Monday, November 5, 2012

House evictions forge new alliances

Yafit Cohen is a wife and mother of four - her youngest child is just a few months old. Cohen makes her way up the stairs, slowly, easing her baby carriage around a gaping hole. "Watch out," she says to me.

I look down. I can easily imagine her 8-year-old son, a talkative little boy who has raced ahead, falling through. I gasp at the thought.

"I know. It’s dangerous," Cohen says, adding: "And it’s not legal."

Cohen, a Jewish Israeli, lives in low-income, subsidised housing. Worried that her children, or those of her Palestinian neighbours, could be injured or killed, she has asked the state to fix the stairs. They have not.

What the state is working on, however, is making Cohen and her family homeless. The housing authority wants to put Cohen, her husband, their four children, her brother-in-law and niece - "eight souls," as she says - on the street.

Between the two companies that manage public housing - Amidar and Halamish - over 800 Palestinian and Jewish families throughout Yafo and Kfar Shalem, an impoverished neighbourhood in South Tel Aviv, face eviction.

"We have nowhere to go," Cohen says, explaining that her parents and her siblings are also in dire financial straits.
When I ask Cohen why the state wants her apartment, which is decorated with Israeli flags, she answers: "I have no idea."

But the second I step inside, I know. The doors might be sagging, but the wood is original, antique. The roof might leak in the winter, but the ceilings are high, elegant. And the walls might have mold, but its windows are capped with pointed arches - trademarks of Arabic architecture.


Once it is repaired, Cohen's home will make a beautiful, expensive loft apartment. I can already imagine the Orientalist advertisement, over-written and flowery: "In the heart of historic Yafo, a place that evokes the smell of blossoming orange groves and the echoes of shouting spice vendors ...."

Gentrification is happening all over the world. But, like everything in Israel, here it comes with historical baggage and deep political implications.

In 1948, Israel forced some 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. Villages and houses were destroyed. And some of those that remained standing were Hebraicised. The city of Jaffa, for example, was given the Hebrew name Yafo. Salame became Kfar Shalem.

But the young state did more than rename places. It also repopulated them. Both Israel and the Jewish Agency turned over "abandoned" Palestinian properties to poor Jews. Oftentimes, the new residents were Mizrachim (Easterners) - Jews from Arab countries.

Today, some of these Mizrachi families still live in poverty. And now they face eviction as the government sells their homes to the highest bidder.

Unusual alliances

The state settled Cohen's grandparents, who immigrated to the then-nascent Israel from Turkey and Iraq, in Yafo. Like her parents, Cohen was born and raised in Yafo, as was her husband. While they do not get along with the Palestinian family downstairs - due to a neighbourly dispute that is personal and not political - Cohen's husband maintains close relationships with the Palestinians he grew up amongst.

"They're like brothers," Cohen says.

But, gentrification is not the only problem in Yafo. Jewish settlers are also moving into the area and holding right-wing rallies. And Cohen's children are growing up in a much tenser environment than the one she and her husband recall from their childhoods.

Cohen used to let her children play outside but, recently, she has been keeping them indoors.

"Whenever the settlers have a demonstration, [some of the Arab children] start to yell, 'Get out of here,' and 'Jewish trash,'" Cohen says.

At the same time that settlers threaten the delicate relationship between Jews and Palestinians in Yafo, the struggle for housing and dignity is building some new and unusual alliances.

Mizrachim have traditionally leaned to the right, voting for political parties like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and the ultra-Orthodox Shas. But a recent protest against home evictions - held in Yafo - found hundreds of Likudniks and Shas supporters standing alongside Palestinians.

While the picture was not entirely rosy - one Jewish Israeli protester refused to speak to Al Jazeera, and asked me, mockingly, if "the Arabs" pay well - the crowd was united around two issues: Poverty and home evictions.

And the anger of some residents was palpable.

Sima, 39, shouts: "[Halamish] wants to throw us from our house. They want to throw us without giving us anything. And we don't have any money."

"What are we? Dogs? Cats? What are we?" Her family members tell her to calm down. Sima's daughter asks that their last name be omitted. A teenage girl, she is less worried about housing, and more concerned that her friends at school might found out that she and her family faces homelessness.

"It's embarrassing," she says.

'Appearance of democracy'


Marsela Edri does not live in Yafo or Kfar Shalem. She came to the protest from Ashdod, about 45 minutes away, because, she says: "This could happen to me."

"[Home evictions] have taken place in Kfar Shalem, Jerusalem, everywhere in the country," Edri says.

While many of the protesters - both Jewish and Palestinian - attribute the issue to racism, Edri, who was born in Morocco, points out that the increased concentration of wealth is also a problem. And the role the government plays in this is troublesome.

"There is just the appearance of democracy [in Israel]," Edri says. "This place is a democracy for the people who have cash in their pockets." More