The port city of Akka (also known as Acre) is one of the places where the conflict over ownership of Palestinian history and culture is most stark.
The recent campaign to prevent the historic Khan al-Umdan from being turned into a luxury hotel by Israeli developers highlighted the struggle by an economically and politically marginalized Palestinian community to resist gentrification and an insidious ethnic cleansing.
Director Patrick Stewart does an admirable job in It’s Better to Jump of conveying both the staggeringly long history of this beautiful port and the challenges which beset its people on a daily basis.
The film opens with swooping maps which emphasize Akka’s place — over thousands of years — on trade routes stretching both east and west. The focus narrows to local people — famous figures such as actor Makram Khoury but also ordinary folks such as tour guides, schoolteachers and students talking about their attachment to their home.
That attachment stems from the everyday experience of growing up and living in a town — its people, its alleyways, the ways that people make their livings, the food they eat and the songs they sing.
In a setting such as Akka, it is impossible to separate this from the grandeur of the surroundings — the Ottoman khans and Crusader halls — and from the role of the built environment in the city’s history. Abdu Matta, a local tour guide, refers to Akka’s famous walls, last rebuilt by Daher el-Omar in the eighteenth century. Without them, Akka would not have halted Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of the Middle East.
Matta also declares that “I’m Canaanite before I’m Palestinian.” In doing so, he lays claim to millennia of rich Palestinian heritage, an awareness that many of his fellow Akkans articulate in myriad ways throughout this film. Footage of modern-day Akka is blended with archive reels to show the continuity embodied by the city’s people.
But if its Palestinian residents are the “living stones” of historic Akka, they are under as much threat as its built environment. The Palestinian population of the old city of Akka has shrunk by one-third to a half in the last twenty years, replaced by upscale tourist amenities and property developers.
Through the voices of local residents, the film traces the means by which this has been achieved. Akka’s old city long had just one doctor and dentist. Permits to renovate ancient homes were denied by the Israeli authorities, leaving many without proper electricity supplies or sanitation.
On top of this, say local people, the Israeli-controlled municipality failed to invest in domestic infrastructure in the old city.
The wider city has a reputation as a poor and sometimes violent place, where waves of Jewish migrants from Russia and the Middle East have been dumped by the Israeli government, leaving the municipality overburdened.
And fishing, traditionally one of the main sources of employment, has declined due to pollution, poor fisheries management and severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli navy because of Akka’s proximity to naval bases and Israel’s boundary with Lebanon.
The final straw came after Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal of extremist settlers from Gaza in 2005. Many of these were relocated to Akka, bringing fiercely racist and confrontational views into an already poor area.
It is hardly surprising, most locals acknowledge, that when poor families — some living in a single room — are offered huge sums by Israeli developers to leave the old city, they cannot resist.
It may sound like a conspiracy theory to say that there has been a deliberate, long-term plan to run the old city down, making life almost unbearable for Palestinian residents and then buy them out in order to turn Akka into “some kind of European artistic village with beautiful expensive houses,” as local businesswoman Reem Hazan says in the film.
Cleansed of spirit
But one only need look down the coast to the “artist’s village” at Ein Hod, or to the tourist area in the historic heart of Jaffa, to see that this isn’t just a theory, but a common occurrence in modern Israel.
Picturesque, historical Palestinian architecture is appropriated by a young state with little visible heritage of its own, “cleansed” of its occupants — and its life and spirit — and appropriated in a quest to attract tourists and assert Israeli ownership over the built environment.
Professor Beshara Doumani of Brown University (the only non-Akkan voice in the film) sums this process up as “a cannibalization of the history, the architecture, the landscape.”
The Palestinians of Akka who speak so eloquently about their love for the city are fighting back. We meet the women of Arapiat, the first Palestinian female hip-hop group, who sing about the need for pride in their city and for young people to reject drugs and crime.
Yousef Abd al-Ghani, twice Israeli heavyweight boxing champion, is honest about his disappointment in finding Akka’s young men sitting in cafes and smoking all day. So he runs programs to get them involved in sport, trying to instill in them a sense of pride. Local musician Kher Fody does the same using his talents.
And Reem Hazan describes how she has turned her family home into a restaurant to create jobs, showcase Palestinian culture and challenge Israeli tourist businesses. The Palestinians of Akka, she says, need to invest in their properties and communities to “make it their own city” again.
But other interviewees emphasize that Akkans need support. As Fody comments, ancient Palestinian buildings in the occupied West Bank can sometimes get aid from organizations such as Riwaq, expertly renovating old houses so they remain habitable, and preserving them as a living heritage.
He suspects a similar organization for Palestinians in present-day Israel would be crushed by the authorities because it would counter exactly the kinds of trends they have set in motion in Akka.
Instead, he worries that without support Akka will become “Jerusalem number two, with all the cameras and the control” and a Palestinian population increasingly squeezed between fanatical settlers and property tycoons.
It’s a gloomy vision and one that seems all too possible. But hopefully this brave and necessary film will be a tool in the struggle to preserve Akka as a uniquely beautiful, historic and — most importantly — living Palestinian city.
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with the Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.