“Not for Sale” signs appear sporadically all over the Old City of Akko (Acre). A side street away from the harbour, an entire passage is crowded with abandoned buildings. “They can offer how many million they want”, says a local guesthouse owner, “I will never sell.”
Akko, split evenly between its Jewish and Arab populations, is greatly overshadowed by the neighbouring Haifa, which is a mere 15 minute drive away. What this quiet realm hides, however, is the repeated attempts by private Jewish investors to buy up the properties within the Old City, an overwhelmingly Arab part of Akko. According to UNESCO, “at the present time the five thousand inhabitants of the walled city are exclusively Arab.”
“My house sells for 200,000 Shekels. I was offered 1.4million.” Money proved to be no factor and he didn’t sell. Some, however, were not so resilient. According to local inhabitants, about ten or eleven houses were sold to their Jewish bidders. “They see this like an opportunity for a better life. We don’t speak to these people anymore. I don’t know what’s wrong with them”, a local fisherman shakes his head.
In terms of financing, no one knows where the money is coming from directly, but many are quick to point the finger at the rich Jewish supporters from across the pond in the United States of America. “It doesn’t happen openly, of course. It’s all done in secret.” A man walking the streets of Old Akko is quick to tell of the situation here. “The Jews want us out. They want all Arabs out of here.” With the tourist information around the old city showcasing exclusively the Jewish heritage of the area, it’s difficult to stay oblivious to the worries of the local Arab population.
The largely non-commercialised properties in the UNESCO world heritage site, on the other hand, are a lucrative business opportunity. Much needed after-dark activity and modernisation may be generated, yet at what cost.
The entrance to a narrow alley is blocked by a security guard. “Sorry, but I really can’t let you through. This is my job”, my pleas are hushed. “But, if you go left, then right, then left and left again, you will get there from the other side”, the security guard eases. What greet me on the other side are the ruins of a family home. Collapsing overnight, the rubble buried five people inside.
The owner of the house was receiving 1,200 dollars a month to house the radio antenna and its components when the building collapsed, following an early-hours explosion. According to variety of on-scene reports, the source was either one of the batteries or a gas balloon. Many reported the radio waves affecting their health, yet after the pleas of the local residents to remove it failed, the greed ended up consuming five lives.
However, the causes of the explosion remain unclear, with many reporting signs of “foul play”. A local resident told Jerusalem Post, a right wing Israeli newspaper, that “there was a murder here. We were threatened that the building would be blown up”. He didn’t go as far as naming who were the people behind this threat, leaving ample room for speculation.
With mosques in Akko and other Israeli cities neglected to the point of collapse, the residential future of the old city is uncertain and with it, the future of Akko’s Arab community. As of 2005, there were 40 abandoned mosques, decaying in the villages of post-1948 Israel. This is on top of 100 mosques which were completely demolished during the 20th century. The continuing vandalising and destruction of other places of heritage, such as in the destroyed Arab village of Lifta on the outskirts of Jerusalem, don’t inspire much hope either. The negligence of a now foreign cultural heritage of Israel poses many problems in the Old Akko.
The Old Acre Development Company, founded in 1967, has been at the forefront of redevelopment, and essentially, rebranding of the Old Akko. The direction in which redevelopment in the old city has been gearing towards is that of an open museum. The housing stock remains unchanged with minor cosmetic repairs, whilst the focal points of the Old City are renovated for the interests of private investors, those who can afford expensive new apartments and tourists. None of it benefits the local inhabitants, who are continuing to face more obstacles as the prices within the Old Akko continue rising due to influx of above mentioned factors.
Green Olive tours, an alternative and politically conscious travel agency, wrote: “The company (Old Acre Development Company) keeps on selling more and more property to Jewish Israeli investors without even notifying Palestinians of the tenders.” In the case of a well-preserved, yet abandoned Khan, or Caravanserai; “a neighbourhood association, which set out to fight the discriminatory sellout of the old city of Acre, recently achieved a victory in court and managed to halt the tendering process. Yet as the association’s lawyer Nora Ashqar stated, the threat to the Khan al-Umdan had been just one example of a wider trend of Israeli gentrification in the city.”
In the face of commercialising, or as the locals call Judaization, of the Old City, the remaining line of resistance remains within the funding through UNESCO and private initiatives, such as the previously mentioned neighbourhood association. With some people choosing to leave, a more and more tourism-cantered economy is emerging. Problems similar to the 2008 clashes between the Arab and Jewish populations of the city will continue to emerge with it. Tarabut, an Arab-Jewish movement for social and political change, wrote that the issues facing Akko and other mixed Arab-Jewish cities within Israel comprise of “settlers who have moved from the occupied territories to the mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel; city mayors […] who have no qualms about using racist incitement; and finally, the mainstream gentrifiers, who seek nothing but to advance their businesses and “urban development.”
What may be advocated as commercial opportunities and redevelopment of impoverished Old Akko, radical elements within the Jewish society, similar to settler group “Ometz” already established in Akko, will continue to shape the future. What some may see as commercial opportunities, others perceive it as an opportunity “to settle in people’s hearts” and “strengthening of the “Jewish character” of the city, according to Tarabut. In the end, the Arab population of the old city will see, and very likely experience, an assault on the Arab heritage of the city and the community of Old Akko as a whole. The previous examples of Haifa and Old Jaffa, where local Arab areas were replaced with artists’ and trendy colonies within, leave little more than an overpriced Cappuccino to look forward to for the inhabitants of Old Akko.
Sources: Haaretz news, UNESCO, Jerusalem Post, Old Acre Development Company, Green Olive Tours, Tarabut