Haifa, peaceful town with a silent pain

“I love Haifa” on a wall of a building block in Haifa. (Makbula Nassar/PalestineRemembered.com)

At first sight, Haifa seems a quiet and flourishing city in comparison to what we saw on our previous visits to Ramallah, Hebron and Jerusalem. There are no checkpoints with barbed wire at the entrance of the city, no 25 metre high wall. There is a beautiful view of the sea from Carmel Mountain and the magnificent Baha’i temple and gardens stand in the middle of Haifa. However, while speaking with members of the Palestinian community in Haifa and reflecting on its turbulent history, another picture emerges, one of silent pain.

Haifa is one out of five ‘mixed’ cities1 in Israel with a total population of around 270,000, of whom officially 24,100 (9%) are Palestinians (13,500 Christians and 10,600 Muslims2). Up until 1967, Haifa had the largest Palestinian population in Israel. Its geographical position in the north, where most Palestinian communities in Israel live, lends Haifa a special status in terms of services, commerce, employment, art and culture.

Haifa has attracted many Palestinians from the North, in addition to the residents that remained in Haifa after 1948. But, a considerable number of Haifa’s Palestinian residents had lived in Haifa for decades without having been defined as legal residents of Haifa in the population registry. The unofficial estimation of the Palestinian population in Haifa is around 30,000, leaving around 6,000 Palestinians officially unrecognised.

What’s in a name?

Among the 280 people interviewed in a field survey conducted by the Social Development Committee (SDC) of Haifa, the most common self-definitions are “Israeli Arab” or “Israeli Palestinian”, with 23 per cent defining themselves as such. Further, 14.3 per cent define themselves as “Israeli Palestinian Arab” or “Israeli Arab Palestinian” and another 16 per cent define themselves as “Arab Palestinian” or “Palestinian Arab”. The SDC also recorded many other definitions, most of which included an Israeli element.

The government of Israel, and most Israeli people, define Palestinian citizens of Israel as “Arab”. However, we prefer to use the term “Palestinian”, as it refers to Palestine, the place where Palestinians came from.

Ethnic cleansing

In 1948, the British mandate ended and Israel unilaterally declared its independence, which sparked a war with neighbouring Arab countries and against the indigenous Palestinian population and widespread dispossession of Palestinian land and properties. At the time, Haifa offered a home for about 128,000 people, of whom 66,000 were Jews.3 The Israeli historian Benny Morris4 writes that the leadership of Haganah Zionist militia and the Irgun Zvai Leumi militia (IZL, Israel’s underground movement for national liberation) had the ethnically cleansing of the city of its Palestinian Arab population high on their agendas: “About 5,000 Haganah Zionist forces started their attack on Haifa on the 21st of April 1948 … the Haganah broadcasted terror messages via loudspeakers, to terrorise the Arab inhabitants into fleeing”.

View at Haifa’s harbor looking west from Mount Carmel in the 1940s. (PalestineRemembered.com)

The city of Haifa fell to the Haganah Zionist militia forces on April 23 of that year. Sir Alan Cunningham, the British high commissioner for Palestine, wrote in an official communication to London (April 22, 1948), “British authorities in Haifa have formed the impression that total evacuation is being urged on the Haifa Arabs from higher Arab quarters and that the townsfolk themselves are against it”.5

After Haifa’s capture by the Haganah, only about 3,500 Palestinians were allowed to stay in Haifa. Those who were interviewed in Haifa and who were old enough to remember these events recalled that Palestinians living there were in constant fear for their lives and properties, and many of them witnessed firsthand the looting of their homes and possessions by the Zionist militias and settlers.

Fleeing in fear

The vast majority of Haifa’s Palestinian population fled by boat and landed in Lebanon. Some boats managed to land 15 kilometres north in Acre, a city that was ethnically cleansed a few weeks later.

Hanan (not her real name) is a retired Christian Palestinian citizen of Haifa. She showed us not only the Palestinian heritage of the city, but also the confiscated heritage of her family. As a small child her family fled in fear from Haifa. Her family had lived in an apartment building that they owned. Hanan’s father also owned a building materials factory, which she showed to us.


Hanan’s family returned shortly after Haganah’s capture of Haifa. When they came back they discovered that the factory and the apartment building had been confiscated and was occupied by Jewish families. The family decided to start a new life on the roof of what used to be their property and built a new apartment there. The family was never compensated for the confiscation of their property. Old photographs show her brother on the roof in front of the small, newly built apartment.

Hanan remembers the fear her parents felt for her safety and the safety of her brothers and sisters. As a consequence, she grew up in the close and protected circle of the family. She also showed us the house of her grandfather, a house that is now in the hands of an Israeli housing corporation, like so many other houses formerly belonging to Palestinians. It is now rented to a Palestinian family.

Unequal neighbourhoods

Abu Hassan (not his real name) was twelve years old in 1948. His family lived in Omnizet, a small village near Haifa behind Mount Carmel. Full of memories he explains that ‘Omnizet’ means the mother of beauty. The village was completed destroyed by Zionist militias. He remained with his older brother of 32 in Haifa, after all the other members of the family had fled. He managed to survive and still lives in Haifa, now in the Halisa neighbourhood. He is proud of his and his brother’s offspring: 60 children and grandchildren.

Halisa is densely populated, the poorest neighbourhood of Haifa. The majority of Halisa’s residents are Palestinians. Over the years, they came to Haifa after being uprooted from their villages, which were destroyed in 1948. Around 121,000 Palestinians were dispossessed from Haifa and from 58 surrounding villages.

The main road in Halisa has been recently tarred, but the other roads have not. In comparison to the Jewish areas of Haifa, it is clear where the municipality is putting its money. Since 1933, there have been no plans for the improvement of Halisa; that is, until 2001, when under the pretext of “renovation of the neighbourhood”, the Haifa municipality put forward a “building plan” for the neighbourhood.

The plan by the municipality includes confiscation and demolition of balconies, yards and gardens of most of the buildings. Without consulting the people of Halisa the municipality decided that the roads needed to be broadened, requiring widespread destruction of houses and bringing streets up to the buildings’ walls. It is almost as if the population of Halisa had different needs from those of Haifa’s Jewish residents, who enjoy yards and trees surrounding their houses.

Trying to erase the past

Abu Hassan shows us Halisa and explains how it has changed. He recalls the gardens of Palestinians with olive, almond and fig trees. It is painful to see how Palestinian property that has been confiscated by Israeli housing corporations is not well looked after. Roofs and balconies are not repaired so that in time the order for demolition inevitably follows. It can be felt that the presence of the Palestinians slowly but surely is eradicated from Haifa.

In addition to systematic property dispossession,6 another way in which efforts have been made to ‘erase the past’ has been by changing the original Arabic names of the streets to Hebrew and/or Zionist names.7

House demolitions

Orders for housing demolitions are gaining momentum at a frightening pace. The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) recently reported that, “On June 5, 2005 the municipality in Haifa, with the help of police forces, destroyed the home of Basim and Miriam Bushkar on Bar Yehuda Road, where the family has been living for the past 70 years.” This was in spite of a delegation by residents to Haifa mayor Yona Yahav the night before to try and resolve the issue. HRA further reported that twelve people were injured and twenty were arrested.8

Prior to this, the HRA reported that, “On 30 May 2005, Haifa District Planning and Building Committee also demolished, without prior notice, the home of Muhammad Mursah, from the village of Jatt al-Muthhalath, claiming the house was unlicensed. This is the second house that was demolished in the village during recent months, in preparation for the creation of an “isolation zone” between the village of Jet al-Muthalath and other Kibbutzes in the Regional District of Menashe. One of these, Majaal Kibbutz, had specifically asked the district Planning and Building Committee to ban the residents of the village from expanding towards the Kibbutz.” 9

“We have been fleeing the ghost of the destruction for about five years,” said Ashraf Jasar, the lawyer representing the owner of the house. “Since the year 2000 we have been moving from one court to another until we had exhausted all legal means. It was the responsibility of the local council to make a master plan.”

The stated reason for the demolition, Jasar confirmed, was that the region on which the house stood was zoned for construction, but recently it was decided that this region would become an “isolation zone” between the Palestinian village and the Majaal Kibbutz. As the house was on the border, the committee insisted upon its demolition. Jasar emphasized that tens of houses are threatened with demolition, and should be rescued.”

In another Palestinian neighbourhood, Wadi Nisnas, 54 demolitions are planned. Wadi Nisnas is a lively neighbourhood with a lot of shops where nearly 30 per cent of the Palestinian citizens of Haifa live. A Haifa City Order of 1966 threatened to demolish 4 houses to make way for the widening of a road. It was unimplemented until three years ago, when the new large-scale demolition order appeared. This plan does not take into account what the community needs. Attention needs to be paid to what will happen to those who have moved out, says Nasser Nasrallah,10 legal advisor and housing project coordinator for the Social Development Committee of Haifa.

Struggle for equal rights

During a brief stay in Haifa, many Palestinians with Israeli citizenship expressed their feeling that Haifa was also their town. As one Palestinian observed:

“We want to live in a city where our cultural, architectural and historical heritage is kept alive, and not been taken from us. We want equal rights, and this includes the right to our history.”

Just like the well-kept gardens of the Baha’i temple serves to inspire millions of Baha’i faithful, for whom Haifa is the centre of their religion, the tenacious efforts by Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for equal rights also serve to inspire. Their voices deserve to be heard.

Adri Nieuwhof and Jeff Handmaker are human rights advocates, based in the Netherlands. Both authors have travelled extensively in Israel and Occupied Palestine and Nieuwhof travelled to Haifa in June 2005.


  1. Sanctity denied, The destruction and abuse of Muslim and Christian holy places in Israel, Arab Association for Human Rights, December 2004.
  2. The socio-economic position of the Arab population of Haifa, Social Development Committee of Haifa, June 2004.
  3. Michael R. Fischbach, Encyclopedia Of The Palestinians: Briefly, Haifa’s History at palestineremembered.com.
  4. Morris, B., The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, 2004.
  5. Quote posted at www.jewishstudentscanada.ca.
  6. See Ruling Palestine: A History of the legally sanctioned Jewish-Israeli Seizure of land and housing in Palestine (PDF), by Souad R. Dajani, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and Badil, May 2005.
  7. For example, streets have been named after the ‘heroes’ of 1948 Zionist militias. See www.zochrot.org.
  8. Human Rights Association, Weekly Review of the Arabic Press in Israel, No. 225 / June 3 - 10, 2005. See also www.icahd.org.
  9. Human Rights Association, Weekly Review of the Arabic Press in Israel, No. 224 / May 27 - June 3, 2005.
  10. Press release of Baladna, Association for Arab Youth, 15 May 2005.

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