The Palestinians who never left

Posted on Jun 13, 2018

‘We in Jaffa know everybody is the son of God’

Displacement: with the 1948 expulsions most Palestinians became homeless refugees; some, as in Jaffa, stayed on Bettmann · Getty

While Gaza rages, a visitor to Jaffa discovers how many remained after the great expulsions of 1948, continuing to live and work in something like the diverse society they remembered.

by Stuart Braun

Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2018 – Sixty unarmed protestors were killed last month by Israeli military on the Gaza border, on the day that the US inaugurated its new embassy in Jerusalem, outraging the world; the Palestinians had been, in part, commemorating the Nakba, the catastrophe of the displacement of so many from the new state of Israel 70 years ago. The Great March of Return movement argues for the refugees’ right to come back to their ancestral lands. Yet some communities never left.

Staying in an Arab area south of Tel Aviv (1), I realised that Christian and Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis were, despite the divisive policies and rightward march of the Israeli government, still living together in a microcosm of what was once a very diverse part of the world. I’d been uneasy about travelling to Israel, and my pregnant wife and I were worried when, on our first afternoon, we heard that a Palestinian man had driven a truck into a crowd in Jerusalem and killed four young Israeli soldiers. We had found our apartment, which was in Ajami, a rundown district near the port of Jaffa, and our host, who lived next door with four generations of her Arab Christian family, welcomed us kindly with coffee in a sunny courtyard amid citrus trees in fruit. She was over 70, and had probably been a small child when her homeland ceased to exist. I had not expected to find anyone like her in modern Israel.

Because we’d heard about that attack, we walked very warily to the nearby port, where the old buildings had signs like ‘St Peter the Apostle stayed here’. Crossing the Jaffa headland, we stopped as we heard Muslim prayer from a mosque on the water’s edge; we also heard bells marking the hour at several churches. We could see Tel Aviv city centre to the north, its vast Miami-like towers buttressing the Mediterranean coastline.

Jaffa, once known as the Bride of the Sea, was the biggest city by population in Palestine, and remained the cultural and economic heart of the country under Ottoman and British rule. It attracted visitors, both tourists and pilgrims, who then took the road east to Jerusalem. But when the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, around 120,000 people — 95% of Jaffa’s majority Arab population — were expelled or fled the war. Most of the dispossessed were forced to join a diaspora that spread to Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Jordan, Egypt, and on to Chile, the US and Europe. Nearly all of the few thousand who stayed behind were herded into Ajami, a neglected former Ottoman middle-class district, which became a Palestinian ghetto under the martial law imposed by the new state of Israel, a prototype for blockaded Gaza. Palestinian Arabs were denied civil and human rights and indiscriminately jailed, and their properties were confiscated or destroyed. When those who stayed became Israeli citizens (they are now about a third of Jaffa’s population), they remained second-class citizens, with limited access to education and employment, and no right to join the army, like all Palestinians behind Israel’s Green Line.

We had not known we would be staying in Ajami, regarded as one of the worst neighbourhoods in the Tel Aviv district, poor, with a high crime rate, and gangs dealing in hard drugs. Like Gaza, Ajami has long been thought a no-go zone, which is why parts are relatively decrepit, and why — unlike in downtown Tel Aviv — surveillance cameras are grafted to poles on every street corner.

Oranges to the world

The Nakba is not much mentioned on the historical signposts around Jaffa, yet Palestinian culture thrives. Our host’s young nephew manages a café on the border of the Old City, next to St George’s Church, filled with antiques, curios and framed black-and-white images of the heyday of old Jaffa. It is a shrine to a culture not completely vanished. He told us stories of the years before 1948, when the port of Jaffa exported millions of shamouti oranges, grown in groves in the city’s hinterland. (The almost seedless, thick-skinned, very sweet fruit are still called Jaffa oranges.) He was reciting the myths that live on in the Palestinian imagination.

We lived as one family … the Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, planted groves. The Jews planted groves too. We worked together
Abu Shehadeh

I was surprised to find that young Palestinians like the café manager had any place in modern Israel. It is claimed that coexistence was a simple fact in Jaffa before 1948. A Palestinian mechanic, Ismail Abu Shehadeh, said in the documentary Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork, which looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the mostly departed orange groves: ‘We lived as one family … the Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, planted groves. The Jews planted groves too. We worked together.’

We wandered daily through the Jaffa flea market, part of the Palestinian bazaar that today is used by Jewish, Arab, Yemeni and Bedouin traders. Some set up on the ground in the square or in the surrounding arcades, selling ornaments, antiques or carpets from across the Middle East. The area is a cultural crossroads that has survived conflict. Even during the second Intifada (2000-06), a Jew and a Muslim ran a carpet store together in the market; the Jewish partner, Rami Sinay, told the Jewish Journal: ‘Here Muslims and Jews have no problem. Because we live together in Jaffa, we know everybody’s the son of God.’ During the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge), staff at Jaffa’s Abouelafia restaurant wore t-shirts with the slogan ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’. The Palestinian Abu Hassan hummus restaurant, in business for over 50 years, has a perpetual long queue because of its fame across Israel, where the chickpea is the great common denominator, the nourishing unifier of tribes.

Challenge of gentrification

Jaffa’s syncretism is threatened again, though, with gentrification moving south from Tel Aviv and becoming a new strategy of ethnic cleansing, as far-right and sectarian forces drive Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policy. Much of Jaffa was threatened with demolition in the 1990s, but now even downmarket Ajami is highly sought after by Jewish Israelis seeking heritage villas with sea views; one old building has already been converted into high-end apartments. Orthodox Jews have also built Jewish-only properties in Ajami, and locals fear they’ll be moved on via a Jewish settlement-building strategy, as in the West Bank. Higher rents and displacement have followed these changes. Because of their second-class status, Arabs are rarely permitted to redevelop their own properties.

As we were returning to the airport to fly home to Berlin, our taxi driver asked why we had stayed in Ajami. He reminded us that the area is very dangerous, and pointed out that there were much nicer places to stay in the city. I disagreed. I felt he might be internalising a need to exorcise any trace of Arab Palestine, or to delegitimise what was left. As David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said in 1948 when he sanctioned the destruction of Palestinian villages for the sake of Israeli independence, ‘We must do everything to ensure they never do return. The old will die and the young will forget.’ But they haven’t forgotten. A few months after we went home, we saw that Israeli police had shot dead a young Palestinian man on Ajami’s main drag. They got the wrong man. Protests followed. Abed Abu Shehadah, a local activist and member of Jaffa’s Islamic Council, told 972mag: ‘What happened that day was extraordinary. We haven’t seen young people take to the streets spontaneously since the first days of the second Intifada in 2000. To do so requires a certain political culture that I didn’t even know existed.’

In Berlin, I met the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli at a reading where she told the audience that older generations, including her own parents, who lived through the Nakba, refused to discuss it. They feared that remembering would lead to more expulsions. As former citrus grove worker Ismail Abu Shehadeh reminded me, ‘you must wipe 1948 from your mind. Four thousand bombs were dropped on Jaffa — and it was a small place. Forgetting is a blessing from God.’ Better for the old not to bring up the past, not to remember.

But the young are different. They want to remember, looking back as they move forward; they are Muslims and Christians who speak Arabic, Hebrew and English, who live among an innate diversity despite the fear of displacement and police intimidation. Jaffa residents and housing rights activists Sami Abu Shehadeh and Fadi Shbaytah wrote that in the 1990s the district ‘witnessed a powerful political and cultural revival among Palestinian citizens of Israel, as the third generation since the Nakba began to discover and assert their Palestinian identity as the indigenous people of the land’ (2). Meanwhile in Gaza, the struggle continues, and with it the demand for Palestinians’ right of return.

Stuart Braun

Stuart Braun is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. He is the author of City of Exiles: Berlin from the Outside In, Noctua Press, 2015.
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(1Tel Aviv began as a northern suburb of Jaffa that was founded by Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century, and did not receive city status until 1934. Jaffa and neighbourhoods like Ajami to its south — initially a Maronite Christian settlement — was one of Palestine’s biggest cities under both British and Ottoman rule.

(2The Electronic Intifada, translated from Al-Majdal Magazine, 26 February 2009.