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Gentrification leaves one Jaffa family caged in their own home

Ismail Shawa never expected that a new luxury apartment building would have such an immediate and dramatic effect on his family’s life — that was until contractors sealed off the entrance to their home with a concrete wall, effectively trapping them inside.

By Yudit Ilany

Ismail Shawa standing in the window he is forced to climb through in order to exit and enter his Jaffa home. (Photo by Yudit Ilany)

Ismail Shawa standing in the window he is forced to climb through in order to exit and enter his Jaffa home. (Photo by Yudit Ilany)

To exit or enter his Jaffa home, Ismail Shawa, 62, has to remove the bars from his bedroom window and climb out and over the neighbor’s water pipes. He still has to cross a yard that doesn’t belong to him but for the time being, no has told him not to. The other option is to exit over another neighbor’s flimsy and crumbling asbestos roof.

When his wife, Itidal Shawa, 67, fell ill a week and a half ago, paramedics had to call in the fire brigade to extract her because there is no longer any other way out but to climb through the small window — or over the neighbor’s roof.

A judge from the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court described the arrangement as “not easy,” but asserted that the family “can still enter and exit their home.” Perhaps the judge wouldn’t mind entering his courtroom through a small, high-placed window.

And all of this because a contractor building a fancy new luxury apartment building next door erected a concrete wall that blocks the entrance to the Shawas’ home.

The plot on which the fancy housing complex sits was bought from the Israel Land Authority some years ago. Perhaps no one paid attention to the fact that the only entrance to the Shawa family home is through the same plot. Or perhaps they did pay attention but simply didn’t care.

Rights of way are recognized by Israeli law, so the Shawas should have been safe. They should have been able to continue entering their home through the neighboring plot, the same way they have since they first moved into their home 37 years ago.

The Shawas are a regular Jaffa family, simple people. And fancy housing developers do what they want; they have connections, expensive lawyers and when necessary, employ private guard companies with less-than-perfect behavioral records, as the Shawas found out a few weeks ago.

The Shawa family’s story starts in 1977 when Ismail and Itidal got married, took out a bank loan and bought protected tenancy rights from Sa’ado Jabar, the owner of the building in which the Shawas’ ground-floor apartment is located. The Shawas’ only entrance has always been from the backside of the building and through the empty adjacent plot.

Seven children were born and over the years and the Shawas turned their backyard into a garden with orange, lemon and mandarin trees, a grape arbour and lots of flowers. The children had their own small “farm” for their pets: chickens, a dog and lots of birds. Over the years, the garden overflowed into to the empty plot next door, which prior to their gardening efforts had become a place where drug dealers and addicts hid their stashes, weapons and stolen goods. The municipality even encouraged the Shawas to use the plot, then owned by the Israel Land Authority.

Mr. Shawa worked as small-time businessman while Mrs. Shawa was at home educating the children. Two of the married children moved out. The other five, all adults now, still live at home.

In 2010 the neighboring plot was sold and one morning in 2012, the Shawas woke up to the sound of bulldozers destroying their lovely garden. Mr. Shawa called the police, who stood by and watched and wouldn’t allow him to take his property or save the garden furniture and bird cages. It was then that the Shawas learned of the building planned for next door.

Mr. Saado Jabar, the owner of the building, an elderly and well-respected man in Jaffa, spoke with the contractor who promised him the Shawas would be given right of way. “They made the agreement by shaking hands,” Sammy Jabar, the owner’s son says. “My father is of that generation where a man’s word and a handshake mean more than any paper.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Shawa went to court and appealed to the municipality. The municipality recognised Mr. Shawa’s right of way.

In spite of that, Mr. Shawa agreed to stop using the old entrance if another entrance was arranged for him and his family. This was not done, first and foremost, because it was almost impossible technically, but also because it would create another legal problem: somebody else owns the land on the other side of the building and there would be no guaranteed right of way there either.

Two weeks ago the Shawas came home to find their only entrance blocked off by a concrete wall being protected by nearly a dozen private guards. Unable to enter their home, the Shawas called the police and showed them a letter from the municipality’s building department clearly stating an entrance path to the Shawa family home must be left open. That didn’t help. The police stood by and did nothing.

Ismail Shawa's daughter speaks with police officers outside the family home (Photo by Yudit Ilany)

Ismail Shawa’s daughter speaks with police officers outside the family home (Photo by Yudit Ilany)

The Shawas immediately took the case to court and the duty judge decided not to issue a temporary injunction or demolition order. Thus, the Shawas spent their first night outside of their home, unable to enter it. The second day they brought equipment and climbed in, over the asbestos roof belonging to one of the neighbours on the other side. It was then that the fire department had to be called to extricate Mrs. Shawa.

When a court finally decided they should be given right of way, Mr. Shawa once again called the police in order to enforce their right of way. The police did not intervene. It turned out the developers had appealed.

Accepting the developers’ appeal, a second judge decided that the concrete wall blocking the Shawas’ entrance did not have to be demolished, ruling the Shawas “can still enter their home,” albeit in an “uneasy manner.”

Two weeks later, the Shawas still have to climb through their bedroom window to enter and exit their home because their other neighbor doesn’t want them to climb over her roof any longer. She’s rightfully afraid that its crumbling asbestos will crack or collapse.

The Shawas spoke to the developer of the new building next door. They say he couldn’t care less. Wealthy Tel Aviv developers building in Jaffa tend not to see the poor neighbors below their fancy luxury buildings.

The future tenants of the fancy apartments will one day soon live next door to people who have many reasons not to like them. People who have to climb through a window to enter their home. People who have no gas for cooking because they can no longer replace the empty gas canisters. And it seems that no one really cares. Welcome to gentrifying Jaffa, 2014.

Yudit Ilany is an activist in the Jaffa Popular Committee for Housing and Land Allocation Rights.

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    1. seth warshavsky


      Reply to Comment
    2. seth warshavsky

      Is nobody else appalled by the utter disregard for the very basics of respect for others? The casual cruelty and venality of Israel’s judicial system? Is nobody outraged that a man’s dignity has been robbed from him, his life made into a joke at the hands of insolent, swaggering bullies? The cynicism and viciousness is quite breath-taking. What ever has become of Israel?

      Reply to Comment
      • Roger Barton, AIA

        Some people in Israel appear to have come full circle, and have become the kind of people their grandparents and great-grandparents left Russia to escape.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Are you sure the developer’s family came from Russia? Most developers in Israel seem to be Mizrahi, that is, originating from the Middle East and North Africa.

          Reply to Comment
    3. ‘a second judge decided that the concrete wall blocking the Shawas’ entrance did not have to be demolished, ruling the Shawas “can still enter their home,” albeit in an “uneasy manner.”’

      Either the judge made no effort to understand the logistics of the house–or he was paid off, rewriting common law access for the case. Since the first decision affirmed the Shawas right of entry, to overturn this matter of fact the appeals judge would have to be provided with documentation of access. But those facts include the paramedic’s difficulty in gaining access in a way clearly abnormal, and dangerous, from access to almost all homes; indeed, generally homes must have such access for emergency services. So the judge ignored the facts or was not provided with them; since the judge describes access as in an “uneasy manner,” he must have had the facts. This leads to supposition of judicial incompetence or payoff.

      The judge either acted criminally or incompetently. In either case, the decision should not stand.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        Hebron comes to Jaffa. the law in the territories infects actual israel.

        Reply to Comment
        • sh

          More and more. There’s some way to go before the Jewish citizens of this country find themselves in the same boat, but the chickens will eventually come home to roost.

          Reply to Comment
          • seth warshavsky

            …”but the chickens will eventually come home to roost.”
            Well said, Shachalnur (I assume that’s you). I agree, this kind of behavior is just digging our own graves. It’s ironic, people say Jews are a revolutionary people but in Israel I see no evidence of this. I guess the public have been bought off with shiny cars and big-screen TVs. Shame.

            Reply to Comment
        • I’m not certain this case counts as reverse infection from the occupation. I do believe such exists: the Boycott Law (which directly affects Jews), the Nakba Law, and the Citizenship Case where noncitizen spouses from the West Bank cannot enter Israel. Yet, as far as I know, Israeli appellate law tends not to generalize very well. While the High Court does address legislation directly, it tends to tinker, presenting principle but not in a general way, but to modify–each law may be tinkered as needs be. This fits in with a major form of Court jurisprudence, administrative cases, where again the Court tinkers per case, leaving Administration free to work around the tinkering until told once again it cannot do something. There are exceptions, such as a 1950’s case on press freedom in nonmilitary matters. But overall the courts seem to tinker rather than assert controlling principle.

          What the appellate judge did here was tinker in a null way: “uneasy manner” of house access is good enough, a compromise, which is what a tinkering is. Both sides get something (I guess walling in the front door is the developer’s something), so where’s the fuss. A principle of common law entry would simply issue a corrective order to return access to its original state, which is what the original judge did. The appellate judge is hiding behind the ethos of tinkering, which I see generally as a major handicap in Israeli jurisprudence. On the strength of this reporting, I cannot see this decision standing based on the facts alone. But I do not adequately understand Israeli appellate procedure.

          The strongest examples of reverse occupation infection are, in my view, Boycott, Nakba, and the African Asylum cases. This last extends administrative detention in outcome to a whole new, large, class of people, and I suspect the coalition involved in drafting these laws thinks that natural. That’s one of the reasons why I see the High Court decision on Holot as so important. Even here, however, during oral hearing one Justice is reported (via 972) as asking if the law could be tinkered. A judicial striking just strikes down the law or portions of it, leaving the State to figure out what to do. Tinkering as a compromise judicial strategy is limiting the protection of rights, and I think this access case is an example of that.

          Reply to Comment
          • First of all, thank you for your comments.
            Actually, i think there is a connection between the wider politics of the state of Israel and the Shawa family’s situation: the Israel Land Authority who were the “owners” of the plot on which the neighboring housing complex is being constructed and claim (partial) ownership of the plot on the other side of the building through which the Shawa family are supposed to create their new entrance. This case is in court and neither the Land Authority nor the real owner can make use of the land. Nor can the Shawa family. I choose not to go into the details of this case in the framework of such a short article for the general public.
            Now i see i have no choice 🙂
            The Israel Land Authority was created to manage the lands appropriated by the state as “absentee property” following the 1948 war. Property originally owned by Palestinians who had become refugees. According to international law the state can not sell this land. Following the Oslo Agreements at a time when peace seemed to some a real and close possibility the state got worried they might have to return the huge amounts of property it held as “absentee property” to its rightful owners. So it was decided to start and sell off the houses and lands it managed as “absentee property”. A legal (or illegal, if you like) construction was created, in which it is not the state itself that sells the land (because that would be illegal) but the Land Authority.
            The houses in many cases were being used as public housing of sorts, rented out by the state to socially weakened families.
            Moreover, in the nineties Israel started to undergo privatization of a cruel kind and in the framework of this policy, it was decided to stop constructing public housing and sell of the public housing that existed.
            At the same time Jaffa started to experience gentrification.
            These three factors led to the housing crisis in Jaffa.
            In addition there are those strange cases in which Palestinian families were torn apart in 1948. Part of the family was still in Jaffa, part of the family found themselves in the refugee camps elsewhere. In some of these cases the Israel Land Authority claims “partial ownership” of the property, in the names of those sons and daughters who had become refugees.

            Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            Plenty of “judges” but no “justice”.

            Reply to Comment
          • seth warshavsky

            Maybe we’re just chasing rainbows, directbob. We must be careful not to forget Boas’s lectures on cultural relativism. This may not look like Justice to you and me, but who’s to say? In some peoples’ eyes, this may seem perfectly normal.

            Reply to Comment