The ruins of the Nakba in Haifa.. Historic Palestinian homes are being sold as luxury real estate to wealthy Israelis

Haifa- Haifa perches like a cascading waterfall on the lush green slopes of the Carmel Mountains on the bright blue Mediterranean Sea.

It is often described by Israeli officials and Western and Israeli media as a modern city and a model of “coexistence” between Israelis and Palestinians.

But behind Haifa’s skyscrapers and array of concrete buildings, a small group of Palestinian homes – built of sandstone before 1948 – tell a different story. Correspondence Al Jazeera English, Zeina El Tahan, tells the alternative story.

Haifa fell under the control of Zionist militias in April 1948, 3 weeks before the Nakba and Israel’s signing of its declaration of independence on May 14, and the end of the British Mandate in Palestine on May 15.

By that time, the Zionist forces had forced more than 95% of Haifa’s population to leave their land. Of the 75,000 Palestinians in the city, only about 4,000 remain. The rest became refugees, mainly in neighboring Lebanon and Syria, and are prevented from returning to this day.

During the events of the Nakba and the decades that followed, the Zionist and Israeli forces destroyed most of the Palestinian neighborhoods and buildings in Haifa and leveled them to the ground.

The historic center of the ancient city was almost destroyed, and today the area has become a modern square of Israeli government and commercial buildings and a large parking lot.

For example, a 29-storey building containing government offices was built in 1999 on the ruins of the “Haifa Brigades”, which was built in the mid-18th century as an administrative building and the seat of local government and was demolished in 1949. It was one of 9 Saraya buildings in historic Palestine, dating back to Ottoman period.

“They built the government buildings on the ruins of the Palestinian Arab buildings, that is, the buildings that were destroyed and erased during the Nakba,” says urban planner Orwa Sweitat.

“Today, there is no trace of this big crime,” added Sweitat, who holds a doctorate in urban planning and architectural areas and works to prevent further demolitions.

“11 buildings worth $20 million”

According to the Haifa historian Johnny Mansour, “only 20 percent of Haifa’s original houses are still standing” and the Palestinian buildings that survived the Nakba were transferred to the state under Absentee Property Act Israeli.

This was not confined to Haifa, as Israel seized all Palestinian property whose owners were forced to leave, either as refugees or displaced persons.

“In historical cities such as Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, about 70,000 historical buildings were confiscated after 1948,” says Swetat, explaining that among the buildings that existed in 1948, only 4,800 remain today.

“All the buildings are in the hands of the state. The rest were demolished or sold to private real estate companies. In Jaffa, there are only about 1,200 buildings left, 600 in Haifa, 600 in Acre and about 350 in Nazareth,” the urban expert explained.

An advertisement for a modern housing project on a Palestinian house in Wadi Salib (Al-Jazeera)

Israelis now live in some of the buildings that used to house Palestinians from old Haifa, and some of them have been turned into Israeli art galleries and bars.

Since 2000, the Israeli government has started selling remaining Palestinian buildings to public and private real estate companies who will either demolish them and build modern residential or commercial projects in their place, or renovate and sell luxury properties to the Israeli market.

“They are turning the ruins of the Nakba into economic gems for the benefit of the Israeli market,” Sweitat said, noting that “the development process aims to attract Jews from the middle and upper classes and expel Palestinian Arabs.”

A member of the Committee for the Preservation of Historic Buildings in the Haifa Municipality added, “The Israeli laws and city planning worked together to seize the property and lands of Palestinian refugees, erase, destroy, distort and transfer the Palestinian Arab identity and its characteristics in Haifa to the private sector.”

Nowhere is the story of dispossession and erasure more evident than in Wadi Salib, a once-thriving Palestinian neighborhood where time seems to have stood still since the Nakba, where stone houses stand as silent survivors, overlooking the Mediterranean some a kilometer away.

Old and empty Palestinian houses in Wadi Salib overlooking the Mediterranean Sea (Al-Jazeera)

Most of the neighborhood was demolished in 1949, and Israel brought in Jews from North African countries to take advantage of the remaining Palestinian homes and buildings, and they lived there for 10 years before protests broke out against the difficult and racist living conditions, and the residents were moved to another place.

Since then, most Palestinian buildings have been closed off with concrete blocks or covered with metal sheets.

In previous decades, all that was left of Wadi Salib was sold by the Israeli government to private and public real estate companies.

“They are offering very large bids that only large companies can enter and the Palestinians cannot afford,” Sweitat said. “For example, 11 historical buildings were sold 10 years ago for $1 million. Today, they want to sell the 11 buildings for $20 million.”

“How did this happen to us?”

The Palestinian plastic artist Abed Abdi, 81 years old, was expelled from Wadi Salib and all of Palestine with his mother and 4 of his brothers in 1948.

His father managed to stay in Haifa, and after 3 years of moving around refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, Abdi, his mother and 3 of his brothers are among the few Palestinians who have been allowed to return to their city in the family reunification process.

A painting by Abed Abdi showing his aunt’s house in Wadi Al-Nisnas neighborhood (Al-Jazeera)

However, Abdi’s older sister Lutfia was unable to return and remained in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria until her death 3 years ago.

“We tasted displacement and alienation in Lebanon and Syria,” Abdi tells Al Jazeera. “Our family was dispersed, like many Palestinian families from Haifa at the time,” he added from his studio in Haifa.

From 1947 to 1949, Zionist forces expelled no less than 75% of the Palestinian population, destroyed 530 Palestinian villages, forced residents out of major cities, and killed about 15,000 Palestinians in a series of genocides, including many massacres.

Today, Palestinian refugees represent the longest unresolved refugee problem in the world. About 6 million registered refugees live in no less than 58 camps in Palestine and neighboring countries.

The first refugee camp Abdi and his family reached was Mieh Mieh in Lebanon, he says, surrounded by dozens of his paintings: many of them depicting the Nakba and the Arab neighborhoods of Haifa, based on his childhood memories.

Abdi, who included mobile canvas in his pieces of art, adds, “I remember that the dividers between families were made of mobile canvas. When I touch and smell this fabric now, it takes me back to my childhood, and this memory has stayed with me throughout my life.”

Abdi keeps a family photo taken after their return to Haifa in 1952 (Al-Jazeera)

“I also remember how my mother used to make shoes for us out of leather bags,” he added.

Many of the Palestinians who remained in Haifa after the Nakba, including Abdi’s father, were rounded up and forced to live in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. They were not allowed to reclaim their property in other parts of the city that were under the control of Israeli military rule, and a constant curfew.

Abdi’s father moved to his aunt’s house in Wadi Al-Nisnas, a few kilometers away from their destroyed home in Wadi Salih. He shared the 4-bedroom home with another homeless Palestinian family from Haifa.

When the rest of the Abdi family returned in 1951, the six of them lived in one bedroom for 10 years before they could move.

Despite the passage of more than 7 decades, Abdi said that the loss and displacement caused by the Nakba is still very difficult. And he added, “I used to go back to Wadi Saleh a lot. The area is not far from me. I used to remember my childhood and my tragedy.”

And he concluded, “When I see them, I always feel something, not only sadness, but the repetition of the question of how? How did this happen to us? These empty and destroyed buildings, where are their owners? How were we expelled?”

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