Remodeling Jaffa: How Israeli Real Estate is Erasing Palestinian Heritage

The conversion of shuttered slaughterhouses in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District into art galleries, cafés, and condos is emblematic of “adaptive reuse”: the restoration of “disused or abandoned” property that preserves “historic value” in cities around the world.

Cities in Israel are no exception, but where they differ from others is that the remodeled lots were often not abandoned.

“A unique and authentic Historical building…built centuries ago, in the Mamluk Period,” runs one Sotheby’s advertisement of a “luxury home in the old city of historical Jaffa” in Moorish and Arabesque style. The price on this home is undisclosed, but a “striking residence dating back to 100 A.D.” is on sale for over $7 million.

Both of these properties, and several others, are in Jaffa. Prior to the Nakba, Jaffa was the largest Palestinian urban center with Arabic newspapers and publishing houses, social clubs and sports teams, a theater and cinema, and the legendary Sharq el-Adna radio station.

In the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the majority-Palestinian city was allotted to the Arab state, but its surrounding environs were designated for the Jewish state. Zionists, however, would never tolerate an Arab island in a Jewish sea. In April 1948, even while Jaffa’s mayor was negotiating with the Zionist leadership, the Irgun terror group, led by Menachem Begin, who would later become prime minister of Israel (1977-1983), launched a three-day barrage of mortars against the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods. The British intervened to stop the attack, but not before tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee to surrounding towns and the sea.


[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Virtual Returns to Jaffa]

With the departure of British troops at the end of the mandate just a month later, Zionist forces were able to seize Jaffa. The city, known as Palestine’s “Bride of the Sea,” ceased to exist as an Arabic cultural center even though it retained a small Palestinian population. Israel moved quickly to erase the city’s Palestinian heritage. It bulldozed whole neighborhoods. The Manshiyeh Quarter, for instance, was razed and remade into Charles Clore Park. Arabic street signs and squares received Hebrew names, and one Palestinian home left partially standing was converted into a museum honoring the Irgun as “liberators” of Jaffa. In 1954, the city was absorbed by its northern neighbor, and turned into a district of Tel Aviv.

Today, architects are applying “adaptive reuse” to refashion centuries-old properties in the Palestinian quarters of the city into high-end real estate. Israel’s elite class once shunned Jaffa as an impoverished backwater of Arabs and Mizrahi Jews – the Black City to Tel Aviv’s White City.

It is unlikely many Palestinians will be moving into the luxury homes in the old city. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel once told me, “These homes cost millions, and Arabs [Palestinians] in Israel do not have millions.” Over half of Palestinian families in Israel live in poverty and face a host of discriminatory practices. Nor would they be welcome if they could afford them. An investigation by Israel’s Channel 10 found that Palestinians seeking to buy luxury apartments in the formerly largely-Palestinian neighborhood of Ajami are “repeatedly put off until they give up.”

In Jaffa, the historic Palestinian quarters were labeled as “abandoned” or, as is often the case in Israel, “absentee property” after their former owners were expelled or forced to flee because of Israeli terror. This historical reality leads to one conclusion: Israeli “adaptive use” of these properties is an act of historical revisionism, with the intent of erasing any Palestinian linkages to the city.

[IPS BOOKS | Before Their Diaspora]

One of the most prominent architecture firms working in Jaffa’s old city, the Tel Aviv-based Pitsou Kedem, presents a script alongside one of its projects, Factory Jaffa House, that reads as if it were official copy from the municipality. “For the past few decades,” Pitsou Kedem says, Jaffa has “been on the sidelines of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.” Perhaps for Israeli Jews the conflict seems far removed from Jaffa’s beaches, but the city’s Palestinians have battled repeated attempts to evict them and residents protest the new wave of gentrification as a continuation of the displacement that started in 1948.

“Jaffa’s ancient Kasbah…since the establishment of the State of Israel has been taken from its Arab [Palestinian] residents and settled with new [Jewish] immigrants,” Pitsou Kedem continues in its advertisement. We’re given the impression that this was solely because the Kasbah (old city) “was a backward and disadvantaged area, primarily due to its bad sanitation infrastructure.”

In the 1970s, authorities booted out the Palestinians and transformed the Kasbah into an Artists Quarter. The architects mention the “Ancient Egyptians, the Biblical period,” and even Napoleon’s time in Palestine, but bury more than a millennium of Arab-Islamic dominion under the oblique tag of “even more” forgotten sovereigns. The home dates to the 17th century “when Jaffa was resettled…no documentation exists as to its usage or of its original inhabitants,” according to Pitsou Kedem. In over a thousand words dedicated to describing the site, the firm makes no mention of the site’s likely Palestinian owners or the historic heritage of Palestine.

“Today, the visitor to the Kasbah enjoys a visit to an area that lacks any noticeable identity,” Pitsou Kedem states. Yet, they are more accurate when they recognize that “the architectural, almost archeological actions within the structure, strengthen the claims that this type of local construction has a truth of form born from reality even if this is not set down as an ideological manifesto.” [Emphasis mine] The choice to work on expropriated property is a privilege exacted out of the catastrophe Palestinians continue to suffer from, but acknowledging the inhabitants who previously roamed the old city offends the national ideology of denial and subjugation that permeates Israeli society today.

“The people who would live in this village — wouldn’t the walls cry out in their ears?” wrote Israeli officer Yizhar Smilansky, a veteran of the 1948 war who witnessed the expulsion of Palestinians, on the future Israelis who would occupy Palestinian homes.

The “adaptive reuse” of Jaffa’s historic center reproduces the dispossession and marginalization that defines the asymmetrical relationship between the settler-colonial Jewish state and the Palestinians it subjugates. Israel aspires to collect the remains of Palestine without the Palestinians, a practice repeated throughout Palestine from the razed villages now serving as national parks to the Palestinian homes converted into hotels. “Adaptive reuse” is simply the latest tool deployed to erase Palestinians from the very stones that bear witness to their heritage.


  1. Hi Khelil,

    I appreciate your reply, but also want to point out that:

    1) In term of the Kasbah and the Factory Jaffa House, if this was indeed expropriated through absentee land legislation, please provide proof of this. I also want the exact block and plot numbers that you are referring to on the geo-map:

    2) Israel won the wars in 1948 and 1967, so if Jaffa “ceased to exist” as an Arab cultural center, as you claim, this is the sad and unfortunate outcome of war. Please let me know if you believe the Arab armies would have been kind to the Jewish population in Palestine in 1948 had they gotten the upper hand in the conflict? I do not believe their intentions were entirely humanitarian, to say the least.

    3) Well I think it is absolutely shameful what was done to the Jews in the Arab countries. But if this is a “charade” to distract from the attacks on Palestinians, then I will not raise this matter any further.

    best regards,


  2. There are several sweeping generalizations in this piece that make a reader uncomfortable. For one, you should know that in Israel it is not unusual to purchase old homes from the Arab owners and to refurbish them, this is happening right now in the center of Nazareth as well in Acre, which I have visited several times. I am not sure how this translates into “erasing” Palestinian heritage?

    Secondly, you make it seem as if Palestinians completely evacuated or fled Jaffa in 1948. This is simply not true. Jaffa continues to be a thriving Arab town and much of the old town center continues to be owned by Palestinians, and are not “absentee property” as you claim. We know about absentee property legislation, but you cannot simply apply this to every place you feel like.

    Finally, I take note of your point about Israel erasing Palestinian heritage and it is important. But what have the Arab countries done for the 800,000 Jews that were persecuted and had to flee from their homes in North Africa, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen? Were they compensated for the properties they left behind? What have the Arab countries done to preserve the historical Jewish heritage? Have we not also erased their heritage, ignored their places of worship and pretended that they never existed?

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article. I always appreciate reader feedback.

      I think you’re coming in a bit hot, and your comments suggest a very tendentious reading of my article.

      Let me respond to your comments one-by-one:

      1) The article does not address the lawful purchase and renovation of formerly Arab-owned homes, but the expropriation of Palestinian property after the original owners were expelled or forced to flee. The former transaction is voluntary, the latter is rooted in violence. When the latter takes place, and when the original history is ignored, that is arguably an act of erasing Palestinian heritage from Jaffa (something the very port map put up by the municipality appears to gleefully acknowledge, see this article

      2) I’m not sure how I make it seem, such as it is, that Palestinians were, in your words, “completely evacuated [sic] or fled.” In fact, I wrote, “The city, known as Palestine’s “Bride of the Sea,” ceased to exist as an Arabic cultural center even though it retained a small Palestinian population.” [Emphasis added] Most of the Palestinian population was expelled, that’s a fact — I would strongly contest the euphemism “evacuated,” as if this were a natural disaster with an orderly evacuation where the evacuees would naturally return after their temporary flight. Moreover, while I’ve been to Jaffa and know that many Palestinians remain shop and restaurant owners there, I would not characterize a city that is minority Arab and where Arab culture is secondary to Israeli-Jewish culture as a “thriving Arab town,” but I guess that’s my impression. Lastly, I do not apply absentee claims “every place [I] feel like,” and no where do I argue that every formerly Palestinian home is now absentee property held by Israel; I simply report on this widespread phenomenon that is easily evidenced in a stroll through Jaffa (or Jerusalem, or Haifa, or countless other cities, for that matter).

      3) The tragedy of Mirazhi Jews from Arab countries deserves recognition and compensation, and present efforts to restore Jewish landmarks. I strongly support that. But that is not the point of this article. And your bringing it appears to be more like a cynical attempt at distraction rather than a sincere attempt at Arab-Jewish reconciliation. It is not evasion to focus solely on one subject at a time, otherwise brevity would cease to exist. Moreover, it is not obviously relevant to this article. How Arab regimes acted toward their Jewish subjects is not the Palestinians’ responsibility. And the chronology makes your proposition even more unfounded: The Israeli attack and ethnic cleansing of Jaffa preceded (and, arguably, created the conditions for) the mistreatment and expulsions of Jews from Arab lands. Unfortunately, it is a well-known charade by a many Zionists to point to the tragedy of Arab Jews in order to distract if not retroactively justify Zionism’s unprovoked attacks on the Palestinian people. The Palestinian tragedy did not justify what Arab regimes later did to their Jewish people, and the suffering of Arab Jews does not, as if in a rear view mirror, lessen the blow of Israel’s Original Sin.

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