In the heart of Tel Aviv, a working class Mizrahi neighborhood fights its forced displacement – +972 Magazine

Posted By on September 24, 2021

For much of the past decade, the residents of Givat Amal, a small working class Mizrahi neighborhood in wealthy north Tel Aviv, have been anxious about their fate. In 2014, police violently evicted 80 of Givat Amals families to make way for luxury apartment blocks spread across 20 plots of land. Today, 45 of the families who remain in the neighborhood do not know when the authorities will come for them.

The Tel Aviv District Court issued further eviction orders in 2020, ruling that all Givat Amals residents must leave their homes in exchange for a combined payment of NIS 42 million shekels ($13 million) from El-Ad Group, an American real estate company based in Israel (separate from the settler group that operates in East Jerusalem).

But on August 9, just 24 hours before 20 of those eviction orders became valid, the residents received notice from the Israeli authorities that the eviction had been postponed to an unknown date. The delay came after weeks of vocal opposition by activists, as well as a large protest that included blocking main roads in the city and pressure from Knesset members and government ministers.

The postponement seemed to mean residents could finally breathe easier. But last month, authorities issued another round of eviction orders for November, when it is widely believed the police will try to evict the remaining residents of Givat Amal.

The story of Givat Amal encapsulates the story of the State of Israel: the flight of Palestinians from their villages and their transformation into perpetual refugees, the racism and structural discrimination faced by Mizrahi immigrants, and Israels turn toward a form of hyper-capitalism that puts the profits of billionaires before the lives of the working and middle class.

Kaduri Halif stands between the rubble of his destroyedhome in Givat Amal, Tel Aviv, September 18, 2014. (Keren Manor/Activestills)

Today, Givat Amal is a Jewish neighborhood located near the wealthy area of Bavli in north Tel Aviv. It was established on the ruins of the Palestinian village of al-Jammasin al-Gharbi, whose Muslim residents had lived there since at least the 18th century; by 1948, it had a population of 1,250 across 337 acres of land. The village children studied at the nearby Sheikh Muwannis school and the residents made their living from tending to water buffaloes (who gave the village its namesake), and growing citrus, bananas, and grain. Half of the villages land was bought by Jews before the establishment of the State of Israel.

By March 1948, while the British Mandate was still in effect, all of al-Jammasin al-Gharbis residents had fled. Like most Palestinians who were either expelled or took flight during the 1948 war, the villages residents were prevented from returning to their homes by the new Israeli authorities following the establishment of the state.

In the first years following Israels founding, 130 mostly Mizrahi (Jews from Arab or Muslim countries) families were brought to al-Jammasin al-Gharbi to replace the Palestinian residents. They have lived there ever since. The authorities promised the residents that they would be able to reside in any future buildings established on the land, yet the state did not supply any basic infrastructure for the neighborhood.

From the beginning, the Mizrahi residents of al-Jammasin al-Gharbi now Givat Amal were seen as invaders by the Ashkenazi elite the European ethnic group that founded the State of Israel and have dominated the political, cultural, and economic elite for much of its history. The first to label them as such was Tel Aviv Mayor Chaim Levanon back in 1953, as the municipality was leading the first of several failed efforts to forcibly expel the residents from the neighborhood.

In 1960, Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Rabinowitz said the residents of Givat Amal were of a different human material than the residents of Nordia, once a mostly middle class Ashkenazi neighborhood in central Tel Aviv. Historical documents revealed that from the time the new residents set foot in the neighborhood, the municipality viewed them as a nuisance that brought down the value of the land.

A man sets fire to tires during the eviction of families in Givat Amal, Tel Aviv, December 29, 2014. (Oren Ziv)

Consequently, while Ashkenazi Jews living in villages neighborhoods near Givat Amal were given the opportunity to resolve their land claims or buy their property at a symbolic price, residents of Givat Amal and other new Mizrahi neighborhoods were not extended the same opportunities. The state neglected these neighborhoods at least until the value of their real estate rose across the country, and particularly in north Tel Aviv, as the area became the one of the citys prime locations for land speculation.

In the 1960s, Givat Amals land was sold by the state to private owners. The rights to the land were passed around by real estate tycoons until they were eventually split up between the Tel Aviv municipality and two private investors: the Kozahinof family and Yitzhak Tshuva, an Israeli billionaire and real estate mogul, who planned to build high-rise luxury condos on the land. Tshuva acquired the rights to the land in 1987 under the condition that the residents be compensated for leaving their homes. Since then, Tshuva has argued that the terms of the agreement should be changed since the residents were never the legal owners of the land.

During the 2014 mass evictions, riot police broke into Givat Amals homes and forcibly removed residents and activists that had barricaded themselves inside, leaving many of them traumatized. Some residents were given little to no financial compensation, forcing them to move in with other family members or rent apartments far away from the place they had lived their entire life. Following the evictions, Tshuvas company, El-Ad Group, began construction of luxury high-rise buildings on the ruins of the homes.

In 2016, Tshuva submitted an eviction request to the court claiming that the remaining residents were squatting on his land. He also demanded NIS 2.5 million in rent per plot. Last year, the Tel Aviv District court ruled that the residents shouldnt be forced to pay rent, and that they are all legally on the land. In addition, the court ruled that the real estate tycoons had breached their agreement with the state and had abdicated their responsibility for the eviction as well as for agreeing on compensation for the residents of Givat Amal over the years.

Despite the ruling, eviction wasnt taken off the table. The court decided that each plot of land, on which an average of three families the children and the grandchildren of the original residents who were brought to live in Givat Amal in the 1950s would be eligible for compensation to the tune of NIS 3 million. This amount is not enough for the families to find alternative housing and certainly not for three families who are forced to split the amount among themselves.

Etty Levy cries as her home is demolished in the Givat Amat neighborhood of north Tel Aviv, March 27, 2014. The Levy family decided to sign an agreement with Yitzhak Tshuvas lawyers and leave after being offered a small sum in compensation on the morning of their expected evacuation. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

The residents then appealed to the High Court to try and stop the evictions. The court rejected the request in 2020.

Over the years, members of Knesset from both the left and right from Hadash MKs Ofer Cassif and Dov Khenin to the far-right Ayelet Shaked, who currently serves as Israels Interior Minister have expressed their vocal support for the residents of Givat Amal. In 2018, the Knesset approved in a first reading of the Givat Amal Law, according to which residents of the neighborhood who were never compensated will receive alternative housing. Yet because of the political crisis plaguing Israel at the time, which saw four elections in the span of two years, the legislative process never concluded and the law was never passed.

The residents of Givat Amal dont see the postponement as a victory or the end of their struggle. They are determined to continue fighting until their demands are met: a home in exchange for a home, or compensation for the 70 years they have lived in the neighborhood and to which the authorities transferred them in the early 1950s.

There is happiness diluted by sadness, because the eviction hasnt been cancelled but only postponed, says Yossi Cohen, 67, who was born in Givat Amal and has lived there to this day. In the early days of the state, the Israeli authorities moved Cohens family to Givat Amal from Neve Tzedek, a Mizrahi neighborhood and former slum that over the years has turned into one of Tel Avivs richer neighborhoods. His father is of Syrian origin, and was one of the first Jews to arrive in Givat Amal. He was part of the Haganah [one of the Zionist pre-state paramilitary forces], and he and some other 15 men were placed here to guard the village. My mother came only a few months later as the conditions were hard. When they came they used to live in the Palestinian homes.

Levana Ratzabi (left), Mali Alfasy-Fihamin (center), and Yossi Cohen (right) in Givat Amal. Cohen: If the eviction happens, lives may be lost here. They took this into consideration, but eventually the police will have to carry out the eviction. (Oren Ziv)

Cohen says evictions that were supposed to take place two weeks ago were postponed after the authorities toured the neighborhood in preparation for the forced removal. They came and saw that the eviction will be dangerous and that for now they are not prepared to carry it out, he explains. If the eviction happens, lives may be lost here. They took this into consideration, but eventually the police will have to carry out the eviction. They just gave us time hoping that there will be a solution because of pressure from the police and the Knesset members who support us. The entrepreneurs have money, and they have no problem to compensate us a home in exchange for a home.

Cohen sees no other choice but to continue to fight the evictions. The Tel Aviv municipality and the state are responsible for the situation we are in today, he says. They sold the land on the condition that we will be given housing in the buildings that will be built on this land. Because this was not granted, they can take the land back from the entrepreneurs.

First they should compensate us and then they can do whatever they want with the land, says Levana Ratzabi, 75, who has lived in the neighborhood since she was two years old. Her family was evicted from Neve Tzedek before coming to Givat Amal. They brought my mother here by force and now they want to throw us out. Where should we go?

Ratzabi and the other residents say they were brought to the neighborhood to prevent the Palestinians of al-Jammasin al-Gharbi from returning. We lived in the Palestinian homes with no facilities, water, or electricity. This is land that Ben-Gurion [Israels first prime minister] and the Tel Aviv municipality gave us instead of the Palestinians, Ratzabi explains.

All the years they didnt plant one flower or [install] one bench, not even a street lamp or a road nothing, says Cohen. We paid municipality taxes just like in other neighborhoods in north Tel Aviv, yet there isnt even a sewage system here.

WATCH: Activists try to block police from evicting a home in Givat Amal in 2014

They didnt give the families the option to buy the land over the years, says Ronit Aldouby, a Givat Amal resident who is one of the organizers of the struggle against the evictions.

In the 50s the government put out an order that local residents can buy the land they live in before it is sold to others, but the state did not inform the people here about the order. The people here did ask to buy the land, but it was never sold to them.

According to Aldouby this policy was implemented against Mizrahi Jews in different neighborhoods and villages across the country. They wanted to expropriate the rights of the Mizrahi residents, many abandoned [Palestinian] properties were sold to those in the establishment but not only. [The deals] were based on racism and properties were sold mostly to Ashkenazi Jews, who got keys to empty villas. But in the slums and places where Mizrahi Jews were placed, nobody bothered to regularize the land.

Aldouby adds that in the 1950s, Ashkenazi Jews living just across the road from Givat Amal most of them government or municipality workers were given housing in the Shikun Tzameret neighborhood, also on land that belonged to al-Jammasin al-Gharbi and that was also considered absentee property. (According to a 1950 Israeli law, property whose owners left after November 29, 1947, can be requisitioned by the state, and in effect applies exclusively to Palestinian property.) Today, Shikun Tzameret is considered one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire country.

Traces of the Palestinian village were still visible until the 2014 evictions. Today one can find a Palestinian structure that houses a local synagogue, a few renovated Palestinian homes, and a Muslim cemetery.

The families that remained in the neighborhood now live in the middle of a large construction site, surrounded by fences, roadblocks, industrial noise, and dust. One of the 50-story-buildings, where the apartments go for NIS 6 to 8 million, is complete, while two others are under construction. By the time building is complete, El-Ad Group and the Kozahinof family will have built a total of seven high-rise buildings housing more than 1,400 apartments.

Police cordon off Givat Amals residents during the neighborhoods first evacuation on December 29, 2014. (Activestills.org)

According to Cohen, the courts and the authorities are resisting coming to a just compensation agreement for fear of setting a precedent: similar struggles are ongoing in other Tel Aviv neighborhoods, such as Kfar Shalem and Abu Kabir, both Palestinian villages where Mizrahi Jews were placed in the years following Israels founding and are fighting eviction efforts. They prevent justice because of the legal consequences for other struggles, so that other places also wont get what they deserve, says Cohen, who hopes that a potential success in Givat Amal will have a positive effect on the struggles in other neighborhoods.

I met a few of Givat Amals residents in August outside the Alfasy-Fihamin family home at the entrance of the neighborhood. The grandmother, Amalia Fihamin, who was of Iranian origin, passed away this month at the age of 82. Four days before she passed away, Israeli authorities arrived at the family home and handed the family members an eviction order as Fihamin was on her deathbed.

The protest in early August took place during Fihamins shiva, the week-long period of mourning in Judaism. The protesters gathered near the shiva tent that was set up near the house and from there marched and blocked roads in the area.

This is the real hell, said Mali Alfasy-Fihamin, Amalias daughter, as she packed up her mothers belongings. I didnt feel [anything] during the shiva. All day long I had phone calls and was dealing with the police, but I have nowhere to go. I will tell you honestly, after my mothers death I gave up. I told everyone: I dont want anything, but some activists that have stood with us for many years came and told me, We are with you. It makes me stronger; I cannot do anything by myself, but with all the support, this eviction wont go smoothly.

Mali Alfasy-Fihamin leads a demonstration in north Tel Aviv against the eviction and forced displacement of the residents of Givat Amal, August 1, 2021. (Oren Ziv)

In April 2021, the Tel Aviv municipality sold off the remaining rights to 120 apartments in two luxury towers to a trio of real estate companies for NIS 365 million. Despite the change of ownership, the agreements signed between the residents and the city in 2014 obliged El-Ad Group to carry out the evictions.

That same month, in another ruling, the Tel Aviv District Court decided that the state had betrayed its responsibility to the residents of Givat Amal. In the decision, Judge Michal Agmon-Gonen wrote that the compensation offered to the residents was incomplete, disorganized, and granted only in cases in which the investors themselves filed lawsuits against families who demanded to remain in their homes. The residents, their parents and their grandparents were right all along to insist that they were brought to the neighborhood by the authorities of the state-to-be [pre-state Israel] and that the promises that they received were not fulfilled, Agmon-Gonen wrote in her ruling.

Our parents passed away and we have one foot in the grave, says Cohen. The people living here are 70 or 80 years old. When does the state want to grant us our compensation?

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In the heart of Tel Aviv, a working class Mizrahi neighborhood fights its forced displacement - +972 Magazine

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