Arabs and Jews quarrel over Acre’s Old City


This story orginally appeared on The Media Line.

Minarets, green domes and an Ottoman-era clock tower look out over the brightly painted fishing boats that line the quayside. Tourists stroll beside gaggles of children on outings from nearby Muslim schools. The old city of Acre is made uniquely beautiful by the sparkle of blue water from the Mediterranean Sea surrounding the ancient port town on three sides. For its examples of Ottoman architecture – a citadel, mosques, khans and a Turkish bathhouse – and for the Crusader ruins buried below, the city was awarded UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) heritage status in 2001.

Acre features heavily in the long history of the region, with the remains of both the largest Crusader town left in the world and evidence of permanent habitation dating back five millennia. The modern day city’s 46,000 residents are mixed demographically with around two thirds being Jewish, and one third Arab.

The winding alleys and timeworn buildings are what gives the old city its atmosphere, valued by both tourists and UNESCO alike. But many of these ancient buildings are in need of repair. The beauty of such structures goes hand-in-hand with the difficulty present in maintaining them – any repairs must be done using materials which preserve the ancient look of the old city. This makes repairs unaffordable to many of the residents of the old city, an area which suffers from high levels of poverty. In an effort to counteract this, investment has been brought into the old city seeking to harness the potential income from the numerous tourists who visit the town each year. There are new bed and breakfasts and restaurants catering to tourists.

The Jewish-led municipality of Acre is using this investment as a means of permanently changing the character of the city, accuse Basel Ghattas and Aida Touma-Suleiman, both members of the mostly Arab Joint List party. Arabs make up around 28% of the city’s population but almost all of the residents in the old city. This, charges Ghattas, is something the Israeli government wants to change.

The poor state of housing in the old city, Ghattas told a small group of journalists on a recent tour, is perpetuated by the mayor in order to drive out Arab residents. Most of the people living in Acre’s old city do not own their properties, but rent them from the municipality. These buildings are in dire need of repairs, said Ghattas, but the authorities refuse to let tenants alter the buildings, in the hopes that this will eventually cause them to leave.

“They’re homes are in a very bad situation because they prevent them from maintaining the buildings. As a result, they think, the people will leave. The hidden agenda is to evacuate Acre of its Arab citizens… to throw them out of their homes,” Ghattas told The Media Line.

The aesthetics of the buildings, due to the city’s UNESCO heritage status, is being used as an excuse to refuse permission to residents to conduct repairs, argues parliamentarian Aida Touma-Suleiman. At the same time the historical buildings of the old city have been earmarked for redevelopment. Several of the khans – historical courtyards that make up several of Acre’s most iconic sites – will be converted into expensive hotels for tourists, she said, and a number of Arab families have been informed they will be evicted, Touma-Suleiman told The Media Line.

“For many years the aim was to evacuate most of the old city of its own inhabitants and to turn it into a touristic city that is mostly inhabited by artists and investors, hotels, small boutique hotels – businesses that are mainly for tourism,” Touma-Suleiman said, adding that a combination of racism against Arabs and naked capitalist interest were behind the drive to force out Arab families.

The mayor’s office sharply rejected claims that they are trying to force Arab residents out of the old city.

“This is of course not true,” Daniel Arama, Head of Tourism in Economic Companies and a representative of the municipality of Acre told The Media Line. He insisted that the municipality had in fact sought to invest in residents of the old city through projects aimed at helping locals to set up sustainable businesses – guest houses, small restaurants and crafts centers.

He dismissed claims that investment in the old city would impact on the character of the heritage site and said the city often gave permission to residents who wished to conduct repairs on their homes.

The Arab parliamentarians have written a letter to Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, asking that the organization send an investigative team to Acre to decide if the terms of the city’s heritage nomination have been breached.

Ghattas believes that status has been compromised in two ways: firstly that certain renovations, namely large hotel constructions, will impinge on the visual atmosphere of the city; and secondly that the cultural heritage of the city is being deliberately diminished by the municipality. The MKs pointed out that improvements in the economic and social condition of local residents was identified as an important part in maintaining the city’s cultural identity and a prerequisite to Acre being recognized by UNESCO.

Ghattas and Touma-Suleiman believe that the threat of Acre losing its UNESCO heritage status will be useful political pressure to apply against the municipality – especially in the context of an Israeli government which is increasingly finding itself criticized by the international community. Acre is one of eight UNESCO heritage sites in Israel.

UNESCO is unlikely to revoke the city’s heritage status, said Arama, of the mayor’s office, adding that risking Acre’s standing was “a stupid thing to do.” He added that Acre doesn’t directly gain money from UNESCO but that the acknowledgment of the city’s unique value was important.

A level of suspicion among Arab residents towards the municipality is sometimes understandable, Professor Itzchak Weismann, of the Department of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University, told The Media Line. He pointed to Acre as the best example of a mixed city in Israel, where relations between Jews and Arabs were historically “much better” than other integrated cities in the country. But he admitted that there were incidents in the past that still lingered in Arab residents’ memories and prevented them from trusting the authorities.

In Jaffa, also a mixed city next to Tel Aviv, gentrification made rents skyrocket and many Arabs were forced to leave. Their homes were replaced with upscale restaurants and art galleries. People are afraid that will happen in Acre too, Weismann said.

“There are reasons (for Arab resident) to be worried – the state could do more,” Weismann told The Media Line, but he pointed to Shimon Lankri, the mayor of Acre, as an example of progress. Weismann suggested that Lankri was doing more for Arabs and Jews in the city and this could be seen in the last election result – “He has some support from Arabs, not 100% but maybe around half.”

“The city is very dear to my heart,” said Weismann, “there is still much to do but the city is (going) in the right direction.”