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Until Return - Issue 4

Yafa up to 1948
by Nader Abuljebain
Al-Awda, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition
February 25, 2008

Yafa (Jaffa) was in 1948, the biggest Arab city in Palestine with a population of about 100,000.  Yafa was a major cultural, political and economical center.  Yafa had many cultural and political clubs, societies, organizations, hospitals, schools and banks.  Many newspapers and magazines were published in the city.  Yafa had many historical churches and mosques, in addition to other significant historical sites.

Yafa’s beauty and location had inspired many poets and artists to draw magnificent paintings and recite wonderful poems.  Its cultural and economic importance has lead politicians to reside in it and economists to work in it.

Naming the city

Yafa ---is considered one of the oldest Palestinian cities that the Arab Canaanites founded 5000 years ago (3000 B.C.).  The city had kept its Arab Canaanite name “Yafi”, which means the beautiful or the beautiful site, through the different ages since it was one of the most beautiful Palestinian cities on the Mediterranean.  Yafa, the name was slightly modified during the Pharaonic, Greek and Roman occupations to “Joppa” or “Yoppa.”  All the different expressions mean Beauty, which is what the city was famous for.

Yafa’s Geography:

The old city of Yafa is located on a ---hill about 100 ft. above sea level in a distinguished location as a natural port in the middle of the Palestinian Coast.  Through its natural port, Yafa used to harbour ships since the old ages.  Yafa became the main sea entrance to Palestine, overlooking the Palestinian fertile coastal plateau, that is famous for its orange groves.

Yafa’s History:

Our Arab Canaanite grandfathers founded the city in 3000 B.C. as a small town.  They protected it with stonewalls as was typical of Arab Canaanite cities at that time.  The Pharaohs conquered the city in the second millennium B.C., under the leadership of King Tuhutmos III.  The Pharaohs were followed by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Phoenicians.  The Philistines, who came from the Aegean Sea, were able to control the city and most of the Palestinian coast about 1300 B.C., when they settled and mixed with the original Arab Canaanite inhabitants for a long period of time.

About 1100 B.C. Palestine was conquered by the Hebrews who came through the Jordan River and Jericho.  However, there is no evidence that Yafa ever surrendered to Hebrew rule.  Yafa remained within its walls around 332 B.C.  It had its Greek Hellenic flavour, and prospered extensively due to its internal and external commercial ties.  During the Greek rule Yafa housed the Mint factory for the Greek currency that was used in Palestine.

Yafa came under the Roman rule in 63 B.C. and was exposed to a lot of destructions and sometimes burnings due to the wars and disputes.  When the Romans crowned Herod as the King of Palestine in 37 B.C. Cleopatra challenged him and asked Antonios to annex all of Palestine to her kingdom.  She was successful in annexing only the Palestinian Coast including Yafa.  After the diminishing of her rule, Yafa came back under the rule of Herod of the Roman Empire in the sixth year B.C.

With the prevailing of Jesus Christ, many people in Yafa became Christians when Peter the Episcopal visited.  At the same time, the Roman leader of the garrison in Caesarea, north of Yafa became Christian.  In the third century Yafa became a Roman city and later on a Byzantine city by the end of the Fourth century.     

In 636 the Byzantine army under the leadership of Hercules was defeated in Al Yarmouk battle by the Moslem Arabs armies.  In the same year the Moslem Arabs restored the city of Yafa under the leadership of Amr Ibn Al Aas and the city maintained its importance as the main port of Palestine.  In 891 the city was visited by Al Yaqoubi, a famous Arab geographic historian.  He described the city as the main commercial city of Palestine and the port for Al Ramleh, the main city of Palestine at that time.  In 970 the city was visited by another historian, Al Maqdisi, who described Yafa as a small city, protected by forceful walls, with iron gates from the seaside, a beautiful mosque overlooking the sea and a great port.

Yafa flourished during the Islamic rule, especially at the Umayyad and Tolonide eras.  When fighting was very fierce among the Abbaside, Fatimide and Tolonide rulers, the Crusaders were able to occupy Palestine in general and the city in particular for two centuries.  During this period of competing rulers and reigns, Yafa suffered from destruction and demolition until the Crusaders were finally defeated completely and expelled from the land in 1268 by the Memluk leader Beiburs.

Life in Yafa improved and flourished and its trade expanded for a while, but that did not last long.  In 1516 the Ottoman Turks occupied the city and in 1675 Yafa had a construction boom when many important buildings were erected.  In 1740 a big harbour sidewalk was built and two main churches were built for the Armenians and the Greeks, which were hosting pilgrims.  These churches still exist until now with their beautiful scenic views overlooking the Mediterranean.

In 1779 the walls of Yafa were destroyed by Napoleon Bonaparte who occupied the city with his troops in March of that year.  They killed all five thousand garrisons in the notorious Jaffa massacre.  These French soldiers then used the cold steel to save their ammunition under the orders of their felon commander Napoleon.  This Napoleon had once described Jaffa as “an oases detached from paradise.”

Between1810-1820 Yafa experienced growth under the Ottoman ruler Abu Nabout.  Its golden age was to come with the building of the main surrounding wall, many municipal buildings, roads and a rest area on the route to Jerusalem, known today as Sbeel Abu Nabout.

Between 1831and 1840 Yafa became (without any struggle) under the rule of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali the ruler of Egypt.  When he withdrew, Palestine came back under the Turkish rule.  In 1866 the first Post Office was opened in Yafa.  In 1878 Petah Tikva, the first Zionist agricultural colony (settlement), was established by illegally occupying the lands of the Arab Palestinian village of Milabes, near Yafa.  This was a first in a long chain of land confiscation and building of colonies which continue until today.  1879 became a milestone in the progress of Yafa, when the surrounding wall was demolished and the city expanded to the North and the South.  In 1892 the first railroad in Palestine was established and it connected Yafa and Jerusalem.  Tel Aviv was founded north of Yafa in 1909.

In 1914, Hassan Beik, a new governor was appointed to Yafa and the city was planed to include many of the new quarters and districts that existed until 1948.  It stayed under the Turkish Ottoman rule until the Arabs revolted and fought along side the Allies in 1916, due to a pledge of full independence.  The Sykes - Picot Agreement, signed between Britain and France on May 16th in 1916 (and revealed by the Bolsheviks in Dec. 1917) replaced independence with colonization.  This agreement divided the booty between Britain and France and led to the subsequent creation of the Zionist State in Palestine.  In 1917 Balfour, the British Secretary of State, pledged British support for a "Jewish national home in Palestine" in the Balfour Declaration, on November 2nd.  At the end of World War I in 1918, Palestine and Yafa were occupied by the Allies under British General Allenby.  British military occupation was not accepted in Palestine and Palestinians in Yafa formed the Muslim-Christian Committee, which was replicated in the rest of the Palestinian Cities. General conferences among those committees were developed later on into Palestinian National Congresses.

In 1920, after the decision of San Remo Peace Conference in April, the British civilian administration got inaugurated, with the main condition of implementing the Balfour Declaration.  In order to enforce the mandate, and its obligation to establish the Jewish national home, Sir Herbert Samuel (an English-Jewish Zionist politician) was appointed as the first high commissioner, and came to Palestine through the port of Yafa in June of that year.  In 1921 in opposition to the British occupation, large demonstrations started in Yafa and led to clashes between the Arabs and the Zionists in city and its surrounding villages.  In 1923, the Sixth Palestinian National Congress met in Yafa and decided to send another (Third) Palestinian delegation to London.  In 1929 a large demonstration was held by the Zionists in support of the Zionist position at the wall of Al Buraq.  The incident started bloody confrontations between the demonstrators and the residents of Yafa.   

In January 1932 the first conference for the Palestinian Youth was held in Yafa.  The outcome of that conference was the establishment of an organization calling for resisting the occupation and Zionism and for the full independence of Palestine within a unified Arab state.  The Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe lead to a surge in the number of Jewish immigrants into Palestine in 1933.  This led to further confrontations and a calling for the boycott of British and Jewish products and a major demonstration held in Yafa.  Large quantities of arms were discovered at Yafa’s port in 1935 being smuggled from Belgium by Zionist groups.  The great Palestinian Revolution and the famous 6 months strike begins in Yafa in 1936 when the British escalated oppressive measures and large parts of the Old City of Yafa were demolished.  In 1937 the British established military courts in Yafa and throughout Palestine to counter escalating rebellion.

In 1939 the Association of Arab Students was formed in Yafa and soon thereafter many branches were formed in different Palestinian cities.  It organized the students, started holding regular organized meeting and published a political newspaper, Al Ghad (Tomorrow).  Al Ghad addressed current issues from an activist grassroots perspective.
In 1942, the Stern Gang (A small group of Zionist extremists) committed a series of politically motivated murders and robberies in Tel Aviv area.  Palestinian Arabs all over went on strike in protest against British decision to allow Zionist mass immigration to continue at the rate of the 1939 quota.

In the spring of 1944 the board of the Islamic Sports Club of Yafa took the decision to establish a youth organization that was called Al Najada as the sister organization to the one in Lebanon.  Al Najada started organizing youth and training them militarily.  Many of its members became fighters in the battle of Yafa in April-May 1948.

The fall of Yafa

After the UN partition plan was declared on 29 November 1947, the Zionists started attacking Palestinian cities and villages.  Two notorious massacres were in Al Abbasiah and Salameh near Yafa.  The British troops were in noticeable collaboration with the Zionist gangs as they were giving them arms in different ways.  During the past revolts the Palestinian Arab who was caught with a knife was jailed and the one with a bullet was to be hung.  Yafa was surrounded by Zionists from all sides, except the sea.  For instance, the Zionists were colonizing in the east of the city; in the north there was the city of Tel Aviv as well as other colonies; and in the south was the colony of Beit Yam.  In other words, Yafa was destined to fall, from a military point of view in the hands of the Zionists who were well prepared and equipped.  So, Yafa fell in the end despite all the defensive efforts and military actions against the Zionists.  The day witnessing the fall of Yafa was April 28th 1948.  During those days, a national committee for the city was formed; it is worth mentioning that later on, the Emergency Committee handed over the city of Yafa to the gangs of Hagana.

The famous Palestinian Historian Aref Al Aref said, “With the fall of Yafa, the Arabs had lost one of their oldest cities, one the most fertile, and one of the richest cities financially, culturally, and habitually; and if it only had its oranges and its port that beautifies the Mediterranean, it would have been enough honour” (“Al Nakba” Modern Press-1956 Sidon, Lebanon).


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