BY SOPHIE CROWE Palestine Monitor
19 November 2011
Jaffa sits on the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean, overshadowed by ritzy Tel Aviv. For the past two decades, Jaffa — a historically Palestinian city — has been attracting wealthy Jewish urbanites, who delight in its “old world charm.”
After decades of neglect, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality attempted in the early 1990s to remake Jaffa by exporting some of Tel Aviv’s more upscale aesthetic.
This investment, which is rapidly altering the urban landscape of the city, is juxtaposed starkly with the city’s Palestinian locales, which have been in virtual decay since 1948.
Jaffa appears as a city of paradoxes. Old crumbling buildings sit next to new, sleekly designed apartment blocks. Venturing south along the coast, past the decorous center, you reach Ajami and Jabaliya, the two last Palestinian neighborhoods.
Life in these areas is marked by poverty and neglect – the state doesn’t invest much here – and this has also allowed crime to grow. Jaffa’s recently-renovated old city seems strangely fresh in comparison.
Though renewal and development in the old city has remained faithful to the architectural style of pre-1948Jaffa, the city’s Palestinian history and culture have been obscured.
“Jaffa does not exist,” says Sami Abu Shehada, a Palestinian-Israeli resident who was recently elected to the municipality. “What we have is the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo.” When speaking, Abu Shehada uses the city’s Hebrew pronunciation — Yafo. In Arabic the city is pronounced with a different vowel; it’s called Yafa.
The district of Jafa is completely dependent Tel Aviv in terms of economic, political and municipal services. “The local economy is built on selling services, such as hummus restaurants,” Shehada explains. “Israelis in Tel Aviv, in a hangover of Orientalism, are looking for authenticity and want hummus made by Palestinians.”
To understand the hybrid character of contemporary Jaffa– which has been at various stages colonized, abandoned, and urbanized — it is helpful to look to the place’s history to trace the impact of the Zionist state-building project.
Since the early 19th century, under late Ottoman and then British rule, Jaffa was a port town and a celebrated political center. It was given such ceremonious titles as the “Bride of Palestine” and the “Bride of the Sea.”
Much of Jaffa’s wealth and renown came from its fruit trade. Throngs of Levantine hopefuls came in search of employment, hoping to help with the annual orange harvest.
The port was also the main gateway to Jerusalem, and saw the passage of workers, pilgrims, and politicos (as well as crusaders in former days) on their way to the city.
In its heyday, Jaffa was a thriving and cosmopolitan Palestinian city, a commercial and cultural Mediterranean hub. Tel Aviv, an inconspicuous and unremarkable suburb of the economic behemoth, was about to emerge as an independent town in 1909.
Jump forward sixty years and the picture is unrecognizably different: Tel Aviv, posing as the very embodiment of Bauhaus modernity, with Jaffa, a mere appendage to the new and vibrant city, crippled by economic and social disintegration.
Everything changed with the 1948 war, which saw the vast majority of Jaffa’s 70,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes. Most of the wealthier residents used the port to flee the approaching Zionist armies and marauding militias, some heading for Beirut and Gaza, others going further.
“The new occupiers had a whole city with everything except a population,” Shehada says. “As Dr. Azmi Bishara [Palestinian academic and politician] has put it, this was the biggest armed robbery of the 20th century,” he adds. Zionists simply entered and laid claim to the suddenly empty homes.
As the affluent business classes fled, the economic and social apparatus of Jaffa crumbled, leaving the community broken and leaderless.
Around 3,900 Palestinians, or five percent of the population, remained in 1948, most of who were of a low socio-economic class. “They were concentrated in one area to control them more easily, forced into the Ajami and Jabaliya neighborhoods,” Shehada notes.
“People think only refugees lost property in 1948,” he says, “but 90% of the people forced to resettle in Ajami were also refugees, from other areas in or surrounding Jaffa,” who were prevented from returning to their homes after the fighting abated.
“The old city was left empty and the northern al Menashiya neighborhood bordering southern Tel Aviv completely destroyed,” he says.
The area was later remodelled as a promenade. Today a Hilton hotel stands, Shehada continues, on the spot where a Muslim cemetery used to. This was before the neighborhood was razed.
Military rule was imposed onJaffa’s Palestinians, and a barbed wire fence erected around Ajami and Jabaliya complete with checkpoints, until 1950, when the city was officially annexed by, and became a district of, Tel Aviv.
Neglected by the new metropolis, Jaffa grew into a bleak and derelict suburb, unable to recover from the sudden hiatus in economic and social activity imposed by Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, Jewish immigrants had begun to flood into the emptied city, taking up residence in Palestinian homes which the new state had expropriated using a law that labelled them as “absentee property,” or consigned to state ownership.
While two thirds of the population is now Jewish, Jaffa is still regarded by most Jewish Israelis as an “Arab” town.
The Ottoman-era image carried in the old buildings (denied renovation permits by the state) and the modern developments built to mirror the former, in an Orientalist homage to Jaffa’s pre-Zionism roots, uphold the paradox.
At the entrance to the old city, where a tall clock tower stands, plush boutiques and art galleries thrive. The characteristically Arab style of curved arches, low ceilings, and old stone facade that decorate the artisan shops there, lend an ethereal and ahistorical quality to the setting.
The old city, which overlooks the port, was cleared of its poor Palestinian inhabitants in the 1970s and redesigned as an “artists’ colony,” the old structures refurbished and preserved. Today the area appears a quiet idyll, home only to artists’ workshops and about 500 fortunate residents, tucked away from the bustle of the street.
“In reality it is a colony for the very rich,” reflects Yudit Ilany, Ajami local and community activist.
Ajami and Jabaliya remain to this day the only Palestinian-majority areas ofJaffa, with 20% made up of low income Jewish Israelis.
The ethnic segregation of Jaffa means some of its people, mostly Jewish, have benefited from state policies, such as a boost in public and private development to transform the town’s image from virtual ghetto to culturally revived and trendy suburb.
You don’t have to look hard to notice the striking physical and social disparities between Palestinian Ajami and Jabaliya on the one hand, and Jewish neighborhoods on the other.
Religious Zionism in Jaffa
NOVEMBER 15, 2011
In the heart of Ajami, the sole remnant of Jaffa’s Palestinian identity and culture, sits a hesder yeshiva, so called for its special blend of torah study and military preparation.
The institution was established three years ago by the Garin Torani, a countrywide religious Zionist organization. The Jaffa branch includes about 50 families.
Ostensibly the group exists to provide support for disadvantaged Jewish families. This is one of the faces the Garin Torani shows to the world. Another, their proliferation in mixed cities, is less innocuous.
Judaization, which demands segregation between Jews and Palestinians, is an important part of the Garin Torani ideology. From this perspective, Jaffa, home to 20,000 Palestinians (alongside 40,000 Jews), is an internal frontier waiting to be settled.
Sami Abu Shehada, Palestinian community activist and municipal member in Jaffa, muses on the agenda behind positioning the yeshiva in Ajami.
“The national religious have a political project,” he asserts. After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the national religious decided to settle inside the Green Line, where their presence would have a greater effect.
“No one would notice them in the occupied territories,” Shehada adds with a sense of irony.
Commentators like Nadav Shragai, a right wing journalist with Haaretz, explain this logic of internal settling as based on “strengthen[ing] the ranks of Jewish inhabitants in mixed towns that are being abandoned by their Jewish residents.”
For Shragai the demographic contest is pivotal. Acre, Lod, Ramle and other mixed towns and cities must be populated with Jews.
If disrupting Palestinian communities in Israel is the Garin Torani’s goal, they have been somewhat successful.
“Since the settlers came you can feel the tension,” Shehada says. The students, many of whom come from settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, are known to be provocative and menacing at times.
Locals have complained about aggressive behavior, such as youths ranging raucously through Ajami’s streets shouting nationalistic slogans and jeering at people.
Beyond such intimidation, the real crux of Garin Torani’s agenda is consistent with the defining principle of Zionism – settling the land.
They are buying property in Ajami and won a significant coup last year when B’Emunah, a housing company specializing in development projects for the national religious, won a public tender for a plot of land in Ajami where a market once stood.
This was hotly contested by locals, who brought the case to Israel’s Supreme Court protesting of the misuse of public land – objecting that the land was being used to build housing for one particular group. But B’Emunah’s contract won.
Another approach taken by Garin Torani is enticing new recruits to settle in Ajami. “Thousands of people come on tours, called ‘Jaffa in the steps of Rabbi Kook,’ led by the rabbi,” Shehada says. “He tries to convince Jews of the importance of settling here.”
Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi in Mandatory Palestine, lived in Jaffa and founded Israel’s most important religious Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1924. “Kook gave permission to Jews to settle throughout Palestine, expanding from the four holy cities of Hebron, Jerusalem, Tsfat and Tiberias where they were initially concentrated,” Shehada explains.
In promotional films on their website, the Garin Torani inform people of Palestinian violence in Jaffa, making it seem urgent that Jews settle in the neighborhood.
The Jaffa branch of Garin Torani’s 25-year-old leader, Itai Granek, insists the organzation’s presence in Ajami is innocent. He told Haaretz last January that Palestinians are “glad that a young community has come, even a religious one, to Jaffa.”
“Most people understand that if a young, quality community comes here, it improves everything – both the Arab community and the Jewish community,” Granek added.
Shehada, conversely, believes this kind of rhetoric masks sinister intentions. Evidence suggests that the Garin Torani’s activities and recruitment of youths that hail from extreme ideological settlements in the West Bank into Ajami, a Palestinian neighborhood, are more baneful than innocent.
Last month two cemeteries in Ajami, one Muslim and the other Christian, were desecrated.
Tombstones were broken and painted with the phrases “death to Arabs” and “price tag,” mirroring recent trend among Jewish settlers that inflicts arbitrary collective punishment on Palestinians for alleged anti-settlement government policies.
The vandalism came in the wake of an arson attack on a mosque in Tuba Zangariya, a Bedouin town in the Galilee.
Then last week saw more menace against Ajami’s community when people broke into a Palestinian restaurant in the early hours of the morning, setting fire to the place and scrawling “Kahane was right” on the wall.
Rabbi Meir Kahane headed the militantly extremist Kach party. Though the party was outlawed in Israel for its openly racist agenda, it continues to operate under a different name.
Some Ajami locals believe the yeshiva students are responsible for the cemetery vandalism. But Shehada is not convinced. “Their main role is in inciting against Arabs in Jaffa,” he maintains, “which could have motivated outsiders to do it.”
The idea that yeshiva students were responsible for despoiling cemeteries has aroused the ire of some voices in Israel, such as MK Ya’akov Katz. Katz denounced what he described as the “organized blood libel against the Jews of Jaffa.”
Katz is the chairman of the National Union, a political collective that advocates the transferral of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line to Arab countries.
He was “absolutely positive that the vandalism was committed by radical leftists, or Arabs working on their behalf, in an attempt to make the Jews look bad.”
It is this attitude that has allowed a sense of impunity to grow among settlers. The whitewashing of extremists by Jewish officials allows them to feel safe from legal consequences. Silence has a similar effect.
Up to 12 mosques have been vandalised in the West Bank over the past two years; and 2011 saw a 40% spike in settler violence, yet no real consequences for the perpetrators. Settler crime elicits no response from the state, which is obligated under international law to protect the people it occupies.
Violence against Palestinians in Israel is also present. “The state has killed about 40 Palestinian citizens in Israel since 2001,” Shehada balks.
Shehada believes that racism is deeply rooted in Israeli society. “The cemetery attacks happened because of a racist atmosphere that was allowed to develop,” he says.
Moreover, Shehada adds that “the waves of racism since 2000 have been led by politicians.”
Israel’s political elite have persistently resented the presence of the Palestinian minority, maligning them as a fifth column that would never be loyal to a Jewish state.
For Shehada “attacks like the ones in Tuba and Jaffa are not surprising.”
“Palestinian leaders warned that what they were doing was dangerous, that the gap between racist speech and action was closer than they imagined,” he says.
“If our prime minister is talking about 20 percent of the population as a demographic bomb and a strategic threat, it will have an effect.”
The mood in Jaffa after the recent attacks is one of frustration, Shehada says.
“People do not believe the police will punish those responsible.”
Religious intimidation is one way Zionism settles the internal frontier. In the previous installment (above) of our series about Palestinian communities in Israel, Sophie Crowe will explore the role of gentrification and development in Jaffa.