Waiting it out in Jaffa

Jews and Arabs in the mixed town eager for the security situation to return to normal so they can get back to the business of making a living.

A woman takes cover as an air-raid siren sounds in Jaffa. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman takes cover as an air-raid siren sounds in Jaffa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Barely an hour had gone by since the last rocket sirens and subsequent explosions were heard in Jaffa. The few people milling around the Old City and its trademark clock tower – tourists and locals undeterred by the tense security situation – could hear the muezzin from the nearby mosque calling Muslims to prayer. Commerce seemed to proceed as usual.
Surfers in their flip-flops returned from the beach. A kind of surreal normalcy seemed to set in.
Sharon, a Jewish resident of the mixed neighborhood of Ajami, waits for a bus near a small park known as Gaza Garden. He hardly seems perturbed.
For outsiders who may be hesitant to enter Jaffa in light of the latest developments in the South, Sharon’s message is simple: “Chill out.”
“Just a few minutes ago, we were all in the bomb shelter smoking nargilas,” he says. “Things here are normal.
There’s no need to be worried.”
It is as if the notorious Tel Aviv bubble, which Israelis derisively invoke as if to chastise residents of the city for being hopelessly out of touch with the complex realities and hardships of everyday life, has extended to Jaffa, a town where locals seem immune to the mayhem that has gripped the country.
On the other end of Yefet Street, the three-kilometer strip that links Jaffa with Bat Yam, Sami Abu Shhadeh takes stock of the situation. No stranger to local and regional politics, he settles down at his desk in his nondescript office that serves as the Jaffa branch of the Balad Party.
As the party’s secretary-general, Shhadeh is well versed in the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While earning a doctorate from Tel Aviv University, he researched the modern history of Jaffa. For 20 years he has been active in social and political causes in Jaffa while representing the community on the Tel Aviv city council.
“Jaffa is one of the few examples of a city in Israel that is considered mixed,” he says. “It’s unique in that both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict live in the same physical vicinity; not just in the same neighborhood, but in many cases in the same building. People live across the hall from each other, next door to each other. These are two sides of the conflict living side by side, not as a metaphor.
This is how it really is. So when you have a situation like you do now, with this war in Gaza, it means that my neighbor is bombing my nation.
This is part of the daily routine,” he says.
Shhadeh’s office could be mistaken for a makeshift memorabilia hall paying tribute to Palestinian nationalism.
Banners and pennants bearing the Palestinian flag hang on the walls.
A bumper sticker bearing the image of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser is affixed to a window, with an Arab nationalist slogan underneath.
In line with Balad’s platform, Shhadeh leaves no doubt as to who he deems responsible for the latest crisis.
What many Israeli Jews may not be aware of, though, is the local twist to this saga.
“In the case of Jaffa, there are added layers of complexity to this story because of the 1948 war,” he says. “Jaffa was the largest Palestinian city during the British Mandate period. It’s hard to grasp this today, but the population of Jaffa at one point was 120,000.
After the war, of those 120,000 there remained just 3,900. Where did all those people disappear to? Their expulsion took place in a number of stages, but most of them were expelled by sea by way of Jaffa Port. So whoever sailed northward eventually ended up in Lebanon, and whoever sailed southward ended up in Gaza,” he says. “Whoever bothers to take an interest in the [Gaza] refugee camps of Shata and Jabaliya will realize that there are more Jaffans there than in Jaffa itself.”
The familial element and blood ties shared between Jaffans and Gazans place the locals here in a bit of a quandary.
While their nationalist sentiments and ethnic kinship with their brethren in the South arouse anger over the Israeli bombardment, they limit their expressions of solidarity to verbal and symbolic acts of protest.
Indeed, the law-abiding population here must grapple with a more immediate danger – the economic downturn that has resulted from the fact that Jews and tourists are less likely to venture far from their homes while sirens continue to sound.
SHHADEH SAYS that many locals keep in touch with their Gaza relatives via telephone and the Internet.
“What’s happening in Tel Aviv is child’s play compared to what the people in Gaza are facing,” says Nader Hanania, a lifelong Jaffa resident. “I remember when an F-15 mistakenly flew low over Tel Aviv and Jaffa, how scary that was,” he says. “People complained then. In Gaza, it’s routine.
I’ve talked to people whose children wet their pants constantly out of fear.
They’d start crying when the faucet was turned on because they mistook it for a bomb.”
Hanania says that he is in touch with friends and relatives in the Gaza Strip, though during this round of fighting there has not been any bombardment near their homes.
He and his siblings are co-managers of a family-owned business called Anton Hanania Tires. On a normal day, long lines of cars wait outside the garage on Yefet Street waiting to have their tires fixed. That has not been the case in the six days of renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas.
“We’ve had 70 percent less business since the operation started,” Hanania says. “It’s difficult to deal with, and we are trying to cope. I believe it’s all going to end very soon. We have no choice but to continue. We’re doing our best not to fire workers, but we are sure that this is going to sort itself out in the near future.”
Anton Hanania founded the establishment well before the State of Israel came into being. He then bequeathed it to his six children, who have been managing the business that has become a fixture in the community ever since. While the latest flare-up in violence has not translated into communal tensions between Jews and Arabs, it is difficult to completely ignore the extraordinary circumstances that have taken hold.
“There are no tensions whatsoever, but there is uncertainty, and that’s the most difficult part,” Hanania says. “How will it end? When will it end? Once the missiles started to reach Tel Aviv, we felt it immediately from a business standpoint. I received a phone call a couple of days ago from one of our longtime Jewish customers who owns a taxi that services tourists who fly into Ben-Gurion Airport,” he recounts. “He told me it was completely quiet. He needed to change three tires but said he didn’t have the money right now because of the situation.
This war is impacting everyone here,” he says.
“When I went to a restaurant in Tel Aviv the other day, I got a table right away,” Hanania continues. “That would almost never happen. Even Tel Aviv is empty these days.”
Jaffa residents seem eager to put the latest bout of unrest behind them.
The conversations in the humous joints and coffee shops near the Old City seem to touch more on the World Cup soccer tournament and Ramadan than on politics. And that’s just fine with Tareq Dakkeh.
A mechanic who runs an auto shop in south Tel Aviv tailored specifically to BMWs, Dakkeh can’t wait for the warring parties to get their hostilities over with. A jovial man who stands out because of his red hair, Dakkeh jokes, “I’m an Ashkenazi Muslim.”
“This is all the fault of the politicians in the Knesset,” he says. “We just want to support ourselves. We want to live our normal lives. We have no problems with the Jews. On the contrary, I have Jews working for me, and my best customers are Jews.
It’s time to end this and move on so that we can prosper economically together.”
Dakkeh says that he has cousins in the Gaza Strip but that politics is a distant second to what really concerns them – the everyday challenge of putting food on the table.
“We have our problems, and they have theirs,” he says.