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The dark brown key to an old Arab Home in Jaffa that I saw at the flea market
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Al-Bahr Mosque, in Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean sea.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

the port of Jaffa
phot by Rhonda Spivak

the clock tower, at the entrance to Jaffa
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Arabic style windows on a building in Jaffa near the clock tower
photo by Rhonda Spivak

A house in old Jaffa
photo by Rhonda Spivak

St Peter's church tower. Jaffa was the site where according to the Christianity, St. Peter began to preach to Gentiles.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

A view of the sea from a garden at the back of a restaurant near the entrance to Jaffa
photo by Rhonda Spivak

At a shop in old Jaffa
photo by Rhonda Spivak

A view of the beach connecting Jaffa to Tel-Aviv
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Editor's Report: Finding The Key to an Old Arab Home in Jaffa

by Rhonda Spivak, Sept 24, 2020

I was at the flea market in Jaffa one day when I saw what appeared to be a very large brown coloured key to an old Arab house. I had never seen a key like that before. I stared at it for a moment wondering about what happened to the Arab family who had once lived in the Jaffa  house to which the key belonged.  The shopkeeper at the flea market saw me looking at the key and asked if I wanted to buy it. It didn't cost much. Where is the key from? I asked,  "From an old Arab home around here," the shopkeeper replied.
I didn't want to purchase the key, but looking at it got me wondering about the complex history of the Arabs of Jaffa in the 1948 war and whether they had fled or been expelled. 
In 1948, Jaffa, the largest Arab town in Mandatory Palestine, was a key strategic location as it overlooked Tel Aviv and  could serve  as a stronghold for the Egyptian army‘s looming invasion. There was constant sniper fire from Jaffa, which had also immobilized many parts of neighboring Tel Aviv. Note that under the UN partition plan of 1947 Jaffa was to be included as part of an Arab state, but since the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states rejected partition, the 1948 war ensued, and Israeli forces set out to taking control of Jaffa. 
An article in Jewish News Syndicate by Tamara Sternthal reviews passages in the book City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, written by journalist Adam LeBor. She outlines how many of Jaffa’s Arabs fled of their own accord when the fighting began. 
As LeBor writes,
“On 8 December 1947, after several days of skirmishes between Arab fighters and the Haganah, hundreds of Arab fighters attacked the Tel Aviv quarter of Hatikvah in a major frontal assault. The attack was repulsed, with sixty Arabs and two Jews killed. The Arab exodus from Jaffa began. Much of the middle class and the a’yan, the notables, who could have provided leadership in the testing days ahead, relocated to relatives or to their summer homes in Cairo and Beirut, believing the would return once the situation calmed down. Flight, like panic, is infectious. When Jaffa’s artisans and workers saw that their bosses were leaving, they too began to desert their homes. (p. 114).”
However, in January 1948, there there was a bombing attack in Jaffa perpetrated by Jews targeting the Arab High Committee, which resulted in  26 dead, mostly civilians, with 100 injured, which appears to have destroyed Arab morale.  LeBor details that: “The exodus of the middle class further accelerated, angry accusation 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.”
The battle for Jaffa itself began on Sunday, April 25, 1948. LeBor recounts eye witness testimony of how the Arabs fled. For example, LeBor outlines how Jaffa’s Arab mayor at the time, Yousef Heikal, fled the city on April 28, 1948: 
"He[Heikal] said that Jaffa was going to be occupied by the Jews soon, since there was no defence—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...
”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 cross the Haganah lines.”
LeBor reports on the flight of the Hammami family on the fateful day of April 25, 1948, as son Fadwa remembers:
“In one day, my parents decided to leave. But not for good, because we left everything in the house. They said we were going on holiday, to Lebanon … (p. 125).”
LeBor outlines how for Ismail Abou-Shehade, 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!’  (p. 127)”
LeBor concludes that most of the Arabs of Jaffa "who left, it seems, thought they would soon return. But they were wrong."
Historian Dr. Petra Marquardt-Bigman has also written an article about how Jaffa's Arabs fled in 1947/1948, which  cites the writing of  Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a political-science professor and  Arab resident of Jaffa who left Jaffa in May 1948. Abu-Lughod wrote in an  Al-Ahram ( Egyptian newspaper) special from 1998  about how there was a massive flight by Jaffa's Arab residents.
Abu-Lughod notes that most Arabs in Jaffa were confident that they Arabs would win the war, and he writes  that  "In short, there was a belief that the Jews were generally cowards.” However, as Abu - Lughod relates when the Arabs of Jaffa realized this belief proved to be mistaken, they started to leave Jaffa. As Abu-Lughod points out, at first it was mostly the rich who left, but as more and more people began to flee the fighting, the “National Committee…decided to levy a tax on every family who insisted on leaving.” Abu-Lughod writes about how he  volunteered to help with collecting this “tax:”
“I worked in a branch of the committee based in the headquarters of the Muslim Youth Association near the port of Jaffa. Our job consisted mainly of harassing people to dissuade them from leaving, and when they insisted, we would begin bargaining over what they should pay, according to how much luggage they were carrying with them and how many members of the family there were. At first we set the taxes high. Then as the situation deteriorated, we reduced the rates, especially when our friends and relatives began to be among those leaving."
We continued collecting this tax until 23 April [1948], when the combined force of the Haganah and the Irgun succeeded in defeating the Arab forces stationed in the Manshiya quarter adjacent to Southern Tel-Aviv. On that day, as we realised that an attack on the centre of Jaffa was imminent, I and my family decided that they had to be evacuated temporarily. We rented a van, into which we crammed all the women and young children and sent them to Nablus.”
Dr. Petra Marquardt-Bigman concludes that "As Abu-Lughod’s account illustrates, the majority of Jaffa’s Arab residents fled the fighting over a period of several weeks or even months – by land or by sea – while Jaffa’s self-proclaimed defenders tried to exploit those who wanted to leave by demanding a 'tax.' "
Finally, an article in the Jerusalem Post, refers to the fact that Jaffa's residents fled on mass of their own accord when fighting between the Irgun and the British broke out. It relates that on  April 25, 1948, the Irgun launched an attack to take Jaffa. According to the article "Under orders from British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, who instructed to prevent the Jewish victory at Jaffa 'at all costs,' the British army began to bombard the Irgun fighters with tanks and artillery in order to force Jewish forces to vacate the city. Twice, Irgun fighters successfully repelled the British advance by demobilizing their tanks with a combination of explosives and Molotov cocktails.


"After the successful Irgun defense, the British eventually capitulated to the fait accompli achieved by the Irgun and halted its attack. The fighting also catalyzed a mass exodus of Jaffa’s Arab inhabitants who fled the city on land and by sea.[emphasis added]."
The New York Times, however, has written  in an article in 2019 that  “In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, most of Jaffa’s Arab residents were forcibly removed from their homes.”
With respect, the eye witness accounts and sources  that have been detailed above do not support this claim made by the New York Times. 
In considering why so many of the Arabs of Jaffa fled, LeBor  emphasizes that " Jaffa's Arab inhabitants, were poorly served by their leaders. Even as the Palestinians began to flee, they continued their feuding and vendettas. Blinded by his hatred of the Jews, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and an ardent admirer of Hitler, 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, the main Jewish militia. 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."
According to  LeBor, "Jaffa lost 95,000 of its inhabitants, yet many perhaps could have stayed had they, and their leaders, shown greater endurance..."
As I looked at the key to the old Arab home that I had found in the Jaffa flea market, I thought of the words of a Bethlehem Arab woman I had met who told me that she still had the keys to her grandfather’s home in Jaffa.  I don’t know if that home still exists or not. But I do not think she will ever return to live in Jaffa. Notwithstanding that the Palestinian Authority claims the right of return for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and all of their descendants, I do not not believe there will be any Palestinian right of return en masse to Jaffa , or other areas within pre-67 Israel.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.