Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Tourism, gentrification and the planned demise of Palestinian Akka

The Guardian ran this sad piece by Harriet Sherwood yesterday, documenting the ongoing gentrification and de-Arabisation of the beautiful old city of Akka. Sherwood says:

According to Arab activists in Acre, this is part of a grand plan, driven by the city’s Jewish mayor, to gentrify and rebrand the old city – and persuade, induce or coerce Arabs to leave. But they also say there is a wider context that reaches beyond the walls of the old city into the newer neighbourhoods of Acre. In recent years there has been an influx of nationalist-religious Jews, associated with the hardline West Bank settler movement, seeking to “reclaim” mixed cities such as Acre and prevent their Arab populations becoming a majority.
In the new city of Acre, housing developments reserved exclusively for religious Jews have alarmed Arab residents. “More and more extreme people from settlements are targeting the Arab community [in Israel],” says Ja’far Farah of Mossawa, a civil rights organisation. “The settlers want to prove that the conflict is not just about the [West Bank] but all of Israel. They are targeting mixed cities in an attempt to prove there is no future for coexistence.”
It is “a very tense city”, says local activist Sami Hawari. The edginess boiled over into violent clashes between the two communities three years ago, the underlying causes of which have not been resolved. “When Jewish leaders call the muezzin [the Muslim call to prayer] ‘environmental pollution’, and when they consider us a demographic threat even though they are more than 70% of the population, when the mayor constantly declares Acre a ‘Jewish city’, it adds tension to the lives of people.”

Sherwood also quotes ‘Uri Buri’, the Israeli entrepreneur whose upmarket fish restaurant has been at the forefront of this gentrification process. He’s just opened a new luxury hotel in Akka and is quoted in the article as saying: “Since my childhood I’ve said Acre is a miracle. I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve seen very few cities with such undeveloped potential. But I don’t see any Arabs coming to invest.” This is at best disingenuous, since his most direct competition must come from Akkotel, a delightful boutique hotel set into the old fortified walls of Akka – and run by a local Palestinian Christian family.
Of course, anyone who has followed anything about the situation in Akka in recent years will be unsurprised by these developments. This important article from MERIP catalogues the tensions behind riots which took place in Akka in 2008. It includes anecdotes such as this:

‘Azziyya Abu ‘Ali tearfully told of how a mob besieged her family for three hours, while her husband, who had just recovered from heart surgery, lay gasping on the floor. In this story it was not just the children who had gotten lost. “I called the police station to ask for help,” she said, “and they asked me, ‘Are you an Arab or a Jew?’ When I told them they hung up the phone.”

side-by-side with a little ancient history from Uri Jeremias’ new hotel project:

“Jeremias has himself acquired an old Arab “palace” at a bargain-basement price from a government agency named the Akko Development Corporation, which he is renovating into a boutique hotel. He pooh-poohs concerns about the families who stand to be evicted by the Hilton venture. “It is not even their houses,” he said, before returning to the topic of his own hotel. Acre has a bright future, he thinks. “This place is not 10 percent of what it could be.””

Lagerquist’s article also makes this significant point about the annual theatre festival held in Akka, and other Israeli cultural events which take place in Palestinian communities but without benefitting or, often, acknowledging them:

“this festival also reprises a customary dynamic in Israel’s “enjoyment of the Arabs within,” to paraphrase anthropologist Rebecca Stein. [8] Jews come to visit Arab villages and ghettoes; Arabs are not supposed to repay the visits. And the critical context for what happened in Acre on October 8 is that this dynamic was being symbolically reversed.”

I love Akka. It’s a stunningly beautiful little city and for the years I’ve been going there the mainstream tourism ‘development’ by the Israeli authorities, with its denial of Palestinian history and high entry prices, has largely been confined to a couple of sites near the entrance to the old city and close to the marina. The suq and winding streets have remained determinedly Palestinian in character; poor and marginalised, but still defiantly linked to the city’s culture and to its heritage of figures like Ghassan Kanafani. So the news that the great khans near the port are up for grabs by Israeli developers is a major blow. When I included Akka in a ‘10 Highlights of Palestine‘ article for Guardian online last autumn, a notable feature of the Zionist flak I got was their denial that Akka existed. According to comments on Twitter from various Tel Aviv-based American-Israeli activists, this was a mark of my ignorance and stupidity; there was no such place as Akka (عكا). In historical times there might have been Acre – the Crusader name for the city – but now it was Acco. I can’t help fearing that this attitude, intended to wipe out centuries of Palestinian life and culture in Akka, is now being perpetrated on the ground, as well as in cyberspace vitriol.

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