Palestinians of Acre face growing Israeli push to evict them
ACRE, Israel - The Palestinian residents of the Old City of Acre in northern Israel face a continuous and intensifying struggle against Israel’s attempts to displace them from the city. As the Palestinian identity and heritage of the Old City are gradually obscured, local residents are forced to leave in order to make way for wealthy investors and tourism projects.
Located on the Mediterranean coast in northern Israel, the port city of Acre is one of the oldest in the region, with evidence of continuous settlement dating back as far as 4,000 years. Due to its rich history, combining Arab, Crusader and Ottoman heritage, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001.
During the Israeli invasion of Acre in 1948, around three-quarters of the majority Palestinian population in the city were displaced. Today, most of the residents inside the historic walls of the old city are so-called “internally displaced” Palestinians. Forced to leave their towns and villages in 1948, they nevertheless remained within the borders of Israel and now form part of the 1.5 million Palestinian population that hold Israeli citizenship.
As the population fled, the majority of homes in the Old City of Acre were confiscated by Israel in 1948 and placed under the control of Amidar National Housing Company. Until today, most of these buildings are administered by Amidar, which rents them to local residents. “Amidar plays a major role when it comes to displacing the Palestinian population from the old city,” says lawyer Jihad Abu Raya.
For instance, Amidar often refuses to issue permits for residents to make renovations or fix safety hazards. And when they do issue renovation permits, these are conditioned on residents contracting specific companies that charge extortionate prices. Eventually the homes are declared "unsafe" to live in and residents are evicted. The buildings are later put on the private market at prices the local population can only dream of affording, he explains.
Amidar has also been known to fail in collecting rent from its tenants for several years, accumulating large debts that the impoverished residents are unable to pay. Although exact numbers are not available, Abu Raya estimates that the total population in the old city has already decreased from 8,000 to around 3,000 in the last 20 years, and there are currently more than 200 eviction orders on homes in the area.
Even those who own their properties face strong pressure to sell and move out. While the wave of gentrification sweeping over the Old City has seen housing prices skyrocket, the local population also struggles with socio-economic difficulties and substandard services. Many are therefore tempted to sell their properties. “People are made to feel this place is not worth much, and they don’t see that they are selling a real treasure,” says Hazar Hijazi who grew up in the old city.
The Old City of Acre also holds a number of important historic and religious sites, which were placed under the protection of the Islamic Waqf in 1948. However, the Waqf subsequently handed over control of a large part of these sites to the Acre Development Company, which operates under the authority of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and drives a strong agenda for setting the Old City of Acre up as an exclusive tourist destination.
Plans include developing high-end shops and restaurants, and turning historic sites such as the Khan al-Umdan into large luxury hotels. The World Heritage Site status granted by UNESCO also furthers these plans as it brings funds and investment for large-scale development projects, mostly carried out by Israeli or international companies.
Although the stated objectives of the Acre Development Company includes “[enabling] high quality residential and living conditions for the population of Old Acre,” the reality on the ground looks different.
The Palestinian residents rarely feel the benefits of the development projects carried out in the city. Instead, they find their heritage and way of life purposely obscured by an Israeli-controlled tourism industry, and their businesses are starved of customers as they struggle to compete with those targeting wealthy tourists.
“Israeli tour guides make deals with restaurant owners who are willing to pay them to bring in groups of tourists for a meal,” one local owner of a small restaurant laments. “So the guides eat a free meal and make money all at once, while we lose our business.”
As Palestinians continue to hold on to their culture and what they have left, the Old City of Acre is changing rapidly. “I believe the future of Acre will look like the future of Jaffa,” says Abu Raya. “This means most of the Arab population will be displaced.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.