Israel at 60 - Business as usual, and homes for sale

Haifa, Palestine - May 19, 2008

Standing on the beach of Haifa, on the coast of the Mediterranean sea in
northern Israel, I had a very strange phone conversation.

A friend and I were filming and photographing old abandoned homes. Many of
these beautiful beach-front homes are still standing, although fenced off
and sealed up. One such house had a large real-estate sign on the front,
so I decided it might be interesting to ring up the number.

On the other end of the line, I got a hold of a jolly man named Erez. I
began to ask him questions about the property, kind of feigning interest
in actually buying it. He told me that the particular house we were
standing in front of had been sold for 3 million shekels (about $1 million
US), and it was destined to be turned into a motel.

He then proceeded to ask me if I was Jewish, to which I affirmed that I
was, and then he began to enthusiastically tell me about all the other
beach-front properties he could offer me in Haifa, pending how much money I
was willing to invest. Going along with it, I asked him how old some of
the buildings were. "Oh, they're at least 60 years old," Erez replied.
"Very nice old arabic architecture. But they do need to be re-furbished a
bit."

Not surprising that the buildings need a facelift, especially since it has
now been 60 years since their original inhabitants left them.

"Welcome to Israel!" Erez said energetically at the end of our short
conversation. "The holy land!"

Some land indeed.

Locked out - a Palestinian home on the Haifa's Bat Galim beachLocked out - a Palestinian home on the Haifa's Bat Galim beach

Just 3 days prior to my little venture into the Haifa real-estate market,
Israel was marking the 60-year anniversary of its independence. On that
same day, Palestinians across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip,
Israel-proper, and throughout the world were also marking the 60-year
anniversary of the Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic), when 3 quarters of the
Palestinian population was expelled from their homes and lands to make way
for the Jewish state.

At around 2pm on Nakba day, we were packed in a taxi, racing down the road
from Ramallah to the Qalandiya refugee camp, hoping to make it to the camp
in time to witness the release of 21 915 black balloons. The night
before, we had been up in an outdoor soccer field in the camp, helping to inflate
these balloons with hundreds of other energetic volunteers. The balloons
were part of a big plan on the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, to release
them into the air in the hopes that they would fly over Jerusalem, or
maybe even Jaffa. Each balloon represented 1 day since the Palestinian
Nakba of May 15, 1948.

The demonstration enters the Mukata, the Palestinian presidential headquarters in RamallahThe demonstration enters the Mukata, the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah

Unfortunately we were a little late getting down to the camp, and
the balloons had already been released. Looking out the windows, we
scanned the sky, but alas, it was too late. And to make matte worse, the
wind was blowing south, not east, meaning that the balloons were probably
on their way to Bethlehem.

The timing of the release of the balloons at 2pm was perfect, because it
coincided precisely with the beginning of George W. Bush’s address to the
Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. So as Bush was beginning his speech
praising Israel as a democracy, and pledging to stand beside Israelis in the
‘war on terror’, we were standing amongst groups of Palestinian youth who
probably never seen a normal day of peace in their lives.

Just a few minutes later, we found ourselves walking down the street to
the Qalandiya ‘checkpoint’ (it should really be called a border
terminal now, because that’s the function it serves), just beside the
now-infamous Apartheid wall. As Bush was just about 30 km away in
Jerusalem, showering his praise on Israel, Israeli army jeeps came out
beyond the checkpoint and began to shower us with rubber-coated steel
bullets and tear gas. In response, at least 100 youth began pick up
stones to throw back at the soldiers, while at the same time making
barricades with dumpsters, wooden skids, and other rubbish in the streets.

Israeli soldiers open fire on Palestinian youth near the Qalandia checkpoint, outside RamallahIsraeli soldiers open fire on Palestinian youth near the Qalandia checkpoint, outside Ramallah

Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers clashed at the Qalandia checkpoint, beside the Apartheid wall, for over one hour on Nakba DayPalestinian youth and Israeli soldiers clashed at the Qalandia checkpoint, beside the Apartheid wall, for over one hour on Nakba Day

The scene was hauntingly familiar to a demonstration we attended in
Nazareth last week, organized by Palestinian-Israelis to mark Israel’s
independence day according to the Hebrew calendar. At the end of that
demonstration, Israeli police began attacking crowds with families and
children, not to mention at least 2 Arab members of the Knesset.

Video footage from the attack on the Nazareth demo can be seen here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-P4LI1ceGA

And so even as tens of thousands demonstrated in the streets of Ramallah
today to mark the 60-year anniversary of the Nakba, and even as Bush was
marking this momentous occasion with his speech to the Knesset, it was
just another day of business as usual in the West Bank. Indescriminate
use of violence against civilians, army intimidation, and yes, even a bit
of resistance.

But I think it's safe to say that 2008 has marked a difficult year for
Israelis. Because of growing campaigns around the world, the country's existence as a Jewish state is under
threat. One incident which stands out was this past February, when Israeli
deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai warned that the Palestinian people
would face a "greater shoa" if Hamas didn't end their rocket fire from Gaza ('shoa' is the Hebrew word used to refer to the Nazi holocaust) . This comment startled the world, and brought international condemnation upon
Israel.

Also in February, at a conference in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minster Ehud
Olmert interestingly stated, "We now have the Palestinians running an Algeria-style
campaign against Israel, but what I fear is that they will try to run a
South Africa-type campaign against us."

Indeed, this South African-stlyed campaign is materializing, and the world is opening its eyes to the apartheid nature of the state of Israel. The term "Israeli apartheid" has been used by people from
Jimmy Carter to Bishop Desmond Tutu.

An international campaign of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against
Israeli apartheid has been taken up widely, and zionists everywhere,
forced onto the defensive of having to explain why Israel ISN'T an
apartheid state, have been nervously strategizing their next desperate
attempt to re-brand that apartheid and give it a more human face.

A large part of the Israeli apartheid mechanism rests on the fact that the
majority of the Palestinian popluation, over 5 million people, now live in
exile throughout the world, legally barred by Israel from returning to
their homes.

So standing on the beach in Haifa, talking on my cellphone to Erez, was
very indicative of Israel at 60. A country desperately trying to
white-wash its history, and sell off all Palestinian property to any Jew
who happens to be waltzing through.

If anyone wants to call Erez and inquire as to where the initial owners of
"his" properties are, why they left, and what gives him the right to have
these beautiful houses, it might be an interesting experience. His office
number is +972 4 840 7777.

The home that Erez's real-estate company is selling on the Haifa beach-frontThe home that Erez's real-estate company is selling on the Haifa beach-front

And while you're at it, maybe wish him and the state of Israel a happy
60th birthday... because at the rate its going, one can only hope that
it's one of its last.

--Aaron Lakoff