Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Separate But Equal?: Haifa

Haifa is often referred to as the model of “co-existence” in Israel. The city has the highest population of Palestinian citizens in an urban area, at 10% of the city's residents. The other 90% of the city's population is Jewish, with more than 25% of that population from the Soviet Union. While it is true that clashes between Arab and Jewish citizens have been limited, these two communities are not living in any sense of equality. Arabs and Jews in Haifa live in separate neighborhoods, go to separate schools and even frequent separate restaurants. Just a quick trip from the wealthy, predominately Jewish areas in the north of Haifa's Carmel mountain to the poor, predominately Palestinian areas in the south of the mountain (i.e. Wadi Nisnas and Halisa) gives evidence to the neglect that Arab residents face in terms of municipality resources. Similarly to other areas we've explored in Israel, the Arab community is solely in danger of house demolitions due to inadequate distribution of building permits and inadequate neighborhood planning, while the Jewish community lives comfortably and continues to grow each year without such problems. 

"Illegal" Palestinian structure in Haifa

Our story in Haifa comes from the Abu Shukar family living on Bar Yehuda street in Haifa. Their extended family had been living in a house on this street for over 70 years. After being denied a building permit and after enduring many court cases, the Haifa municipality decided to demolish the Bushkar home in 2005, against the will of the family, many activists and Arab members of Knesset.

Children of the Abu Shukar family

We sat down and spoke to Narjis Abu Shukar, a cousin of Mariam and Basim Abu Shukar, residents of the contested house. She witnessed first-hand the demolition and was injured by the police while resisting the operation. Please listen and/or read her testimony below.

It was a very difficult day; they came early, at 7 in the morning maybe, 6 in the morning… The members of Knesset were gathered here. There was not a big gathering at that time because it was still early. There were not many people during the demolition. Only the  members of the Knesset were there, and the lawyer, Walid Khamis, a member in the municipality.

Many came from the special (police) unit. Some on foot and some on horses… like going to war. There was a small amount of people standing in front of them. We were a very small amount here because it was so early and people didn’t gather yet. The time was very early.. they chose this early time so no one will be gathered here.

So… in order that no one resists the demolition, they closed all the streets of Haifa, from Checkpost, Shemen...the cars were not allowed to enter because they didn't want that people arrive here to the house.

Then they (the police) arrived here in very large numbers. Maybe one thousand. On horses. And hitting people… they entered the houses, there were old women here, they forced them to leave and hit them.

Even the Arab Knesset members, who also have a voice in the state, they didn’t have a word, because they were all hit. Even one of those Knesset members’ arm was broken and he went to the hospital.

And I was with the owner of the house, and we decided to do something, like in order to threaten them as opposed to what they do…we don’t have guns or anything. We can’t resist when they have shotguns and sticks and beating… So I was with the owner of the house holding gas cylinders in order to threaten them… like, if they come, we were going to explode them… and the end, they came upstairs with more than 20 persons from the special (police) unit. So I couldn’t go down because I have a problem in my back, they threw me from above the house to the ground below.

They tied my hands and my hand was broken. I went to the hospital. I mean, they started in a violent way, beating everyone… one small child was standing; they hit him with a rifle. A lot of people were in the hospital too. They were prepared with ambulances and fire-fighters. They prepared everything.

And after that, they took us out of the houses, they started to use tear gas, and water tanks, and there were not a big amount of people... They were like going to war…

I was hoping that they would stop the demolition. The Knesset members have voice in the state. Nearly all Arab members of the Knesset were here. Wasel Taha, Mohammad Barake, Azmi Bshara, Talab El Sani’… there were many present here. Even with all of this, they demolished… and the Knesset members were hit and humiliated as well… and they used tear gas everywhere…

They were (it seemed) coming not to demolish but like someone seeking revenge, and wants to kill… it’s not that their aim was to demolish the house. If it was to demolish the house, they could have taken out the people from houses in a better a way than this and then they could demolish… but they started to hit…

But at the end the house was demolished; I was at the hospital in that period. I saw it on the TV and I went through a trauma.
Original image of the demolition of the Abu Shukar house
It affected my daily life for sure… they do this only for Arabs. When any Arab does anything, they start to threat and demolish… they make us pay more taxes. But for the Jews they don’t do these things. When a Jew adds a room to his house, or builds a balcony, or builds another flat... all are legal. Only for Arabs it is not. It an occupation by force. They say "we take your lands despite you, not according to your will."
They want us to be weak with all of their humiliation, power, and whipping. But I don’t think… we are not going to allow them to dominate us.
We are not going to give up our lands. This is our land, since before the establishment of the state, and we have documents proving this. It is not possible that someone comes and takes us out of our houses. Even in the worst situations, if there was killing and blood, we would prefer to die and stay proud for something belongs to us. It is not easy for them to take something from us.

I hope that they leave us alone and let us live, without courts and problems, and demolitions all the time and only for Arabs. Nobody cares about what the Jews do. They build or don’t build, nobody asks about it. But if an Arab puts a stone in his/her house, the municipality comes immediately and demolish at the second day. Only for Arabs.

Mariam Abu Shukar, the mother of the family, recalled the event as ironic because while her home was being demolished, Haifa's mayor was on a tour in Canada, allegedly raising funds for “Jewish-Arab coexistence” projects in Haifa. Ultimately, the only ones that helped the Abu Shukar family was the local Islamic movement, which financially supported them to rebuild their home. The Abu Shukar family now lives in a mobile home, a cheaper alternative to building a true house infrastructure, in case their house is demolished once more. 

Rebuilt, moveable house

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Destruction of a Family: Lid

Just ten miles from the bustling, affluent streets of downtown Tel Aviv lies the mixed city of Lid. Lid, unlike Tel Aviv, is not known for its cafes, beaches or open-minded society, but rather for its high crime rate, poverty and inter-religious tensions. Although the community is mixed in terms of numbers, the Jewish and Palestinian Arab residents are separated, geographically and politically, and are treated differently by the Lid local authorities and Israeli government officials.

In recent years, Israeli government officials and Lid local authorities have proposed “strengthening”the city of Lid by promoting building projects for exclusively Jewish neighborhoods.  Government ministers such as Avigor Lieberman and Eli Yishai continuously push for the development of neighborhoods exclusively for discharged soldiers (i.e. Jewish citizens) and Jewish religious nationalists.  In 2010, the local authorities built a wall between Jewish and Palestinian Arab neighborhoods in order to prevent the spread of 'illegal' Arab houses.

70% of Palestinian Arab families in Lid are forced to build 'illegally.'  This means that 70% of the Arab houses in Lid are under threat of demolition and do not receive basic services from the government. With piles of rubble and trash lining the streets, many describe the Arab areas of Lid as resembling a town in Gaza.

Ihab Issa, a local activist involved in education and housing issues, told us that the problem of housing for Palestinian Arab citizens of Lid lies in the fact that there have not been any new government plans to allow for the natural growth of Arab neighborhoods. He said that local authorities claim that 'illegal' houses must be removed because they lie between Tel Aviv and empty fields that can be used for 'development projects.' Ihab wishes that the government would approve the houses built in Arab areas so that the Arab community could contribute to 'development' by building legally. 

From Left to Right: Ihab Issa, Rami Abu Eid and Sabri Abu Eid

In December 2010, an extended family of 60 persons was completed devastated by this problem when all of seven of their homes were demolished, unannounced, by an order from the ILA (see Glossary of Terms). Please watch the video below to hear their story:

According to Ihab and Rami, the initial demolition was carried out by tens of police which surrounded the homes, blocked the street, and declared the area a closed military zone. The Abu Eid family had only learned that their privately owned land, which had been registered since the British Mandate, was confiscated by the ILA in 1995 on the day police came to deliver their warrant for demolition. The warrant stated that the ILA would demolish the homes in 6 months; in reality, their houses were demolished the next day. 

Because the family was completely unprepared for the demolitions, members of the family tried to push past the police blocking the entrances to their homes in order to retrieve money and items of sentimental value. As a result, Rami's father and brother were arrested and Rami's brother was beaten on the head. The 60 family members that were displaced by the demolition were taken in by their grandparents and neighbors while they tried to build caravans in place of their original houses.

In March 2011, the ILA sent an order to demolish the caravans. This time, the entire Palestinian Arab community in Lid came out to support the Abu Eid family. In clashes with the police, three people were lightly injured and a few were arrested. After the demolition of the caravans, the Abu Eid family and a group of activists set up a community protest tent outside of Lid's city hall. Until today, the Abu Eid family has not been given any alternatives from the local authorities and they are not eligible for municipal housing projects because the projects are targeting only Jewish citizens.

When they came to hit us, I said to myself, this is not a state. Every time I watch the news on TV, I never see Jews demolishing other Jews' houses. What kind of state is this? Is this a country with a rule of law? 
- Rami Abu Eid

Ihab told us that the Lid municipality recently drafted of a new city master plan. Unfortunately, the plan, which is meant to account for city planning for the next 25 years, predicts that the Arab community in Lid will only grow to 30,000 people. According to Ihab, the current Arab population is around 24,000 people and with consideration of population's birth rate, the Arab community should reach to 120,000 people in 25 years.

A proper city master plan for Lid would not only legalize thousands of houses, but would also account for essential infrastructure lacking in the Arab neighborhoods. One resident, Yousef, described to us the struggle the Arab community in Lid has fought for the building of a community center.

Click here to listen to Yousef:

Transcript in English:

We pay taxes...taxes which are in very extreme amounts...we pay them. But the problem is that our own taxes don’t come back to us. I mean you take the taxes from here, then you repair the situation there... but the repairing for us here is very small, and they (the members of the local municipality) say you don’t deserve it. I mean, (they say) I'm doing you a favor by doing this little thing. They repair this pit here, and thinks he's doing us a favor. But I pay taxes. I pay all Arnona (municipal taxes), the taxes, all the dues on me from the state…and for the municipalities, everything. But I don’t get anything.
In 2008, Mayor Elan Harari, in front of 380 students and their families, I mean, around 1000 people were here, he said, I will build you a Matnas (a community center). A mini community center, I mean a small community center.  Also in front of little children, he says, I will do this for you… so the children got excited… but I see that you haven't started yet.  (He said) he would give the key in 2009 to the residents of the neighborhood.
We go and ask him about it… then (we discover that) he quit, someone else replaced him: Munir Nitzan.  So we tell him we met in the Knesset about this thing…and what does he say? 'We are looking for land on which we can build a community center for the Arab sector.' But look here is the land! Here is the land, it exists here for the community center. This exists for the community center! (points to open plot of land near Arab elementary school)
Sewage running through the streets just across from Arab elementary school

Open potholes outside Arab elementary school

Arab kindergarten that was burned in a fire in 2011 that has yet to be rebuilt

Monday, May 14, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Hurfeish

Far from the tourist attractions of Israel's beautiful beaches and majestic religious sites lies the quaint Arab town of Hurfeish. A cluster of cement houses nestled in the valley of the Meron Mountains, just a few kilometers from the Israel-Lebanon border, it seems hardly like the kind of place vistors or even most Israelis would frequent. However, the town's remote setting, along with its unique population, gives it a history and story that can illuminate us to the many problems facing villages throughout the Galilee and beyond.

Hurfeish is 2,000 years old, dating back to the times of the Byzantine Empire. Today, and for the last 500 years, the village has been home to a majority population of Druze Arabs, comprising about 6,000 residents. While Druze Arabs are a religious minority of the larger Palestinian people, many Druze Arabs in Israel feel strongly connected to the State due to their mandatory service in the Israeli military. On the other hand, many Druze citizens still feel very connected to their Palestinian roots and culture. Their identity is a unique and complicated one, deserving of deeper depth which cannot be properly explored here.

However, the unique position of the Druze community is worth mentioning, because while the State promotes the idea that Arabs who serve in the military are entitled to “benefits,” which are usually rights that every citizen deserves, such as education, employment, housing, etc., the village of Hurfiesh is a perfect example as to why this concept falls flat. While almost every citizen living in Hurfiesh serves in the military (and overhalf in combat units), the village is still plagued with extremely high levels of unemployment, poverty, and overcrowding. 

"Illegal" houses

One can easily argue that the main source of Hurfeish's problems is its inability to expand. Most of the village land was confiscated decades ago, partly for the Mt. Meron Nature Reserve and partly for neighboring Jewish towns. In the 1980s, Druze residents acted through the Follow-Up Committee to demand more lands from the government to accommodate for the village's natural growth. In the late 1990s, the residents were granted some lands for new neighborhoods, but since then, the village has not been granted a new Master plan. This inevitably leads to the current-day situation, in which a quarter of the houses in Hurfeish are considered “illegal” by the government and therefore, unable to receive basic services and under constant threat of demolition. 

"Illegal" houses being built

Electrical lines that residents extended in order to reach "illegal" houses

Unpaved road outside "illegal" houses

In the village, we met with Fawaz Hussein, active member of the Hurfeish local council for almost two decades. He gave us a tour of the area, showing us numerous “illegal” houses along the way. Many of the houses were huge and elaborately decorated; standing testimate to the fact that their community values owning a home to be one of the highest ambitions in life. We were surprised to discover that residents remain so invested in their homes even though they face the possibility of demolition at any given moment.

Fawaz Hussein

The "illegal" home of Handa Amer

Click here to listen to Fawaz speak about the housing issues in Hurfeish.

Transcript in English:

"As a minority, we naturally respect the law and we love the law and we want to implement it, but the circumstances don't allow us. A person is forced to build illegally, considering that there is no structure nor space for building. So there is a dilemma, a moral dilemma...a person wants to obey the law but a person (also) wants a basic right to live in a house and with stability.
As for the Druze sector, because it serves in the army, we now have this kind of disappointment...that the citizen is giving all of his rights and doing all of his duties and he is not receiving his rights, especially the basic right to housing and to live in safety without any persecution. Not long ago, they legislated a law in Knesset that each soldier is entitled for a portion (of land) for building. This law is implemented for Jews but not for others (non-Jews) who serve in the army. Why?
What I also want to say that we have all around us are Jewish settlements and villages. Every other day we see a new neighborhood in the area...in Saa'saa, in Ilkoush, in our neighboring Hossen...without protests, without violence, without all of these problems. Meanwhile, we have been suffering for tens of years from this subject. This issue did not begin yesterday; it is the result of different governmental policies.
I will give you a simple example; the current Minister of Interior, who have been in this position for the past three years, has not approved any new structural maps for the Arab sector. The structural map (Master plan) is supposed to grant answers for the next 20-30 years...give solutions concerning the problems of housing. Meaning, if one wants to build, he will be able to receive a license, and not commit any illegal violations, and if there is no available land, the country will give portions of land or give new neighborhoods for expansion. In 1979, they began to plan a master plan (for Horfesh). It was finished in 1998, and from 1998 until today, there has not been a (new) master plan to adjust to modern circumstances. A quarter of the houses in this town have problems, like with licenses, violations.."

Now we invite you to listen to the story of Handa Amer, a resident of Hurfeish living in an “illegal house” without basic services but with a demolition order.

Handa is a social worker and she lives with her husband and three daughters.