Fate of rundown Haifa ‘hood `threatens coexistence’


[The original title in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz reads:
*In the Poorest Neighborhood of Haifa, Arabs and Jews Help Each Other in the Struggle against the Municipality*]

The protest tent in Halisa. Coexistence of a different kind.
(Itzik Ben-Malki )

By David Ratner mailto:ratner_d@haaretz.co.il

Last update – 01:29 02/02/2005

Tomorrow at 11 A.M., German President Horst Koehler will arrive in Haifa accompanied by his wife and a 45-person strong entourage for an official visit mainly focusing on aspects of Haifa’s renowned coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

Not far from the sites that Kohler and his party will visit, on Raziel Street in the city’s Halisa neighborhood, a group of Jews and Arabs sit in a cold, dripping protest tent. They are practicing coexistence of the kind the German president will not see – working on tactics to delay demolition orders of balconies in the adjacent house.

The protesters assessed this week that the city would refrain from tearing down the balconies until the end of Koehler’s visit. On Friday, the administrative demolition orders will expire, so the 24 hours between Thursday evening and Friday evening are crucial. The Abu Shamla family attached gas canisters to the condemned porches to signal that it means business.

According to the letter of the law, the Abu Shamlas and other neighbors are building felons. They lost their cases in all municipal and legal tribunals, sometimes because like poor people all over the world, they could not afford a lawyer.

“The situation in Halisa has reached a dangerous watershed that threatens coexistence,” says Haifa councillor Walid Hamis, of the Balad faction, who visited the protest tent recently. “The city must decide whether it wants to be right or wise.”

A week ago, when a false rumor spread that the demolition had begun, the neighborhood elementary school emptied in minutes, and dozens of children and adults filled the street. If the demolition is carried out, it will not be taken lying down, Halisa residents vow.

Halisa is the weakest, most derelict neighborhood in Haifa. Its 2,500 residents comprise 70 percent Arabs and 30 percent Jews, including a few new immigrants. It has a mosque and a few synagogues, an Arab elementary school and a few streets named after Jewish underground heroes. The Abu Shamla family lives in debilitating squalor on the third floor of 4 Raziel Street. The father Khader is unemployed, the mother, Fatma, looks after elderly people for a living, and they live with their 10 children in a two and a half room apartment. The six daughters, aged 18 months to 23, sleep in one room with peeling walls that has only two mattresses on the floor. The four boys sleep in the other room. In the corner serving as a living room, the two parents sleep on the floor.

Above their mattress hangs a large picture with a gilded frame in stark contrast to the surrounding gray. It is a picture of the eldest daughter, made up and dyed blond, contending in one of the Arab community’s beauty contests. The message is clear: This is the only hope of getting out of here some day, perhaps with a rich husband. “I am miserable, but I’m glad I managed to keep all my children away from drugs and crime,” Fatma says.

The kitchen window overlooks a grim spectacle of depressing tenements and children playing football in the street. From this window, the city elders’ pride of Jewish-Arab coexistence seems very detached from reality. Yet, surprisingly, coexistence prevails despite all logic and slogans in the protest camp set up outside the building.

Apart from demonstrating against the city’s intention to demolish the verandas, the residents are protesting what they see as the city’s intention to impose a new master plan on the neighborhood that will further increase the population’s density. The new plan involves widening roads at the expense of narrow yards and even demolishing some buildings, but does not include the addition of green areas or playgrounds that would enable the children to play off the road.

The house on 4 Raziel Street was built toward the end of the British Mandate in 1946, when the street was still called Abu Bakher, and the building was owned by an Arab. The British draft of the building shows attractive surrounding verandas. The owner disappeared in 1948, and like thousands of others, the building became absentee property and was transferred to the state. The land registry office is unclear about the building’s ownership. A Jewish contractor claims his father bought the plot in the 1960s, but the residents pay protected tenancy rents to the Israel Lands Administration. The Abu Shamlas have lived in it for 27 years.

In 1991, the municipality informed residents that the original verandas are dangerous and must be renovated. The residents took apart their verandas and rebuilt them a little bigger in an attempt to expand their miserable tiny apartments by a few dozen centimeters. The city immediately issued demolition orders. Ignoring the size of the renovated balconies, the city insisted the residents should have applied for building permits and obtained the owners’ permission before rebuilding them. However, the city does not explain why it, rather than the tenants, did not order the owners to demolish the dangerous balconies to begin with.

The residents say the demolition orders were issued to pressure them to agree to the building plan the city wants to force upon them.

Haifa Municipality sources say there is no connection between the plan and the demand to demolish the verandas on Raziel Street, and that the new building plan will not entail the destruction of yards and buildings and will include green spaces for the residents’ benefit.

[For more details see: hallisa.tripod.com/]