From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*
Issue: 30 April 1998
No sooner had the UN General Assembly passed its partition resolution in November 1947, than Palestine was torn apart by a war waged between its two historically antagonistic communities -- Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews.
From 29 November 1947 to 15 May 1948, each of these two communities endeavoured to establish a sovereign State. The first shots were exchanged between Jaffa and Tel Aviv on the eve of 30 November 1947 during a three-day general protest strike declared by the Arab Higher Committee. What started then, with the passage of that UN Resolution in 1947, continues still to this day, in different ways and forms. The hostile peace that had previously prevailed was shattered once and for all.
It does no good now to say that the outcome was a forgone conclusion, that the better-equipped, better-commanded and Western-supported Jewish militias would inevitably overcome what were for the most part poorly-led, essentially weaponless and badly-organised, though more numerous, Palestinian Arab forces.
What began slowly soon developed into a mass exodus, especially following the death in battle of the Palestinian leader Abdel-Qader Al-Husseini and the Deir Yassin Massacre. After the Jewish victories at Haifa and Jaffa in the last ten days of April, the pressure of war forced the Palestinians to relocate. At first they moved internally, to "safer" areas within exposed cities and in Arab-dominated areas of Palestine, as they sought to get out of harm's way. The relentless pressure of the Jewish militias (the Haganah, the Irgun, and others), together with the random but deliberately orchestrated bombardment of the largely civilian population, lay behind this initial exodus.
On the eve of the UN Partition Resolution, Jaffa's Arab population numbered over 70,000. By and large they supported the traditional Palestinian leadership headed by Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti, though he himself had been exiled and was then residing in Cairo. To organise resistance, two members of the Arab Higher Committee, Sheikh Hassan Abou Al-Seoud and Rafiq Al-Tamimi, were sent to Jaffa to supervise the establishment of a National Committee.
The composition of the Jaffa National Committee reflected the rather conservative leanings of the majority, though it did include some younger people who stood for less conservative trends. Besides the supporters of Haj Amin, there was also a Christian representation and some elements from the City Council. The Mayor, Dr. Youssef Heikal, was excluded because he was considered to be an enemy of the traditional supporters of Haj Amin, and a supporter of king Abdullah.
The formation of this committee represented a significant development in the attempt to fill the political vacuum left after the crushing of the 1936-1939 revolution. But it also reflected the belief that a decisive battle with the Zionists was approaching, though I do not think we realised just how decisive that battle was going to be.
The committee was provisionally located in Sahat Al-Sa'a [the square where the clock stands] near an old Ottoman building called the palace, which was once a court. During November the Committee moved for security reasons to another headquarters in the neighbourhood of Ajami, where the French Ambassador to Israel now lives. Many students volunteered to work with the Committee.
I myself was then a student at Al-Amriya secondary school in my final year, preparing for the matriculation exam. I still remember raging debates with our teachers, and especially with our history teacher, Zohdi Jar-Allah. He was the first to predict that the Partition resolution would be passed in the UN, and he used to believe -- though he did not say so in public -- that we had to accept the resolution, as we would lose if we went to war with the armed Zionists.
Though we very much respected our history teacher, we used to think that said all this because he was a relative of Sheikh Hossam El-Din Jar-Allah, Sheikh Amin Al-Husseini's opponent ,who had obtained more votes than Haj Amin in the elections for the post of the Grand Mufti, but was never appointed, as the British for their own political reasons chose to give the job to Haj Amin.
Now, when I think of those days, I am inclined to think that the inhabitants of Jaffa in general believed -- like most of their fellow Palestinians throughout the land -- that the Palestinian was braver than the Jew and more capable of standing hardship.
They thought that, as the country belonged to the Arabs, they were the ones who would defend their homeland with zeal and patriotism, which the Jews -- being of many scattered countries and tongues, and moreover being divided into Ashkenazi and Sephardic -- would inevitably lack. In short, 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 if the British army did not interfere on the side of Jews, as it had done previously, then they were sure to emerge victorious.
They believed this, despite the fact that the National Committee had not succeeded in mobilising 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. Indeed, the Jewish forces were quickly able to establish most of the areas bordering on the Jewish quarters as no man's land, and the majority of the Arab inhabitants in those areas had to relocate to safer parts. This did not directly lead to any deterioration in Arab morale during the first few weeks, as everyone was to busy following reports of the battles and the destruction, analysing the situation and drawing lessons, while the local press kept reassuring them that all would turn out well. However, insights into the true gravity of our situation did begin gradually to emerge.
During the first three weeks following the UN Partition Resolution people began to evacuate the frontline district, and by the end of December 1947 all these areas had become a no man's land. Those who had had to leave their homes began to adapt to the new situation, renting or squatting houses that had been deserted by their owners when they fled the city to safety.
Those who remained began to wonder when all this was going to end, and they began to pin their hopes on the arrival of the Arab military forces to rescue them. We used to follow attentively the news of the delegations that were dispatched to Damascus (the headquarters of the military committee formed by the Arab League), or to Cairo, or to Amman to talk to King Abdullah.
At the beginning, those who left Jaffa were the affluent. They were ashamed of their desertion, and gave various excuses for leaving, such as that they were going to Cairo for a honeymoon (my family squatted in a flat of a newly-wed couple who never returned from their honeymoon); that they were having to go abroad for medical treatment or for some other personal emergency; and so on. We young ones used to view these people with disdain and talk about how typical their desertion was of the behaviour of the rich and well-to-do.
On 24 January, the Palestinian Education Council announced that the Palestine Matriculation Examination would start on 30 March, rather than in June as usual. After the exams ended and we were free, some of the students volunteered to work for the National Committee. The committee had decided to levy a tax on every family who insisted on leaving.
With my two friends Safiq Al-Hout and Mohamed Lasawi, 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, 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.
I and my elder brother Yehia remained behind to "defend" our city. Life had become very difficult for those who remained, and people were getting more desperate by the day, with no leadership to guide them.
Leaving the city had become difficult, as the Haganah had cut the land road, and the only way out was the sea with all its risks. Then on 3 May word began to spread -- until this day I do not know how, as there were no press, and the Radio was not the source for that item of news -- that the last ship that would be making a humanitarian relief mission, a Belgian ship called the Prince Alexander, was in the port ready to take whoever wanted to leave.
My friend Shafiq Al-Hout had already left for Lebanon ith his family. By then there was only myself, Mohamed Lassawi and a third friend from the old city left. The three of us went to the port, taking nothing with us. We got on the barge which was carrying luggage out to the ships standing out to sea one kilometre away from the port. In 15 minutes we reached the ship, but at the last moment we felt ashamed of our desertion and decided to turn back to the port.
We stayed on the barge. We spent the whole afternoon searching for something to eat all, but in vain. At 3 pm we heard the siren of the Prince Alexander, and we looked at each other thinking this might be our last opportunity. We ran swiftly to the barge and returned to the ship. At 3.30p.m on Monday 3 May, 1948, we set sail for Beirut. A day after our departure, Dr. Youssef Heikal, the Mayor of Jaffa, left for Amman where he reported that not a single Arab remained in Jaffa. On 10 May, however, according to the Associated Press, there were still 2,000 Arabs out of the more than 70,000 in the city.
I arrived in Beirut on 4 May, I believed that we would be returning to Jaffa in a couple of weeks. But it was in Nablus, while sitting idly in a cafe one day in July 1948, that I heard the results of the Palestine Matriculation Examination broadcast over Radio Israel. I and my friend Shafiq Al-Hout had passed the exam. I sent him a cable in Beirut, and armed with the Matriculation he was able to enroll at the American University in Beirut. I, for my part, left for America, where my certificate reached me by mail in December 1949, thus enabling me to pursue my education there.
The next time I saw Jaffa was on 8 Dec. 1991. In the company of Mohamed Ma'ri, then a member of the Knesset, I inspected every street, alleyway, school and market. Though Jaffa is my city, I could not help feeling that the life that runs through its veins today is a very different life from the one that I had lived.
* Operation Chametz
Tiberias fell on 18 April, Haifa on the 23rd; then it was the turn of Jaffa, a city which was not included in the UN partition plan as part of the would-be State of Israel. Between 23 April and 13 May, the people of Jaffa fought desperately to save their town from the land grab of Plan Dalet and Operation Chametz to take over the city. Chametz means yeast in Hebrew.
The Zionist offensive to occupy Jaffa, launched on 22 April 1948, coincided with the Jewish feast of Pesach (Passover). During the month preceding the Pesach, Jewish housewives are obliged to rid their households of any remnants of yeast (chametz) products. It was no coincidence, therefore, that the Haganah dubbed its drive to expel the Arab inhabitants of Jaffa "Operation Chametz". The codename signified exactly what the operation intended: an ethnic cleansing of the Arabs.
The Arab inhabitants of Jaffa numbered around 70,000. The Arab fighters trying to hold back the Jewish attack were 450 of the city's inhabitants, beside another 300 fighters from the Arab Liberation Army formed by the Arab League. Jaffa was in a most vulnerable position because of its proximity to Tel Aviv, where the largest Jewish population (170,000) was based. Tel Aviv was also the base for the Haganah's Kiryati Brigade, with its 3,000 fighters; 15 km south-east of Jaffa the Haganah's Givati brigade, with an equal number of fighters, was stationed. The Arabs fought desperately for 10 days, but on 3 May, the Arab commander in charge of the defence of the city, Michel Al-Issa, cabled to the Arab League Military Committee in Damascus: "There are no forces left to defend the city. All the inhabitants have already left. The British authorities advise that Jaffa is declared an open city." A few days later, there were only 500 Arabs left in Jaffa.
** The writer is Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, Evanston, and Professor of International Studies at Birzeit University. An expanded Arabic version of this article appeared in a special issue of the Ramallah-based periodical Al-Karmel commemorating 50 years of Arab dispossession.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.