Locked in Rage

Letter From an Israeli Town Under Siege

JAFFA, ISRAELNo 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."

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 areafraid. 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."

Abou El Afia is the "don" of Jaffa; his stores are institutions. People swear his bread is the best in the country, and horns are always honking outside his stores because of the people who double or even triple park to rush in and buy. He closes on Yom Kippur, "out of respect for my Jewish friends," and shuts his doors during Passover to respect those who can't eat bread. Everyone loves him. But now that there are problems, he's the first to be boycotted.

"I feel awful, I really feel awful," said Ilana Goor, an Israeli artist who made it big in the United States with her iron furniture designs before coming home. Her museum/house in Potemkin Village called Old Jaffa is the number-one tourist attraction in the area, and every visiting head of state pays a visit. There aren't any crowds there today.

"People don't come to Jaffa because they want to punish the Arabs," Goor said. "They haven't come for two weeks. Because of the few that were animals, the rest have to suffer. But we Jews have animals too—we aren't so great either."

The rumors about both the burned synagogue, which sparked rioting by Jews, and the destroyed mosque, which pulled Arabs into the streets, turn out to be untrue, though police say there were attempts on both. Goor is not amused. "Television feeds people with what they want—hysteria," she said. "They make it worse. I love Jaffa and I'm sick about what's happening."

Elan Pivco, Israel's premier architect, feels the same way. "There is a sweetness to life in Jaffa," said Pivco, who has lived in the neighborhood for 16 years. "Here, you get a sense of a real place, a real town with strata of history. There are so many good things like the sea, the beauty, the mixture of living near a big city but still living in a village. It's not hectic like Tel Aviv, but it's only seven minutes from the center of Tel Aviv. And there are old stones—these things make it full of magic," he said.

Pivco specializes in Jaffa, restoring lovely buildings to their former grandeur and blending his new projects into the prevailing style. He is credited with making Jaffa in with the in crowd. "Living in Jaffa is more than pleasant," Pivco said. "It is the only place in Tel Aviv that you have demographic variety—Christians, Jews, Muslims. There is more depth to life, more quality. It is more aesthetic than Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv has no cosmopolitan side. Jaffa is more Middle Eastern, more Mediterranean, both things that I cherish.

"The trouble was started by a few young hoodlums who don't really represent the mood of the Arab community," Pivco said. "It was blown out of proportion. A lot of rumors were going about. It was just one or two riots by hoodlums. It will take a while, but it will go slowly back to what it was."

He might be right. When the pollsters asked Jaffa residents about the future, 54 percent of the Jews and 83 percent of the Arabs said we would soon be back to peaceful coexistence. But 61 percent of the Arab population felt that the behavior of Jaffa Arabs during the crisis was justified. Questioned about the cause of the initial violence, 39 percent pointed to Sharon's visit to the mosque and 7 percent cited feelings of discrimination.

"There isdiscrimination," said Hassan Abou Kaoud, 34, who has lived in Jaffa since he was born. "We feel discriminated against—not so much socially as economically. If I apply for a job, I believe that 99 percent because of my name, I will not be accepted. This makes me feel very bad. They look at us as if we are a low-level group. I have to work twice as hard as Jewish people do to prove that I am . . . normal, let me put it that way. I always have to be tested to prove myself."

Michael Roee, vice mayor of Tel Aviv Jaffa, has lived in Jaffa since 1993 and is an ardent campaigner against such discrimination. "I bought my house in the last year that it was possible to buy here at normal prices," Roee said. "In 1995, when all the renovation started, prices became prohibitive. No one with a normal salary can afford to buy here now."

And that is one of the simmering problems. As wealthy Jews and Arabs have bought up the sea-view land, prices have skyrocketed, and the poor Arabs of Jaffa can no longer afford to buy or build apartments for their children.

Roee ticked off a list of things that have caused the Arabs of Jaffa to feel discriminated against. For decades, the government failed to invest in overcrowded, understaffed Arab schools or in Jaffa's infrastructure. Planning in Jaffa was put on hold and people were not given permits to build. The neighborhood began to look like a crumbling wasteland.

While the citizens of North Tel Aviv scored 95 points out of 100 on the government's scale of socioeconomic well-being, Jaffa's rated 4. "Combine all these factors," Roee said, "and you have a ticking bomb."

There have been dramatic changes in government policy over the last seven years, Roee contends. There has been significant investment in schools and parks, and people are now allowed to build and renovate their houses. "We are in the process of building 400 apartments for young people from the Arab community who can't afford to buy here," Roee said. The new units will resolve one of the biggest frustrations. But the frustration that has built up over 50 years doesn't go away in seven.

Most of my neighbors think it will take a while, but Jaffa will go slowly back to what it was. We are all being kinder to each other now and going out of our way to try to heal things. We might be right. When the pollsters asked Jaffa residents about the future, 54 percent of the Jews and 83 percent of the Arabs said we would soon be back to peaceful coexistence.

Inshallah.

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