By Seraj Assi
Nearly three weeks ago angry young residents of Tel Aviv took to the streets to protest soaring housing prices. The protests have rapidly reached different sectors of the Israeli society. The Israeli media has propagated the event as a glorious democratic manifestation, while Western media rushed to compare it to the people revolutions in neighboring Arab countries.
Yet it must be recalled that by far the Tel Aviv protests are taking place within the Zionist consensus. For many Arab citizens, the protests are widely seen as a bourgeois distributional conflict over Zionist colonial spoils. No wonder the protests are directed against high housing prices per se rather than against the founding policies and fundamental causes behind the crisis.
We should remember that the real victims of the state’s housing policies are not the middle-class Jewish Israelis longing for the exclusive and luxurious privileges offered by the Tel Aviv center. They are the poor Arab residents of Jaffa who have been pushed out of the city by decades of ethnic gentrification, urban exclusion and alienation.
In the meantime, the Israeli media reports the event as if the Arab population, the real victims of the state’s economic policies, does not exist. The real narrative- the dispossession, the disempowerment, the unrelenting daily grind of injustice and discrimination, and the daily violation of human rights and dignity – does not fit into the format of the Israeli media’s agenda.
When a year ago Arab residents of Jaffa took to the Ajami neighborhood to protest the new housing plan designed exclusively for Zionist-Jews, known as Be’emuna Jews-Only housing project, they were dismissed as subversives to the state’s Jewish character. When they later marched to Jerusalem to demonstrate ahead of the High Court hearing over the project, they were widely presented as a punch of unruly Arabs. Requests and petitions by Ajami residents to stop work in the project have been unanimously dismissed by the Tel Aviv District Court and the High Court of Justice.
While the shortage of housing had been threatening Arab residents of Jaffa for decades, the Israel Lands Administration gave itself a right to sell public land to a construction company devoted to pushing Arab residents out of the city. Nothing has been done to stop Bemuna’s attempts to dilute Arab neighborhoods by moving in religious Zionist Jews at the expense of local residents. Nor to address Be’emuna’s repeated racist statements, discriminatory marketing methods and housing policies. The “domino effect” of the project has instead brought more and more racist housing projects to Jaffa.
The process of internal occupation of Arab lands is by no means confined to Jaffa. Judaization is expanding all over the country from the Negev region in the South down to the Galilee in the North, including the Arab Triangle in the center, and the major mixed cities of Haifa, Acre and Jerusalem. Policies of transfer, dislocation, land expropriation and housing demolition continue uninterrupted. Statics show that over the past few decades, Arab lands in Israel were rapidly diminished from nearly 19.5 million dunams (in 1947) to only 404 thousand dunams (in 2005). At the same time, Jewish settlements inside Israel has grown from 317 to 907, and they now constitute 96 percent of the country territory.
Moreover, we have not seen a single protest against the wave of fascist and racist laws directed against the Arab population, starting from the Nakba law through the loyalty law, and multiple bills regulating admission to "Jews-only" communities. Protests by Arab residents were rather rooted out by state violence and widely condemned by the Israeli society. Only when the state’s economic policies began to threaten the narrow interests of the White Ashkenazi society did they draw attention and media coverage.
It can be argued that bourgeois Israeli Jews are now paying the prize that Arabs in Israel have been paying for decades. But we should remember that soaring housing prices in Tel Aviv are themselves the outcome of the racist policies that were originally designed to prevent Arabs and other poor Jewish communities from approaching the city center. We should also remember that those middle-class Israeli yuppies that came to live in Jaffa for an “oriental” experience are no less responsible for turning Jaffa into a fashionable neighborhood and making prices unaffordable for the local Arab residents.
The dirty secret of the Tel Aviv protests is that the bulk of those middle-class Ashkenazi protestors are moved by a racist hysteria. They are simply afraid of being moved to the city peripheries and the far less fashionable parts of the country. For when they complain that they only feel at home in Tel Aviv, they explicitly express a racist desire to stay away from the development towns and neighborhoods populated by Arabs, poor Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews.
This should not be taken as an invitation for a common struggle between Arabs and poor Mizrahi, Ethiopian and Russian Jews. Nor should it let us forget that the struggle of Arab Palestinians with the state cannot be simply reduced from a struggle over land and existence to class and civil struggles. Indeed, nothing is more ironic than to see Arabs protesting against high housing prizes in Tel Aviv as if they were allowed to live in Tel Aviv at all.
Calls for Bedouins from the unrecognized villages of the Negev to join the protests are quite revealing here. For we know very well that the struggle of these Bedouin communities is primarily against the state not the government. Not surprisingly Israel is now suing Bedouin of al-Arakib village (which has been recently destroyed by the state more than twenty times) for NIS 1.8m for "illegal invasions" of state lands and “destruction expenses”.
The struggle of Palestinians in Israel cannot be separate from politics colonization, ethnic discrimination and racism. That is to say that Palestinians in Israel have not to join the protests so much as to make sure they formulate their own struggle away from the Tel Aviv bourgeois protests that are now taking on racist Zionist formulations and being joined by racist settler movements like Yesha Council and Im Tirzu.
We are running out of time. Even as we speak, the circle of internal colonization is closing up. Palestinians in Israel should be fully aware that their struggle cannot be formulated within the Zionist framework, but only outside of it.
– Seraj Assi is a PhD Student in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.