A sea port on the Mediterranean, until the end of the British mandate period Jaffa was a cosmopolitan centre. In 1948 the population of the greater Jaffa area numbered 120,000; the largest of any area in Palestine. Jaffa rose to prominence in the course of the nineteenth century, in the first place on account of its oranges. It was the main port for people arriving from abroad and the transit point on the main road to Jerusalem. Christians came from the UK, in the first place from the Church of Scotland but also from England, building churches, school and hospitals. Jaffa was a vibrant cultural centre, with theatres, ornate cinemas and all manner of cultural societies, as for example a poetry club. The fact that oranges were wrapped individually in paper for shipment led to a paper industry. All Palestinian newspapers were published in Jaffa. The population was majority Moslem, with contingents from Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa, the Lebanon and Syria, including a large influx of people who came at the time of the orange harvest. But there was also a sizeable Arabic-speaking Jewish minority.

The UN Partition Plan of 1947 designated Jaffa as part of a future Palestinian state, an enclave surrounded by the projected Israeli state. However as soon as the Plan was announced Zionist terror attacks began. Armed forces in Tel Aviv (the new Jewish settlement immediately adjacent to Jaffa) started an operation ominously named ‘pesach’, the Jewish word for yeast. The operation commenced on the first day of Passover, when Jews believe they must ‘cleanse’ their house of yeast. Some 20,000 Palestinians left the town, mostly middle class people many of whom will have had a home also in Jerusalem, expecting to return. The mass assault beginning in March 1948 led to many more deserting. The town was surrounded on three sides, leaving the fourth open to the Mediterranean. A further 10,000 to 20,000 fled by sea, many going to Gaza and to the Lebanon where there are to this day large refugee camps. Jews left for Tel Aviv. Unsurprisingly it was the poor who were left behind and it was in large part a bunch of courageous teenagers who attempted to defend the town. They were ill equipped and help which was expected to come from Egypt didn’t arrive. By contrast the Jews of Tel Aviv were well organised and armed. As a Jew remarked in my hearing: so children were murdered by those who were later accounted heroes of the Jewish resistance. When the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary force which, in 1948, was commuted into the IDF) took the town, only 4,000 Palestinians were left. They were rounded up behind barbed wire in the al-Ajami area of the city which essentially became a military prison.

Jaffa has known an on-going Nakba. A peculiar problem is that in 1948 many were made to sign (often, if not literate, simply with a finger print) documents written in Hebrew, which they could not read. These were leases for houses which in fact they owned. The leases only allowed for the house to be passed to one further generation; so now at the present time the third generation does not have security of tenure, to a house which may have been the family home for generations.

A further problematic situation arose through the large houses being divided up to accommodate the many poor Jewish immigrants arriving at Jaffa after 1948. However as recently as the 1970s, although Jaffa was largely a slum, there were often decent relations between members of the different communities.

Gustav Bauernfeind

Jaffa market, 1887

Street poster, with branch of an orange tree and refugee key, Ramallah

Palestinians have been in the usual Kafkaesque situation of not being able to obtain permits to repair the old houses. (House demolition). In what is in effect an act of ethnic cleansing, they are intimidated, kicked out and sent to housing complexes. A town which was a centre of cultural life boasts today but one bookshop (with an outstanding collection of books on Palestinian/Israeli history and on Jaffa). During the Jewish high holidays in 2008 a mob of Jewish settlers, a thousand strong, torched Palestinian houses, including those of middle class Palestinians. The municipality has done nothing and the police say they cannot protect Palestinians. So they move out. The settlers try to create a volatile situation, which will attract more settlers, marching around with flags, guns and singing loudly. Then no one wants to live there.

Palestinian feelings about the town which they lost are near romantic. There is apparently an association of more than 100,000 people in the West Bank today who hold a key from Jaffa. On the streets of Ramallah one sees posters mourning  Jaffa and vowing Palestinian return. But West Bank Palestinians are barred from so much as visiting; I could do so without problem, a few days after being in Ramallah.  

Specialist Literature:

- ‘Jaffa: From Eminence to Ethnic Cleansing’, al majdal, double issue no. 39/40 (Autumn 2008/Winter 2009), BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

  1. -Guide books, for example, Palestine and Palestinians (see bibliography) are good.

  2. -Alice Rothchild, ‘Avigdor’s Ascent’, Labour Friends of Palestine website.

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