On March 8th 2016, 22-year-old Palestinian Bashar Masalha fatally stabbed 29-year-old US citizen Taylor Force on the Jaffa Port promenade. After stabbing Force and ten other pedestrians, including Force’s wife, Masalha fled the scene and headed north towards Tel Aviv.
The path Masalha took followed the coastline. Tourists regularly flock there to watch the handful of year-round surfers catch often-miniscule waves and to admire the eminence of Jaffa, an ancient port town perched upon a knob of rocky terrain that juts into the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. As Masalha fled along the waterfront, he shouted at drivers stuck in traffic and attempted to attack others. Meanwhile, Force and his wife bled on the cobblestones of the promenade only a few hundred yards from the stony bluff where Perseus rescued Andromeda from the Kraken.
Masalha, who graduated from Damascus University in Syria and grew up in the West Bank -- which has been occupied and maintained by Israel since 1967 -- began to run out of energy in a place where there are few places to hide. A few wide boulevards, parking lots, a playground and unused dirt-covered lots comprise the space between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. In a nation where debates over land use often end in death, every unused bit of ground has a history. The area in question is the former no man’s land between the once Arab-controlled ancient acropolis and the Israeli-built modern metropolis, now coexisting within the same municipality.
During the 1948 Israeli War for Independence, Jaffa was besieged by two Israeli forces that predated the IDF, or Israeli Defense Force. One, the extremist Irgun led by future Prime-Minister Menachim Begin, had recently been denounced for its terrorist tactics by the Jewish Agency Executive. The other, a paramilitary force known as the Haganah, was under orders from David Ben Gurion and the future Israeli Government. A small force of British soldiers including a tank battalion and regiment of artillery arrived on April 27th to defend the Arab town of 70,000.
Artillery and sniper fire was lobbed in both directions. Today, the former Ottoman governor’s palace-turned Arab defensive position is partially abandoned and battle-scarred. The same goes for a number of other buildings between it and the former Haganah-Irgun frontlines. The Haganah strategic headquarters building still stands in the artsy neighborhood of Florentin, less than twenty minutes on foot from the Jaffa hill. Its ground-level windows are currently being used as an art gallery.
According to an international treaty, the British soldiers withdrew on May 13th, 1948 and the remaining Arab force surrendered to the Haganah high command. Sixty-seven thousand of the remaining Arab inhabitants soon left Jaffa, which was declared “liberated” by the Israeli forces. Today, Jaffa or Yafo (in Hebrew) is approximately one-third Arab Israeli.
Seemingly too exhausted to run any further, Masalah turned on the gaining police officers and ran towards them. They retreated and he quickly changed direction, towards the sea. In a video filmed by a bystander, ten shots are heard. In a second video, Massalah is lying on the ground, apparently shot and in pain, facing the sea. The lit spire of Jaffa’s St. Peter’s Church can be seen in the distance. A final shot is fired by a police officer and Massalah is still.
At a light jog, it would take him five minutes to reach the humble port where Jonah set sail to meet his whale, the same port where St. Peter raised Tabitha from the grave, where Perseus rescued Andromeda and Napoleon visited his plague-ridden troops. It was the same small port where Taylor Force, a student at Vanderbilt University and combat veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, enjoyed an evening walk with his wife among myths and legends before he was killed.
That historic port determined Tel Aviv’s location. The city sprang from the sand dunes north of it in the beginning of the 20th century after Jewish immigration from Europe began to pick up pace, in the early days of Zionism. In the 1930s, Tel Aviv became a blank template for German-Jewish modernist architects fleeing the Nazis. The apartments and homes that these immigrants produced are world-renowned temples of the style, and the impact of their legacy is reflected in the aesthetics of modern Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers and the daily lives of its current half-a-million residents.
The streets of Tel Aviv are well-groomed and cozy for an international metropolis. In the neighborhoods of Yafo, Florentin and Neve Tzedek the streets are narrow enough that late-night couples whisper to prevent their innuendos from being overheard. The thousands of alley cats, tamed and fluffed by desert and sea breezes, appreciate the tranquility from their just-out-of-reach perches in garden hedges.
Even Ben Gurion, Rothschild and Dizengoff, a few of Tel Aviv’s largest tree-canopied boulevards, rest like sunbathers on the beach facing the sea, their curves nestled between the mixture of tanned Bauhaus apartments, the flea market’s fish-oil lacquered tabletops and chaotically placed blue and ivory towers. Tel Aviv is an exemplary Garden City: a presentation of intelligently laid park benches, cafes, fountains, playgrounds and artworks from which grows a system of streets, planters and pathways.
Being in the middle of a desert has not been easy for the bustling city of three million. Water, the cornerstone of every human settlement, is hard to come by in Israel. As recently as the 1990s, the nation’s main source of water was the Sea of Galilee and two aquifers, leaving the nation under constant threat of devastating drought as the population continued to grow. This was changed when the country made the then-bold move to using wastewater to grow crops, which effectively secured Tel Aviv’s future by eventually recycling up to 86 per cent of all Israel’s wastewater (Spain is next in line, recycling about 19 per cent).
As climate change has begun to have disastrous effects on food production worldwide, this technology is perhaps the most impressive and most vital tool that Israel has to offer, and the continued existence of Tel Aviv is a beacon of hope to every city that faces this challenge.
For the past three months, the spot where Force died has been on my running route.
I live on a main artery of Jaffa that becomes Tel-Aviv’s waterfront roadway, where I moved to from my hometown of Portland, Oregon. My girlfriend, an Israeli who I met at an English-themed bar in Florentin with an affinity for American nu-metal and pop-punk, lives by the touristy Hacarmel flea market. I walk past the spot where Massalah fell when I go to see her. I also pass a museum dedicated to the Irgun, where a memorial stands for the “liberators” of Jaffa.
The Haganah building is on my way to the bar where my girlfriend works. Currently there is an exhibit featuring a man bent over wearing a jockstrap with the words (in Hebrew), “say thank you man” covering his otherwise-exposed rear. This piece of art along with the countless street murals in Florentin remind me of the world I knew in Brooklyn: young, irreverent and ballsy. It speaks to a city vibe more focused on sex, art and nightlife than border wars and occupations.
I am often struck by the clash of the near and ancient history within these few square miles. As a city-lover, I am constantly being overwhelmed by the miracle of Tel Aviv.
The city is almost unbelievably youthful: in its people, its architecture and its infrastructure. The oldest man alive (an Israeli who survived the Holocaust to move to Haifa) is six years older than Tel Aviv. Yet there have been humans living in Jaffa for 9,500 years, only sixty-eight of which has the town been under Israel’s banner.
The violence that currently grips much of the region is not often felt here. Even the West Bank, only twelve miles away (just shy of the length of Manhattan), is spoken of by young Israelis as if it were a separate universe. Part of this, undoubtedly, is due to the fact that many of them only spend time there as soldiers. Yet the residents of this wealthy and insular metropolis are entirely accustomed to events like those of March 8th, as well as when the practice sirens signalling a rocket attack occasionally go off in the early morning.
Tel Aviv-Yafo has an identity unlike any other city on Earth. It continues to expand with its sights focused farther into the future (regarding climate change and a high-tech economy) than many other global cities. A massive tech industry, various art scenes, LGBT acceptance and largely secular populace fuel its international vibe. It continues to expand with enthusiasm, despite being surrounded by a chaos both self-inflicted and beyond its own influence.
As composer Leonard Bernstein wrote of his experience during his first visit to the city in 1947, “Life goes on; we dance, play boogie-woogie; walk by the Mediterranean (which is out of a fairy book) and we hope for the best.”
Photos by author.
Henry Miller is a freelance photojournalist currently living in Tel Aviv. His focus is on anything urban; from the effects climate change and segregation to art shows, drag queens and strip clubs. Check out his work at henrylatourettemiller.net to see more.