By Joharah Baker – Jerusalem
Jaffa. The word itself conjures up images of warmth, comfort, beautiful sandy beaches and miles of blue-green sea and the smell of oranges mingled with the misty sea breeze. These are the sights and smells I always look forward to whenever I visit Jaffa, the beautiful city by the Mediterranean.
Yesterday, my family and I made our first trip this summer to Jaffa’s shores. The ride from Jerusalem is about an hour, with long stretches of highway along beautiful green and brown plains. Amazing how no matter the number of times I have made this trip, I still get the same sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is not just me. The rest of my family expressed the same sentiments – appreciation for the beauty of this country and sadness over its loss.
Jaffa, like all other Palestinian cities, towns and villages, fell to Jewish gangs and Israeli troops in the war of 1948. The majority of its Palestinian residents, under the bombardment and fighting and in fear of the massacres that had already swept the country, fled their homes for what they believed would be a few days. It has been 61 years since then.
Hence, no Palestinian can make the trip to Jaffa without remembering its history along with the overall history of Palestine. As we looked out the window at the rolling hills and the patchwork of brown, green and beige plains, our hearts filled with sadness. To us, this was Palestine, in all its grandeur.
Once we reached the beach, the feeling only got stronger. "These are the best parts of Palestine, and they are still not satisfied," was one comment. "All of this, and still, they want more, in Jerusalem, in more settlements in the West Bank. When will it stop?"
It is comments like these that make me realize just how complicated this conflict really is. Yes, the Palestinian leadership and people at large are resigned to the fact that should a Palestinian state be established it will be on 22 percent of its historical land. I have no doubt in my mind that should an independent and sovereign state be founded in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine could live in complete peace and security. However, having said this, it is also unrealistic to believe that even though a political settlement is reached, the emotional wounds would automatically heal. Places like Jaffa, or Haifa, Lod or Ramleh all bear these scars, harboring the pain of a people who are no longer there but who refuse to erase their memories all the same.
The Arab character of Jaffa is unmistakable regardless of the Israeli mask that shrouds it. The old Jaffa Sea Mosque overlooks the Mediterranean, with its stone structure and character minaret. Throughout the streets of the city, archaic Arab houses and buildings give evidence to a time before the invasion of characterless urban architecture or large blue and white Israeli flags hanging from Palestinian terraces. There are houses that have remained nearly untouched, weeds stubbornly growing out of the cracks and windows still protected by old iron bars. The only difference is that now, the inhabitants are not dressed in long Palestinian dresses, nor does the smell of freshly stone-baked bread waft out from the windows. Instead Israeli Jews, most likely from Europe, the US or the former USSR have settled here, indifferent to the original story it tells, to the people who still hold its key and dream of its orange trees.
Because of these stories, which are both individual and collective and have preoccupied the minds of the Palestinians for decades, each year on the same day Palestinians remember the catastrophe that befell them. May 15 marks Al Nakba commemoration day, when we recall the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were massacred or became refugees literally overnight. For us, this is not a celebration of Israel’s independence. It is a day of mourning and of remembrance. In demonstrations and marches throughout the West Bank, Gaza, inside Israel and refugee camps abroad, Palestinians took to the streets to protest the ongoing injustice of exile, which Israel refuses to recognize. Some of the most heartfelt images were those of children, descendants of refugees, who carried placards with the names of their original villages proudly above their heads. These are children who grew up in refugee camps and were weaned on the stories of their parents or grandparents whose villages were either destroyed or re-inhabited by Jewish newcomers. Most have never even set foot inside the Green Line, have never seen Jaffa’s seashore or the old houses where their grandparents once lived. Still, they can recount the stories of their ancestors’ exile word for word.
In the midst of this ongoing tragedy and the constantly changing political perimeters, the memory of our exile and the loss of our land are indelible in our minds. It is my suspicion that this is one of Israel’s biggest fears. As long as there are those who remind the world of how Israel was created and at whose expense, it can never fully gain recognition as a democratic and free country.
Evidence of this is the newest bill being proposed in the Knesset, which has received preliminary approval. The proposal, first brought forth by none other than Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and MK Alex Miller, seeks to ban and criminalize any commemoration of Al Nakba, with a punishment of up to three years imprisonment. According to Lieberman, the Palestinian-Israelis who commemorate the tragedy and loss of their own villages in the 1948 War is "incitement" against Israel and should be punished accordingly.
What Israel does not realize is that they cannot imprison hearts and minds. I am not a refugee. I do not have stories of my grandparents carrying their personal belongings on their backs for miles. Nonetheless, the sign marked "Castel" on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway always pulls at my heartstrings and a pang of sorrow rushes through my veins. One of Palestine’s most heroic leaders, Abdul Qader Husseini, fought valiantly in the Battle of Al Qastal (Castel) in 1948 and was killed there defending Jerusalem. And still, when I see Israeli flags over homes that are clearly Palestinian on the streets of Jaffa, this beloved city, I too cringe and then make a promise to myself never to forget.
– Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org).