Living in a tent: homeless and friendless in Israel

Middle East

Living in a tent.

The ancient city of Jaffa is one of the oldest port cities in the world. Tourists and locals are often seen wandering around its narrow alleys, beautiful buildings and flea markets, enjoying its Middle Eastern charm. 

Jaffa has a rich history, and is a city which pulls at the hearts of many Palestinians. Prior to 1948, when Palestine was partitioned and Israel was declared a State, Jaffa served as a cultural and educational center in Palestine. There was an abundance of publishing houses, theatres, cinemas, factories and a radio station. 

After 1948, parts of the city were destroyed in Israel’s attempt to erase Palestinian history. According to Omar Siksik, president of the Committee of Arabs for Jaffa, 120,000 Arabs lived in Jaffa prior to 1948. In 1948, thousands fled the city in fear, and the number decreased to 3,900. 

Today, Jaffa, with a population of 60,000 (20,000 Arabs and 40,000 Jews), is considered one of Israel’s few mixed cities. It is plagued with problems of drug abuse, crime and violence. 

It also faces a serious housing problem. Siksik says that over the years, Israel has demolished 3,126 of the most beautiful Arab houses. Now, an additional 500 families (between 3,000 and 4,000 people) have received eviction and demolition orders from the court, leaving their futures unsettled. 

Many Arabs believe that the evictions and demolitions are a way of Judaizing Jaffa. 

Due to a lack of affordable houses and apartments, these families end up moving in with other family members, resulting in overcrowding.  

But what is the solution for those who cannot afford rent, or have been forced to burden a family member’s already-crowded home? 

Life in a tent
A few tents occupied by families who cannot afford the high rents fill Hashtayim Park in Jaffa. The Kassem family – a family of six – lives in one of them. 

Sameer Kassem

Sameer Kassem, 34, lived with his wife, Asmahan, and their four children in a rented one-room apartment in Jaffa. Most of his monthly salary (approximately $1,097) went to rent (approximately $823). His mother helped them to make ends meet, but when she died in May, he was no longer able to afford the high rent. With no alternative, the family moved to a small tent in the park. 

Life in a tent proved difficult and when the Kassem’s tent was set on fire, and later the September rain soaked their belongings, they moved in with his 25-year-old sister, Zeinab, and her twins, who had been living in a deserted run-down house for three weeks. They planned on staying there during the cold winter months. 

The family was there only three days when they were given an eviction notice. They packed their belongings in preparation to leave.

On 4 October, police from the Yasam unit (a special unit known to use excessive force when dealing with security issues, crowd control and riots) were sent to evict the family. A few entered the house, while, according to Asmahan, an additional 30-40 remained outside. Kassem suddenly decided that he did not want to leave. He grabbed his 4–year-old daughter and sat on the floor, thinking that maybe the police would be easier on them, but the opposite happened, as you can see in the video. 

According to Kassem, his hand bandaged, not all the abuse he was subjected to was filmed. In addition to being punched and kicked, he was also choked. ‘I signalled to my sister that I could not breathe,’ he remembers. ‘My blood was boiling then,’ she explained, which is when she tried to try to help him. 

Handcuffed, he and Zeinab were taken into custody. The night in prison included approximately 12 hours in investigation. ‘The police falsely claimed that I was trying to blow up the house using a gas tank, and that I was trying to hurt my daughter,’ he said. ‘I was trying to protect her,’ he explained. 

The police attempted to force him to sign a paper stating that they did not abuse him.  ‘All that they did, and they say they did nothing!’ he said. He refused to sign. The following day, he and his sister were released after the judge saw the video. He has filed a lawsuit against the police. 

There were no social workers present, although by law they were required to be since children were being evicted. 

Zeinab and her twins

Kassem remembers that that particular house has been deserted since he was a child.  He does not know why they were singled out, since there are other families living in deserted homes nearby. 

The Kassem family (including Zeinab and her twins) returned to their tent in the park. The children sleep on two beds, while their parents sleep on the floor in the small space between the beds, or outside on couches. 

Kassem receives therapy for the damage inflicted by the police, and has not yet returned to work. His son Tamar vividly recalls the events: ‘The police was holding my sister Diyana. My mother tried to take her. They did not want to give her to my mother, and then they did. They kicked my father’s legs.’ Tamar (5) and Diyana (4) also receive therapy. 

Asmahan complains about the unhygienic living conditions. The children have contracted infections from the dirty bathrooms which are used by many people. Park residents are forced to shower using a hose – but there is no hot water. The children do not sleep well, and are often sick. 

The Kassems have been offered financial assistance on the condition that they find an apartment. But over 3 weeks following the incident, Asmahan has still not been able to find an affordable one-room apartment. (Zeinab has since moved in with her mother-in-law.)

A few hours ago, Asmahan called me. She had taken her sick child to the doctor. She returned to find that yesterday’s rain had soaked everything in the tent. At a loss as to what the family should do, she turned to me in her search for a solution. I did not know what to say. 

All photos by Noreen Sadik. Video taken by Israeli activist Haim Schwartzenberger.

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