jaffa, historic city, preservation
Jaffa Under Ottoman Rule
Jaffa, history, historic city, preservation
Jaffa’s Slope Garden
Jaffa, history, historic city, town panning, historic preservation

Jaffa, from the British Mandate to Israeli independence, went through some tumultuous times. The main demolition works in the Old City in the twentieth century began in 1936. Through Operation Anchor, the British hoped to suppress the great Arab uprising that began in the city that year, in order to end the port workers’ strike, and ensure military access to the port. During the operation, 237 buildings in the Old City were demolished to clear the way to the port. At the end of this operation,  the British government’s urban planning consultant, H. Kendall asked Jerusalem architect A. Shor to draw up a master plan for the Old Jaffa area. The plan, approved in 1937, featured a large plaza and two roads on the site of the demolished buildings, dividing the new area into two smaller parts. The shape created by the extension and the new roads looks like an anchor and hence the name of this operation, “Operation Anchor”.

Operation Hametz and the Demolition of the Old City

According to the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, Jaffa was to be an independent and sovereign Palestinian enclave within the Jewish state. Following this decision, fierce fighting began between Jews and Arabs along the seam between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. During this fighting, many Jews who lived on the seam between Tel Aviv and the Manshiya neighborhood were forced to evacuate their homes, causing a humanitarian crisis.  In April 1948, the Irgun began an attack on Jaffa and Manshia, bombing the area and communicating threatening messages in Arabic. At that time, the Haganah launched  “Operation Hametz”, and there was fighting in Arab neighborhoods and Arab villages around Jaffa. These battles, which led to the conquest of the city on May 13, 1948, also brought about the destruction of entire neighborhoods; masses fled the city. Most of Jaffa’s Arab inhabitants left the city; historical documents indicate that 4000-5000 Arabs were left in Jaffa or even less.

In the city’s abandoned and dilapidated houses on the verge of collapse, which were not fit for habitation, new immigrants from the Balkans, mainly Bulgaria and North Africa were settled. Sanitary conditions were horrendous.  Jaffa did not have municipal services and its residents could not establish an organization that could provide such services. In October 1949, the Israeli government decided to annex Jaffa to Tel Aviv, and from that moment on, the Tel Aviv municipality was responsible for providing services to the residents of Jaffa as well.

Some buildings in Jaffa were demolished in 1949, presumably to prevent the return of Arab residents. Muslim Arabs were not allowed to enter the Old City; the new immigrants who were now living in the abandoned houses were expected to be evacuated in the future because the authorities thought the buildings were dangerous. In the winter of 1949 the roof of one of the buildings collapsed; there were dead and wounded. A special committee of four engineers was set up to inspect the buildings in the Old City and recommend which should be demolished. The committee concluded that the entire Old City should be demolished with the exception of some buildings which were deemed safe. In its decision, the committee considered the poor condition of the buildings, the possibility that they would attract squatters, the poor sanitary conditions, problems associated with clearing garbage from the narrow alleys, and the municipality’s desire to raise the standard of living in Jaffa so it would be comparable to that of Tel Aviv. 

There were two views on this issue:  the municipality wanted to demolish as many buildings as possible because for it this was the easiest way to take care of the old city area. However, Shmuel Yeivin, director of the Department of Antiquities, and Eliezer Brodchkis, director of the National Planning and Survey Division believed that the architectural and aesthetic value of these buildings should be preserved, as well as the antiquities on the site.  The speedy destruction of the Old City has led historians to believe that there were security considerations also, namely the fear that Jaffa would be attacked from the sea. The British “Operation Anchor” set a precedent. Others argue that the demolition of the Old City was driven by political considerations to prevent Arabs from returning to the city. Yeivin and Brodchkis obviously understood the political and security considerations; nevertheless, they believed that all of the houses should not be demolished and that demolition works should be done in such a way that there was minimal damage to adjacent buildings. 

Shmuel Yeivin, who later heard that buildings were being blown up in ​​Block 7037 (the Slope Park area), wrote a letter in September 1949 to the Custodian of Absentee Property, requesting that the destruction be stopped immediately. He presented two arguments: first, a  Mandatory Antiquities Ordinance from 1944, still in force, declared the Old City of Jaffa as a protected site. The second argument was that buildings with historical-cultural value should be protected like holy places. Yeivin suggested setting up a committee of stakeholders to look into the matter and decide what to destroy, how it should be destroyed, and what to preserve. The Custodian replied that the demand for demolition had come from the Tel Aviv municipality.

The Preservation of Historical, Cultural, and Aesthetic Assets

Yeivin also contacted the National Planning and Survey Division. The planning department had a broader view, believing that modern urban planning should consider preserving historical, cultural, and aesthetic assets. At that time, the division worked according to the initiative of architect Arieh Sharon, who aimed to find a solution for dispersing the population in the country. Brodchkis and Heinz Rau’s (city planner and architect) approach raised the issue of preserving historic or abandoned cities in Israel. At the same time, Yeivin phoned Branson, who was in charge of Security on behalf of the Ministry of Labor, and was instructed to stop the explosions and set up the requested committee quickly.

In March 1950, the Prime Minister’s Office appointed an inter-ministerial committee to develop a plan for the development and preservation of historical sites in Israel. The committee was born due to concerns raised by Shmuel Yeivin director of the Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Education, following the explosions in Block 7037 (the Slope Park area) in Jaffa. Dr. Aryeh Altman was appointed chairman of the committee. The first item on the agenda was preventing the destruction of historical cities like Acre and Jaffa and the Jewish quarter of Safed, and there was an obvious conflict between the government’s desire to develop these cities while preserving historical treasures; in other words, should these old cities be preserved as they were, or should they be destroyed to make room for modern urban development, while preserving a few monuments. The committee also discussed the question of initiating archeological excavations to preserve historical assets, and what to do in case of discovery of archeological findings during construction works.

In April 1950, a large house near the French hospital collapsed, killing 17 people and injuring 28 more.  Following this disaster, residents of most of the dilapidated houses in the Old City and other parts of the city were evacuated. Following this disaster, the Tel Aviv Municipality asked that the government set up a committee to review the issue of broken-down houses in historical cities. This committee determined that all these buildings should be evacuated by the fall of 1950. In addition, after touring the various sites, the committee published its recommendations in October 1950, determining that historic cities such as Jaffa “should be preserved as they are, including their unique character.” They also stated that the conservation efforts, while preserving external historical characteristics, should allow for improvements to buildings and roads so that they could be adapted to modern living standards. It was decided to bring in foreign experts. At the request of Yeivin, the Ministry of Planning also rethought its strategy of blowing up houses, which was causing collateral damage to adjacent buildings.

The Tel Aviv Municipality did not accept the recommendations of this committee.  It wanted to do away with slums like the Ajami neighborhood (where Palestinian refugees from Jaffa and other places lived). Political and security considerations finally led to the demolition of most of the buildings in the area of Slope Park and the central part of the Pisgah (summit) area, leaving buildings in blocks 7019 and 7040. Even though a large part of the Old City was demolished, these committees led the way for another committee appointed in 1951 to re-examine these issues.

Notably, archeological excavations were conducted in Jaffa during this time. The first excavations were conducted by Leeds University in England between 1948 and 1950 in the area of the hill   Their purpose was to find biblical artifacts but as none were found, these excavations were stopped. Later on, between  1955-1964 and then again in 1970, archaeologist Dr. Yaakov Kaplan conducted excavations on behalf of the Jaffa Museum and the Tel Aviv Municipality; remains from the Roman and Byzantine periods were found in the area of Kdumim Park. In the area of Ramses Gate, other remains were found which are still on display in the park today. In 1964, the Israel Antiquities Authority declared the area of the walls, the port, the biblical mound and the neighborhoods adjacent to it a historical site. 

City Building Plan 479 was approved in 1956; it sought to update Old City plans following all the changes after the Mandate period. According to this plan, the area of ​​Slope Park was determined to be an open public space, and therefore a park or public garden could be established there.

The Jaffa Development Company was established in 1961. The company’s goal was to rehabilitate the large area where disadvantaged populations lived. This area was rebranded as the Old City.  The company’s shareholders were the Tel Aviv Municipality and the government, through the Israel Lands Authority. The rights in the remaining buildings were transferred or leased to the company.  In 1964, City Building Plan 606 was approved with the purpose of allocating spaces for parks and determining which areas were slated for architectural or archeological preservation. The area of ​​Slope Park was defined as a private or public open space. The Pisgah (summit) park was defined as an archeological site. The poorer populations were evacuated, and the buildings were rented out exclusively to artists.

Jaffa’s Old City has become an artists’ district.  After the completion of archeological excavations, the Summit and Slope Parks were built. Important buildings remained, such as the Great Mosque, the old Saraya building, churches, and other old public buildings. The buildings that remained in the Old City were preserved for their historic architecture.  However, many important buildings were also demolished, such as the Ajiman Inn, a significant milestone in the Jewish history of Jaffa. Despite the fact that some of the buildings have been preserved, the area has lost a lot of its historical ambiance.  The population has changed. The Summit and Slope Parks have replaced many historical buildings. 

Urban preservation is shaped by political considerations, including the preference of one culture over another. Sharon Rotbard (in her book White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa) and Amnon Bar Or (in his article “Recruiting ‘Preservation’ to Reshape Collective Memory”) both make serious allegations, claiming that the State of Israel erased the Arab identity of Jaffa and other cities in Israel and “Judaized” the country in general and Jaffa in particular. Erasing the culture of any people contradicts various international conventions that deal with the preservation of monuments, historical cities, and cultural landscapes.

The act of demolishing the Old City by the Tel Aviv municipality and the Israeli government should be judged in light of the circumstances.  The security situation in Israel up to and after the War of Independence was not good. First, there were Arab attacks against the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s.  Secondly, Arabs and Jews were at war in 1948; the Jews won this war and paid a high price for this victory.  This influenced the government’s decision to demolish the city. Third, decisions were made regarding Jaffa a few years after World War II, after the mass destruction of European and Libyan Jewry.  The Holocaust also reinforced the desire to build a Jewish State in the Land of Israel and to show the world that the Jewish people still existed.

Therefore, the demolition of the Old City can be seen as a political statement. It is possible that claims regarding the deteriorating condition of the houses and the need to protect the population from landslides were only excuses, as the buildings could have been renovated and made fit for habitation. All in all, the conservation of the old city did not occupy a high place on the national agenda at the time. The priority then was absorbing new immigrants and developing the country by establishing new towns and strengthening existing ones.  Preserving the Old City was not relevant to these national tasks.

Restoring instead of demolishing the Old City would have required the demolition of certain buildings to widen roads and streets, and to improve sanitation services. At the same time, the city was declared an archeological site and an architectural reserve. In practice, most of the houses in the city were demolished, but houses, as well as important public buildings, were left on the city slope (not Slope Park) facing the sea. Out of respect for other religions, religious structures were not destroyed. Archaeological excavations were carried out and their findings are on display in the public realm. There was a discussion in the government regarding the preservation of historical cities as well as national and cultural sites, and the need for preservation was recognized; this in itself was a great achievement. On the other hand, sites and buildings that were important to Arab culture and Jewish history in the Old City were destroyed (for example, the Ajiman Inn).

If we look at the history of Jaffa it seems that to a large extent, the story of Jaffa is a story of war, destruction, and reconstruction; it is also the story of the people who lived there. For better or worse, the decision was to demolish most of the city. But even that is consistent with the discourse of Jaffa, which has known many ups and downs of war, destruction, and reconstruction; the demolition of the Old City is perhaps another chapter in the history of Jaffa.


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