3042014 Salwa Zeidan, or as she is known by those around her: Umm Ahmad, is an old woman who lives in an amazing house by the old wall in the city of Akka. She has been living there for over 50 years together with her husband and her 10 children, 3 sons and 7 daughters. In 1990 her husband died, and Umm Ahmad became a widow. She proudly shows pictures of the good days the family have had in the house. Pictures of children who have been raised in the house, dinners they have had together in the garden. About 25 years ago she was contacted by The Old Acre Development Company, something that became the start of a painful process.
A stair made of old stones leads up to her house, a whole floor divided into two houses, a patio with a garden and a terrace by the old city wall. Words can not describe how idyllic it is. When we arrive in the house, it is filled with people and we are led into the garden where they sit together and drink coffee. Everyone says hello, but only a few people speaks English. The smell of paint, amongst laughing children and smiling people, makes us curious about what they are really doing out here. We learn that they are making banners for the demonstration that is to be held tomorrow.
Umm Ahmad is about to be thrown out of her own house. The government has, through the Old Acre Development Company (OADC), decided that the house is going to be torn down and instead a hotel will be built on the site. Umm Ahmad has hired lawyers and gone to court with her case. The problem is that she only has a copy and a photocopy of her deeds. The original papers were stored in the archives of OADC, in a building that burned down in 2005. Therefore the court does not deem her papers as valid. They want her to find the original papers, even though everyone knows it was destroyed in the fire. For about a month ago they reached the final conclusion, and Umm Ahmad received a letter stating that she has to move out between the 24th of March and the 8th of May, or she will be thrown out.
An activist called Yousef approaches us, and he tries to explain the process in English. But we soon realize that it is a lot to understand:
1964: There is a old system called Waqf Islam. The residents paid a sum to buy 60-70% ownership of the house and Islam owned the rest. A small rent was also paid every month. In 1964, the Israeli government took over the ownership of these houses from Islam, and it is together with them that Umm Ahmad owns her house now.
1989: She is approached the first time to leave her house. She hires a lawyer and enters a lot of courts.
Since she owns 70% of her house she has the right to decide if she wants to sell it or not.
2005: The original deeds for the house is lost when a fire burns down the archive at OADC, which leads the court to decide that her claim to own the house is invalid. Also lost in the fire is the paper proving that she paid for the house to Waqf Islam. The court therefor doubts that she has paid for the house at all. It is a bald claim since that entails the Israeli authorities overlooking her living in a house for over 50 years that she did not even own.
2014: Umm Ahmad receives a five page long court order, which is written in Hebrew, that tells her to evacuate the house within two weeks or else she will be removed by force.
During these 25 years different offers have been made. There have been serious offers, ex. offers to move her to another house or to receive bigger or smaller sums to sell the house. But there also have been tactics that are nothing less but bullying to make her move. She has been thrown around in court, which is expensive for a widow with 10 children. They have taken investors to her house without telling her about the process or even asking for her permission. They also deemed her house as unfit to live in and big signs warns any person entering the house of the dangers of collapsing walls and pits in the floor. Nothing of this can be seen in the house.
It is a sad situation for Umm Ahmad, but it is far from unique. One of the founders of the movement Falastiniyat (Palestinian women), Hazar, tells us that there is 160 similar cases in the old town of Akka. At the moment the cases are frozen, but they can be unfrozen at any moment by a court order similar to Umm Ahmad’s. Most likely they will get one months notice and two weeks to move out. Two weeks to clean out what has been a home for generations. 200 houses already sits empty and closed in the old city. These numbers seem small, but it is important to understand that the family is central here. Many people share the same home, and the number of residents per house is therefor high. There is 5 000 inhabitants in the old city of Akka, and if we imagine that there is around five persons per home, it makes around 1 000 homes in total. That means that 360 home evacuations (included the frozen cases) affect around 36 % of the population.
This is just a qualified guess from the facts that we have, there is no such statistics on the home evacuations. It is not Israel’s top priority to release such information. But even though this may not be 100 % accurate, it paints a picture of how bad the situation actually is. It also explains the high level of activity around Umm Ahmad’s case. Yousef, our English speaking activist, tells us that they think that if they stop OADC here, and save Umm Ahmad’s house, it will have a positive domino effect for the rest of the old city. We can only hope for their success as they struggle on. All day and all night there is at least five activists present in the house, in case of the police showing up to evacuate the old woman from her home. The home where she has seen all her children, and even some grandchildren, grow up.
As the evening falls we stand on the roof, trying to preserve the breathtaking view of the sunset colouring the sky over the old city, in our memory. On the patio they have set up a projector and set up chairs in rows, a temporary out door cinema. Tonight’s movie is Roadmap to Apartheid. A documentary that compares apartheid in South Africa with the situation in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Almost 70 persons sit closely together and watch as the horrible pictures of apartheid, both here and in Africa, are illuminated on the old wall.
The following day the patio has transformed, it is time for the Friday prayer. The house is neighboring to a mosque that has been closed since the war. It has recently reopened and this prayer is just the second since 1948. Almost 250 people have gathered on the rugs carefully laid out on the floor for this special occasion. After the pray everyone are ready for the demonstration. Those who have prayed descend the stone stairs of the house and join an awaiting crowd. Around 1 000 people joins the demonstration and shouts slogans such as “We are all Umm Ahmad”. Social medias have been a key tool to gather people around the successful demonstration. In the middle of it all we can see Salwa Zeidan, Umm Ahmad, the woman of the day. It is hard not to see the pride and the determination to keep on fighting written in her face.
But only time will tell if all this, and the weeks to come, is enough to save the home of Umm Ahmad.
written by Emelie Matkala Nylander & Stephan Lyngved