Here is the link to an abridged version of this review below. It appears in the Middle East Eye today, the International Day of Solidarity with Palestinians. The good people at MEE also added some photos and skipped few points that I consider particularly significant:
What follows is my original full-length piece:
A Portraiture of the Nakba:
a survivor’s review of the documentary
“1948: Creation & Catastrophe.”
Let me open with a clarification: I am not neutral on the subject of this documentary; a Palestinian who survived the Nakba can never be. It is like asking Elie Wiesel to take a neutral stand on the Holocaust. Of course, there is a difference. But to one who, during much of the formative years of his childhood, had heard daily the first-person accounts of tens if not hundreds of premeditated massacres against his kin to drive them out of their homes and farms, the difference is mainly quantitative. Time and again, members of the Jewish militias who participated in the atrocities of the Palestinian Nakba, state in the documentary that even then they were aware of committing crimes similar to what had been perpetrated against them in Europe. Take a look, for example, at 00:55:10 of our documentary: Joseph Ben Eliezer (Haganah Veteran) describes searching Palestinians for valuables that he and his fellow soldiers purloined. Again and again, the Israeli veterans admit to being aware of their committing the same atrocities against the Palestinians that were committed against them in Europe. “We all were depressed. We simply remembered our own exile.” Such admissions are in the infamous typical “shooting and crying’” style of Israel’s humanitarian sensibility.
And a second admission of my complicity: I assisted minimally with some of the field work involved in producing the documentary. My name even appears in the credits. I share in the excitement of the producers in their recent announcement that “Our documentary is now available for streaming on Kanopy (the Netflix of schools and libraries).”
In their one-and-a-half-hour documentary, 1948: Creation & Catastrophe, Andy Trimlet and Ahlam Muhtaseb offer a wealth of first-person accounts of survivors as well as of perpetrators of the Palestinian Nakba and of the establishment of the state of Israel. The documentary opens with a forced attempt at balance and at equating the two themes announced in the title: the Nakba and the establishment of the state of Israel, both culminating in 1948 but rooted in the earlier belligerent Zionist settler colonialism and the native Palestinians’ pushback against it. The assembled cover photo illustrates what that balance really looked like: An aggressive looking armed young Israeli man on one side with a traditionally attired old Palestinian protecting and guiding a child on the other. To take a balanced stand on the conflict, even the mere reference to a ‘conflict’ and not to an aggression is to favor the belligerent, of course. And that is my first gut-level reservation about the documentary even though it immediately allows the eloquent Palestinian Nakba witness, Samia Khoury, to state her conviction regarding the chronicity of neglect and injustice meted out to the Palestinians. That then is reinforced by the wish of a counterpart, Yakov Keller, not to be reminded of 1948.
An idealized portrait of Samia lodges in my memory as the elegant and savvy cosmopolitan Palestinian. The portrait gains relevance as I notice the paucity of women among witnesses in the documentary. Especially rural Palestinian women must have played a critical role in the survival of their families in their exile and diaspora. The social cohesion of rural Palestinian communities and the centrality of the woman in her household and family structure allow me to speculate that a richer patina can be woven around their accounts, had more of them been tapped for the project.
But again, the sham of balance returns when another contemporary of Samia’s explains the elation he and his fellow Israeli fighters felt at establishing a Jewish state. Now, step back with me to the present and consider what the current permutations of that creation of ‘a Jewish state’ has meant to a Palestinian citizen of Israel like me. As practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist settler ministers and all of their predecessors since 1948 and before, it has meant driving out my kin and erasing an entire nation and its culture. And it has meant the imposition of their superiority on me with apartheid legislation peaking most recently with the passage of the Israeli constitutional law of the Jewish Nation State. And that is the soft edge of implementing the Zionist plans, witness the daily abuse the Jewish State’s military rains on the Palestinians under its occupation in Jerusalem and the West Bank or, worse yet, in its open Gaza prison.
Like it or not, the historical justification for a Jewish state had little to do with the Palestinians. The documentary marshals factual information and historical testimonies of the likes of Benny Morris to explain the compelling forces across Europe leading to the creation of the Zionist colonial movement, most notably the rampant anti-Semitism throughout Europe fueled by the church and by Europe’s xenophobia.
The Belfour Declaration:
Take a look, if you will, at the photo of Arthur Belfour in the first few minutes of the documentary. It is the one of that is commonly displayed in the media. Something about the photo, perhaps the man’s haughty self-assuredness, and the way he seems to look down on me, irritates me. What right did he, his government, and the British elite have to promise my homeland to the Zionists? Who the f…k did this colonialist miscreant think he was to reduce me and my people to mere “non-Jewish communities” of Palestine? Let him go to hill. Had I been already born and able to throw a stone in 1936, I would have joined the Great Revolt against him and his Zionist masters.
Then, the photograph of Yusef Weitz follows soon after, looking bitter and determined. Except that his bitterness is born out of his kin’s suffering in Europe while his determination is to exile me and my people out of our homes forever. “The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth and old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left,” he wrote in his memoirs in 1940 summing up the Zionist leadership’s collective plan. Mind you, as the Director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Department, Weitz was in the best position to act on that decision. History, Europe, America and presumably God colluded with Weitz against me. Otherwise, why were Jews prevented from setting roots in the lands where they were driven by the Romans or whomever and had to shift to banking so that the likes of Edmond Rothchild could finance the purchase of my land from under my feet by paying an absentee landlord in Beirut? The longer I contemplate his problem, the more complicated mine gets. In the meantime, Zionist armed bands proceed to organize into a veritable military force in Palestine and to plan their takeover of the colony Belfour and his imperial army of rapists had started pacifying for them. (My late sister narrowly escaped a gang rape by British soldiers and needed daily incantations of holy verses from the Quran over a long period before returning to sanity.)
Historians from both sides attest to the premeditated Zionist transfer plan of the native Palestinian population: At the start, Zionist leaders kept it to themselves. Then they discussed it openly as Weiss’s memoirs show. Then, in 1948, they proceeded to implement it to a T with all the required premeditated scores of massacres. A chunk of that plan was conveniently postponed to 1967. Of late, extending that loosely fitting design of a Jewish homeland to the parameters of the imagined Greater Israel is gaining popularity again with Netanyahu and his extremist settler ministers. Currently, it looks likely the entire land of Greater Israel will be purchased from the Saudis and the puppet heads of the UAE and the like in exchange for American and European smiles, handshakes, pats on the back and the occasional sword dance, all supplemented with Israeli and American arms deals, at a profit, of course.
The number and expertise of the interviewed historians and analysts from both sides of the divide for the documentary is impressive. And they delve deep into historical records and relevant documents. Yet I find it more meaningful to concentrate on some of the silent portraits that abound in the eloquent documentary. Many of those are of anonymous individuals, most likely dead or, if alive, unaware of the role their silent photos play in illuminating my history.
Take, for example, the haunting photo at 00:13:52. I presume the young creature is a Jewish man in a concentration camp: I focus on the eyes and am scared. The expression is several levels beyond cold, starved and scared. In fact, there is an edgy threat in the scared-fox way that he stares back at me, a contained animalistic outrage: ‘Don’t fuck with me or I’ll scratch your eyes out,’ he warns me. That was what Europe discharged to our Palestinian ports: the just but misplaced fury of the holocaust survivors. Fast forward to 00:57:00 where Yuram Kaniuk, a veteran of the Jewish Haganah militia forces, describes the night the Palestinians were driven out of Lydda and Ramla. In a meeting with Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, the officer in charge, had asked him what to do with the residents of the two Palestinian cities. Ben Gurion responded with a sweeping wave of his hand. Out of 50-70 thousand residents, only about 100 remained. That night, 10-15 truckloads of immigrants arrived from docking boats bringing concentration camp survivors. “Within minutes they took over the homes,” Kaniuk states. “It is not that we tried to harm, but it is just a fact.”
And there is the pitiable image of Hava Keller we first meet narrating Acre’s fall when, to her thinking, “the war got ugly.” That ugliness is symbolized by a child having left its shoes behind and Hava, then a young soldier, finding it as she enters the abandoned home. She now wants to know where the child had gone and how had she faired. Hava has a winning sincerity to her concern. I cannot but join her emotionally in the search for that child. We see such a child shortly afterwards in Lydda lost between the soldiers and the crowd of Palestinian civilians they were evicting. Then again, we and Hava are given a glimpse of that destitute child with a sibling, hungry and scared. The scared look on the children’s faces says it all. The film directors’ stringing these images shortly after Hava’s Acre segment is a media master’s stroke of effectiveness and brutality. Over a dozen different Palestinian children show up after that figuratively claiming ownership of the shoe in Acre.
It suddenly dawns on me that it is my late friend, Miriam Petrokowski of Naharyya, whom I see every time Hava shows up on the screen. A friendlier, milder-mannered and more sympathetic woman is hard to imagine. I remember Miriam in 1982 going door-to-door in her Jewish neighborhood to collect food and clothing items for Palestinian refugees in Israeli occupied South Lebanon. Of course, she and her husband had played a part in driving those refugees out in 1948. In fact, they lived off those refugees’ colonized fields. Like my friend Miriam, Hava obeys orders: In the current documentary, after helping evacuate Acre of its Arab residents, Hava moves on to Beersheba to help streamline the expulsion of its natives to Gaza. But her core of decency is persistent: At 1:18:13, she is back again. “Where are they? The Palestinians?” she asks. Apparently, she hadn’t forgotten the barefoot child of Acre. And Hava reflects on another Israeli imponderable, one the world usually forgets: “When the war started and the Arabs were thrown out of their villages, not one kibbutz said that they don’t want to take their land. Everybody was very happy to steal their land.” Obviously, Hava must be a Holocaust survivor, like my friend, Miriam. One can’t be that obedient to authority, to the point of piety it appears, except after having come back from the dead. Elie Wiesel toed the line as well. He followed and defended the Zionist colonialist logic to a T.
Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and a hardened racist who had first documented much of Israel’s war crimes in 1948. He thinks that it was a fatal error to have left any Palestinians in Israel. In the documentary, at 1:06:50, we see the collective Portrait of four generations of Palestinian refugees. I look at the still photo and think: “There, but for the grace of God, goes my family.” Benny Morris identifies such a group as “the Palestinians that have been fighting us.” He proceeds to justify Israel’s decision to exile Palestinians forever and to kill those among them who attempt to return to their homes. Many returned to steal their own blankets or food.
“The notion of having this state empty of Arabs was already part of my life,” says Israeli historian and veteran Haganah fighter, Mordechai Bar-On. He proceeds to casually relate an incident in which he shot pointblank with his revolver a Palestinian returning to reap the harvest in his field. Bar-On surprised the Palestinian so suddenly that the man embraced him. “I didn’t blame myself. I didn’t have any feeling of remorse,” he declares smiling. Bar-On does preface his account with the standard victorious Israeli explanation: “You wanted a war? OK. Now you run away. You’ll never come back.”
For example, the orders for such crimes are spelled out in a military document specific to the village of Magdal in the south of Palestine. Photos of the document are presented in the film. They include the following:
“a. Sweep the village …
b. Expell the refugees…
c. Burn the village and demolish any stone structures.
d. Check [for] enemy scouts and arrest them.
e. Check the refugees’ travel routs and mine those roads.”
On this issue of principle, Uri Avnery, the famous Israeli peace activist and founder and head of the Israeli peace movement Gush Shalom, simply states that he obeyed orders and “that was that.” But he claims, rather apologetically, that he felt happy when a hunted Palestinian escaped alive across the hills. Seen from the Palestinian’s point of view, the difference between his timid acceptance and Morris’s impudent justification is academic. Throughout his later-life peace activism, Avnery drew a line under 1948. He apparently didn’t want to face up to some of the massacres, like Deir Yassin, in which he personally took part. Only 1967 was open for discussion with him and his fellow liberals. Still, to the day he died of natural causes, he was the recognized face of Israel’s left. To Palestinians with sound memory like, Avnery’s left liberalism must have seemed of the same fabric as Shimon Peres’s nuclear-weapons-fraught world peace efforts.
Towards the end of the documentary there is a sense of the narrative being rushed through: The story of depopulating, erasing and hiding over 500 Palestinian villages with parks and new settlements is compressed into summary statements, even if powerful ones by the likes of Exeter historian Ilan Pappe. This forces the submersion of so many memorable accounts of cruelty, massacres and occasional heroism: Tantura, Lubya, Ezzeeb, Elbassa, Iqrith, … and scores more.
Then the documentary concludes with the present when Israel controls nearly all of historic Palestine.
“Here is the question,” Farid Abdel-Nur, a Palestinian American political scientist sums up: “Was the establishment of the state of Israel so important that, no matter what price the Palestinians had to pay for it, it was worth it? Or was there something fundamentally wrong with a project that can only be realized by displacing hundreds of thousands of people?”
I, of course, have an answer. But, in the documentary, the question is left hanging in midair.
The focus of 1948: Creation & Catastropheis more on the Nakba’s major events in urban Palestine: Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, lydda, Ramla, Nazareth, Beersheba, and more. Yet, in 1948, the majority of Palestinian refugees were driven out of rural communities. For years, the Haganah had gathered detailed intelligence on their demographic, social, geographic and military conditions. Despite their minimal fighting power, such villages resisted expulsion tenaciously. Consequently, they suffered a long list of massacres specifically designed to scare them out of their homes and across the border to neighboring countries. In Deir Yassin, one of the earliest and vilest, the Irgun and Haganah had set a precedent: the village even had a peace treaty with the adjacent Jewish community. Our elders repeated such accounts in whispers of fear, distrust and secrecy. In some such semi-secret tales, Palestinian women feature heroically. In his newly published Arabic-language book, Nakba Wabaqa’a, (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2016) the Palestinian historian Adel Manna exposes several such massacres committed in my home turf of Galilee, with excellent and thoroughly referenced oral historical accounts. In them he lists names, dates and geographic locations. For its ‘native’ eloquence, this scholarly treatise deserves translation to English for a wider readership.
It seems fitting to end with these tales. There is the eyewitness account of the execution of Aziza Shrida of Sufsaf, a heroin who resisted rape to the point of death. Her 17-year-old firstborn son and her husband were executed to prove the rapists’ seriousness of intent. She refused to surrender to rape before their eyes and the eyes of her brood of younger children. This is narrated by Aziza’s personal friend who went on to name her own daughter after her.
Or take the potential romance woven in our imagination around the miraculous survival of Sa’ad, one of the fourteen Mawasi tribesmen selected for execution outside of Eilaboun, shot and presumed dead. (This was a separate massacre from that of Eilaboun of the same number of victims.) Zhayya Elfawwaz, a Bedouin cowherd, hears Sa’ad groaning, discovers him alive with a shot through the head, steals him to a secret cave where, for weeks, she nurses him to health, enough to return him to his mother who smuggles him on horseback across the border to Syria, all while resisting the Haganah’s interrogations. Sa’ad remembers to send her fond messages from Syria every chance he has.
I have an even closer connection to this memorable tale: The Mawasi massacre took place at the edge of the Battouf Valley, the fertile agricultural lifeline of my village. Farmers from Arrabeh know the very spot where the massacre took place: For years, the wheat they planted grew exceptionally tall in a circle five-paces across.
More typical are the repeated accounts of treachery and willful murder of men that the Haganah considered the backbone of communal resistance and staying power, population eviction being the intended final outcome. In Sa’asa’a, (and the details are not in Manna’s book), a conveyer-belt execution style was practiced to expedite the disposal of bodies in a readymade mass grave, originally a rainwater cistern: One Haganah soldier stood astride the open pit and helped push the flailing bodies in as they were shot pointblank in the back of the head. The account was embellished with such details as the assertion that the Sa’asa’a villagers had reached a peace agreement with their Jewish neighbors. In fact, they had prepared a communal reception for them, a veritable feast with food and sweets. The inventive style of mass burial of fifty men or so was convincing enough to affect a total ethnic cleansing of that village leaving the stone homes unscathed. The liberal American new residents of Kibbutz Sa’asa’a are on record debating the ethical issues involved in their takeover of those intact homes. [See Noga Kadman’s Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948(Indiana University Press, 2015.)]
Here then is the place to recommend to the producers of this documentary a second and parallel project: There is a lot of remaining footage dealing with the Nakba’s rural events that merits a second documentary, perhaps with Adel Manna as advisor. The Galilee could be its focus and Palestinian rural women its protagonists. Samia Khoury should narrate, I insist.