Jaffa: Divided it fell

For centuries, Jaffa was a bustling port, home to Muslims, Christians and Jews. But in a few catastrophic months in 1948, its unity was shattered. In an exclusive extract from his new book, Adam LeBor tells the stories of the families whose lives were changed for ever

Saturday 21 January 2006 01:00 GMT

Jaffa's Arab sentries were suspicious of the truck loaded with oranges coming from neighbouring Tel Aviv. The driver and passenger were dressed in Arab clothes, but something felt wrong. As the vehicle approached the checkpoint, the sentries opened fire and the truck turned back. But the two men returned a few days later, on 4 January 1948, and this time they had better luck. The driver parked in an alley off Clock Tower Square, next to the New Seray building, housing Jaffa's municipal offices and a kitchen for needy children.

The New Seray had a powerful symbolism in the struggle between Arab and Jew for Palestine. Jerusalem was Palestine's religious capital, but Jaffa was its cultural and commercial centre. With its English, French, Italian and Arab language schools, artists and writers, three newspapers and many printing houses, the city was proud of its vigorous intellectual life. Much of the Palestinian political élite came from Jaffa. Its cinemas offered romance and adventure films from Cairo, and the latest Hollywood releases. It had two soccer teams, one Muslim and one Christian. The city was scented by its orange groves, the fruit of which was famed across the world for its quality. Its mosques, synagogues and churches dated back centuries.

Jaffa then was an integral part of the Middle East: taxis left for Beirut and Damascus; trains for Haifa and Jerusalem, Gaza and Cairo. Ships left Jaffa for Europe, taking out oranges, and bringing back Jewish immigrants. Like medieval pilgrims before them, they were carried through the waves on the backs of Arab porters on to dry land, there to be assailed by a wall of heat, dust, and Jaffa's own smell of oranges, mixed with black tobacco, cardamom-scented coffee and sweat. Jaffa's heart was the Old City, with its winding lanes, and stepped rows of yellow sandstone buildings built on top of each other, dating back three millennia. Waves of conquerors had stormed ashore here: Canaanites and ancient Egyptians; Romans and Hebrew rebels; Greeks and Byzantines; Crusaders and Saracens, Mamlukes and the Ottomans, who took Jaffa in 1517.

In early 1948 Palestine was ruled by Britain under a mandate from the League of Nations and once more prepared for war. The previous November the United Nations General Assembly (successor to the League) voted to divide it into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, with Jerusalem remaining under international control. The Arab state would have 42 per cent, the Jewish state 56 per cent (much of its allocated territory was in the Negev desert). Jaffa would be a tiny Arab island, surrounded by Jewish territory. The Jewish Agency, the government of the Israeli state-in-waiting, accepted the plan, and celebrated. The principle of Jewish statehood was now established - only the borders remained to be defined. The Palestinian leadership unequivocally rejected the plan and called a 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 cafes.

The Arab exodus began. Much of the middle-classes and the a'yan, the notables, who could have provided leadership in the testing days ahead, relocated to relatives or their summer homes in Cairo and Beirut, believing they would return when the situation calmed. When Jaffa's artisans and workers saw that their bosses were leaving, they too began to desert their homes. Unemployment, poverty, 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. Jews and Arabs bombed and killed each other across the country. In Tel Aviv and Jaffa, however, some were at least still talking. Jewish and Arab orange-grove owners signed a non-aggression pact. The plantations around the city would not be targeted, so the crop could be safely gathered and exported.

But Jaffa's heart received no such quarter. The two men walked away from the truck, drank a coffee in a nearby café and departed soon after. A thunderous explosion then shook the city. Broken glass and shattered masonry blew out across Clock Tower square. The New Seray's centre and side walls collapsed in a pile of rubble and twisted beams. Only the neo-classical façade survived. After a moment of silence, the screams began: 26 were killed, hundreds injured. Most were civilians, including many children eating at the charity kitchen. The bomb missed its target completely, as the Arab Higher Committee, which organised Jaffa's resistance, had moved to the suburbs.

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. Ismail was 22 years old. He had hoped to study Islamic law at the Al-Azhar university in Cairo, to be a qadi, an Islamic judge. The family home was filled with shelves of books on Islamic law. The Second World War made that dream impossible, so he went to technical school. Ismail still lives in Jaffa. He is an articulate man, who speaks a vivid, poetic Arabic. His voice chokes as he recalls these darkest months. "They claimed that the Seray was a centre for terrorists, but it was nothing but an orphanage. Lots of children were f killed. I was one of those who helped get the dead bodies out from under the wreckage." The bomb was terrorism in its classic form: it terrorised Jaffa and destroyed Arab morale and leadership. Municipal services all but collapsed.

As winter turned to spring in 1948, darkness descended. The two most dangerous areas were Jaffa's northernmost quarter, Manshiyyeh, which bordered Tel Aviv, and its southernmost area, Jebaliyyeh, by the Jewish town of Bat Yam. The men of Jebaliyyeh formed their own defence guard, among them Ahmad Hammami. Ahmad was in his mid-forties and worked in Jaffa's citrus business. His family enjoyed a comfortable life. He was a modern man, keen on cars and new innovations, but one proud of his Palestinian heritage. The Hammamis were well respected in Jaffa. Ahmad, his wife Nafise and those of their nine children who were not yet married lived in a beautiful stone villa by the sea, surrounded by a garden and fruit trees. The Hammami children had enjoyed an idyllic childhood, but signs of conflict were inescapable. "Every day there was a funeral near us, because our house was by the cemetery," recalls Ahmad's daughter Fadwa, who was born in 1937 and now lives in East Jerusalem.

Some families packed up and left, but Ahmad and Nafise were determined to stay, says Fadwa. "My parents started to prepare the house for war. They put sandbags against the wall, outside and inside. Of course they were nervous, but I was sure that they did not want to leave. They laid down enough stocks to last for a year. All the food that we normally ate, but in massive quantities. Olives, olive oil, goat cheese salted in water, wheat and rice, butter, honey, and my mother made jams and marmalade."

The Hammamis, like all of 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.

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 14 May, when the Mandate formally ended and the Jewish state would be declared. But the Irgun, the right-wing Zionist militia, commanded by Menachem Begin, vehemently disagreed. "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," recalls Yoseph Nachmias, who fought in the battle for Jaffa, after six years in the British army. Amichai Paglin, known as Gidi, commanded the attack. His orders were unequivocal: "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." The battle for Jaffa began early on Sunday 25 April. Irgun gunners directed a rain of mortar fire on to the city, killing and wounding large numbers of civilians, triggering panic and hysteria. "I was a company commander," says Yoseph. "We opened the barrage, started firing and began to advance."

Ahmad Hammami was downtown by Clock Tower Square when the mortars began falling. "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," says Fadwa. "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 journey took just a few minutes. 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 harbour to the larger ships moored out to sea. The Hammami children are grown now, with children and grandchildren of their own. But they all remember the scene as though it were yesterday, for these are memories that never fade. "The port looked so different from my idyllic visits in the summer," says Fadwa's brother Hasan, who now lives in Florida. "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." Fadwa understood this was not an adventure, but something far more profound. "When we got on it was full of people but they kept letting more on board. Wherever you looked on the boat there were people. We knew many of them. One of my teachers sat next to me, some of my mother's friends and father's colleagues were nearby. There were no chairs, no shelter, nothing. We just sat on the stacks of wood. I will never forget that day. Never." Eventually the sailing ship began to move. The Hammamis stared at Jaffa's harbour, its familiar yellow sandstone buildings now wreathed in smoke.

Jaffa's inhabitants were fleeing, but its defenders had not. Each time the Irgun fighters advanced into Manshiyyeh, they could not hold the ground they captured and fell back. Gidi decided on a new tactic: 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," recalls Yoseph. The battle turned and the Arab fighters fell back. By seven on Wednesday morning the Irgun had broken through the Arab lines. "There were 30 of us and as soon as we saw the sea we started running towards it, shouting 'ha-yam, 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.

Manshiyyeh had fallen, but the rest of Jaffa stayed in Arab hands, protected by British troops. The British had warned the Jewish leadership that if they continued to attack Jaffa they would shell Tel Aviv. By the end of April, perhaps 20,000 people remained, less than a quarter of the population. Jaffa's mayor, Yousef Heikal, showed little 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," recalls Ismail Abou-Shehade. Heikal returned briefly on 28 April. "Then he gathered us again. He said that Jaffa was going to be occupied by the Jews soon, since there was no defence, no weapons and nothing can stop them from taking our dear Jaffa. He gave people permission to leave the country if they wish. 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." f

The Irgun and Haganah finally entered Jaffa proper, on 14 May after the British troops left. Between four and five thousand 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."

Was Jaffa unnecessarily abandoned? On 18 May David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, visited Jaffa. "I couldn't understand," he wrote in his diary. "Why did the inhabitants leave?" The bitter debate still continues today among Palestinians. The Irgun's terrifying mortar bombardment of Jaffa was the first stage of ethnic cleansing. But it lasted only a few days and stopped after the British intervened. Apart from the fighting in the Manshiyyeh quarter, the second stage of ethnic cleansing - close quarter urban warfare - did not happen. The Irgun did not advance street by street into the city, setting houses on fire, and killing civilians. They were held back by the British. Jaffa was not the Palestinians' Sarajevo. It was not bombarded for weeks by tanks, bombed by airplanes or shelled to rubble by heavy artillery. The mortars did damage buildings, killing and wounding civilians, but mortar fire alone cannot destroy a city. When the British left and the Haganah's troops took over the city, they met no resistance, because Jaffa was empty. The exodus had begun in the winter of 1947-1948, five months before the Irgun attacked Manshiyyeh. Most of those who left, it seems, thought they would soon return. But they were wrong.

On the second day at sea, the Hammamis' boat ran into a storm. It was dangerously overloaded and began to list to one side. The captain ordered the passengers to throw all heavy belongings overboard. A Royal Navy vessel passed by and a sailor barked into his loud-hailer: who were they, and what where they doing? "We are Arabs, leaving Jaffa and heading for Beirut," someone shouted. The ship sailed closer. The crew swept the spotlight up and down the rows of shivering, frightened refugees before pulling away. "I often wonder what went through that captain's mind, when he saw us, packed like sardines, and he steamed away, without offering us any help," says Hasan Hammami. The journey by boat from Jaffa to Beirut normally took 12 hours. After three days at sea, the Hammamis disembarked at the southern Lebanese port of Tyre. Ahmad Hammami never saw Jaffa, or his house, again. His wife Nafise and several of their children would return, decades later. By then Ahmad's house had new owners, and Jaffa new rulers.

In May 1948 Amin Andraus's home was a fortress. There were sandbags around the walls, and sandbags on the roof. Amin was a strikingly handsome Christian Arab from Nazareth who had settled in Jaffa in the 1930s, and had built a modern villa not far from the Hammami's home. Before the outbreak of fighting, Amin had been a successful businessman who owned a car showroom. But these were the most difficult days of his life. His family was in exile, his business ruined, his home town abandoned and his country no longer existed. Amin's wife Hanneh had died in 1945, leaving him with four children to raise. As the fighting worsened, Amin sent his son Salim and daughters Wedad, Suad and Leila to Jordan, with his sister Fahima.

Amin was a member of Jaffa's Emergency Committee, and was now the Arab mayor in all but name. Yousef Heikal had given him the keys to the New Seray. But despite Amin's entreaties, most of his friends had fled. "My father believed in staying and tried to convince people to stay," says Amin's son Salim, who still lives in Jaffa. "But they left, because they thought it was only for a few days. It was very sad. Jaffa was let down by its population."

Amin understood that further military resistance was pointless. On 9 May the Emergency Committee wrote to the British District Commissioner, declaring that Jaffa would be an open city, once the Mandate ended, and would not "be used for military purposes". On 13 May 1948, Jaffa capitulated. Amin Andraus and three others, including Abdel Rahim, a cousin of Ahmad Hammami, signed the surrender agreement. "My father explained that Jaffa was a peaceful town, there was nobody there to fight, just old people and foreign workers who did not have money to leave. He wanted Jaffa to be an open city, with no looting or destruction," says his daughter Suad. "There has been criticism of this, but there was no way to fight, and he wanted to save Jaffa from being destroyed." Clause eight of the surrender agreement seemed to leave the door open for some to return: "... any male Arab who left Jaffa and who wishes to return to Jaffa may apply for a permit to do so. Permits will be granted after their bona-fides have been proved, provided that the Commander of the Haganah is convinced that applicants will not, at any time, constitute a threat to peace and security." The Haganah commander may have been sincere, but his political masters had other plans.

Four Arab armies immediately invaded the new state of Israel: Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. Others sent reinforcements and the 1948 war entered its second phase. These were not rag-tag Palestinian militias but well-equipped armies, with tanks, artillery and aircraft. Arab leaders loudly proclaimed that they would annihilate the Jews, who were outnumbered and outgunned. "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades," announced Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary general of the Arab League. He confidently predicted that, "It does not matter how many Jews there are. We will sweep them into the sea."

Just three years after the liberation of the Nazi camps, there was no reason for the Israelis to disbelieve the Arabs' threat of a new Holocaust. Which was why on 17 May 1948, when Israel was three days old, Shlomo Chelouche was steadily tracking an Egyptian fighter plane in the sights of his machine gun. Shlomo was a Haganah commander for north Tel Aviv, based at Sde Dov airport. The airport had already been bombed that morning. A tent was hit, holding arms and ammunition. Shlomo had helped pull the wounded from the wreckage and was decorated for his bravery. "Who goes in to pull out the wounded when ammunition is exploding everywhere? Only a fool," laughs Shlomo, who still lives in Tel Aviv. "The second plane came towards us an hour later, from the direction of Jaffa. He was not flying very high. I positioned the gun and waited for him, for a few minutes. I was calm, I aimed. I gave him everything I had and the plane flew out to sea."

The Chelouches were one of most respected Jewish families in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. They had arrived in Palestine from Algeria in the late 1830s and had settled in Jaffa. In the late 19th century the great patriarch Aharon worked as a jeweller and money-changer. Aharon used his profits to buy land, where the first Jewish settlements outside Old Jaffa were built: Neve Tsedek and Ahuzat Bayit, which later became Tel Aviv. Founded in 1909, Tel Aviv was the capital of the Yishuv, the Jewish state-in-waiting. Modern, dynamic, Tel Aviv boasted a vibrant commercial, artistic and cultural life. Its elegant Bauhaus buildings defined its identity: open-plan, democratic and egalitarian.

But now Tel Aviv was under attack. Shlomo shot well. Aharon Remez, commander of the Israeli Air Force, told Shlomo that the plane had gone down and he was going to look for the pilot. "Remez came back to Sde Dov, with the pilot. I spoke to him in Arabic. He was shivering. I asked him if he wanted to drink something. He said, no, no, no. He was afraid. Remez wanted to take him to the big chief, Ben-Gurion, to question him. I told him that you don't take an officer to Ben Gurion. I said he was a prisoner of war and Remez should leave him with me. He laughed, and agreed. I gave the Arab a comb, for his hair. He took the comb and started combing, he was so nervous, he couldn't hold it."

Jaffa, like the ports of Haifa and Acre, was unusual in the new Jewish state. Although only a tiny fraction of its Arab population remained, Jews and Arabs still encountered each on a daily basis. Across much of the country, the Arabs had vanished. Israel's Jews exulted at the establishment of the new state, but for the Palestinians May 1948 was Al-Naqba, the Catastrophe. There were no Arab traders selling fruits and vegetables, no Arab workers tilling the fields, no Arab children scampering home. Jaffa was a ghost town. The exodus left an unsettling vacuum. Many Israelis were astonished at its speed and extent. The results left many Jews, themselves refugees from Nazi persecution, uneasy. More than 700,000 Palestinians departed their homeland in the summer of 1948 and about 120,000 stayed. Precisely how many were expelled and how many fled will never be known. The causes of the exodus varied at different stages of the war and in different areas. Jaffa lost 95,000 of its inhabitants, yet many perhaps could have stayed had they, and their leaders, shown greater endurance, as Amin Andraus had asked.

Before 1948 Nagib Bustros Street was the commercial heartland of Jaffa. That summer it was a dead zone. But No 6 had a new owner: Shabat Aharoni. Shabat had arrived with his family from Bulgaria after the end of the Second World War. His shop "Tiv" (quality) sold spices and coffee. "My father bought a coffee machine, and 200 kilos of coffee a month and started to sell it," says his son Yoram, who now lives north of Tel Aviv in quiet retirement. The Aharonis built up the business steadily, for that was the Bulgarian way. At first they sold mainly coffee, paprika and black pepper, the spices used in Bulgarian dishes. Shabat taught Yoram about coffee, and how to blend it. The Bulgarians took theirs with roasted ground chicory, the Arabs with fragrant cardamom. Each wave of new immigrants sought new spices and coffees. Tiv soon became renowned across the coastal plain.

Yoram soon became expert in north African cuisine. "Each community had their own spice mix, for different dishes, and also for their tea, with cinnamon, or with rose petals. The Jews from Tripoli and Morocco cook a lot of meatballs, and their spice mix was called Baharat. It was based on cumin, with plenty of black pepper, ginger and garlic. Some of them used caraway seeds. The fish spices were the hottest. The Jews from Tripoli made a sauce with cumin, caraway and garlic, and they would buy half a kilo of red pepper at a time."

Shabat was a kind-hearted man. Many of his Jewish customers were homesick and disorientated. Shabat always had time for a chat, and a few kind words. With its familiar smells of spices and coffee, Tiv was a home from home for the new arrivals, says Yoram. "When my father passed away, people told me that when they first came to Israel and they had nothing, he would give them spices to cook with for the holidays. He told them to pay him when they had some money. They could cook the food that they were used to, and drink their own type of coffee. My father helped people start their new lives in Israel, and that was very important for him."

In late May 1948 the Israeli government formed a Transfer Committee to prevent the return of the refugees, and settle new Jewish olim, immigrants, in their abandoned houses, starting in Haifa and Jaffa. The few Arabs who remained were to be relocated from their homes. The Emergency Committee's protest memorandum was ignored. When the time came Israeli soldiers simply threw the Arabs out of their homes. Even the Emergency Committee was expelled from its offices.

Still Amin Andraus continued on his rounds, like a doctor checking his patients, and Jaffa then needed much attention. "My father looked after the water supply, all the things to keep the city going, even the flour for the bakeries," says Suad. Amin's ideas of how Jaffa should be run often clashed with the plans of its new masters. "When he became too troublesome for the Israelis, and was really interfering with the way they wanted to do things, they put him under house arrest, with a guard. He could only go into the garden. But he was absolutely independent. He had chickens, and pigeons. He built an oven where my grandmother baked bread."

Eventually the Israelis realised what Amin already knew. "After a while nothing worked in Jaffa without him. The Israelis started asking him questions. He said he could not do anything if he was under house arrest," explains Suad. "So they allowed him out, but with a guard, who enjoyed my grandmother's cooking."

One day Amin paid a call at a tiny fisherman's café. "He sat with them while they explained their problems. He sat and sat, the guard was getting annoyed, saying, 'Mr Andraus it is already lunchtime.' My father said he just wanted to sit a while longer. The guard said he did not know what interest he had talking to these simple people, my father said, no, they were his friends. Out of devilment he stretched it out a bit. In the end the guard said, 'Mr Andraus, I want you to tell me one thing, who is the prisoner, you or me?'"

© Adam LeBor 2006. Adapted from 'City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa', by Adam LeBor (Bloomsbury, £18.99). To order this book for the special price of £16.99, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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