From Jaffa to Balata: Searching For The Displaced.

In Blog, History, Politicsby Reuben3 Comments


Tel-Aviv is now a thriving, wealthy, European city as far divorced as any in Israel from the occupation. Our reporter goes in search of those displaced from its bohemian glamour.

Getting across the sheer scale of what is happening in Israel-Palestine can be a daunting task for a journalist writing to western audiences.

The media narrative about the conflict in the west paints it as a war between equals, in which both sides are to blame and resolution is frustrated by their mutual intractability. For example, yesterday’s announcement by Israel that it was to steal Palestinian taxes was described by the BBC as “the latest in a series of steps by both sides which have strained US-led peace-making efforts.”

But even brief exposure to the society it claims to describe causes this narrative to evaporate.

On my first night in Israel I stayed to the north of Tel-Aviv in Jaffa, a historic port city which traces its roots back 10,000 years. During the British Mandate it was the largest city in historic Palestine with a population of 80,000. It was the cultural and economic heart of the region, home to significant Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations. To its south at the time was the relatively new city of Tel-Aviv, founded in 1909 on the basis of Zionist settlements which had been developing since the 1880s.

The communities co-existed (if tensely) during the expansion of Jewish settlers in the early decades of the twentieth century before being pushed into open conflict by the influx of the fifth aliyah, which coincided with the Nazis coming to power in Europe in the 1930s.


By 1945 Jaffa had a population of around 100,000: 70,000 Palestinians and 30,000 Jews. This demographic balance was reflected in the 1947 UN Partition Plan which allocated it to be part of the Arab state. But as Palestinian dissatisfaction with the lines of partition escalated in the middle of that year civil war broke out in Tel-Aviv and Jaffa, eventually resulting in the latter being besieged by the Haganah and Irgun Jewish paramilitaries.

What followed is one of the defining stories of the Palestinian Nakba – when 80% of the Arab population of what became Israel were ethnically-cleansed. The violence and hardship of the siege in Jaffa forced 66,000 Palestinians to flee, leaving only 4,000 to live in the impoverished al-Ajami neighbourhood. The new Jewish majority in Jaffa, many remembering their experiences in Nazi-occupied Europe, came to refer to Ajami as “the ghetto”.

Following this the city of Jaffa was subsumed into Tel-Aviv as Yafo. Its old Arab neighborhoods were mostly destroyed, with the few that remained passed into Jewish hands. Official Israeli state policy was to deny the Arab heritage of the city, and this was reflected in the curriculum taught in its schools. The remaining Palestinian population went from being a sizeable majority in their heartland in the 1920s to a 2% disenfranchised minority in the largest city in Israel three decades later.

But this is not the story today’s Jaffa tells about itself. A tourist attraction that serves as historic inflection to the vibrant, bohemian Tel-Aviv, its Arab history has been almost completely whitewashed as part of the state’s Judaisation policy. The last of the indigenous live in deprived Palestinian neighbourhoods surrounding the old city – 20,000 people suffering from unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and regular evictions.


Official history of Jaffa on display in the city.

I walked around the old city on my first day to try to soak up some of the immense history of the place. But within an hour I gave up. What remains is not a historical site befitting one of the world’s greatest and oldest cities but a monument to colonialism: the memorial to Jewish pioneers which stated that without them there could never have been a Yafo; the municipal authority’s detailed display on the history of the area, dating back thousands of years but omitting Arabs and mentioning their ethnic cleansing only as a “liberation”; the beautiful clocktower, built under the Ottomans at the entrance to the old city, which carried a plaque proclaiming it as a memorial to the “heroes who fell in the battle to liberate Yafo”.

Soon after I met some of the people Jaffa was “liberated” from almost seventy years ago. Just days before I, a western visitor, had stayed in the place they called home but they had been unable to return to its streets for generations. Instead they lived in Balata and Askar refugee camps. In the former, 27,000 refugees live in 0.25 square kilometres, in the latter 18,000 in 1 square kilometre. The conditions are dreadful. One of my abiding memories from this trip will be stepping over a dead rat to enter the residences in Balata.

The nineteen refugee camps in the West Bank have unemployment rates over 50%, with youth unemployment far in excess of this. There is little to no police presence, even in the small Area A where the Palestinian Authority have policing rights. Without a state to represent them the residents are denied reliable access to basic services. The Israelis control birth certificates, identifications, business and export licences. Drug abuse and crime are serious problems, as are health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. Houses were built and expanded sporadically without regulation as the makeshift camp became permanent. Many reach five storeys in tenement-like conditions and are a serious fire risk. Schools and medical centres are hopelessly overburdened.


Abbas Mustafa, who was born in the outskirts of Jaffa.

I spoke to 66-year-old Khalid Ada Ahmed Rawyyal about life in Balata camp, where he has lived for 48 years.

“It is hard here. I was injured twelve years ago and could not get healed because I lived in the camps. I find it hard to move now and have high blood pressure. I had to stop working with eight children. I was once a house painter but since it has been very difficult, and it is getting more difficult in recent years.”

Abbas Mustafa was born in the villages around Jaffa and is 83, so he was a teenager during the Nakba. He says the local population were told that Jewish paramilitaries were murdering Arabs and after violence hit the area they fled in fear for their lives. He says Balata today is a “sad place”.

“We don’t own anything here. This can’t be a [good] situation… When the children are young they dream about Jaffa but they have never known another life, I don’t know that they have the same desire to return.”

The UNRWA provide aid which barely keeps the camps at a level above catastrophe. Its mission leader in the Balata camp told me the organisation was in financial crisis but there would be a “disaster” if ever this aid was to stop. UNRWA have no power to stop many other disasters – such as when the Israeli military enter places like Balata and Askar on a regular basis to take teenage boys to be interned in prisons the other side of the green line. They often remain there for years.

It says much about just how much is tolerated here that the right of return for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank is considered “off the table” in the peace talks. Israel can instead focus on denying the existence and rights of displaced populations internationally.


Primary school children at the girls’ school in Balata refugee camp.

Back where these people once lived the Arab residents’ Popular Committee in Jaffa has documented more than 500 eviction notices served to Palestinians in the city in recent years. Predictably, the Tel Aviv municipal authorities are more concerned with encouraging the remaining Palestinians to leave than allowing the many thousands who were ethnically-cleansed to return.

Juxtaposing Tel-Aviv/Yafo with camps like Balata crystallised the nature of this conflict for me. It is neither two states at war, a simple ethnic conflict nor, at its essence, a centuries’ old religious dispute. And the problem cannot be limited to settlers and the occupation. The relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians is rather simpler and more familiar: one between colonists and colonised, from the river to the sea.

I will return to Jaffa to stay on my final night. A white western visitor walking the streets with the ghosts of Palestinian grandparents, while children like those pictured above continue to live and die in poverty in Balata and Askar refugee camps – with no homes, no state and just about no rights. Ruled by those who dispossessed them, their existence subject to total control.

It is not possible to convey the sheer scale of injustice Israeli colonialism is imposing here in a single article. The occupation in the West Bank, the dispossession in east Jerusalem, the blockade in Gaza, the apartheid inside the green line. Really you need to see it. The story of Jaffa’s Palestinians isn’t theirs alone. They are a small chapter in a great tragedy.


  1. Great piece. Would love to hear more. Not easy to write and travel at same time. Would love to visit there.

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