Tag Archives: Nakba

On not seeing Kuwaykat

This is another excerpt from the third chapter of the book I am writing. This chapter covers the year I spent in Israel as part of a Zionist youth group, Habonim. The excerpt is about my time on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek.

The months spent on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek further instilled a deep sense of familiarity with and connection to the land. I enjoyed the beautifully landscaped and gardened grounds of the kibbutz as well as the productiveness of its agricultural fields. It certainly felt like home for a while, or at least a place in which I belonged.

One weekend I was late coming back to the kibbutz on a Saturday night (a night on which Israel won the Eurovision song contest with the song “Halleluya,” performed by “Milk and Honey”) after visiting my relatives in Jerusalem. I found myself in Nahariya after the usual sherut (shared taxi service) had ended so I had no choice but to hitch a ride, about which I was quite nervous. First a lorry driver took me to a junction closer to the kibbutz and then a sherut with three Arabs in it gave me a free ride for the rest of the way, and, as I wrote in my diary “did not stab or rob me.” Although that was meant humorously, the fearful thought had obviously crossed my mind that I was relying on the kindness of potentially hostile strangers. Why should I be anxious that I would be kidnapped or attacked by neighbours of the kibbutz where I was staying? I cannot remember any case in which a Jewish hitchhiker has been attacked by a Palestinian driver within the 1967 borders, though there have been such incidents during the intifada periods in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Zochrot. All that remains of the village. https://zochrot.org/en/village/49232. 2008.

I would suggest that part of my fear stems from what I could see at Bet Ha’emek but did not acknowledge, what I was dimly aware of but did not want to know. On the road that connected the kibbutz to the main road there was a shrine which was visited by Arabs every now and again. It is the shrine of Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Qurayshi, a Druze religious leader. I never asked, or even wondered, why this shrine was next to the kibbutz. There were also some old stone buildings on the kibbutz, one of which housed the dark room which my kibbutz father used for his photography hobby. I do not recall asking when they were built, or why there were so few such buildings around. If I had been paying attention, I would have noticed that the olive trees on the kibbutz looked older than the kibbutz. Perhaps others in the group asked more questions, but I did not.

Dr. Avishai Teicher, Olive Trees on Kibbutz Bet Ha’emek, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PikiWiki_Israel_40571_Olive_trees_in_Kibbutz_Beit_Haemek.JPG

It was not until many years later that the Israeli organisation Zochrot, which has worked “since 2002 to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948,” produced a map and an app that told me about Bet Ha’emek.[1] When the kibbutz was established in 1949, it was on the site of the Palestinian village of Kuwaykat, which had about 1200 residents and whose land was considered to be among the most fertile of the district, growing grain, olives and watermelons.[2] It was captured and destroyed by Israeli armed forces as part of Operation Dekel in July 1948. The village had withstood three previous attacks in January, February and June, but in July a heavy bombardment forced out the villagers, most of whom fled to nearby Abu Sinan and Kfar Yusif.[3]

We were awakened by the loudest noise we had ever heard, shells exploding and artillery fire … women were screaming, children were crying… Most of   the villagers began to flee with their pyjamas on. The wife of Qassim Ahmad Sa’id fled carrying a pillow in her arm instead of her child...[4]

The car I was in that night was most probably on its way to Kfar Yusif, which gave shelter to many of the refugees from Kuwaykat. They were among the approximately 46,000 Palestinian refugees, or internally displaced persons, who remained within the new State of Israel, under the oxymoronic status in Israeli law of “present absentees.” They and their descendants, now numbering well over a quarter of a million souls, have never been allowed to return to their homes.[5] In her book, Erased from Space and Consciousness, Noga Kadman observes that even recently the publications of the kibbutz barely mention Kuwaykat or the previous residents. But they do mention the olive trees, which kibbutz youth now harvest to pay for their “root trips” to Poland where they visit sites of the Jewish catastrophe, the Holocaust. The Palestinians who gave me a ride that night probably knew that I was not an Israeli, but even if they took me for a foreign volunteer on the kibbutz, they would have known the history of the place in which I felt at home and which I was then certain that Jewish Israelis had a right to inhabit exclusively. I lived on Bet Ha’emek and I did not see Kuwaykat, even though its traces were around me. The fields on which I became a Zionist subject had been farmed by Palestinians before me and before the pioneers from British Habonim arrived. The Palestinians did not rob me, but I enjoyed the fruits that had been robbed from them.

A 1940s map of the area of Kuwaykat from the Survey of Palestine. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Historical_map_series_for_the_area_of_Kuwaykat_(1940s).jpg

[1] See Zochrot, “Our Vision,” https://zochrot.org/en/content/17. Accessed 3/16/2021. The Nakba app is especially useful for learning about the Palestinian presence that has been erased by Israeli settlements and forests, often planted by the Jewish National Fund, while traveling around Israel-Palestine, as it shows information according to one’s current location.

[2] Government of Palestine, Department of Statistics. Village Statistics, April, 1945. Quoted in S. Hadawi, Village Statistics of 1945: A Classification of Land and Area ownership in Palestine (Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, 1970), p. 81.

[3] See Zochrot, “Kuwaykat,” https://zochrot.org/en/village/49232 . Accessed 3/16/2021.

[4] Walid Khalidi, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992), pp.  224-25.

[5] Wikipedia, “Present Absentees,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Present_absentee. Accessed 3/16/2021.

To Be at Peace with Oneself: Reconciliation through Israeli Testimony of the Nakba

Catalogue cover for Towards a Common Archive exhibition

Catalogue cover for Towards a Common Archive exhibition

Last week a demanding and harrowing exhibition closed. The exhibition was called Towards a Common Archive: Video Testimonies of Zionist Fighters in 1948, consisting of more than 30 testimonies of Jewish fighters filmed especially for this project, one video of clips from documentaries by Israeli filmmakers with fighters’ testimonies, another video compilation of representations of the Nakba in Israeli feature films, and a video of testimonies by second- and third-generation Israelis who have heard first-hand reports of the Nakba. I attended the opening in October while on sabbatical in Tel Aviv.The exhibition was a collaboration between Zochrot, an organization that seeks to raise public awareness among Jews in Israel of the Palestinian Nakba, Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, who now works at the University of East London and Israeli historian Prof. Ilan Pappé, now at the University of Exeter.

The ambition of the Common Archive project is both historical – to cross-reference testimonies by both Palestinian refugees and soldiers and commanders involved in the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1947-49 – and an exercise in peace-making. It may seem odd to consider the screening of testimonies about the Nakba to have anything to do with peace. Nothing is more likely to make Jewish Israelis and Zionists in general more defensive and less open to the needs of the Palestinians than confronting them with Israel’s ‘original sin’ – the uprooting of so many Palestinians to ensure that the nascent state would have a clear Jewish majority. Yet, the exhibition organizers take a different, more difficult path to peace through reconciliation, in which Israeli acknowledgment and accountability for the Nakba paves the way to tackling the most intractable issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the right of Palestinians to return.

I did not watch all of the hours of video testimony (which is viewable on both the Common Archive project’s and Zochrot’s YouTube channels) either at the crowded opening in the small gallery in an industrial building, nor on my return visit to the exhibition, or even on the DVD that came with the exhibition catalogue. It is more of an education than an exhibition, too much to bear in one sitting. It is an education not in the sense that unknown events are revealed, other perhaps than a detail here and there, but in that for the first time the perpetrators are the witnesses. It is not a question of Israelis being accused of crimes by Palestinian victims. Veteran Israeli fighters of the founders’ generation, often members of its elite commando unit, the Palmach, are the ones telling the stories of expulsions, killings, mutilations and massacre. We have known collectively all along, but preferred to repress, actively to forget these stories.

The testimonies I have seen tell of painful personal memories that merit repression yet need to be spoken and watched. None of the perpetrators have a problem characterizing what they did in the war of 1948 as “expulsion” of the Palestinians. The interviewers, Eyal Sivan and Ronit Chacham, ask the witnesses to specify what was involved in “cleaning” villages, the answers ranging from mostly shooting at the homes with small or heavy arms, sometimes shooting at those who fled, though mostly we are told they fled under cover of darkness, and sometimes entering the villages to throw grenades into houses. Some of the testimony tries to disconnect the violence perpetrated from the flight of the Palestinians: Yitzchak Tischler insists on saying that places “became empty” after being hit by fire; Esther Boss tells how shocked she was on entering the town of a-Lydd (Lod) to see so many corpses of Palestinian civilians on the streets, but is sure that Israeli loudspeakers calling on the remaining inhabitants in Arabic not to flee. Some witnesses like to distinguish between themselves who “conquered” Palestinian villages and those who came in afterwards to “clean” them. Some say that there was no order to blow up the homes, or that it came only later when Palestinians tried to return to them; others that they blew up homes, burnt crops, and killed camels so that there would be nothing to return to.

Some witnesses find it difficult to speak about certain incidents: Benyamin Eshet is reluctant to say more about what happened to those Palestinians who buried the 120 victims of the Dahamsh mosque massacre in Lydda on 12 July 1948. 10 years earlier he’d been called into the General Security Services offices after talking to a journalist about it. (The report by Guy Erlich was printed in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’ir on 6 May 1992).But through his hesitant and indirect testimony he reports that the buriers were shot. Lyddah was traumatic for Eshet. In contrast, the perpetrator of the massacre, Yerachmiel Kahanovich, seems unabashed when he tells how he shot a Piat anti-tank missile into the mosque’s hall. Only when he recounts his single glance into the building, in which he saw the bodies of all those who had taken shelter in it smeared on the walls, does the camera catch a glimpse of some deeper, troubled emotion in struggling within him to find expression.

For the most part, the perpetrators explain, if not justify, what happened as occurring in the context of a war in which there was no alternative, to clear terrain in case the armies of other Arab states attacked, to ensure a majority in the nascent Jewish State. But there are varying degrees of acknowledgements of ethical questions. Everyone regrets ‘unnecessary’ atrocities. Kahanovich is not proud of all the acts he perpetrated under such conditions. Esther Boss feels responsible for some acts, such as the wanton shooting of a Palestinian kiosk owner, but had no notion of ‘immoral orders’ at the time. Benyamin Eshet says there was no time to talk about what happened at the time, but others such as Yitzhak Tischler remember organised discussions about whether the revenge killings at Balad a-Sheikh on 31 December 1947 were justified. Much of the witnesses’ ethical reflection on the ‘purity of arms’ is displaced onto the issue of looting, of whether refugees were looted in their homes, or as they fled, or if only their abandoned homes were pillaged. In the Biblical tale of the conquest of Ai by Joshua, the first attempt failed because of divine punishment for a single act of pillage when Jericho fell. The conquerors of Palestine in 1948 are similarly clearer about the immorality of looting than of killing and expulsion.

The most telling testimony is the witnesses’ own comparisons of the columns of fleeing Palestinian refugees with Jewish refugees and victims in Europe during the Holocaust. Benyamin Eshet, himself a Holocaust survivor who had only been in Palestine for 1½ years before the war, is particularly haunted by the parallels, but it surfaces in the testimony of Yitzhak Tischler too. Micha Lin says at one point that he is not at peace with himself for the destruction of villages (the children of which he’d played with as a child), even though he’s not sure it could have been otherwise at a time of war. In Hebrew, to be at peace with yourself is to be shalem, to be whole, highlighting the connection between the Hebrew concept of peace, shalom, and wholeness. The Common Archive project, and Zochrot, build towards peace by demanding that Jewish Israelis become at peace with ourselves, to hold together our past and our present, to attempt to make ourselves whole. The exhibition demands not only that we acknowledge and take responsibility for the acts of expulsion and death perpetrated by Israel’s founding generation. It also demands that we reconcile our own traumatic history with the trauma we inflicted on the Palestinians. It is the most painful of reconciliations, to relinquish the role of victim and to accept that of perpetrator, but this is what the exhibition demands; and this is what a just peace demands.