Locked in Rage

Letter From an Israeli Town Under Siege

 JAFFA, ISRAEL—No one comes to Jaffa anymore. The narrow streets of this 4000-year-old port city on Tel Aviv's southern tip are nearly empty of traffic. Restaurants are shuttered at sunset. Even the normally jammed sidewalks in front of AbouElAfia's pita and bagel store are empty.

Most people know Jaffa from those little stickers on oranges. There aren't orange groves in Jaffa anymore, but I always bring them up when people ask where I live. I moved to Jaffa four years ago, leaving my job as spokesperson for the secretary general of the United Nations. It wasn't a hard move. I had fallen in love with the arches and minarets of Jaffa. I adored the exotic spicy smells, the colorful stone houses, the cobbled streets, and the walks along the cliffs above the sea. There are no supermarkets in Jaffa, and part of its charm is strolling along Yefet Street to shop at the family-owned stores—there's everything from butchers to shoemakers.

The day a police barricade barred access to the southern part of Yefet, reality hit home. "No one can pass," the policewoman said. "There is big trouble. They are stoning everything that moves."

Local merchants in a Jaffa market
photo: Staci Schwartz
Local merchants in a Jaffa market

Jaffa is a microcosm of Jewish/Arab coexistence in Israel—or what coexistence could be. There are other Israeli towns shared by Jews and Arabs, but in Jaffa we live on the same streets, baby-sit each other's children, drink coffee and swap recipes in each other's kitchens. I know all my neighbors for blocks around.

Fifty years ago, everything was clear between Arabs and Jews in Israel—they were enemies and they hated each other. Slowly and with lingering suspicion came a semblance of trust between the two groups. Confidence and even friendships developed. In a matter of a few hours, that had been shattered.

When the police barricade was lifted, I headed straight for Mohammed Halaf's fruit and vegetable store. I needed onions.

Mohammed's shop is upscale by Jaffa standards; sort of what Balducci's once was to Greenwich Village. He gazed at his fruit, precariously piled in a colorful sidewalk display, with a look of disgust and resignation. "It's all turning to garbage," he said of the produce. "People used to come from all over to buy here. Now they are afraid. You are my first customer of the day."

It was 5 p.m. I heaped mangoes, nectarines, pomegranates, asparagus, and mushrooms on the counter. I didn't need any of it.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Mohammed. "So many rumors. First rumors that a synagogue is burned and then rumors that a mosque is burning. The trust between Jews and Arabs is lost. But people shouldn't fear to come to Jaffa."

Yet people are afraid. Shortly after the riots, a top Israeli firm polled the 53,000 Jews and 19,000 Arabs who live in Jaffa. Forty-five percent of Jaffa Jews worried about being attacked by their Arab neighbors, while 47 percent of the Arabs feared assaults by the Jews.

A month ago, if you asked a Jaffa neighbor "Ma nishma?" or "How's it going?" you invariably got "OK" or one of the "in" Arabic expressions like "Alakefac," which means, "I'm having fun!" Today, the response from Arab and Jew alike is "Sad, I'm so sad."

The euphoria of imminent peace that had gripped the country for months has been shattered. Now people talk about "lost hope."

Ariel Sharon's visit to the Al Aqsa mosque to prove that Jews have the right to go to the Temple Mount put the spark to 50 years of simmering bitterness both among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. The riots were pretty tame, but the fact that they happened in Jaffa was a shocker.

In the Jaffa poll, only 13 percent of the Jews said they hated their Arab neighbors. Of the Arabs, a tiny 4 percent declared hatred toward the Jews. Both numbers are too high for Hassan Abou Kaoud, the best math teacher in Jaffa. "With what's happening in Jaffa nowadays," he said, "I can see the hatred of Jews toward us Israeli Arabs. It makes me angry. Many Jewish people are not coming into Jaffa like they used to. It is hard for me to go to sit in Tel Aviv cafés or to the mall and speak Arabic. I would be afraid. I am afraid.

"I can't go to the Arab territories because I have a car with Israeli plates, but on the other hand, I can't go into Jewish communities. So we Israeli Arabs are in a bad situation. I feel closed, like in prison. I am worried for the future of my family. I have two sons, nine and four. I am thinking whether it is worthwhile staying here or looking for a different country. But maybe after all this chaos something good will come."

My phone doesn't stop ringing. The first calls are international. "Are you alive?" my family wants to know. I tell them I slept through the whole thing.

The neighbors wanted to chat. "What do you think?" "Did you see? They gutted the post office." "Now we have no bank, do you believe it? Why did they go after the neighborhood's last bank?" "I'm in shock, they stoned AbouElAfia's."

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