Om Ahmad campaign breathes life into Acre struggle
By Beth Staton
Overlooking the Mediterranean sea, off a neat side street and with a shaded, grassy garden, the house of Om Ahmad is as beautiful as any in old Acre. The 60-year-old has lived in the home for fifty years, and her large family – she has ten children and thirteen grandchildren – gather daily here to eat, talk and smoke arguila.
For decades, life in the house has been relatively ordinary. But recently, campaigners, officials and active members of the community have started spending more and more time at Om Ahmad’s place, and today it is a hive of activity, packed with constant meetings and gatherings at the centre of a dynamic community campaign.
Everything changed for Om Ahmad less than two months ago, when she was served with an eviction notice. Her property, which occupies a prime position on the iconic sea walls of Acre's old city, had been bought by a businessman at auction and set aside to be turned into a hotel.
In an area where the Palestinian population is active, tight-knit and holds close to a 100% majority, the plan was always going to be met with stiff opposition. Since 1948 the Arab residents of Acre's old city have lived within a property system that is both complicated and debilitating. When much of Acre's population fled during the Nakba, the authorities of the newly created state of Israel took ownership over many buildings using the absentee property law. Not long after the expulsions, government agencies – now the Old Acre Development Fund and Amidar – were created to manage the scores of empty homes left behind by refugees. Today, many of the families living in the city pay rent to these private subsidiaries.
This was Om Ahmad's situation when businessmen began bringing groups of smartly-dressed foreigners and Israelis to the area around her house earlier this year. When she greeted them, offered them tea and asked what they were doing, she says, the newcomers ignored her. And when her family received the eviction notice in April, they didn't realise the house had been sold at auction without their knowledge several months earlier, back in January this year.
For local activist Hazar Hijazi, it's details like this that are perhaps the most insulting. "It really hurts that the businessmen came here and ignored Om Ahmad," she told Palestine Monitor. "They're treating people like objects, to be moved around because of what others think is best. These people are coming in from outside, saying they know what is best for the neighbourhood, for development, and people like Om Ahmad are going to have to pay the price."
For Hijazi and fellow activists, the struggle for Om Ahmad's home is a tiny part of a much bigger puzzle. In the old city of Acre, "development" is often a byword for dispossession, and in plans for luxury hotels and apartments locals see a deliberate campaign to rid the city of its Palestinian population.
The troubling implications for Acre’s population are well hidden in public plans for the city. On its website, the Old Acre Development Company touts a range of properties "designated for immediate marketing" – including the site of Om Ahmad’s house, described as "unique summertime cinema," where a small, 60-room hotel is being planned. Among the other sites up for grabs is the area of the Khan al-Umdan and Khan al-Shuna, a stunning 18th Century Caravanserai and UNESCO world heritage site where 36 Arab families live. When the website boasts that the area will become a "uniquely attractive" 170-room hotel, it makes no mention of the Arab community that will be displaced from the old city by the development.
According to Khaled Dagash, a lawyer working on Om Ahmad’s case, the sidelining of the Arab community in Acre is effectively built into the the Israeli Authorities’ plan for the city. In 2001, when the old city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, Israeli authorities zoned it for tourism – a decision that activists say denied any allowance for the needs of the local population.
"This plan that was laid in 2001 concerned the whole area – not just Om Ahmad’s house but all the neighborhood of Al Burj," Khaled explained, referring to the wide area of the Old City where her house stands. "There is no living space targeted in this plan, just tourism planning for shops and hotels. And the projections for Om Ahmad’s house, the Cinema Bustan project, are based on this plan."
Because the plan affects the whole of the old city, there’s a strong sense that Om Ahmad’s campaign is a fight for much more than just one house – that if this one individual is evicted, the de-Arabisation of Acre will spread across the city. "This case is the key to all the issues of transfer in the city of Acre," Ahmad Aouf, a young activist at the house, said. "If Om Ahmad is transferred from her home, it means that other families will be transferred too."
Last weekend, the campaign to defend the home was in full swing. Young activists prepared for a meeting in the garden by hanging banners bearing slogans like, "We will not move out," or, "No bad papers, just bad laws." Christian and Muslim leaders from Acre and Jerusalem made an appeal for unity and solidarity among Palestinians against judaisation and occupation, and were met with applause from the assembled crowd.
The activists working on this campaign, however, face a complicated situation. Unusually, the businessman who won Om Ahmad’s home on auction is an Arab, and well known to the community. But this has done nothing to alleviate fears of judaisation. Activists believe the sale, managed by the Old Acre Development Company and according to a master plan they say is unsympathetic to Palestinian needs, still serves the purpose of judaisation and dispossession in Acre.
"There is this question, who is responsible for ethnically cleansing Om Ahmad out of her house," Hijazi says. "And now, unfortunately, it seems the answer is an Arab businessman. He thinks he’s in this for the money. But he doesn’t realise that he is an agent of ethnic cleansing."
"The fact that we knew him, it was a slap in the face," Mohammed, Om Ahmad’s son in law, told Palestine Monitor. "But we are working hard and we are hopeful that our tactics are working – that maybe we will be able to stop this going through."