On the horizon of Israel’s Mediterranean coast is a beautiful park that looks somehow out of place: Its manicured grass is too chartreuse for the Middle East, its topography too hilly for the coastal plane. Underneath the grass are demolished Palestinian houses. When the sea is stormy, it spews out their colored tiles.
This is Ajami, a fast-gentrifying neighborhood in the ancient port city of Jaffa. Formerly Palestine’s cultural and economic capital, today Jaffa is a so-called “mixed city” of Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. It’s the jewel of Israel’s claim to liberalism and peaceful coexistence: laid-back, always sunny, the hummus is “authentic,” and the hotels are boutique. But over the last two weeks, as violence escalated first in Jerusalem and then in Gaza, the façade of equality in Jaffa cracked.
Across Israel’s mixed cities, there was virtually unprecedented violence between Palestinian and Israeli citizens. They fired guns, hurled rocks, threw Molotov cocktails, and set ablaze mosques, synagogues, police stations, restaurants, and cars. On social media, there were photos of Palestinian houses marked with red paint, allegedly so Jewish attackers would know whom to target. There were also leaked screenshots of far-right Jewish organizations plotting to attack Palestinians: Lehava, a Hebrew acronym for “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land,” and La Familia, the Jewish version of the Proud Boys who are supporters of a soccer club and notoriously chant “Muhammad’s dead.”
In Jaffa, a mob of several hundred Jewish extremists marched onto the city from the south on May 12, chanting “Death to Arabs,” during the broader conflict that devastated Gaza. They attacked and nearly killed a Palestinian motorist on live Israeli television, the reporter shouting off-camera: “We’re watching a lynching! There are no cops here!” Later that night, a Molotov was thrown into a Palestinian home, severely burning a 12-year-old boy. The next day, an Israeli soldier was hospitalized in serious condition after being beaten in the street. Residents declared a self-imposed lockdown and, in the panic, removed their names from mailboxes as well as identifiers like Ramadan lamps. “I’m not afraid, but I boiled a pot of oil on low simmer,” a Palestinian single mother of four said. “If anyone were to enter my house, they were going to get it.”
A chief cause of the violence in Jaffa, as well as in other mixed cities, is gentrification. Unlike the gradual encroachment of Jewish settlers on Palestinian lands in the West Bank, this is happening inside Israel’s borders, echoing the country’s violent creation.
During the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, approximately 120,000 Indigenous Arab residents were kicked out of Jaffa during what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. “Ajami is about to be closed off with a barbed-wire fence that will rigorously separate the Arab neighborhood and the Jewish section,” an Israeli official wrote in 1949. “That arrangement will immediately render Ajami a sealed-off ghetto. It is hard to accept this idea, which stirs in us associations of excessive horror.”
“My grandmother is a Nakba survivor,” said 26-year-old Yara Gharabli, who lives with her grandmother in Ajami. “Her family managed to come back to Jaffa two years later, and they were put with the remaining Palestinians in Ajami.” When Gharabli’s grandmother returned to Jaffa, it was no longer the cultural and economic capital of Palestine, and only 3,000 Arabs remained. “My grandmother’s house was confiscated, there was a Jewish family living there; it’s now a boutique selling handcrafts,” Gharabli said.
Over the past two decades, Ajami has been transformed by wealthy Jewish newcomers from a crime-riddled slum to a luxury seafront neighborhood at the expense of yet more Palestinians. There are 300 families now facing eviction orders in Jaffa, all Palestinian, implicated in a labyrinth of violations that they do not have the means to fight in court. These Palestinians may be Israeli citizens, but they are not treated as equally as Jews.
“People say that gentrification is a normal thing that is happening all around the world, in America, in Amsterdam, in Berlin. But here, the gentrification is not a class issue; it’s ethnic. There is a policy to kick out Palestinians and house Jews in their place, preferably white Jews,” said Gharabli, who works with an activist group called Jaffa Not for Sale to combat gentrification and home evictions. We spoke at an event held in solidarity with six Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which started a chain of events that led to this month’s brutal war in Gaza.
Marwa, a lively Palestinian woman who owns three businesses in the area, believes gentrification is a conspiracy by the government, a public-housing company, and the Tel Aviv municipality to get rid of people like her. She had tried to buy her father’s one-story home, neglected and falling apart, from the public-housing company, but said she faced too many legal obstacles — not to mention an astronomical price tag of $3 million. “I was standing on the balcony; there was a tour guide with some 30 people outside our house. The guide was telling them, ‘We are slowly diluting the Arab population in Ajami. We are bringing all the rich people. We will give mortgages with low interest rates to Jews from outside to come live here. Not one Arab will be here in a few years.’” Marwa gots heated and clenched her ruffled minidress in her fist. “I started shouting at the group, I filmed them too. I said, ‘You just wait and see, the Arabs will burn you.’”
It is not just wealthy families moving in, though. Several dozen Jewish families calling themselves the Jaffa Social Nucleus moved into the city to reinforce Jewish rule through education and religious programs. In 2011, the movement’s leader, Rabbi Yuval Alpert, explained in an interview the urgent need to settle Jaffa: “I was asked to teach a class about Purim, and when I entered the classroom I saw that a third of the kids were Arab. There is a very problematic phenomenon here, because friendships are developed and eventually Jewish girls are marrying Arabs and vice versa.” It may sound like an extremist vision, but this movement is generously funded by the same branch of the Israeli government that funds Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“When it comes to housing and land, Palestinians in Israel are treated as an enemy. Categorically,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Knesset lawmaker from the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-majority political parties. He is giving a speech to some activists, including Gharabli, at the local theater. He is standing underneath a thick stone arch, speaking into a mic that is turned too loud for the small, stuffy room. “The main goal of the Zionist movement is to Judaize. Most Jewish Israelis see this as a positive thing, but for us non-Jews who are harmed by this policy, it’s a catastrophe.”
Feeling that the police were not going to protect them during the latest violence, the Palestinian community self-organized under the name “Emergency Committee for the Protection of Jaffa.” While the Israeli police were criticized by both sides for not doing enough, the figures tell a different story: Over 90 percent of those indicted for the civil unrest in recent weeks were Palestinian. On Sunday, the Israeli police announced a snap operation to arrest 500 more Palestinians in 48 hours.
“It was Abu Seif who stopped the Jewish mob, not the police,” said a man in a café, referring to a Jaffa clan who live near the southern border. The men with him are smoking hookah, watching the ruins in Gaza on a large TV broadcasting Al Jazeera. Gabi, a university student, recalls navigating the mob on May 12. “I was coming back from my grandmother’s house. She lives in front of us in the Maronite area. There were about 200 people looking for Arabs. I was with my dad and our dog. We walked through the crowd, didn’t say a word; if we had opened our mouths, then they would know we were Arab.” Gabi’s friend Anthony said he was stopped by the police at gunpoint that night. “I was coming home from my friend’s place at 3:30 in the morning, the police pointed a gun at me, asking where I’m going.”
Like most people in the city, Anthony and his friends are deeply suspicious of the police and their motives. “The police are not coming to help Arabs. Even though we pay everything like the Jews, we pay city tax and income tax, but the police don’t protect us in the same way they protect the Jews.” Or, Gharabli explained, “it’s easy for the police to target Arab men because of the way they look. We have a code here: black shirt, shaved head. That’s the fashion in Jaffa.” Police have long harassed Palestinian residents by liberally fining and ticketing them, especially drivers of electric bicycles.
Some residents, however, think this enforcement is a good thing. “I am critical of the police, but everybody knows these nasty hoodlum kids driving on bicycles without a helmet,” said one woman shopping at a hole-in-the-wall bakery. She was speaking Hebrew, but she could be Palestinian; it’s hard to tell. “They attack, throw stones, burn trash cans, and steal. So maybe we need some order.” She threw a bag of pitas into her Mazda and drove off.
Matan Yadumi, a tanned and smiley 19-year-old yeshiva student at the Jaffa Social Nucleus’s seminary in Ajami, said he does not hate his neighbors. He came to Jaffa to study because he loves surfing. “We have a good relationship with the Arab neighbors; it’s not like it looks in the media. The riots were because of kids. Some Jewish kids like burning things too, we were all kids once.” He said that they don’t talk to them about politics in the yeshiva, but their presence in Jaffa is important because “Jaffa is a city in Israel and Israel is a Jewish state.”
Yadumi said that he will stay in Jaffa for another year and will then join the military, preferably in a combat unit so he can defend his country “from enemies who want us dead.” When pressed on what differentiates his Palestinian neighbors in Jaffa from his Palestinian neighbors in Gaza, he simply said they’re not the same. Perhaps he doesn’t know that the third-largest refugee camp in Gaza houses families originally from Jaffa. It’s called Shati camp, meaning “beach camp.”