The Palestinians who never left


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

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

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.

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.

Le Monde Diplomatique for more

Comments are closed.