Great sadness and suffering flooded the roads – convoy upon convoy of refugees making their way [to the Lebanese border]. They leave the villages of their homeland and the homeland of their ancestors and move to an alien, unknown new land, full of troubles. Women, children, babies, donkeys – everyone is on the move, quietly and sadly, to the north, without looking left or right.
A woman cannot find her husband, a child cannot find his father … Everything that can walk is moving, running away not knowing what to do, not knowing where they are going. Many of their belongings are spread on the sideways; the more they walk the more exhausted they become, they nearly cannot walk anymore – shedding from the bodies everything they tried to salvage when they are on their way to exile …
I met an 8-year-old boy going north and leading before him two donkeys. His father and brother died in the fighting and he lost his mother … I passed through the way between Sasa and Tarbiha and I saw a tall man, bent, scratching with his hands something on the tough rocky terrain. I stopped. I noticed a small dent in the land that was dug by bare hands, with nails, under the olive tree. The man laid in it a body of a baby who died in the arms of his mother and buried it with dirt and [covered it with] small stones. Then he went back to the road and continued to move north, his bent wife walking a few steps behind him, without looking back. I ran into an old man, who fainted on a rock on the sideway and nobody among the refugees dares to help him … When we went into Birim, everyone fled in their fright in the direction of the wadi facing north, taking their little kids and as much cloth as they could. The next day, they came back as the Lebanese did not allow them to enter. Seven babies died of hypothermia.
This moving description was not written by a human rights activist, a UN observer or a caring journalist. It was written by Moshe Carmel and appears in his book Northern Campaigns – first published in 1949.
He toured the Galilee at the end of October 1948, after commanding Operation Hiram, in which Israeli forces committed some of the worst atrocities in the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The crimes were so serious that some leading Zionists described them as Nazi actions.
Carmel’s book and dozens like it – brigade books, memoirs and military histories – could be found on the shelves of Israeli Jewish homes from 1948 onwards. Revisiting them, 70 years on, reveals an elementary truth: it would have been possible to write the “new history” of 1948 without a single new declassified document, but only if these open sources, as I call them, had been read with non-Zionist lenses.
The famous – and by now overused – expression that history is written by the victors can be countered in many ways. One way is by unpacking the victors’ publications in order to expose the lies, fabrications and misrepresentations, as well as their less conscious actions.
A rereading of these open sources about the Nakba, mostly written by Israelis themselves, unlocks fresh historiographical perspectives on the big picture of that period – while declassified documents allow us to see that picture in a higher resolution.
This reprise could have been done at any moment between 1948 and today – as long as historians were willing to employ the critical lens needed for such an examination.
Rereading these open sources, especially in tandem with the numerous oral histories of the Nakba, reveals the barbarism and dehumanization that accompanied the catastrophe. The barbarism is common to settler communities in the formative years of their colonization projects and can sometimes be obscured by the dry and evasive language of military and political documents.
I do not mean to belittle the importance of archival documents. They are important for telling us what happened. However, the open sources and oral histories are crucial for understanding the meaning of what happened.
Such a rereading exposes the settler-colonial DNA of the Zionist project and the place of the 1948 ethnic cleansing within it.
Dehumanization on a massive scale
Take the Carmel quotation, for instance. How could someone overseeing such atrocities write so compassionately?
The clue is in another sentence in the same quotation that appears almost as a digression: “And then I noticed a 16-year-old boy, totally naked smiling at us, when we passed him (funny, when I passed him I did not tell because of his nakedness to which people he belonged and I only saw him as a human being).”
For one very exceptional short moment, that Palestinian kid was humanized (within the parentheses in the text). But dehumanization occurred on a scale we witness only in massive crimes such as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The rule was that children were considered as part of the enemy, who had to be cleansed for the sake of a Jewish state or as Carmel put it – a day after he finished his Galilee tour – for the sake of liberation.
He published this message to his troops: “The whole Galilee, the ancient Israeli Galilee, was liberated by the powerful and devastating force of the IDF [Israel’s military] … We eliminated the enemy, we destroyed it and caused it to flee … We [conquered] Meiron [Mayrun], Gush Halav [Jish], Sasa and Malkiya … We destroyed the enemies’ nests of Tarshiha, Eilabun, Mghar and Rami … The castles of the enemy fell one after the other.”
Seventy years after the Nakba, the Hebrew language is as important a tool as access to the closed Israeli archives. The Hebrew text clearly tells you who the enemy was – the enemy that fled, was eliminated and expelled from its “castles.”
They are the people Carmel met. And for a moment, he was moved by their suffering.
The most important discursive elements in these kinds of reports are the concepts of liberation and elimination (shihrur and hisul). What this meant, in reality, was an attempt to indigenize the occupiers of Palestine through the de-indigenization of the Palestinians.
This is the essence of a settler-colonial project and Carmel’s book – and those by others – reveal it in full. Carmel saw the 1948 occupation as a redemption of the Roman Galilee.
These violent acts against the Palestinians had very little to do with finding a haven from anti-Semitism.
The Zionist project was, and still is, a project of de-indigenizing the Palestinian population and replacing it with one comprised of Jewish settlers. It was in many ways the implementation of a romantic nationalist ideology, the like of which fed fanatic Italian and German nationalism in the late 19th century and beyond.
This link is clear in books about the brigades in the Israeli army. One such book, The Alexandroni Brigade and The War of Independence, is a case in point.
The Alexandroni Brigade was entrusted with the occupation of much of Palestine’s coast, north of Jaffa, about 60 villages in total. Before occupation of the villages, the troops were taught about the historical context of their operations. The narrative provided by the commanders is repeated in the book in two chapters. The first is titled “The Military Past of the Alexandroni Space” and it begins by saying “the front in which the Alexandroni Brigade faced in the war of Independence is unique in the military history of the region and of Eretz Israel [Greater Israel] in particular.”
This was the Sharon – the coast of Palestine in the Zionist narrative – which is an invented term with no roots in history. The Sharon, the book on the Alexandroni Brigade tells us, was “a rich and quite fertile land” that “attracted” armies during their “occupation journeys” into the land of Israel. This historical chapter is full of tales of heroism, claiming, for example, “this is where [the people of] Israel under [the prophet] Shmuel confronted the Philistines.”
The Hebrews were always disadvantaged in the battle against their enemies but “then as today, it was the superior spirit that tipped the balance in favor of Israel.”
Under Baibars, the Mamluk sultan, the Sharon was destroyed as an agricultural land and “from then on the Sharon would regain its economic vitality until its resettlement with the Zionist immigration [aliya],” the book states. Baibars, by the way, had been there in 1260. So the book on the Alexandroni Brigade tells its readers that the Sharon had been without people for more than 600 years, which is Zionist fabrication of history at its best.
During the Ottoman period the Sharon “was in total devastation, saturated with swamps and malaria,” the book adds. “Only with the Jewish aliya and settlement in the end of the 19th century a new period of prosperity [in the Sharon’s history] began.”
The Zionists “returned” the Sharon to its former glory and it became one of the most Jewish areas in the “Mandatory Eretz Israel” – as the book calls Palestine when it was administered by a British mandate.
“Villages must be destroyed”
The ethnic cleansing of the Hebrew coast began while Palestine was under British control. Britain was, in many respects, a vital ally of the Zionist movement. Yet it did not facilitate the colonization of Palestine as quickly as some Zionists wanted. The book on the Alexandroni Brigade even depicts Britain as being a sometimes inhuman obstacle to Jewish “redemption.”
So the Sharon clearly still had Arabs in it. The book describes the region as the lifeline for the Jewish community, yet suggests that Jewish life was disrupted by the many surrounding Arab villages.
It was mainly the eastern part of the Sharon that was “purely Arab and constituted the main threat towards the Jewish settlements; a threat that had to be taken into account in any military planning.”
The “threat” was “taken into account” first by isolated attacks on villages. The book says that up to 29 November 1947 the relationship between Jews and Palestinians was good and continued to be so after that date. And yet a sentence later the books tells us that “in the beginning of 1948, the process of abandoning isolated Arab villages began. One can see the early signs for this in the abandonment of Sidan Ali (al-Haram) by its 220 Arab inhabitants and Qaisriya by its 1,100 Arab inhabitants in mid-February 1948.” There were two massive expulsions that took place while the British forces who were responsible for law and order, watched on and did not interfere. Then “in March with the escalation of the fighting, the process of abandonment intensified.”
The “escalation” came with the implementation of Plan Dalet – a blueprint for destroying Palestinian villages. The book on the Alexandroni Brigade brings a summary of the orders emanating from the plan. The orders include the task of “determining the Arab villages that must be seized or destroyed.”
There were 55 villages, according to the book, in the area occupied according to Plan Dalet. The Hebrew Sharon was almost completely “liberated” in March 1948 when the coast “was cleansed” from Arab villages apart from four. In the language of the book: “Most of the areas near the coast were cleansed from Arab villages, apart from … a ‘small triangle’ and in it the Arab villages of Jaba, Ein Ghazal and Ijzim – which stuck out like a sore thumb, overlooking the Tel Aviv-Haifa road; there were also Arabs in Tantura on the beach.”
A deeper analysis of these texts and other open sources would shed light on the structural nature of the ongoing settler colonial project in Palestine, the ongoing Nakba.
The history of the Nakba is thus not only a chronicle of the past, but an examination of a historical moment that is continuing in the historian’s time. Social scientists are far more equipped to deal with “moving targets” – namely analyzing contemporary phenomena – but historians, so we are told, need distance to reflect on and see the full picture.
On the face it, 70 years should provide enough distance, but on the other hand, this is like an attempt to understand the Soviet Union, or for that matter the Crusades, by contemporaries, and not by historians.
Sites of memory, to use Pierre Nora’s concept, as well as the scholarly leaps of recent years are triggered not by declassification per se, but by their relevance to contemporary struggles.
Oral history projects, as well as the brigade books, are all crucial and accessible sources that penetrate the genuine and cynical Zionist, and later Israeli, shields of deception. They help understand why the concept of a democratic or enlightened settler state is an oxymoron.
Israel’s approved history
A deconstruction of Israel’s approved history is the best way to challenge a word laundrette that turns ethnic cleansing into self-defense, land robbery into redemption and apartheid practices into “security” concerns.
There is a sense, on the one hand, that after years of denial, the historiographical picture has been revealed worldwide with clear contours and colors. The Israeli narrative has been challenged successfully both in the academic world and in the public domain.
And yet there is a sense of frustration, given the limited access to declassified documents in Israel to scholars, even Israeli ones, while Palestinian scholars can hardly hope in the current political climate to have any access at all.
Going beyond the archival documents about the Nakba is, therefore, necessary not only for a better understanding of the event. It may also be a solution for researchers in the future, given the new Israeli policy on declassification.
Israel has closed most of the 1948 documents.
The alternative sources and approaches suggested in this piece highlight several points. A knowledge of Hebrew is helpful and the need to continue with oral history projects is essential.
The settler colonial paradigm also remains relevant for analyzing afresh both the Zionist project and resistance to it. Yet there are still issues with the adaptability of the paradigm – such as whether it can be applied to Jews from Arab countries who moved to Palestine – and these should be further explored.
But more than anything else we should insist that commitment to Palestine is not an obstacle for good scholarship but an enhancer of it. As Edward Said wrote: “But where are facts if not embedded in history, and then reconstituted and recovered by human agents stirred by some perceived or desired or hoped-for historical narrative whose future aim is to restore justice to the dispossessed?”
Justice and facts, moral positions, professional acumen and scholarly accuracy should not be juxtaposed one against the other but rather seen as all contributing to a wholesome historiographical enterprise. Very few historiographical projects are in need of such an integrative approach as the research on the ongoing Nakba.
The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.