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.
Zeira said Bemuna's plans will add little momentum to those market forces. The initial phase is for only 20 families. The company won a public bid for a block-size piece of property sold by the Israel Land Administration, which controls most of the land in Israel and occasionally offers parcels for sale. The losing bidder was an Arab group that fell about $4,000 short on a $1.4 million transaction.
"It's business," Zeira said. "The first ideology is it is cheap and it is next to Tel Aviv."
The deal is being challenged by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which argues that the land administration should not sell public property to a group that intends to discriminate.
The city of Tel Aviv also opposes the project but has no power to block it, according to Gilad Peled, director of Tel Aviv's executive authority. The city had asked that the property be left as open space or converted into affordable housing for Jaffans, whether Jewish or Arab.
Jaffa is "a poor community living on expensive land," Peled said at a Knesset committee hearing marked by shouting among Arab lawmakers, members from nationalist Jewish parties and witnesses. "The identity of the company is creating a feeling of threat."
There are also Jewish parts of Jaffa that are becoming more Arab, as families displaced from higher-priced seaside property move into cheaper apartments built for Jewish immigrants. Arab investors have won about half of the Israel Land Administration's bids in Jaffa, though it is not known whether Arabs or Jews moved into the homes or apartments that were built.
Amir Badran's family was a long-term tenant in a house that the land administration wanted to demolish and unite with other open space into the larger parcel where the Bemuna project is located.
The family accepted $200,000 in 2006 to leave the house. They used the money to buy his mother an apartment in another part of Jaffa, placing her among the one-third of the area's Arab residents who own their own home.
And he is part of an Arab group that successfully bid on another land administration parcel, where a planned eight-apartment building will make him a homeowner as well.
"That's the good that came out of it," said Badran, a lawyer. "I will stay and raise my children and show them that we are still there."
Emily Silverman, a planner who helped study Jaffa for an Israeli housing rights group, said one problem is that the city of Tel Aviv has not kept enough data to know exactly what is happening so it can create a plan to maintain Jaffa's diversity.
She said it appears that growth in the Arab population of the city has stalled. It was estimated at 13,000 when she worked in Jaffa in 1987, compared with about 15,000 today.
Tel Aviv prides itself on being an open-minded metropolis, and "cannot just wring its hands and say we wish it was different," Silverman said.
"Jaffe needs to retain a Palestinian identity alongside being part of the Israeli state. Let's work at it like we like it, not like we are afraid of it."