There are libraries full of books on the Israeli-Arab conflict. But none so far has focused primarily on the lives of real people from both sides by recounting multiple family narratives. Of course no single work can capture the intricacy of a century-old struggle, but I hope the people in this essay give a sense of its complexity. They are Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. They are middle class and working class. They are artisans and intellectuals, artists and businessmen. Some are left-wing, others rightwing--in short, human beings, in all their variety and contradictions.
Why Jaffa? Because the relationship between Jaffa and Tel Aviv is a metaphor for that between Palestine and Israel. Tel Aviv was founded as a suburb of Jaffa, a century ago, but Jaffa is now a suburb of Tel Aviv. It is a comparatively small place, with a population of just over 45,000, of whom about two-thirds are Israeli Jews and one-third Israeli Arabs. It can be walked from end to end in an hour. Before 1948, Jaffa was known as the "Bride of Palestine" and was the country's cultural and literary center, home to numerous newspapers and publishers, as well as sporting and cultural associations. To try and recreate that vanished world, my search led to families who had lived in Jaffa before 1948.
Almost all of Jaffa's once prosperous middle class had fled, but the Geday and Andraus families had remained. Fakhri Geday's pharmacy shop on Yefet Street is a Jaffa institution. The Gedays can trace back their roots in Jaffa for eight generations. Fakhri, born in 1927, still lives in the spacious stone house built by his ancestors in the nineteenth century, and is a font of memories of pre-1948 Jaffa.
A short drive away, on the outskirts of the city, live the Andraus sisters, Suad, Leila and Wedad, in a beautiful 1930s villa overlooking the sea, built by their late father, Amin. Stepping inside the Andraus home is like traveling back to the days of Palestine under the British Mandate. Courteous and welcoming, the Andraus sisters, all in their 60s, are living testimony to the legacy of their father. Amin was born in 1898 and educated at the Schneller German boarding school in Jerusalem. His self-reliance and strong moral sense helped him take on the role of community leader after 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Amin sent his children to Jordan for sanctuary but stayed on in his house, together with his mother, Haya, surrounded by sandbags. When Jaffa finally capitulated, he was one of those who signed the surrender agreement with the new Israeli authorities and negotiated supplies of food and water, as well as security, for the few remaining Arabs.
Most of those who stayed were not part of Jaffa's haute bourgeoisie. Ismail Abou-Shehade, born in 1924, was a mechanic. In fact, he had originally wanted to be a qadi, an Islamic judge, but the outbreak of war in 1939 prevented him from studying in Cairo. Ismail later thrived financially, and opened a fishing business in Jaffa's port. I found Ismail after I had read about his grandson Sami, a student at Tel Aviv University, in the Israeli press. Sami is part of the new generation of Arab Israelis who call themselves Palestinians. Eloquent and confident, he uses the freedoms of Israeli democracy to articulate the Palestinian national cause. Sami is now a fixture in Jaffa, as he organizes regular walking tours, recounting the city's story from the Palestinian perspective.
Jaffa's Complex Lives
Here, then, were those who stayed. But most of Jaffa's Arab population did not, and the experience of exile and dispossession is central to Palestinian history. My search for a family who fled in 1948 led me, through various journalist contacts in Jerusalem, to Rema Hammami, a professor of anthropology at Bir Zeit University in the Palestinian West Bank. Rema sent me first to her aunt, Fadwa. As Rema promised, Fadwa was "full of Jaffa lore" and told me much about her childhood before 1948, the trauma of the Nakba--the Palestinian catastrophe--and the years afterwards. Fadwa in turn led me to her brother, Hasan, Rema's father. After a successful career at Procter & Gamble, Hasan had retired to Florida.
We began a lengthy correspondence by email and eventually met in Budapest. Hasan's moving memories range from those of his days as a small boy in Jaffa--when the Andraus sisters were forbidden from playing with him as he was thought too boisterous--to his years working across the Arab world, studying in Britain, and eventually settling in the United States. They include a fascinating, if depressing, interlude in Gaza, when he tried unsuccessfully to bring his business expertise to the Yasir Ararat regime.
The Geday and Andraus families are Christian, the Hammamis and Abou-Shehades Muslim. For the Jewish families I also sought a mix that represented different aspects of Jewish and Israeli history: Ashkenazi, eastern European Jews who had fled the Holocaust; Sephardic and Arabic-speaking Jews; those rooted in Ottoman-era Palestine and comparatively recent arrivals. I began with the Chelouches, one of the founding families of Tel Aviv. Together with his family, Avraham Chelouche arrived in Jaffa from North Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. The Chelouches soon prospered.
They used the profits from their jewellery and money-changing business to finance the building of the first Jewish suburbs of Jaffa, which eventually led to the establishment of Tel Aviv. Arabic-speaking, Oriental in their culture, the Chelouches were an organic part of the Middle East. Avraham's descendants, such as Aharon and Shlomo, helped to build up both the Yishuv--the Zionist state-in-waiting--and Israel itself after 1948, becoming part of the country's civic and business elite. In many ways, their story encapsulates that of Israel and its relations with both its Arab minority and its neighbors.
Like Fakhri Geday's pharmacy, Yoram Aharoni's coffee and spice shop, Tiv ("quality"), was also a Jaffa institution, open for 50 years. Yoram fled Bulgaria in March 1941, the night the Nazis invaded, arriving in Palestine after a perilous voyage. Arrested immediately by the British authorities, he joined the extremist Stern Group on his release in 1942, and lived underground for almost six years, fighting the British. With the war over, Yoram and his father, Shabat, opened their shop.
Tiv's stocks of coffee and spices reflected Jaffa's waves of Jewish immigrants after 1948. The Balkan Jews who poured into Jaffa bought paprika and black pepper, but when the Jews from North Africa began arriving in the 1950s, Yoram soon became expert in grading cumin, cinnamon, and the fiery red peppers used in Moroccan cuisine. Decades later, Yoram's son, Ofer, returned to Jaffa, not to work but to live, one of a pioneering wave of renovators who rebuilt the crumbling houses from the Ottoman era.
Frank Meisler, too, is a renovator. He arrived in Britain as a schoolboy in 1939, on one of the last Kindertransport from Nazi Germany. After the war, in the 1950s, with his parents dead at Auschwitz and his hometown, Danzig, renamed Gdansk and occupied by the Soviets, Frank decided to emigrate to Israel. His memories of the young state, with all its nervous insecurity, populated by traumatized Holocaust survivors, portray a very different place from today's regional and military power. An artist and an architect, Frank spent his Saturdays sketching the Old City.
When in the 1960s the decision was taken to renovate Old Jaffa and not demolish it, Frank was one of the first to move into the new "artists quarter." Yet for all Old Jaffa's beauty, he knows that something has been lost for ever with the disappearance of its Arab inhabitants.
It is now barely remembered that many Jewish emigrants from Arab countries and Turkey did not want to come to Israel. The educated elites of those communities relocated to France, Britain, or North America. The less well-off Jews were dumped in dismal "development towns" in the middle of the desert by an uncaring and often racist Ashkenazi elite. Israel in the 1950s was not quite the promised land the Jews had longed for.
Sami Albo arrived in 1957 at the age of six. In Istanbul his family had lived in a spacious apartment. In Jaffa, three generations shared one and a half rooms in a draughty Arab villa. Perhaps the hardships of his youth helped shape Sami's outlook today as a community activist. But his main concerns now are no longer Ashkenazi bureaucrats but the increasing radicalization and Islamization of his Arab neighbors. Sami Albo could usefully discuss these concerns with Khamis Abulafia, one of the directors of the Abulafia bakery. It was there that my journey into Jaffa's past and present began.
Founded in 1879 and open twenty-four hours a day, Abulafia is an institution. The display cabinets are crowded with breads and delicacies stuffed with cheese or mushrooms, baked with eggs or topped with salty Arab cheese and zataar, a mix of sesame seeds and hyssop. The Abulafias are Muslim Arabs, but pride themselves on their good relations with their Jewish customers. The bakery even closes for eight days during the Jewish festival of Passover, when it is forbidden to eat leavened bread or cakes.
"They call our bakery the gate of Jaffa. Jaffa is a special model for coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Our bakery is a meeting point for all three, a special place. We have deep connections and relations with Jewish people," explains Khamis. The fifth child of his late parents, Khamis takes his name from the Arabic word for five. He is a friendly, intelligent man in his mid-forties, with shrewd eyes and grey hair--a good choice for the public face of the Abulafia business. Khamis studied Hebrew literature at university and speaks the language fluently. The Abulafias have prospered; the family also owns a restaurant nearby in the restored quarter of Old Jaffa, another bakery in Tel Aviv, and a property company.
A well-known figure in Jaffa, Khamis often mediates disputes. The backdrop of the political conflict adds an extra layer of rancor to neighbors' arguments if one is Jewish and the other Arab. His favorite film is Gandhi, he says, which he has seen more than 20 times. Sitting in the bakery's office, he recounts several episodes of his one-man peace mission. A friend of his brought a young woman to see him who openly said she hated Arabs. "What she knew of Arabs she read in the newspapers, and we only appear in bad news, not good," says Khamis. They talked for a while, and the woman said she was having difficulties with her examinations, especially with Biblical Hebrew. "We met every day for two weeks, and I coached her. She passed, with a score of 88 percent. Now she is one of my best friends and she is sorry that she judged us like that."
One day in Tel Aviv, near the bus station, a young woman asked Khamis for help. "She was about 16, and she said that three guys were bothering her. I told her to come with me, and told them to leave her, that she was my daughter. They apologized. She was from Beersheba, in the south. I took her to sit down, brought her a drink and some pizza, and said nobody would disturb her while I was with her. After a while she asked me if I was an Arab. I told her yes, and she didn't want to believe me. I asked her why, and she said, 'Because Arabs are always bothering us, even killing us.' For me this was a golden opportunity. I said, 'Those who were bothering you were Jewish. That doesn't mean all Jews are potential rapists. Maybe you met or saw bad Arabs. Now you met a good one.'" The girl asked Khamis for his telephone number. The next day her father telephoned to thank him, and invited him to visit the family.
I ask Khamis how much effect his one-man campaign can have. He smiles wryly. "I don't want to sound like Don Quixote. But these are small contributions to make the world a better and more pleasant place. I believe a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step. I support the Jewish people's right to live here, but they have to understand, and to believe, that I also have that same right." I nod my agreement. This is our first meeting, but during the many weeks I spent in Jaffa I would talk with Khamis several times. For now, he is still sounding me out. The legend of Jaffa as a "special model for coexistence," where Jews and Arabs live together in peace and mutual respect, is a bland, safe starting point. Like the shiny, renovated alleys of Old Jaffa, it has a superficial appeal. Our later discussions would be more serious, even provocative. For Khamis and I both know that Jaffa's reality, its present and its past, is far more complex than either the tourist myth or the media coverage would lead us to believe.
Memories of '48 that Haunt Jaffa
Jaffa's Arab sentries were suspicious of the truck loaded with oranges coming from Tel Aviv. The driver was dressed in Arab clothes, but something felt wrong. As the vehicle approached their checkpoint, they opened fire and the truck turned back. But the driver and his companion returned on January 4, 1948, and this time they had better luck. The driver parked his truck, again piled high with oranges, in an alley off Clock Tower Square, alongside the New Seray, Sultan Abdul Hamid's imposing government building. It housed Jaffa's municipal offices, welfare workers, and a kitchen for needy children. The two men walked to a nearby cafe for coffee. They departed soon after, and left the vehicle behind. It would soon detonate.
Britain had ruled Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations since 1920, but by now was more than ready to leave. London had handed over the mandate to the United Nations in February 1947, and Britain was mired in a three-way conflict between Jews, Arabs, and its own occupying forces, which were being attacked by Zionist militias. British public opinion, the press, and Parliament were all clamoring for their soldiers to come home. It was increasingly clear that the days of empire were over. Even India had become independent in August 1947, and compared to the Indian elephant, Palestine seemed little more than an annoying mouse. In addition, the deaths of British soldiers at the hands of the Zionists fomented widespread anti-Semitism and threatened social unrest.
The United Nations set up a special committee for Palestine. UNSCOP, like the Peel and Woodhead Commissions before it, concluded that Palestine should be partitioned. In November 1947, the General Assembly voted to divide Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, with Jerusalem remaining under international control. The Arab state would have 42 percent of Palestine, and the Jewish state 56 percent (much of its allocated territory was in the Negev desert), while an international zone would be created around Jerusalem. Jaffa would be a tiny Arab island, surrounded by Jewish territory.
The Jewish Agency, the government of the state-in-waiting, accepted the plan and celebrated. The "yes" vote in favor of UN Resolution 181 was a defining moment in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ben-Gurion himself said it was the greatest moment in Jewish history. Thirty-three states voted yes, thirteen no, and ten abstained. Both the United States and the Soviet Union, which had already expressed their support for partition, voted yes, together with Western Europe, the Soviet bloc, the British Commonwealth and Latin America. The Muslim and Arab states voted no. The agreement between Washington and Moscow was a rare instance of superpower co-operation across the divisions of the Cold War, which the Zionists deftly exploited over the next few crucial months. The principle of Jewish statehood was now established--only the borders remained to be defined.
Western guilt over the failure to prevent or halt the Holocaust was an important factor, but the Palestinians were furious that they had to pay the price for the Nazi genocide, in which they had taken no part. The Palestinian leadership unequivocally rejected the plan and called a three-day general strike. Fighting erupted within a few hours of the vote. Jewish and Arab snipers traded shots across Jaffa's border areas, shooting into homes and cafe's and onto the streets. On December 8, 1947, after several days of skirmishes between Arab fighters and the Zionist Haganah, hundreds of Arab fighters attacked the Tel Aviv quarter of Hatikvah in a major frontal assault. The attack was repulsed, with 60 Arabs and two Jews killed. (1)
The Arab exodus from Jaffa began. Much of the middle class and the a'yan (notables), who could have provided leadership in the testing days ahead, relocated to relatives or to their summer homes in Cairo and Beirut, believing they would return once the situation calmed down. Flight, like panic, is infectious. When Jaffa's artisans and workers saw their bosses leaving, they too began to desert their homes. The Haganah's intelligence service reported that inhabitants of Manshiyyeh, Jaffa's northernmost quarter which bordered Tel Aviv, and Abu Kabir, to the south, were moving out of the city, pushing handcarts full of their possessions. Many of the middle-class employers also closed their shops and stores, leaving Arab males jobless. Most Jewish businessmen had already sacked their Arab workers. Unemployment, poverty, and food shortages all fuelled the rising tension.
Palestine burned throughout the winter of 1947-48. It was a brutal conflict, with neither side observing the rules of war. The Irgun, the right-wing Zionist militia led by Menachem Begin, who later became Israeli prime minister, set off bombs in the Arab quarters of Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. On December 30, an Irgun squad threw bombs at a bus stop near the Haifa oil refinery. Six people were killed and dozens more wounded. Arab workers immediately attacked their Jewish colleagues with chisels, hammers, and stones. Thirty-nine were killed and 50 wounded. A week later, a Haganah unit blew up the Semiramis Hotel in Jerusalem, believing it to be a command post for Arab irregulars, killing 26 people. Arab gunmen ambushed Jewish vehicle convoys, especially in isolated areas or en route to Jerusalem, killing everyone they could before melting away back to their villages. Seeing the terror wrought by the Irgun attacks, the mufti of Jerusalem's forces began bombing the cities. His chief bomb-maker, Fawzi al-Kutub, had been trained by the ss in Nazi Germany. (2)
On February 22, 1948, aided by deserters from the British army, al-Kutub set off three truck bombs in Jewish Jerusalem, killing 58. In response, Irgun and Lehi fighters shot dead 16 British soldiers and policemen. It was less a war than anarchy. But in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, some groups on both sides were still talking. Jewish and Arab orange-grove owners had signed a non-aggression pact, so that the plantations around the city at least would not be targeted and the crop could be safely gathered and exported.
But Jaffa's heart received no such quarter. Soon after the truck driver and his companion left that morning in January 1948, a thunderous explosion shook the city. Broken glass and shattered masonry blew out across Clock Tower Square. The New Seray's center and side walls collapsed in a pile of rubble and twisted beams. Only the neo-classical facade survived. Windows shattered for yards around, and a thick choking cloud of dust billowed out.
After a moment of silence, the screams and moans began. Twenty-six were killed, and hundreds injured. Most were civilians, including children who had been eating at the charity kitchen. The bomb missed its target completely, as the Arab Higher Committee, which was organizing Jaffa's resistance, had moved from the New Seray to the southern quarter of Ajami.
Ismail Abou-Shehade was working in a nearby garage when he heard the explosion. He sprinted to the square and helped dig out the casualties from beneath the rubble. Ismail was 24 years old. He had once hoped to study Islamic law at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, to become a qadi, an Islamic judge. The family home was filled with shelves of books on Islamic law. World War II had rendered that dream impossible, so he went instead to technical school. Ismail still lives in Jaffa.
He is an articulate man who speaks a vivid, poetic Arabic. But his voice chokes as he recalls the darkest months of his life. "They claimed that the Seray was a center for terrorists, but it was nothing but an orphanage. Lots of children were killed. I personally was one of those who helped get the dead bodies out from under the wreckage. When the journalists came to ask me what I saw, I told them everything."
The bomb was terrorism in its classic form: it terrorized Jaffa and destroyed Arab morale and leadership. Municipal services all but collapsed. The exodus of the middle class further accelerated, angry accusations of abandoning Jaffa following in their wake. "Whoever could leave [Jaffa] has left, there is fear everywhere, and there is no safety," an Arab informant told Elias Sasson, head of the Jewish Agency's Arab Affairs department, in January 1948. (3) Those who stayed prepared for the worst: in Jebaliyyeh, to the south of Ajami, Hasan Hammami and his friends were training in first aid. Hasan was a teenager, the son of an ancient Jaffa family. His father, Ahmad, ran a fruit and vegetable business in the city's bustling market quarter. Ahmad, and his wife Nafise, had laid aside stocks of food to prepare for the coming conflict and had no plans to leave.
Unlike the previous conflicts of 1929 and 1936, this was war--the start of the struggle for command of territory and the future frontiers of a Jewish or Arab state once Palestine was partitioned. The intricate borders drawn up by UN bureaucrats were one thing, but the "facts on the ground," the control of land, quite another. Militarily and politically, the Zionists were far more prepared than the Arabs. Jewish fighters outnumbered Arab militiamen. They had been trained by the British, and many had military experience fighting the Nazis. The Jews were better armed, disciplined, highly motivated, and fighting for a country that was all but ready to be born.
The Haganah, the main militia, allied to Mapai, precursor of the Labor Party, had about 35,000 members, including more than 3,000 troops in its elite strike force, the Palmach; the right-wing Irgun had about 3,000 troops; and the extremist Lehi, known to the British as the Stern Group, several hundred. The Haganah boasted a general staff with a coordinated command structure, and a highly efficient intelligence service, largely dependent on Arab informers. The former split between the Haganah's policy of restraint and the Irgun and Lehi's use of pre-emptive strikes was over. Attack was now the best form of defense. Auschwitz had been liberated just three years before; Jews would never again follow orders to walk to their deaths.
Jaffa was the center of the Palestinian Najjada (auxiliary corps), with 2-3,000 members, some of whom had also fought in the British army, but they lacked arms and proper leadership. Several thousand troops of the Arab Liberation Army crossed the border into Palestine, but most were poorly trained and badly armed. There was no effective national command structure, and many Arab villages formed their own militias, a rather grandiose term for a group of local men with rifles and no military training. Some villages even allied themselves with the Jews, adding to the complicated feuds that bedeviled Arab society.
Bands of paramilitaries and irregulars roamed the countryside, answering to no one but themselves. The lack of clear-sighted Arab leadership and the low caliber of many Arab fighters would prove to be among the Zionists' best assets. The Arab irregulars robbed and intimidated their own people, behaving like conquerors, as Nimr al-Khatib, a member of the Arab National Committee, noted: "They confiscated their weapons and sold them, imposed fines and stole, and confiscated cars and sold them.... The inhabitants were more afraid of their defenders/saviors than of the Jews, their enemies." (4)
Even as the Palestinians began to flee, rival Arab leaders continued their feuding and vendettas. Blinded by his hatred of the Jews, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, now exiled in Cairo, led his people to disaster. The Palestinians rejected one partition plan after another and demanded independence. But they made little, if any, serious preparation for statehood. There was no Palestinian equivalent of the Jewish Agency or the Haganah. There was no strategic plan for capturing and holding Palestine, or even a united military leadership. In Damascus, the Arab League intrigued against the Palestinians' Arab Higher Committee, and vice versa. The Palestinian leadership was still divided by the feud between the mufti of Jerusalem and Ragheb al-Nashashibi, the city's mayor. The former was a Nazi enthusiast, and the latter was on the Zionists' payroll.
Jaffa was left leaderless. "Even before the battle," writes the Israeli historian Benny Morris, "Jaffa, far more than the other Arab cities in Palestine, was characterized by disunity of command." There were seven distinct and overlapping power centers in the city, including autonomous militia commanders, the Najjada, the municipality itself, and the representative of the mufti. (5) The irregulars, many of whom were not from Jaffa, refused to follow orders from the national leadership. Jaffa's mayor, Yousef Heikal, understood that the city could never withstand a fullblown assault. He favoured a truce or agreement with the Haganah, but was opposed by the commander of Jaffa's paramilitaries, who was not from Jaffa. In addition, the mufti's men were provoking the Haganah in and around Jaffa, and sabotaging, probably intentionally, Heikal's attempts to reach some kind of agreement with the Haganah.
"There was a belief that the Jews were generally cowards. Thus the people of Jaffa, as well as the members of the National Committee, believed that if they made ready a bit, and the British did not interfere on the side of the Jews, they would emerge victorious," wrote the Palestinian political scientist Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, who left Jaffa in May 1948. "They believed this, despite the fact that the National Committee had not succeeded in mobilizing people or in finding a substantial number who were willing to engage in military action, and despite the fact that the results of the first encounters between the Arabs and the Jews had not been promising" (6)
Jaffa's long porous border with Tel Aviv made it difficult to defend and easy to infiltrate. Arab men met in cafes at certain times of the day to hear the daily news broadcasts. The Irgun, aware of this, would drive into the city and roll barrels filled with explosives into the coffee houses at those times. (7)
The Final Battles
At this time, the Haganah was still opposed to attacking Jaffa, which it felt posed no real strategic threat. Instead it planned to blockade the city, and capture it after the British withdrew on May 14, when the mandate formally came to an end and the Jewish state would be declared. The Haganah wanted to take only Manshiyyeh, and the southern suburbs of Abu Kabir and Tel Arish.
But the Irgun vehemently disagreed. Menachem Begin's men wanted to take Jaffa, seeing it as a dangerous Arab enclave in the heart of the Jewish state. "The UN plan was issued on November 19, 1947. We Jews accepted it, but the Arabs said no, and that when the British leave they will invade and throw us into the sea," recalls Yoseph Nachmias, an Irgun veteran who fought in the battle for Jaffa. "Within less than 24 hours, the Arabs started shooting into Tel Aviv. They put snipers on every tall building. Within five months we had more than 1,000 inhabitants of Tel Aviv, men, women and children, killed or wounded. The Irgun decided to crush this arm sending death into Tel Aviv. And we were worried that the Egyptians would land in Jaffa, and the war would start there."
Born in Jerusalem in 1926, Yoseph joined the British Royal Engineers in 1940 at the age of 14 by forging his birth certificate. He fought across North Africa, and at the same time was a member of the Irgun. After six and a half years, he went underground. Expert in explosives and fluent in English, Yoseph could pass for British. He led raids into army camps for ammunition and weapons. "The British didn't know what they were preparing me for. They made me a good warrior, and then I had to turn it on them, but I had no choice." In early April 1948, Yoseph took part in a raid on a munitions train. It yielded many tons of arms and ammunition, including 20,000 mortar shells.
These munitions decided Jaffa's fate, wrote Menachem Begin in his memoir, The Revolt: "Our plan was to attack Jaffa at the narrow bottleneck linking the main town with its Manshiyyeh quarter which thrust northwards, like a peninsula, into Jewish Tel Aviv. The tactical aim was to break the 'neck of the bottle' and reach the sea, in order to cut off the bulk of Manshiyyeh from Tel Aviv. The strategic aim was to subjugate Jaffa and free Tel Aviv once and for all from the loaded pistol pointed at its heart." (8)
On Saturday, April 24, 1948, at the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, Menachem Begin addressed the troops at the Irgun's headquarters in Tel Aviv: "We are going to conquer Jaffa. This will be one of the most decisive battles in the war for Israel's independence. Know who is before you, remember those you have left behind. You face a ruthless enemy who intends to wipe us out. Behind you are your parents, our brothers and our children. Snipe the enemy. Aim well, conserve ammunition. Show no mercy in battle, just as the enemy has no pity for our people. Be compassionate with women and children. Whoever lifts his hand in surrender, spare him." (9)
Amichai Paglin, known as Gidi, commanded the attack. Paglin had masterminded the bombing of the British military headquarters in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, when 91 people were killed, including 15 Jews. His instructions to his troops were unequivocal--they were "to prevent constant military traffic in the city, to break the spirit of the enemy troops, to cause chaos among the civilian population in order to create a mass flight." (10)
"To the Sea! To the Sea!"
The battle for Jaffa began in the early hours of Sunday, April 25. Irgun gunners directed a steady rain of mortar fire onto the city. In theory the gunners were not supposed to target hospitals, religious sites, or consulates. In practice the shells fell indiscriminately across Clock Tower Square, smashing into the markets, and south into the heart of Ajami, killing and wounding large numbers of civilians. Panic and hysteria swept through the city. "There were 600 Irgun fighters. I was a company commander," says Yoseph Nachmias. "We opened the barrage, started firing, and began to advance." Two Irgun companies were deployed, one heading towards the railway tracks, and Yoseph's, trying to break through to the sea.
Ahmad Hammami was downtown by Clock Tower Square when the mortars began falling. He never told his children what he saw as they exploded around him, but it was enough to change his mind about staying in Jaffa. His daughter Fadwa, who now lives in East Jerusalem, remembers: "In one day my parents decided to leave. But not for good, because we left everything in the house. They said we are going on holiday, to Lebanon, for a month, and then we will come home. We were just escaping the bombardment. We took what was in the house, some bread, special holiday cakes my mother had just baked with dates inside, and some boiled eggs. We did not have anything with us, except the clothes on our back. My mother and her sisters brought their jewellery, my father had some money and some Persian rugs. He rolled up some of our belongings in them, including some blankets. The road to Jerusalem was closed, and the airport was shut, so we took a taxi to the port. The strangest thing was that my mother took her iron, I don't know why."
Fadwa, then 11 years old, understood the reality of what was happening better than her younger siblings. Mustafa Hammami was nine that fateful day. At first it all seemed like a great adventure, especially when his parents told him the family would be travelling on an Italian cruise ship, the ss Argentina. 'The taxi came and I pleaded with my mother to take our cat, Ferooze, with us, but to no avail. We all sat in the back of the taxi in front of our house. Our cleaning lady was sitting nearby, weeping and waving to my mother," recalls Mustafa, who now lives in Toronto. "I looked at my mother and I noticed that she too was weeping and waving back. My father was sitting in the front passenger seat. He looked grim and tense, staring straight out at nothing. I still did not understand. Then suddenly the car moved." Mustafa's days of going fishing and bringing home a catch of skinny "Bolshevik" fish were over for ever.
The journey to the port took just a few minutes. There the Hammamis were swept up in the chaos. Thousands of refugees were pouring down to the waterfront, trying to find a place on the armada of boats bobbing in the water, jammed with passengers, as they went back and forth from the harbor to the larger ships moored out at sea.
The Hammami children are grown now, with children and grandchildren of their own. But they all remember the scene at Jaffa's port clearly. "The port looked so different from my idyllic visits in the summer, watching the boats go in and out and staring at the big cargo ships lined up out in the distance," says Hasan. "People were crammed into boats of every size and shape. Feluccas with their sails, launches, tugs, and lighters were all full and all heading out to the open sea. We boarded a long boat that took us out to a sailing ship."
For Ismail Abou-Shehade, too, the memories of the exodus are unforgettable. "If you ask me about this time, I can tell you about it, like it happened an hour ago. I can still see the people leaving, the women and children shouting, 'To the sea, to the sea!' I carried my friends on my back and I buried them. The ones who saw don't like to remember, and those who cannot forget are suffering all the time."
Scuttling Jaffa's Fate
On Monday, April 26, the Irgun and the Haganah temporarily settled their differences over whether or not to take Jaffa. The disagreement was symbolic of a greater split, over who would govern the Jewish state once it came into being. The Irgun, the right-wing Zionists, were maximalists, who sought control of all of Mandate Palestine, even across the River Jordan into the Kingdom of Transjordan. The Haganah drew their support from the Socialists, who were more ready to reach an accommodation with the Arabs--inside and outside Palestine--albeit on their terms.
Gidi's innovation was to advance through the buildings. The Irgun had no tanks, but it did have hammers and chisels. "The houses were linked together like wagons in a train. We broke through, making holes in one room after another, like a hidden tunnel. We started on Tuesday morning. What we could not achieve in two days, we did in two hours. We got under the Arabs' positions and put the explosives in. The explosives blew up, there was a cloud of dust and smoke and we stormed in and took their positions." The Irgun fighters also built tunnels of sandbags to give them cover as they crawled towards the front line, passing down each sack by hand as they inched forward. "It was the work of ants," says Yoseph.
The Arab gunners rained down fire on the sandbags. The dead and injured Irgun fighters were dragged clear, and others immediately took their place. Eventually, the tunnels were long enough for the sappers to place their charges. The Arab fighters began to fall back. When Manshiyyeh police station was taken, the battle was almost over. By 7AM on Wednesday, the Irgun fighters had broken through the Arab lines and could see the sea in front of them. "There were 30 of us, and as soon as we saw the sea we started running towards it, shouting 'hayam. ha-yam' [the sea, the sea]. The Arabs ran away. We captured two of them--they said they thought hundreds of Jews were coming," says Yoseph. The last pocket of resistance at Hasan Bey mosque, the northernmost point of Manshiyyeh, was mopped up and the blue and white Zionist flag hoisted from the minaret.
In London, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was furious. British prestige, already diminished by the fall of Haifa and the Arab exodus, was being further battered by the hated Irgun's advance. Britain would take full responsibility for the defense of Jaffa. Reinforcements arrived from Cyprus and Malta. Bevin ordered the British General Staff to "see to it that the Jews did not manage to occupy Jaffa, or if they did, were immediately turned out." The high commissioner for Palestine, Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham, ordered the Irgun to withdraw from Manshiyyeh. Israel Rokach, the mayor of Tel Aviv, was warned that if the Irgun did not stop fighting, Tel Aviv would be shelled by tanks, bombed by the Royal Air Force and bombarded by the Royal Navy. Spitfire planes buzzed Tel Aviv and Manshiyyeh. Royal Navy ships were moored offshore, guns pointed at the Irgun positions. Begin ignored the British ultimatum, and British forces shelled the area around the Irgun headquarters, while tanks opened fire on the new Irgun positions in Manshiyyeh. Irgun sappers blew up more buildings, spreading the rubble across the road to block any British advance.
"The British gave us hell. We lost 41 in the fighting for Jaffa, and 80 percent of those were killed by the British. They shelled us and shelled us, and when they thought we were exhausted they advanced in tanks," says Yoseph. "We had four rounds of anti-tank ammunition. When we saw the first tank we fired, but it missed. The second one hit, and they pulled back, and left the tank there. I talked to them through a loud-hailer. I told them, I said, 'Why should you die, this is not your war. In two weeks you are going back to Old Blighty. We would like to see you walking back to Old Blighty and not in coffins.' It helped--they pulled back the tanks--but they kept shelling us."
Meanwhile, the Irgun's high command informed the British that if their attack did not cease, it would launch a mortar barrage at the British headquarters in Jaffa's Templar colony, and at other British camps across Palestine. The Palestine Mandate would end on May 14. British officials were torn between destroying their most hated enemy and sacrificing further troops in a cause they all knew was now hopeless. Britain blinked first. It no longer insisted on a complete evacuation of Manshiyyeh. The new terms were that the Irgun evacuate the police station and hand it over to the British, and that the other Irgun positions be handed over to the Haganah. The Irgun responded by blowing up the police station and more houses. Only then did it surrender its positions to the Haganah.
Apart from Manshiyyeh, Jaffa stayed in Arab hands, protected by British troops. By April 30, perhaps 20,000 people remained, less than a quarter of the population. Among them was Hussein Abou-Shehade, father of Ismail, who had helped pull out the bodies from the rubble of the New Seray. "My father refused to leave because he knew how difficult it is to move to a foreign country. He had already emigrated once, so we stayed." Tragically for Jaffa, its mayor, Yousef Heikal, had shown less fortitude. "At first he told us not to leave. He said that he was leaving the country only for three days in order to get some news about what was going on," recalls Ismail. Heikal returned on April 28. "Then he gathered us again. He said that Jaffa was going to be occupied by the Jews soon, since there was no defense--no weapons--and nothing could stop them from taking our dear Jaffa. He then gave people permission to leave the country if they wished. He said that he himself was leaving with his family. People then started to leave by ships and trains. All the routes to the Arab countries were opened, and people could leave for free. The Arab countries were responsible. After a week there was nothing left but cats and dogs. We few families who stayed went to live in the orange groves."
Too scared to remain in Jaffa once the British departed, thousands more left at the beginning of May, either by sea or with the help of the British as they crossed the Haganah lines. The Arab Liberation Army contingent finally arrived at the end of April, and behaved in characteristic fashion: looting, terrorizing, and molesting women, records Nimr al-Khatib. (11) By early May, the city had collapsed. Mayor Heikal and the rest of the municipal leaders had fled. The Irgun and Haganah finally entered Jaffa proper on May 14, after the British troops had left. Only 4-5,000 Arabs remained. "Jaffa had surrendered," says Yoseph Nachmias. "We field commanders wanted to put those few thousand on buses as well and send them away. That is what they would have done to us. But our leader, Menachem Begin, said not to touch those who remained, and to let them be. He said if they did not leave with their brothers, then let them live in peace with us."
Most of Jaffa's inhabitants did not believe they could live in peace with the victorious Jews. Those who fled recall days of terror: a seemingly endless rain of mortars, a city starving and sealed off from its surroundings, civilians killed and injured by bombings and sniping. Flight from violence and anarchy is a natural human instinct, especially for parents desperate to protect their children. Yet some of the few thousand who did stay argue that their compatriots should have shown more fortitude. Even today the bitter debate continues among Palestinians--both within Jaffa and in the diaspora--over whether the city was unnecessarily abandoned.
When the British left and the Irgun and Haganah did take over the city, they met no resistance--Jaffa was empty. The Arab exodus had begun in the winter of 1947-48, six months before the Irgun attacked Manshiyyeh. Most of those who left, it seems, thought they would soon return. But they were wrong.
The Arabs Who Stayed
Such are the memories that still haunt the Arabs who stayed on in Jaffa. Like Khamis Abulafia, the Andraus sisters--Suad,Wedad, and Leila--are caught between two worlds. Their father, Amin Andraus, was one of the few members of Jaffa's Arab middle class to stay in 1948. Amin was a car dealer and had built a beautiful Art Deco villa on the sea, on the edge of Jebbaliyeh, not far from the Hammami house. He sent his daughters and son, Salim, to Jordan, and they were eventually allowed to return after the war was over.
The Andraus sisters live in Israel, but are not fully Israeli. They are Christian Arabs, but many of their friends are either foreigners or Jewish. War heightens the contradictions of their lives. In 1973, when Israel's very survival seemed threatened, they found themselves pulled strongly in opposite directions, says Wedad. "We had good Jewish friends in the army. We worried about them, and some were pupils of mine. We did not want the Egyptians to lose, and although Israel was fighting our people, we put this aside because of the human contact we have with our Jewish friends. We felt we were not with Israel, but with them. Nowadays we usually do not discuss politics when we visit each other. We know exactly what they think and they know what we think."
Amin Andraus's children have all made successful careers. Leila is an administrator, Wedad is a teacher at the Tabeetha School, and Suad is pro-consul at the British Consulate in Tel Aviv, where she has worked since 1964. In the 2001 New Year's Honors List, Suad was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE). The British ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, held a party for her at the embassy residence, where the guests included the pharmacist Fakhri Geday. It was all very reminiscent of the mandate days she had heard so much about from her father, Amin. "I am British proconsul but I am not British, and I am a member of the British empire and there is no empire," she quips. Her brother, Salim, also worked at the consulate for many years, as an accountant.
All four chose to work in British or British-founded institutions, explains Wedad. "We worked with the British because we would have felt like outsiders if we'd worked at Jewish institutions." The Andraus family's world, of pre-1948 Jaffa, vanished in the Nakba, but they have adapted to the new one in which they live, says Suad. They are all involved in Jaffa life, and regularly attend baptisms, weddings, and funerals among Jaffa's Christian community. But none of the sisters ever married, as after 1948 their potential partners were scattered across the Middle East and the rest of the world. Before he died in 1972, Amin Andraus told Salim to look after his sisters. "He has done that to the letter, and we all rely very strongly on each other," says Suad.
It is on the West Bank and in Ramallah, home to many of the old Jaffa families, that the traditions of pre-Nakba Palestine live on. In some respects that way of life has been frozen in time. There are many benefits to this, including a greater respect for family, home, and the traditions that give Arab society a rare cohesion in the modern world. Those paying family and social visits will dress up, the men usually wearing suits and ties, in contrast to the informality of an Israeli gathering. Guests are never allowed to pay for themselves in a restaurant.
But modernization, the breakdown of ethnic barriers and intermarriage between Jews and Arabs in Israel proper are generating a new and beneficial phenomenon, one that could yet help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Behira Buchbinder, a liberal Jewish Israeli, who lives in Ajami, argues that "mixed marriages are the highest form of co-existence between Jews and Arabs." One of Amin Andraus' neighbors once told him something similar, recalls Wedad. "He said there is only one way you can solve this Arab-Jewish problem, which is to mix, to bring forward a new generation."
That too could be part of the Andraus family's legacy to Jaffa. When Salim was 40 he married Hillana, a Jewish woman from Romania. Marriages between Jews and Arabs are rare in Israel. Salim and Hillana have two children: Amin, who works as a lawyer in Tel Aviv, and his sister, Robyn (Amina), who works with under-privileged children. Both went to Tabeetha School. Suad and her sisters welcomed Hillana into the family, but worried about the religious and cultural divide and its effect on Salim's children. In fact, Amin's and Robyn's mixed background means they can move with ease in both Arab and Jewish society and have many friends in both. "We are not fanatically political, but we would like to retain our Arab Palestinian identity," says Suad. "We keep Christmas and other Christian traditions in our house. Hillana is very good to us, and we are to her."
With her close-cropped black hair, modish clothes and fluent, unaccented Hebrew, Robyn Andraus would fit in at any of Tel Aviv's trendy bars and cafes. Before graduating from a teachers' training college in creative education, Robyn studied cinema and media at Tel Aviv University. She felt completely at home. "I never felt an outsider there as a student, as I never based my identity on religion. The only place where I was expected to do that, by my peers, was at Tabeetha School. I couldn't do that, so that made me an outsider. But at home we got a little bit of everything--we spoke Hebrew and grew up in normal Israeli culture. Now I work with Arab people in Jaffa and I never feel an outsider, and I work with Jewish people in Tel Aviv and never feel an outsider."
Jaffa's Rich and Poor
Like her grandfather Amin, Robyn was taught to be independent and resilient at an early age. Salim Andraus was the only Arab father she knew who allowed his daughter to stay overnight at a friend's house. Together with her brother, Amin, Robyn learnt judo, and she won the Israeli championship three years running before she was 14. "Learning judo is not something that Arab girls normally do, rolling around on the floor with boys," she says over coffee at Books and Coffee, Israel's only joint Jewish-Arab owned cafe and bookshop. "My parents took us to the competitions and sat there cheering us on." Robyn, like Sami Abou-Shehade, is a regular at the card, one of the last places in Jaffa frequented by both Jews and Arabs.
Robyn works with several Jaffa voluntary and community groups, helping disadvantaged young people. Most of the volunteers are Jews and the disadvantaged children Arab, but many of the middle-class Jews who move to Jaffa do not engage with the local population. For Robyn, the divide is less between Arab and Jew than between rich and poor. Her grandfather's house is flanked on one side by new $500,000 apartments and on the other by one of the most run-down and overcrowded apartment blocks in Jaffa. Curiously--or not--once the luxury apartments were built, the municipality began to renovate the exterior of the dilapidated block. "There are mixed kindergartens, mixed schools, and cultural events. The separation is more to do with money. Rich Arabs and rich Jews go to the same places, and the poorer ones don't. We grew up learning Arabic, Hebrew, and English. We had a good education, and a much better chance in life. The kids down the road go to Arab schools where the way they teach Hebrew is atrocious and Arabic even worse. They are expected to cope with two languages and cannot read either. They don't have a chance."
Robyn works with a group called Teenagers at Risk (TAR), and its programs bring tangible results. TAR organized a yearlong course for youngsters who had dropped out of school, covering basic literacy and a range of skills including computing, hairdressing, and car mechanics. TAR had to request special permission for some of the students to attend, as they were under house arrest. "These were youngsters who were breaking into cars and selling drugs. You would think that they would be too cynical to enjoy receiving a certificate that says 'Well done, you can read.' You could see how proud they were when they finished the course, like little kids who had worked really hard for something." Jaffa's Arab community needs to do more to help itself, she says.
One recent program to train ten boys to be car mechanics received a disappointing response. The plan was for the boys to spend three days a week learning the trade and two at school. Arab garage owners were not much interested in helping. "We know that when kids work, they do not steal. They don't steal to get rich, but to get basic things. You know when they have new jeans or shoes that they have stolen a car radio, for which they get about 80 shekels ($20). There are lots of garages owned by Arab people in Jaffa who could take more interest, but they don't understand that the delinquent kids are also part of this society."
Robyn definitely does understand this, and she has staked out her place within Israel. "Lots of young people have a big problem with their identity. They ask themselves, 'What am I?' I am a mix, but I decided to enjoy it. I am not Jewish, I am not Christian. I am an Israeli. My mother tongue is Hebrew, which I speak better than English or Arabic. My social circle is Israeli. My best friend is Israeli. The Zionist way of thinking is that if you are Jewish you are Israeli, if you are not Jewish you are not. I reject that." Robyn says that Israel should become a citizens' state. "My dad's generation says they are Palestinians who live in Israel. I say I am an Israeli. My generation was born after 1948, when being Palestinian was not an option. My dad's generation and mine grew up in two different countries. Israel now is a big blend of people and there are many foreigners here, from all over the world. I don't think anyone should have the right of return, Jewish or Palestinian. They should be allowed to immigrate if they benefit the country. I was on a bus, listening to a Russian junkie complaining that he only came to Israel because the heroin is cheaper here. Every society has criminals, but we don't need to import them. Israel should become a normal society, and that is not such a big idea."
Perhaps it is apt that the grandchildren of Amin Andraus, one of the great patriarchs of Jaffa, should provide a model for Israel's future. Robyn defines herself as Israeli, but her brother, Amin, identifies with his Palestinian heritage, and in a citizens' state, that would not matter. While Robyn is spirited and vivacious, Amin is quiet and watchful. He gives careful and considered answers to questions about himself, as befits a lawyer. "I am not nationalistic by nature, neither for the Arab side nor the Jewish one. I am more humanistically inclined than political. I don't see myself as closer to a certain person because he belongs to one of those groups. But while my mother is Jewish, she married a Palestinian and I grew up as a Palestinian. But I live in Israel and I have Israeli citizenship. It is complicated because Israel by definition is a Jewish state, and that excludes me. It is not a state of all its citizens, as some would like."
(1.) Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, (New York: Random House, 2001), p. 197.
(2.) Ibid., p. 201.
(3.) Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 47.
(4.) Ibid., pp. 47-8.
(5.) Ibid., p. 97.
(6.) Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, "After the Matriculation," www.palestineremembered.com/Jaffa/Jaffa/ Story194.html. Article first published in Al-Ahram weekly.
(7.) Shukri Salameh, "Cleansing Jaffa: A detailed eye-witness account," at www.palestineremembered.com.
(8.) Menachem Begin, The Revolt (London, W. H. Allen, 1983), pp. 352-53.
(9.) See www.etzel.org.il/english/ac18.html
(10.) Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 96.
(11.) Ibid., p. 101.
Reprinted from City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. Copyright [C] 2007, 2006 by Adam LeBor. With Permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton 8: Company, Inc.
Adam LeBor is a British author and journalist, based in Budapest, Hungary. He has spent lengthy periods of time in Israel and studied colloquial Palestinian Arabic at Hebrew University. He writes for numerous publications including the Times of London. The New York Times. The Economist, and Conde Nast Traveller.