The Harbor at Jaffa: Perseus Tarries

Michal Schwartz

Four generations of Sa'ado Zeinab's family have fished the waters off Jaffa. He sells his catch in a small shop called "Sa'ado the Fisherman," the walls of which display the mighty specimens he has wrested from the depths. But the depths are being closed to Jaffa's three hundred fishermen, both Arabs and Jews. The closing is by sand, by edict, and by gentrification.

By sand and edict: The harbor at Jaffa is notoriously dangerous. You can enter from the north or west. North is the safer route, but it tends to get sanded in, and it must be cleaned every two or three years. The port authority has neglected to do this. A decade ago, moreover, the port manager allowed builders to dump rubble in the water there. As a result, this entrance has become unusable. Instead of clearing it, the authority has merely banned it to boats with a draft of more than 1.5 meters. That amounts to 78 vessels, each providing a living to about three families. There remains the narrow western entrance, between the tip of the breakwater and a rock known as "Andromeda." When a storm whips up, this part is as unsafe today as when Josephus Flavius described the harbor two thousand years ago: "Beating full on this shore and dashing the waves high against the opposing rocks, the north wind makes the anchorage more dangerous than a landless sea." (The Jewish War, III, 9, 3.) After a fishing boat sank here last winter, the port authority banned this western approach as well: on March 1, 1998 Arieh Rona, Controller of Ports in Israel, closed the port entirely to the larger boats. Defiance can cost the fishermen three months in jail, but they have no choice. They must bring food to their families.

The obvious solution would be to clean up the safer northern access. This would cost less than $300,000. Uri Sharon, a spokesperson for the fishermen, claims that the price is not high when one considers that fishing, like farming, is a productive field. He, Sa'ado, and the other fishermen assume that production is a good thing and ought to be encouraged – not replaced by real-estate ventures. They have perhaps been away from land too long. It looked, for a while, as if the government might actually do something. The money was written into the national budget, but it was divided between the two ministries that manage the harbor: Transportation has charge of the port and its waters, while Agriculture is responsible for the fishermen and their needs. Agriculture got its half, but Transportation's was not approved. Now the whole project has to be re-negotiated. Meanwhile the fishermen are grounded.

By gentrification. The prospect, however, is far from reassuring. As if sand and edict were not enough, the government has been planning for some time to sell the entire port to a private investor! Whoever can come up with the money will be able to buy this little piece of history and turn it into a personal bonanza! The Labor government initiated plans toward privatization in 1993. The idea was renewed a year ago, when the regional planning committee approved a proposal called: "Jaffa's Port: Development of the Coastal Hinterland (Taba 2378-A)." Its aim is "the resurrection and development of old Jaffa's harbor as an area of tourism, recreation and sea sport." No mention of fishing. Nassim Shaker, representing Jaffa in the Tel Aviv municipality, voiced objections. The fishermen signed a petition of protest. They met with the planners on December 12, 1997, and the latter promised to include fishing among the stated aims. They also acceded to the request for a market, a club, showers, wharves, and a place for repairing boats. (In fact, however, it is only the Israel Lands Authority that can approve such a request, and the ILA was not present at the meeting.) The planners turned down a demand to set aside a certain number of apartments in the proposed residential area for fishermen. They refused to discuss the main question, that of privatization. On April 1, 1998 a document written by the Finance Ministry came into the hands of Challenge – its

title: "Privatization of the Port in Jaffa." Here are the main points:

  • In accordance with government meetings on February 26 and March 1, 1998, the port of Jaffa will be available for sale as one unit to a private investor.
  • The tender will safeguard the professional standards of the Ministry of Transportation, as well as the rights of the fishermen, in accordance with the standards of the Ministry of Agriculture.
  • Until the tender is awarded, the Israel Lands Authority will manage the land of the harbor, and the sea will be managed by the Ministry of Transportation.
  • After the tender is awarded, the new owner will take over management of the land and the harbor, while the Ministry of Transportation will continue to control the area of the sea.

The draft we received was unsigned. Signature lines were provided for Shai Talmon, Chief Accountant of the Finance Ministry , Nahum Langental, General Manager of the Transportation Ministry, and Berty Brudo, Manager of the Israel Lands Authority. The mention of fishermen's rights does not reassure anyone. This clause is conspicuous for its vagueness in this otherwise business-like, detailed document. The fishermen are not a party in the proposed transaction. (Nor, for that matter, is the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.) According to economist and former government advisor Esther Alexander (in an interview with Challenge on April 15), such clauses often appear in documents of this sort, but unless the fishermen's rights are set forth in detail and guaranteed in the actual agreement of sale, they will have no basis for taking the owner to court if he violates them.

The new plan includes a map, printed here. It reveals the attitude of the planners toward fishermen's rights. The whole port area comprises eighty dunams (about twenty acres). Three-fourths of that will be set aside for hotels, apartments, restaurants, and entertainment. In other words, the lucky winner will receive 66,000 square meters of unique and precious territory – the myth-laden, historical harbor at Jaffa! – with full building rights, to develop in whatever way can best turn a profit. It is as if one were to sell the Roman forum to Macdonald's, or the island of Manhattan to the Dutch East Indies Trading Company. The remaining fourth of the present harbor (in two separate sections) will also go to the lucky winner, but according to the plan, no hotel, no villa, no restaurant, will sit on it. No, this fragment will be set aside for "storage, service and anchorage." Yes, but for whom? For the fishermen? Or rather for the yachts of those who live in the hotels and villas and eat in the restaurants? Yachtspersons pay, after all, a much higher license fee. No one doubts, nonetheless, that some fishermen will remain. They will be needed as a token presence, a background for Kodak moments, a little local color for the denizens of the restaurants, hotels, and villas. Doron Credo, who heads the Fishing Department in the Ministry of Agriculture, admits that the indifference to the fishermen is disgraceful. If privatization advances, he told Challenge in March, their fate is up in the air.

The port of Jaffa is to become a money-making sea museum. Sa'ado Zeinab and his sons will serve as living exhibits. The social fabric of the Arab population in Jaffa will endure yet another rip. Two Arab neighborhoods, Ajami and Jabalia, still face the sea, but the new plan will block them off with hotels. We remember an earlier time when the port was closed. The queen of the city boasted that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than the mermaids. These complained to their protector, Poseidon, who promptly sent a sea monster. The harbor was sealed off, and people were starving. An oracle told the king that the only solution would be to offer up Andromeda to the monster, chaining her to the rock that today bears her name. Faced with the loss of their livelihood, the Jaffans (better organized than today) forced the king to comply. So there sat the beautiful maiden, awaiting her fate, when along came the wing-footed Perseus, bearing the newly-cut head of Medusa. Overwhelmed by Andromeda's beauty, he slew the sea monster, saved the city, and took the damsel to wife. And where is that Perseus who will slay the new monster that threatens to gobble up the port of Jaffa? While we wait, we shall merely tell the old story and point to Andromeda's rock, and snap it. Preferably at sunset. There is nothing quite like a Mediterranean sunset. With a few old fishermen out there in a boat. In silhouette.

The concepts "Jewish state" and "democracy" can function without friction only in a land where there are no Arabs. After the war of 1948, 156,000 Arabs remained within Israel's borders. The thrust of policy was to make conditions difficult enough so that they would quietly leave. The state confiscated virtually all their land reserves, shunting them out of agriculture. Yet it also refused to permit the development of industry in their towns. The result was a drop in local tax bases. Arab workers became a cheap, commuting labor force, dispersed during the day among the Jewish cities. Today their standard of living - as measured by income, unemployment, years of education, health services, and sanitation - is less than half that of the Jewish sector. There are, in short, two worlds within Israel's borders. Yet the Arabs have not left. They now number 1,125,000 – one-fifth of the population (up from one-sixth twenty years ago). The old policy, once styled "Judaization," grinds on under the politically more palatable term, "Coexistence." Recently it has taken a new twist, this time in the mixed Arab-Jewish cities of Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. The Arabs who lived in these cities after 1948 had the status of protected tenants: they could not be evicted, and the rent has been controlled. On the other hand, the government formulated tough regulations, making it impossible for most of them to expand or repair their dwellings. Nor could they pass on the status of protected tenant to their children. As families grew, therefore, many had little choice but to leave.

Following a recent change in architectural fashions, the government has come to see that the old, dilapidated Arab neighborhoods in these mixed cities have an "oriental" potential. The new slogan is, "Gentrify!" The infrastructure in each such neighborhood is undergoing a total overhaul. As land becomes available, it is sold on stringent conditions that only the wealthy can meet. Old buildings are replaced by posh villas, apartment houses, and offices. The Arab inhabitants find themselves isolated and encroached upon by a different world. Expanding families cannot rent nearby, because property values are sky-rocketing. On this basis, the government is often able to badger and lure them out to the (already overcrowded) villages. It sells the retrieved land, in turn, to the wealthy, and the cycle is intensified. Challenge has covered this process in Haifa (#40), Jaffa (#41), and Acre (#46). In the present article we return to Jaffa (officially an appendage of its daughter, Tel Aviv), this time to a new plan for the gentrification of its famous harbor.