Israeli projects on confiscated lands in Haifa City threaten historical landmarks, but some are fighting back.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch issued earlier this year, Israeli discrimination works according to different rules established by the government where two-tiered citizenship structures and bifurcation of nationality and citizenship result in Palestinian citizens having a status inferior to that of Jewish citizens, by law.

Palestinians in Israel have the right to vote and contest elections. These rights, however, do not empower them to overcome institutional discrimination including widespread restrictions on accessing land confiscated from them, home demolitions, and effective prohibitions on family reunification.

Palestinian demographic ‘threat’

In 2018, the Knesset passed a law with constitutional status affirming Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” declaring that within that territory, the right to self-determination “is unique to the Jewish people”.

They have openly described Palestinians as a demographic “threat”. Israeli authorities have been accused of erasing Palestinian culture and heritage.

The Human Rights Watch report also mentioned that authorities have seized, through different mechanisms, at least 4,500 square kilometres of land from Palestinians. That makes up 65 to 75 percent of all land owned by Palestinians before 1948 and 40 to 60 percent of the land that belonged to those Palestinians who remained after 1948, and became the citizens of Israel.

Confiscated lands

The report added that authorities in the early years of the state declared land belonging to displaced Palestinians as “absentee property” or “closed military zones,” then captured and converted it to state land, and later settled Jewish communities there. Authorities continue to block Palestinian citizen landowners from accessing land confiscated from them.

Land confiscations and other discriminatory land policies limit Palestinian municipalities inside Israel for the natural expansion enjoyed by Jewish municipalities.

The vast majority of Palestinian citizens, who make up around 19 percent of the Israeli population, live in these municipalities, which have an estimated jurisdiction over less than 3 percent of all land in Israel.

The White Mosque case

In Haifa, a committee for protecting Waqf, an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law, has worked for two decades to confront Israeli plans which aim to dominate religious and historical sites in the city. Through different ‘development’ plans and projects, Israeli authorities managed to wipe many historical landmarks.

According to Arab48, a local news website for Palestinians in Israel, the committee found that a project approved in 1985 threatens the existence of the historical White Mosque in Haifa through the construction a 27-story building nearby. The building will include 258 housing units as well as four floors underground, hotels and commercial shops and offices.

The land next to the mosque is confiscated Waqf land and the plan says the surrounding area will turn to state land. The committee has rejected the plan fearing harm to the small mosque, which carries historical and architectural value, asking authorities to ensure the safety of the mosque and its basis.

Struggle to protect heritage

Orwa Switat, an activist and urban planning consultant for the Mitwali Waqf Committee, said many holy sites have vanished in Haifa such as Sheikh Esaa cemetery and Khatib Waqf. The planned project next to the White Mosque is not new and it threatens one of the most important historical sites in Haifa and changes the features of the area.

Switat clarified that the mosque was the first landmark established in the city in 1761 in the era of Dahir al-Umar, the ruler of northern Palestine in the mid-18th century, when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire.

"We requested from the municipality to stand by us. However, we still fear the construction will harm the basis of the mosque. That’s why we seek cooperation with the local Arab community and a guarantee that the project won’t harm the mosque,’ Switat said.

"The approach that we take is against such policy is legal one and civil resistance," Switat told TRT World.

"The committee that was launched in 2000 following the discovery of a dangerous deal of selling Istiklal cemetery and another plan to destroy Al-Jerina Mosque, another mosque near the White Mosque."

He explains that the Waqf has succeeded on several occasions to cancel deals that aim to erase national and religious landmarks.

The committee is also taking steps on an urban planning level as well as administrative, organisational and legal levels to protect Waqf landmarks.

Switat concluded that their struggle combines planning tools and legal action. 

"In some cases, we would go to court to stop or make changes to such projects to avoid any damage to our heritage."