Although the south of Israel was still under rocket attack on June 24th, Harriet Sherwood decided to take a trip north to Acco.
The headline of her subsequent article declares that “Israel’s historic city of Acre faces tourist and settler tensions” with the strap line further claiming that “Mixed Arab-Jewish ‘sleeping beauty’ city awakes to gentrification and influx of nationalist-religious Jews”.
Sherwood’s basic claim in this article is that rich Jews are buying up property in the old city of Acco in a process of ‘gentrification’ and driving out the poor Arab population.
“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.”
Of course if Harriet Sherwood wanted to trace the beginnings of economic troubles in Acco, she would have to start back in Ottoman times when the builder of the Hejaz railway, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, decided that its branch line would terminate in the small fishing village of Haifa rather than in Acco. She would then have to progress to the decision by the British Mandate to overlook the ancient silted-up Acco port in favour of the construction of a new deep-water port at nearby Haifa in 1932, the subsequent construction of oil refineries there and the opening of the oil pipeline stretching from Iraq to Haifa in 1934. She might also take into account the evacuation of the Jews of Acco by the British authorities following the riots of 1929.
For many years Acco has been one of the worst affected towns in Israel from the point of view of unemployment and a low average wage. Among the reasons for this has been the closure or relocation of some factories and the increased mechanization of others. Acco’s traditional fishing industry has been hit by the falling of numbers of fish in the eastern Mediterranean in general. Its traditional markets lost their prominence in the area as shopping centres became fashionable and its tourism industry was hampered by the fact that most visitors only came for day trips, preferring to use hotels in nearby Haifa due to Acco’s lack of night-life.
In 2006 the Israeli government declared Acco a ‘national goal’ and by 2009, 36 new factories had been opened in the city, along with a new shopping centre. There has been serious investment in many conservation and restoration projects in the old city and in updating the infrastructure of the city as a whole. At last it seems as though Acco is moving beyond its run-down state and the opening of hotels such as the one featured in Harriet Sherwood’s article is one important way to boost the economic potential of the city – and in particular that of its ancient quarter, where some 40% of the 6,000 residents receive social security allowances.
The importance of tourism to Acco’s economy is obviously not lost on residents of its old city. Whilst on a tour of the city’s market after the completion of part one of its restoration the Chair of the Committee of Traders in Old Acco, Mr Anaan Hajazi, said:
“We thank the mayor of Acco Shimon Lankry and we all hope that this project will help to develop tourism and improve the situation of traders in the old city.”
So how does Harriet Sherwood manage to turn a story of the physical and economic regeneration of a depressed city (something which takes place the world over) into a tall tale of quasi ethnic cleansing?
The clue is in some of her interviewees (and possibly also hosts?) who are using this story to advance a political agenda.
Let us begin with Ahmed Odeh who, as Sherwood states, is a member of Acco’s city council. Odeh – the owner of a bakery in the town – is also chair of the communist anti-Zionist Hadash party in Acco, which he represents on the council. He is one of three Arab members of the city council, one of whom is deputy mayor and another head of the Waqf. In other words, despite his frequent protestations in various media outlets, Mr Odeh and his fellow Arab councilors, along with the mayoral assistant Samir Batah, have been active partners in the changes being made in the city.
Here is Mr Odeh (far right) in December 2008 demonstrating against Operation Cast Lead. The sign the councilor is holding says “Stop the massacre immediately” but apparently does not refer to rocket fire at his fellow Israeli citizens. More recently, Ahmed Odeh came out publicly in support of the speech made by Mahmoud Abbas at the UN in 2011 as part of the Palestinian Authority’s plan for a universal declaration of statehood.
The second of Harriet Sherwood’s interviewees is “local activist” Sami Hawari. Hawari is a media consultant, holding an MA from Haifa University. He also sits on the UNESCO committee for the preservation of Arab heritage sites in Israel.
Hawari is also General Director of the NGO Al Yater which claims to engage in “educational activities and advocacy efforts to promote the rights of the Arab population of Akko” and is supported by the New Israel Fund among others. In April 2012, the Haifa District Court rejected a petition brought by Al Yater and others on the subject of housing in Acco because it was not established that there had been discrimination. Obviously not content with the court’s decision, Hawari and Ahmed Odeh took their campaign to the media.
In 2006 Al Yater was criticized for organizing the screening of the controversial film ‘Paradise Now’ – which is about suicide bombers – in Acco. In 2008, at the time of the clashes between Jews and Arabs in Acco, Sami Hawari gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he suggested that the events in Acco were reminiscent of Kristallnacht and expressed fear of “another massacre of Palestinians, this time in Acre”.
Finally, we come to Sherwood’s third interviewee Jafar Farah, founder and director of the Arab human rights organization Mossawa in Haifa, which is also funded by the New Israel Fund the Abraham Fund and Oxfam UK among others.
In October 2000, as the second Intifada erupted, Farah gave an interview to ABC News in which he supported the call by then MK Azmi Bishara for UN troops to be sent to Israel, also distorting both history and the events at the time.
“And I have to remind that the U.N. decision in ’47 was for two countries for two peoples, the Jewish people and the Palestinian people, in the homeland of the Palestinians.”
“Also if they [Palestinians] use stones and any way of expressing themselves, it’s not war. War is when both sides use guns and war machines. Palestinians are using mainly, especially in Israel, stones.”
“I didn’t hear Arafat, the chairman of the P.L.O. or the Palestinian Authority, talking about destroying Israel. It’s mainly rumors that get out from Israeli right-wing groups. They want to prove that there is no partner for peace in the Middle East.”
“I know that Arafat doesn’t think about destroying Israel. I know it personally.”
In June 2010 Jafar Farah thought it necessary to visit ‘activists’ from the Mavi Marmara in a Haifa hospital. During the second Lebanon war in 2006, Farah took the opportunity to blame the deaths of Arab Israelis not upon the rockets fired from Lebanon by Hizballah, but upon supposed Israeli discrimination which, according to him, meant that Arab Israelis had neither shelters nor sirens. (Note – since 1991 it has been mandatory in Israel to build a safe room in every new home constructed.) However, Farah opposes attempts to recruit Arab youths to National Service programs.
So in a nutshell, Acco provides fertile ground for all manner of people and organisations to advance their own agendas. We have the anti-Zionist communist who deals in local politics, the NGO which uses charges of discrimination in order to delegitimize Israel at every turn and the media maestro who appears to have recruited Harriet Sherwood (knowingly or not) as part of his latest campaign.
The interesting thing about it all is that whilst all these activists warn of racism and anti-Arab discrimination in Acco’s newer neighbourhoods, even invoking the spectre of ‘settlers‘ coming to town and the ‘Judaisation‘ of the city, not one of them – or Harriet Sherwood herself – seems to find anything amiss with the concurrent campaign objecting to Jews buying property in Acco’s old city.
When all-Jewish neighbourhoods are presented as racist and discriminatory, but all-Arab neighbourhoods are just romantic and quaint, the writer obviously has either a serious problem with double standards or a political agenda. Or both.