Over the past 12 years I’ve been looking very closely at Acre. That’s where I spent my gap year and that’s where I returned to five years later, to study for a degree I have yet to complete, and so, every year I pop up again at the college to take another course or an exam, and mostly, to be honest, to visit the Old City. Four years ago already, I sat down with one of the Arab women of the Old City, an activist with an Arab-Jewish peace group. She told me a story of Acre I’ve never heard before. In those days, protest banners decorated the city’s streets; it was at the height of the conservationist development. “Acre is not for sale,” read the posters, which were not touched on by any Hebrew media.
The majority of Acre’s Arab residents fall under the definition of “internally displaced persons.” In 1947, as the war started, Arabs living in the country fled/were expelled; some ended up in other Arab countries, some gathered in cities that became part of the newly founded Israel but held on to their Arab character, like Nazareth, for example. Some found refuge in the old parts of cities that would become emblematic of that co-existence, and these are Acre’s Arab residents.
Acre, a minuscule peninsula stretching out into the sea, needs only one look to reveal its story: It is one of the world’s oldest port cities, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. A supposedly exciting matter became a primary, official source of the processes of dispossession in place there to this day. In order to understand that, we must return to 1948. In those days, the Palestinians who came to Acre were granted formal status by the State of Israel, equal citizens, supposedly. The homes they were evicted from/fled were expropriated; the homes they got to became their formal residence, but they were never theirs. The houses in Acre’s Old City are under the auspices of the state, that is, managed by state-owned housing companies like Amidar or Halamish, so that anything these Palestinian residents want to change in their own home requires bureaucracy and approval. It sounds like it makes sense. After all, these houses are historically important conservation sites. But take a closer look and you’ll find the bureaucratic hurdles faced by families who want to add a room for a child who grew older or fix their crumbling balcony aren’t the same hurdles faced by developers – tourism professionals and rich investors who came to Acre, realized what exciting potential it has, and got to work. And by work I mean textural changes, structural changes and all sorts of very extreme changes that clearly violate the very strict regulations for listed buildings. But that’s how it works when there’s money, you can do anything. And when there’s no money, you can’t even convert an open balcony into a room.
Whenever I get to Acre nowadays I enjoy every moment. The city is laid before me, a Jewish Israeli, rolled out like a red carpet: cheap hummus, quasi-hypster cafés with Arab chic and affordable prices, an open-air market that takes me back to the days of my big post-army trip. A perfect getaway for hardly any money. The other week I went with some friends on a dream vacation in Acre, and that’s exactly what it was. We walked around like royals, surrounded by locals. Overcrowded locals, packed together, their businesses getting shut one after the other to make room for Jewish-owned ones, their homes coming apart before their eyes and there’s nothing they can do about it.
And when your home crumbles before your eyes, your children are raised without a private room for themselves, and the city you’ve loved so dearly is turning into a tourist site, turning you into just another tourist attraction, there aren’t that many options left. Arab residents leave Acre and move to nearby towns and villages. There they can surely build a fancier, warmer, healthier home, within a relatively homogeneous community. But then, once again, it means wandering away from home, away from memories, leaving the land where they had raised their children. All that is the lesser evil. In many other cases, residents are simply evicted under the guise of “conservation.”
There’s a good story to be told of two adjacent houses, located right behind the famed Uri Buri restaurant, which made headlines last week when it was set ablaze. The two houses are entirely identical in terms of structure and history. One of them is owned by Amidar and populated by a Muslim familiy, while the other was purchased by a Jewish investor seeking to turn it into a boutique hotel. The former, decaying and crumbling, is slowly but surely falling victim to a silent war – when will its residents despair and leave? The latter is renovated, standing strong and handsome, awaiting its tourists.
And what about data? Between 2013 and 2018 nearly half of Acre’s Arab residents – 40% of them – left the city, gone in a dust cloud, surrendering their homes to the city’s development and conservation. Conserving its stones, that is, because an Arab city devoid of its residents can’t really be conserved.
Meanwhile, the Garin Torani (a religious Zionist settlement community, which we’ll get back to later on in the story) has taken root in Acre and started growing. Other garinim, ideologically motivated groups, not only religious at this point, began taking over large swaths of the Old City, harming the already delicate fabric of life in the community of lower-class Arabs and Jews. Raising flags, marking all sorts of marks, and overall, arriving with a clear agenda. “Us” and not others. The new landlords, foreign to local traditions, brutally crush the sensitivity required by this type of city.
Israelis regard Acre as a prime example of brilliant co-existence: The Arabs work for us, laying down cultural riches, food and atmosphere on a gold platter, for us to rake in the symbolic (and financial) wealth. Arabs regard it as a prime Israeli model of circular dispossession, repeating itself over and over again. First in 1984, and since then in tiny pulses, again and again over years. They are crushed under touristic ventures, pushed aside and out of their homes, watching their beloved city change beyond recognition. The torching at Uri Buri is a literally burning symbol of this whole story.
You won’t be hearing this story on the news or in TV studios bursting with analysts, filling airtime, even though in 2008, too, the sounds of similar protests caught us – much like now – off guard. Either way, this story serves as the emotional, personal and – undeniably – nationalist foundation upon which frustration builds up, and from which desperation bursts out in the form of what we Israelis experience as an explosion of violence. If you will, like I opened this text – let’s see you try removing me from my home.