more Jews moved to Akka than left it ؟ during his tenure. In 2007 the chief Rabbi of Akka called on Jews to move to Akka and stated that he wanted to see Akka transformed into an ؟absolutely Jewish؟ city. We Palestinian residents of Akka were not shocked by these comments, we recognized them for what they were, an escalation in the struggle between Palestinian presence in their ancient city, and Zionist efforts to Judaize it.

The Israeli establishment has planned for and implemented several parallel and complimentary Judaization projects. In what follows I present some of the most prominent of these projects so that readers can better understand the different aspects of the Judaization of Akka, and the urgency with which we need to work to protect the city's Palestinian community.

Acquisition of Homes and Real Estate

After the 1948 Nakba, the Israeli Lands Administration (ILA) seized the property of Palestinian refugees from Akka (as it did with the property of all of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced that year). Title to the land was transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property, and the Amidar corporation was established to administer these properties.

Al-Jazzar Mosque, 2007

Palestinian Land Confiscated by the Absentee Property Law (1950)

Before the 1948 Nakba, and despite the five decades and millions of dollars spent by the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist organizations trying to acquire Palestinian land, Jewish land ownership in Palestine was no more than 6.7% of the land of historic Palestine (10% of the land controlled by the state of Israel after the Nakba). Israel's Absentee Property Law (1950) transferred title over the properties of displaced Palestinians ("absentee property" belonging to refugees and internally displaced Palestinians) to the Custodian of Absentee Property.

Estimates of the size and value of the land confiscated by the Absentee Property Law vary. The Custodian of Absentee Property's official figure is that 70% of the land controlled by the Israeli state is Absentee property.1 According to the Jewish National Fund, 2% of Israeli controlled land after the Nakba had been state domain on the eve of the war; 10% was owned by Jewish individuals and organizations on the eve of the war, and the remaining 88% belonged to Arabs.2

The difficulty with determining exactly how much Palestinian property was taken by Israel in 1948 lies in the fact that, as Don Peretz puts it, ؟... information concerning the use, amounts, and distribution of abandoned Arab property and the government's policy toward it was secret. Records and most reports of the Custodian of Absentee Property were secret. Sessions of the Knesset Finance Committee, when it discussed the problem, were closed. Even the United Nations, in spite of frequent requests, was unable to obtain adequate information about Israel's disposition of Arab property.؟3

In the decades following the Nakba, the ILA used various housing laws and policies to force Palestinians to leave their homes in Akka, as it did in other Palestinian cities under Israeli control. For instance, Palestinians were not allowed to repair or renovate their homes within the city, while incentives were offered to Palestinians to move to the nearby village of al-Makar, built especially to absorb Palestinians displaced from Akka.

As with most discriminatory Israeli laws, the discrimination is not apparent in the text of housing laws used to displace Palestinians from the city. Instead, properties within the old city are divided into two parts, those that fall under the Ministry of Housing, which are mostly housing projects set up by the government to house Jewish immigrants, and those that fall under the city's ؟Development Authority؟, which is responsible for the historic buildings of the city, i.e. those predominantly inhabited by Palestinians.

The Development Authority issued policies, which prohibit Palestinians from transferring title through inheritance more than once, preventing the third generation from inheriting, and remaining in, the property. Thus, if a Palestinian inherits property from his father, it cannot be inherited by his son. Even if the property was not inherited, the inheritor must prove that they have lived in the home for at least six consecutive months before the death of the person with title to the house in order to inherit the property. Even though Palestinians can now renovate their homes, renovation of a building governed by the Development Authority is far more expensive than regular renovation, with most of the renovation expenses shouldered by the resident (not the case in government housing projects). Another clear difference is that the process of evicting residents, a complicated task in the case of government housing projects, is a far simpler administrative order for the Development Authority, with far fewer protected housing rights for the Palestinian resident.

Scene inside Acre (Akka) few years after Nakba, 1950.

Today's Akka has 240 shut-down empty homes whose Palestinian residents have been evicted, and 160 homes housing families who face eviction orders. Tens of Palestinian homes have been purchased over the past two years by Jewish businessmen for large amounts of money, and Zionist land-brokers are working overtime to convince the remaining Palestinians of Akka to sell; particularly in the Fakhoura neighborhood on the west shore of the old city.

Another major issue in Akka is that of religious endowment (waqf) property, which accounts for 40% of the property in the old city of Akka. The Israeli government and municipality appointed a Board of ؟Trustees؟ to administer these properties, and in turn, these trustees leased the properties to the Israeli Lands Administration (ILA) for 99 years, who in turn has begun leasing the properties to wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs. The most recent of these deals, technically called ؟generational leases؟ because of their long duration, was the de facto sale of Khan Umdan, the largest and most important of Akka's historic guest-houses and the closest one to the city's port. The deal was closed in the summer of 2008 to a Jewish businessman from the UK for over 12 million shekels.

A New City in the Galilee to De-Palestinianize Akka

In a report prepared for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar by my colleague Feras Khatib, he outlines plans by the Israeli Ministry of Interior to establish an Arab community in the Galilee which is to be marketed as a modern community for young Arab couples.4 At present, the site of the ؟New City؟ has not been finalized, but the proposed site is close to the Palestinian village of Judayida a few kilometers from coastal Akka. Contrary to what has been reported in the Hebrew-language press, plans for the new community are not to build it from scratch, but to expand an area of Judayida village. Urban planning specialist Yusuf Jabbarin explains that there are ؟political factors؟ in the decision-making surrounding this project, ؟it must be close to Akka, and there are ongoing plans to empty Akka of its indigenous Arab population, and it is quite likely that this city will be used as a kind of refuge for the Palestinians who will be displaced from Akka.؟

The Ayalim Association Settlement Project

In 2007, the ILA handed three renovated buildings in the Ma'aliq neighborhood in the western part of the old city to the Ayalim settler association without any legal auction. The association housed twenty university students in the buildings offering them 10,000 shekels worth of scholarships. Recent information suggests that the Jewish Agency has begun renovation of several other buildings in the same neighborhood with the intention of handing them over to the Ayalim to bring in larger groups of students.

According to its website, Ayalim was founded in 2002 by young veterans of the Israeli army with the intention of increasing Jewish settler activity in the Galilee and the Naqab. It aims to do this by creating a new moral climate and by modernizing Zionist ideology to suit the needs of the 21st century. Its work on the ground involves establishing socially interconnected permanent student settlements. To date, Ayalim has established eight such settlements in the Naqab and Galilee, its work having been greatly facilitated by support of the national and municipal governments, with special support provided for the creation of a "student settler village" in old Akka.

Ruah Tsvonit Religious Seminary

 

Four years ago it seemed that the state of Israel was on the verge of losing the city of Akka since the establishment of the state; over the last fifteen years, over twenty-thousand Jews had left the city, and Arab families from the Galilee had moved into the city... the Wolfson neighborhood went from being a Jewish neighborhood to a neglected Arab neighborhood, and the Ohel Tsedek synagogue remained in its place. In 2003, the religious seminary found its natural home in the synagogue, which the Arabs had tried to turn into a mosque.5

 

General view of Acre (Akka) famous Harbor

This is the translation of the text found on the website of the Ruah Tsvonit Religious Seminary, in which over 150 religious students are enrolled today, all living in the Wolfson neighborhood beside the train station, and which has indeed transformed back into an Arab-Palestinian neighborhood. As is clear from the text, fundamentalist religious movements do not attempt to hide their national-religious Judaization goals, rather they make clear that the Israeli establishment and government share and work towards these same goals. The same site informs us that ؟the municipality of Akka, which sees our work as a means of bringing Jewish individuals and families into the city, has set aside a piece of land for us to build our campus.؟

The fact that such organizations have set their sites on important landmarks in Akka is also quite clear. For instance, one story on the Ruah Tsvonit website is that of Rabbi Haim Ben Attar, who ؟arrived in Akka in 1741 with tens of his students. They settled in the city and established Knesset Yisrael, the current location of which seems to be the Thaher Omar mosque.؟ There is a strong Zionist tradition of "reclaiming" sites which are said to have been visited by renowned Rabbis, which does not bode well for important Arab-Palestinian landmarks such as the Thaher Omar mosque.

The Branding Campaign

The Branding (or Re-Branding) campaign announced by the Akka municipality at the outset of 2008, aims to change the character and marketed image of the city from a "Crusader City" into a "Mediterranean City." In both cases the Palestinian, Arab and Ottoman character of the city is completely ignored and sidelined, and in both cases the municipality and the Ministry of Tourism have done all in their power to hide the fact that today's Akka, with its historic and distinctive architecture, is the city that was rebuilt by Thaher Omar al-Zeidani over the ruins of the crusader city, a project that was continued by Ahmed Pasha Al-Jazzar and the rulers that followed him until the fall of the Ottoman empire and the onset of the British occupation. Akka is an Arab city with over four thousand years of human history spanning Phoenician, Pharaohnic, Hellenic, Roman, Islamic and other civilizations, and is one of the best urban areas of the world where so much of this architectural and civilizational inheritance is still significantly intact and well-preserved.

In fact, the UNESCO recognition of Akka as a World Heritage Site came as a result of an Israeli application for this recognition. The core of the Israeli application was that the old city of Akka is a living example of an Ottoman port-city, which has preserved its cultural life since the Ottoman period, in addition to the important Crusader architecture (Akka was the capital of the second Crusader kingdom). The Israeli authorities who made the application made sure not to use the word ؟Arab,؟ let alone ؟Palestinian؟ in the UNESCO application, in spite of the fact that the actual residents of Akka's old city have been Arab throughout the city's history, and despite the Arab identity of Thaher Omar himself, the initiator of the first Arab political independence movement in Palestine in the modern period, and who had chosen Akka as his capital.

General view of Acre (Akka) from the sea, 2001

Notes on the October 2008 Events in Akka

The violent aggression that stormed through Akka on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (8 October 2008) and the nights that followed marked a critical escalation in the chain of racist assaults against the Palestinians of Akka, specifically those living in the newer neighborhoods outside of the old city walls. Assaults on Palestinian families and religious sites in the Eastern Neighborhood have been increasing over the past six years, with a marked intensification over the past two years epitomized by such acts as the arson attacks on the Manshiyya Mosque, on Palestinians' cars and homes, and violent physical assaults on many Palestinian families. The past two years have also witnessed Jewish-Israeli neighborhood committees' refusal to accept Palestinian families as neighbors, and harassment of Palestinian families who have managed to take residents in the Eastern Neighborhood. Racist graffiti, notably the common settler slogan ؟death to the Arabs؟ has been regularly spray-painted onto the walls and buildings of the Neighborhood as well as on the mosque.

Details about the October 2008 events are outside the scope of this article,6 but it is important to note that great deal of these violent and racist acts took place before the eyes of Israeli police and law enforcement personnel who made their complicity very clear by their refusal to protect the Palestinian victims of the various physical violence and arson attacks. The main purpose of the Jewish-Israeli violence against Akka's Palestinians had the central aim of forcing out the Palestinian families who had moved into the newer neighborhoods of Akka, and police complicity with such a goal makes evident the state's backing for this forced displacement campaign.

Just as important was the Palestinian response to the Jewish-Israeli violence. Palestinian political, commercial and social organizations and networks, as well as several prominent individuals, came together to form the Akka Residents' Coalition which worked to disseminate information about what was actually happening in the city to the Arabic, Hebrew and international press. The goal was to present an Arab-Palestinian position, providing the political and historical context of the violence that had erupted, as well as taking practical measures to organize and support the Palestinian residents of the city. Zionist organizations had called for a boycott of Arab enterprises, and for the cancellation of important Arab cultural activities such as the theater festival, so the Coalition called on Palestinians within the green line to come to Akka, and organized delegations to visit the city and see for themselves what had taken place, organizing various cultural activities to attract visitors to the city.

On the community level, the Coalition worked to provide material support to the Palestinian residents of Akka who had been evicted or hurt by the settler violence of October 2008. Money raised by the Coalition was used to repair damage done to some of the homes and shops, as well as in hiring counselors to provide psychological support to victims of the racist violence.

In addition to discrimination, marginalization and Judaization, the Palestinians of Akka lack the institutionalized civic and political infrastructure necessary to face discriminatory Israeli policies, and plan for the future of Akka's Palestinian community. Thus far, the community has not been able to transform its demographic strength into effective political power, and have faced a debilitating internal crisis at the level of civic and political leadership, a factor which serves to augment the dangers faced by the community. As such, the experience of the Akka Residents' Coalition is an important one well worth maintaining and building upon, especially in light of the ongoing nature of the crisis facing the Palestinians of Akka, but risks falling into the trap of being a spontaneous response to particular events and that dies down as the events recede into the past.

Confronting the Judaization of Akka

We cannot simply sit on the walls of Akka and lament the loss of our beloved city, angrily counting the waves, homes, landmarks, religious sites all put up for sale. Nor can we feel content that we have exposed the political schemes that have tightened the noose around our impoverished community, battered by the various forms of forced displacement.

The other face of opposition to the government's policies and practices aiming to displace us is the creation of our own Palestinian alternative. Such an alternative must go beyond slogans and denunciations to mobilize the energies of the entire community, transforming them into the engine for a social movement for the steadfastness and development of the community, with a clear vision backed by the consensus of the population and its institutions, and that can be translated into particular campaigns and initiatives that can bring the people closer to their goals.

General view of Acre (Akka), 2001

The foundations for a movement to defend and advance the Palestinian population of Akka must be the organization and unification of this community, with its various political and civic institutions. Such a movement should aim to coordinate political and social action to regain and defend the rights of the Palestinians of the city, both as individuals, and as an indigenous collective with a particular historical relationship to the city whose housing, employment and education needs should be prioritized. A social development project such as this should strive to restore Akka as a vibrant cultural and economic center for the Palestinian community throughout the country. Akka is not simply an issue of concern for the indigenous residents of Akka and its refugees, but is a Palestinian national priority. There can be no solution to the crisis faced by the city and its people without Palestinian recognition that Akka is indeed a priority, and action to address the crisis facing the Palestinians of the city.

While there are several forms that such action can take, an important area on which to focus in the short term is the eviction and auction of Palestinian homes. Individual and collective efforts can have a far-reaching impact as an increasing number of uninhabited properties, and the Akka Development Corporation, which controls many of the buildings and landmarks in the city, has recently put much of this real estate up for auction. Additionally, a significant number of the city's Palestinian residents have informed us that they wish to sell their homes for various reasons (most notably old age) and of their desire to find a Palestinian or Arab buyer. As such, and in the absence of an organized effort through which these properties remain under Palestinian ownership, control of these properties will go to Amidar, an arm of the Israeli government, or to the Jewish Agency or an investor with strong connections to the Jewish Agency.

Besides the political reasoning behind Arab investment in Akka real estate, which may not resonate with some, such investments are economically sound. Akka is a world-class tourist destination visited by over one-million people each year. During weekends and holiday seasons, its markets are packed with tourists and shoppers; and all who visit the city cannot help but be impressed by the city's architectural heritage, its historic walls, markets, guest-houses, its port, beach and restaurants. A good example of such property reclamation initiatives is that of Elijah Mourani, a Palestinian businessman from Ma'aliya. Mourani bought the old courthouse on Salah al-Din Street, and transformed it into a beautifully designed hotel. This project preserved the historic building, added to the city's tourism industry, and did it through a profitable business venture; a win-win situation.

Support for the city should not be limited to the purchase of buildings for businesses and economic ventures in Akka, but should also involve moving to live in Akka. Palestinians should visit the city, and get to know its important history (our history), they should come and shop here, and stay overnight, and walk along its shoreline, We need positive steps in the right direction, not just to confront the government and municipal plans to displace the Palestinians of Akka, but to also build our own plans to transform what could have been another chapter of the Palestinian Nakba into a chapter of the Palestinian story, written in Arabic with the words steadfastness, renaissance and achievement.

*Eyad Barghouti is a Palestinian writer and journalist living in Akka. He is the Networking Officer for the Union of Arab Community Based Associations (Ittijah). This article was translated from Arabic by Hazem Jamjoum, and will appear in the upcoming (Autumn 2008 / Winter 2009) Issue of al-Majdal, the quarterly magazine of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. See the rest of the magazine at http://www.badil.org/al-majdal/al-majdal.htm

 

Endnotess

1. Robert Fisk, ؟The Land of Palestine (pt.8): The Custodian of Absentee Property,؟ The Times, 24 December 1980.

2. Walter Lehn & Uri Davis, The Jewish National Fund

3. Don Peretz, Israel and the Palestinian Arabss (Washington DC: Middle East Institute, 1958), 142.

http://www.al-akhbar.com/ar/node/82302

5. Ayyalim website, accessed 25 August 2008, http://www.ayalim.org.il/index.php?page_id=331

6. Ruah Tsvonit seminary website, accessed 25 August 2008,  http://www.yakko.co.il/SafeCMS/?PageID=12



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