By Nasim Ahmed
Calls to boycott this year’s Eurovision song contest have focused on Israel’s brutal occupation. Mercury Prize-winning rock band Wolf Alice, for example, gave their backing by evoking images of Israel’s domination over Palestinians saying that it was “weaponising culture” and that the Zionist state was a “serial human rights abuser” who “use culture to art wash” and “whitewash over their human rights abuses”. British ban Slovo cited apartheid – again with Israel’s discriminatory laws in the West Bank in mind – and elected not only to boycott the event but also to release a song called “I don’t sing for apartheid”.
A similar message was echoed by an Israeli group known as Breaking the Silence who called for Eurovision goers to experience “the full picture” of Israel’s occupation by taking a tour to the West Bank city of Hebron, where the apartheid system of domination imposed on 300,000 Palestinians have made their lives punishingly difficult. The NGO, founded by former members of the Israeli army, erected a giant billboard on a highway between Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv – where this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is being held – in a bid to highlight Israel’s now 52-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories.
For Palestinians in Gaza and the millions of others across the region that were made stateless by Israel’s ethnic cleansing in 1948, the Eurovision contest, which coincides with the 71st Nakba anniversary, will evoke long and bitter memories. Eurovision will take place in a venue that’s only two hour’s drive from the protestors in an area known to Palestinians as the location of the village of Al-Shaykh Muwannis and the euro village housing tourists, located on Al-Manshiyya neighbourhood of Jaffa. For Palestinians these areas arouse powerful memories of violent displacement, expulsion and the erasure of their history.
Israel’s creation in 1948 kick-started a desperate attempt to remap and erase Palestinian history. As Ramzy Baroud points out, during the British mandate, the colonial authorities were using predominantly Arabic names of localities, towns and villages; 3,700 such places were named. By contrast, there were just 200 Hebrew toponyms, most of them being names of Jewish settlements, including new ones that were being built under the patronage of the Zionist movement. This, according to Baroud, was quite indicative of the demographic distribution and land ownership in Palestine at the beginning of the British mandate in the 1920s where Jews, including newly arrived settlers, were just 11 per cent of the total population.
However, immediately after the creation of the state of Israel, against the wishes of the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab population of the Middle East, a vicious campaign to “remap” Palestine was launched. Baroud goes on to explain that soon after, a government commission was created and tasked with renaming everything Palestinian so the new state can lay its claim on towns, villages and various other geographical areas.
The village of Al-Shaykh Muwannis and the Al-Manshiyya neighbourhood endured a similar fate. This erasure is often exposed to make a mockery of Israel’s attempt to deny that Palestine ever existed; that it contained 600 Palestinian towns and villages that were razed to the ground; that half the population were expelled to artificially create a Jewish majority, and make way for a state comprising of indigenous Palestinian Jews and European migrants with Jewish heritage.
This small Palestinian village, located in an area that is known today as Ramat Aviv, belonged to Jaffa’s sub-district of Mandatory Palestine. It was abandoned in March 1948 under fear of attack by Jewish paramilitary groups, two months before the 1948 Arab–Israeli war began. Their flight is one of many instances that belie the popular myth that the indigenous Arabs left as a result of the 1948 war when in fact hundreds of thousands had fled their homes in fear of their lives from Jewish militias months before Arab armies and Israeli soldiers clashed.
Al-Shaykh Muwannis was a victim of the early Zionist’s plan to create “Jewish-only” neighbourhoods in the coastal area that later became part of Israel’s capital. As the UN was about to start drafting its Partition Plan for Palestine, the port of Jaffa, one of the oldest in the region, was targeted by Zionist terrorists, forcing the town’s 120,000 Palestinians to leave as Jewish para military groups seized their property and labelled the area a “Jewish” neighbourhood.
According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, who has carried out extensive work on the flight of Palestinian refugees, Al-Shaykh Muwannis’ population – numbering around 2,239 – enjoyed friendly relations with their Jewish neighbours. However on 7 March 1948, the Haganah’s Alexandroni Brigade imposed quarantine on the village by closing off all access roads to it and two smaller satellite villages of Jalil Al Shamaliyya and Jalil Al Qibliya.
Residents of Al-Shaykh Muwannis – who it seems wanted to come to an agreement and avoid the same fate as others in nearby villages – met with Haganah representatives and expressed their desire for peace, according to Palestine Remembered – a website that catalogues information on demolished Palestinian villages. The villagers, despite agreeing to not harbour any Arab Liberation Armies or local Arab Militia, were forced to flee following intimidation from Jewish paramilitary groups. Like other Palestinians, many fled towards Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring Arab countries.
Today, not much remains of the original village. Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi says that a number of houses, exhibiting a variety of architectural features, remain; they are now occupied by Jewish families. One of them is a two-storey house with a one-storey annex; it is made of cement and has rectangular doors and windows and flat roofs. Another is a two-storey, two-unit, symmetrical house with two front porches on the top floor. Each porch is defined by five lancet arches. A single wall of another house stands alone, topped by a post that supports an electric wire.
This sea-front village grabbed the headlines this week when party-goers residing in the Eurovision village upset worshippers fasting in the month of Ramadan. A “Eurovision Village” pavilion set up on the Tel Aviv beachfront to host parties is located directly opposite the century-old Hassan Bek Mosque, named after an Ottoman governor and frequented by Israeli Arabs from nearby Jaffa. The mosque, along with the area of the railroad station, is the only building remaining. Charles Clore Park and part of Tel Aviv promenade now sit on the ruins of this neighbourhood first established in 1870.
A profile of the town’s history by Zochrot– an Israeli organisation based in Tel Aviv that aims to promote awareness of the Palestinian Nakba – shows that Al-Manshiyya had a population of 12,000 Palestinians and about 1,000 Jews in 1944. Egyptian soldiers are said to have helped build the town walls which contained Palestinian and Jewish neighbourhoods. HaTahana Street which stretched north to the area was known as the “Jews’ market”. Until 1947, the market contained a number of shops owned by Jewish merchants, as well as many owned by Arabs.
The fate of Al-Manshiyya was sealed when Jewish paramilitary group, Irgun, launched operation Hametz, at the end of April 1948. Its objective was the capture of Palestinian villages inland from Jaffa and establishing a blockade around the town. Irgun began a direct attack on the Manshiyya neighbourhood and carried out its operations with units drafted in from different parts of the country. Some 600 fighters with a large amount of ammunition and grenades, some of which are said to have been stolen from the British military were used to carry out the assault.
The residents of Al-Manshiyya and the other villages resisted in vain. They gathered, primarily around the Hassan Beq Mosque, and fought back despite their lack of numbers and weapons. Al- Manshiyya finally fell on 28 April 1948, and was cut off from Yafa. The town was demolished completely, except for the Hassan Beq Mosque and a park that sits opposite the mosque as a memorial to the forces that captured Yafa.
Some of Al-Manshiyya’s inhabitants were expelled to Jordan, and others were sent by sea to Gaza and Egypt. A few were transferred to Yafa and later lived in the Ajami ghetto where the Israeli army held 4,000 Palestinians alongside refugees from Yafa and the nearby villages. Al Manshiyya became publicly owned. In the 1950s plans were drawn up for the future of the area, which is now a modern commercial centre.
Understandably the besieged enclave of Gaza and cities like Jerusalem and Hebron are at the forefront of people’s mind in resisting Israel’s apartheid regime. However as Palestinians mark their Nakba day while Israel seeks to whitewash its occupation and system of racist domination, it is important to recall other areas of historic Palestine that were brought under Israeli control in 1948.