Coastal Israeli City Offers Glimpse Into Deep-Seated Divide

An Israeli Arab woman walks along a street in Jaffa as children play. Today, about one-third of Jaffa's roughly 50,000 residents are Arab. The city, annexed by Tel Aviv in the 1950s, is considered one of the more integrated in Israel.
An Israeli Arab woman walks along a street in Jaffa as children play. Today, about one-third of Jaffa's roughly 50,000 residents are Arab. The city, annexed by Tel Aviv in the 1950s, is considered one of the more integrated in Israel. (By Ariel Schalit -- Associated Press)
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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

JAFFA, Israel -- Bemuna Co. has built "housing for the religious public" in places attractive to Jewish families, from the breezy hills of the Galilee in northern Israel to Jerusalem ridge tops overlooking the Old City.

So its latest plans are a puzzle: 60 apartments in the middle of a somewhat run-down neighborhood of mostly Arab residents in this city on the coast. There are no plans to market to the Arabs.

"We are a homogenous group. We do not want to live together with Arabs in the same building," lawyer David Zeira said during an Israeli Knesset hearing on the project last week. Rather, he said, Bemuna hopes to bolster the Jewish presence and "improve the population" in Ajami, a seaside neighborhood that is the center of Jaffa's Arab community.

A world away from such flash points as the Gaza Strip or East Jerusalem, the Bemuna project has exposed some of the fault lines that continue to separate Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens.

Arab residents of Jaffa, many of them descendants of those who stayed through the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, say poorer families are being forced to leave by rising property values and the expiration of long-term tenancy agreements set up by Israel after it seized the homes of Arabs who fled or were expelled.

Bemuna, they say, has added a religious dimension, using land acquired from the Israeli government and relying on Israeli housing laws that allow sellers to discriminate against Jews or Arabs in private property transactions

"The ideology behind this is really dangerous," said Asma Agbarieh Zahalka, a local political activist. "They want to Judaize Jaffa and ruin what remains of coexistence."

In the occupied West Bank, confrontations over competing claims to the land have often turned violent between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Some Israeli nationalist groups are insisting that Israel should increase the Jewish presence in the mixed Arab-Jewish cities of Israel itself.

Last spring, a conference in Ramla entitled "Between Israel and the Nations" discussed possible responses to the presence of minorities, the country's 20 percent Arab population as well as the few hundred thousand non-Jews, including spouses of immigrants, workers and others. The strategies discussed included stricter conversion of immigrants and the transfer of "hostile Arabs" out of Israel, according to an account of the conference prepared by Israel National News, a Web site associated with the national religious movement.

Jaffa, once a bustling commercial center famous for its surrounding orange groves, had about 70,000 Arabs before Israel's founding. About 3,600 remained after the 1948 war. Jaffa was annexed by neighboring Tel Aviv in the 1950s, when it became a place to house Jewish immigrants.

Today, about one-third of Jaffa's roughly 50,000 residents are Arab. The area is considered one of the more integrated in Israel. Arab businesses cater to Jewish clients, with signs in Hebrew and a command of the language. The large Arab population at one Jewish public school led to a rare experiment in mixed classrooms.

An afterthought as Tel Aviv boomed ahead, the Jaffa real estate market began soaring in the 1990s as investors turned to an undiscovered gem. A paved seafront walkway now allows bikers and bikini-clad Rollerbladers to cruise from Tel Aviv's skyscrapers to Jaffa's fish restaurants. Exclusive developments have brought a gated-community tone to sections of a waterfront that still meanders in front of dilapidated homes and was once used as Tel Aviv's garbage dump.


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