The Israeli daily Maariv recently reported [in Hebrew] that BTS, a mercenary firm run by a former Israeli army colonel and veteran bodyguard, Beni Tal, proposed to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai a plan to violently expel thousands of African migrant workers and refugees living near Tel Aviv’s central bus station.
According to Maariv, Tal told Tel Aviv municipal representatives he would gather intelligence on the African migrant population before sending in hundreds of security guards to cuff them and ship them away on buses or trucks. “This should be a very violent action,” Tal said.
“I have never seen a place so violent, not even in the roughest parts of New York,” Tal remarked. “So we need to bring in guys who are not afraid of anything, put people on trucks, and within six months return the bus station to its residents… This population [Africans] is very problematic.”
Though the Tel Aviv municipality ultimately rejected Tal’s proposal, Maariv reported that a municipal official brought the plan up in a meeting of the Israeli Knesset’s Special Committee regarding Foreign Workers. The representative claimed he raised Tal’s proposal merely to highlight the supposed severity of the situation in southern Tel Aviv.
I have spent countless hours in Tel Aviv’s central bus station and in the surrounding Neve Shaanan neighborhood, where much of the city’s migrant worker population lives. The only people who have ever threatened me there were plainclothes agents from Israel’s Oz Unit, which routinely accosts and arrests migrants around the bus station, and who once stopped me by the bus station to demand proof I was in the country legally.
The neighborhood may be impoverished and overcrowded, but it is hardly dangerous by urban American standards. When a Maariv reporter confronted Tal with the fact that crime in Neve Shaanan was no higher than anywhere else in the city, he protested that the statistics were false, but was unable to produce evidence to support his point.
Some migrants from Africa have arrived in Israel to occupy the menial jobs that Palestinians performed before they were tucked behind a separation wall and Gaza was completely besieged. They are the glue that holds Tel Aviv together, washing dishes, cooking food, cleaning bathrooms, and changing children’s diapers so the city’s Jewish residents can enjoy the First World, Eurocentric lifestyle they have come to expect. Others arrived from Africa fleeing war and civil strife. By some estimates, 60 percent of Sudanese migrants are eligible for asylum status.
David Sheen’s devastating video documentary [above] illustrates how Israel’s draconian approach to African refugees is rooted in deeply ingrained racist attitudes and an official policy of countering demographic threats. Sheen’s report highlights how security concerns were manufactured to establish a pretext for enforcing the state’s exclusivist priorities against those condemned as “infiltrators.”
The recently passed “Prevention of Infiltration Bill,” which mandates a three year prison sentence without trial for illegal migrants, was nothing more than an amendment to the pre-existing 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law” enacted after the Nakba to prevent Palestinian refugees from reuniting with their family members inside the newly created state of Israel. As Israeli human rights activist Leehee Rothschild wrote, “At the end of the day, the justification for both the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law as well was the new amendment is one and the same – the maintenance of the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”
Last month, Israel began construction on what will be the world’s largest detention center. Labeled by none other than Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin as a “concentration camp where people are warehoused,” the prison will sit in the Negev Desert on the grounds of what was once Ketziot Prison, a detention camp for Palestinian detainees staffed by the Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The new super-jail is being erected for the sole purpose of containing migrants and asylum seeking refugees fleeing from Africa.
Describing the desert prison as a “humanitarian solution,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu justified its construction on the grounds that African refugees threaten to “change the character of the state.”
Update #2: A friend wonders if Doug Feith, who is now advising Perry on foreign policy, was the one who slipped Fehrenbach’s quote in.
Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate and current Texas Governor Rick Perry attacked President Barack Obama and the Palestinian UN statehood bid in a foreign newspaper, the Jerusalem Post. Perry devoted most of the editorial to assailing Obama as anti-Israel. But buried in the op-ed, in a line intended to highlight the shared values of Texas and Israel, Perry quoted the historian T.R. Fehrenbach. “Historian T.R. Fehrenbach once observed that my home state of Texas and Israel share the experience of ‘civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies,'” Perry wrote.
Fehrenbach published an authoritative book on the ethnic cleansing of the Comanche Indians by the Anglo settlers of Texas. He wrote with deep sympathy for the indigenous population, and though he expressed a strong identification with Texan culture, he was harshly critical of the settlers’ cruely toward the native population. Perry’s quoting of Fehrenbach seemed curious, so I opened up my copy of Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans” to see if he cited the historian accurately. When I found the passage Perry had pulled from, my suspicions were realized: Perry (or more likely some half-wit speechwriter) had distorted Fehrenbach’s original text and taken it wildly out of context.
The full passage Perry quoted from is on page 257 of Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star:”
The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land. It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies they despised. The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.
Fehrenbach would have agreed with Perry that Texas shared values with Israel. But unlike Perry, he thought that those values were all the wrong ones: hatred of the other, a reliance on violence to seize land, and a legacy of ethnic cleansing. According to Fehrenbach, what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1947 and ’48 — and continues to do — is analogous to the Texans’ treatment of the Comanches and Mexicans during the 19th century. The comparison highlights Israel’s distinction as the world’s last settler-colonial state; a country based on an anachronistic system of ethnic exclusivism. It is hard to imagine that Perry would have scored any political points by quoting Fehrenbach accurately. So instead, in the name of his presidential ambitions, he distorted and abused the writing of one of the Lone Star state’s most celebrated historians.
Pro-Israel commentators are generally loath to engage in discussions of the history surrounding Israel’s creation. When they do, they generally resort to tired and discredited myths about the Palestinians running away at their leaders’ behest, or about the Nakba being “self-inflicted,” as Jeffrey Goldberg said recently. Nakba denial is an important feature of hasbara, not only because acknowledging the real history of Palestinian dispossession in 1947, ’48 and in the years afterwards erodes the foundation of the Zionist narrative, but because the Nakba continues on both sides of the Green Line to this day.
Besides the Israeli army, there is no single organization more intimately involved in the ongoing Nakba than the Jewish National Fund. Originally called the Jewish Colonial Trust, the JNF was in charge of buying land from absentee landlords, then evicting thousands of tenants and residents in Palestine, transforming an entire agricultural class into landless peasants. In the 1930’s, JNF director Yosef Weitz helped lead David Ben Gurion’s Transfer Committee, which planned the widespread campaign ethnic cleansing that would take place beginning in 1947, one year before the foundation of Israel. After the state confiscated millions of dollars of Palestinian land and property, it began leasing it out through the JNF, which declares in its charter that it only leases to Jews. The JNF also planted non-native forests on top of dozens of destroyed Palestinian villages so their residents would have nothing to return to — greenwashing in its ultimate form. (Everything I have referenced is described in greater detail here).
Nowadays, the JNF is leading a violent campaign to expel the Bedouin residents of Al Arakib, a village in the Negev Desert so it can build a forest on behalf of GOD TV, an anti-Semitic evangelical broadcasting network that says it is planting trees in Israel to prepare the land for Christ’s return. Talk about an unholy alliance. The residents of Al Arakib, who have been shot by rubber bullets, beaten, and jailed, have been ordered to move to a “development town” (read: Indian reservation) built by the Or Movement, a JNF subsidiary. For a comprehensive look at the JNF’s seamy agenda and long record of human rights violations, go to the link above and check out the four volume JNF e-book series (my writing and reporting is featured in two editions).
On May 16, a day after worldwide Nakba observances, me and a few friends confronted attendees of a JNF fundraising event in New York’s Lincoln Center called “Broadway Sensation.” We handed out small trees planted next to small cards featuring the names of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages. The prop allowed us to attempt to discuss the history of the Nakba and the JNF’s role in it with some of the JNF’s major donors. Their hostility to engaging with us was revealing. They knew nothing about the JNF’s involvement in ethnic cleansing and didn’t want to know. Before long we were asked to leave by security guards.
On our way out we noticed on a flier for the event that the JNF’s donors were being entertained by the Scottsboro Boys, a Broadway show about a group of African-Americans wrongly convicted of rape. While some have hailed the show as humorous and well-choreographed, the African-American theater and arts critic Valerie Gladstone called it “a callous production in…questionable taste.” It’s hard to blame her for being so harsh. After all, the musical is a literal minstrel show that is performed during parts by black actors wearing blackface.
Here is a taste of the entertainment the JNF selected for its donors:
Yesterday, the Israeli army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators seeking to reach Majdel Shams, a village in the occupied Golan Heights. When the demonstrators breached a border fence, the army opened fire, killing several of them. Among those who made it through was Hassan Hijazi. Hijazi hitch-hiked and rode buses from the border to Jaffa, hoping to find his family’s confiscated home. “It was always my dream to reach Jaffa,” he told police after turning himself in.
At the Gaza border, the army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators with tanks, injuring dozens. Israeli forces fired unusually high amounts of teargas at protesters in Qalandiya, wounding scores in the West Bank city which was completely surrounded by the separation wall. Joseph Dana, who documented the Qalandiya protest, told me a group of shabab attempted to pull down a section of the wall but failed in somewhat comical fashion because their rope was too short.
Now that Israeli forces are conducting house-to-house searches for those who managed to surmount the Jewish state’s demographic walls, the word “infiltrator” has retured to the Israeli vocabulary. The term was coined in the months and years after the Nakba when the Israeli military focused on preventing those it had expelled in 1947 and ’48 from returning to their villages, their land and their families. Israel’s search and expulsion operations, designed to maintain the demographic integrity that the Zionist militias established through ethnic cleansing, represent an under-acknowledged but absolutely crucial component of the history of the Nakba. Indeed, the Nakba did not end in 1948.
Perhaps the most comprehensive account of Israel’s efforts to prevent the refugees from returning home is Benny Morris’ 1993 book, “Israel’s Border Wars: 1949-1956.” Morris’ flaws — his crude racism, rejection of Arab historians and sources, and allegiance to Zionism — are well known. As a pure archivist, however, he is among the best. The sections in his book on infiltration depict in cold, clinical detail the Israeli military’s tactics against those who tried to return. They included detaining refugees in barbed wire enclosed camps that reminded some observers of Nazi Germany; the extraction of fingernails and other torture methods; and forced marches through the desert without food or water. Tawfiq Toubi, the first Arab to serve in Israel’s Knesset, called the search and expulsion operations “pogroms.”
Below, I have excerpted several testimonies about Israel’s operations to stop “infiltration:”
In May 1950, a woman from a kibbutz in the South witnessed Palestinian refugees being packed into trucks and unloaded at a camp [pp. 147-48]:
We were waiting for a hitch beside one of the big army camps… Suddenly two large trucks arrived, packed with blindfolded Arabs (men, women, and children). Several of the soldiers guarding them got down to drink and eat a little, while the rest stayed on guard. To our question ‘Who are these Arabs?’ they responded: ‘These are infiltrators, on their way to being returned over the borders.’ The way the Arabs were crowded together [on the trucks] was inhuman. Then one of the soldiers called his friend ‘the expert’ to make some order [among the Arabs]. Those of us standing nearby had witnessed no bad behavior on the part of the Arabs, who sat frightened, almost one on top of the other. But the soldiers were quick to teach us what they meant by ‘order. The ‘expert’ jumped up and began to…hit [the Arabs] across their blindfolded eyes and when he had finished, he stamped on all of them and then, in the end, laughed uproariously and with satisfaction at his heroism. We were shocked by this despicable act. I ask, does this not remind us exactly of the Nazi acts towards the Jews? And who is responsible for such acts of brutality committed time and time again by our soldiers?
In June 1949, Israeli forces rounded up 5000 accused infiltrators in Nazareth and imprisoned them in a barbed-wire compound. The episode disturbed then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who worried for Israel’s international image. He complained to Ben Gurion [p. 149]:
The army did not allow anyone to remain at home. Among those incarcerated [behind the barbed wire] there were also pregnant women, babies, tired old people, and the sick. The army made no distinction between ordinary folk and notables, so that among those incarcerated was the Arab magistrate of Nazareth… All these people were held in the compound for several hours, in overcrowded conditions, and without food and water. There were outbursts of shouting and yelling by the prisoners and on one occasion the troops fired over the crowd’s heads… I heard from a Jewish member of Knesset who visited Nazareth last Saturday that there had been thefts of money from [some] empty houses [during the round-up].
On May 31 1950, the Israeli army forced 120 Palestinian “infiltrators” into two crowded trucks and drove them to Arava, a point on the Jordanian border, then forced them to march across the desert, firing shots over their heads to urge them on. According to Alec Kirkbride, the British minister in Amman, over 30 died of thirst and starvation during the forced march. The group had spent the past weeks in a makeshift detention center in Qatra that Kirkbride described as ” a concentration camp…run on Nazi lines.” One survivor, according to Morris, had his fingernails torn out.
John Glubb, the latter-day Lawrence of Arabia who had trained the Jordanian army, witnessed the scene with horror. “The Jews want them all to emigrate,” he wrote. “They therefore try to persuade them with rubber coshes and by tearing off their fingernails whenever they get the chance… I do not know whether this is the policy of the Israel cabinet, but it must certainly be known and winked at on a ministerial level… The brutality is too general to be due only to the sadism of ordinary soldiers.”
On June 11 1950, the journalist Philip Toynbee (son of historian Arnold Toynbee) published an account on the front page of the Observer based on his interviews with the survivors of the Arava incident. Toynbee, whom Morris noted was “sympathetic towards Israel,” implied similarities between Israel and Nazi Germany. He wrote [pp. 160-61]:
One member of the outcast race [the Palestinians], a heavy young man with the dull vacant look of Van der Lubbe [the Dutchman falsely arrested and executed by the Nazis for setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933], had been arrested while grazing a cow near the state frontier. The blue-uniformed [Israeli] police with almost incredible naivete…believed him to be a spy… and two of his fingernails were pulled out before they learned better. A young schoolmaster entered [Israel] illegally in order to be again with his family. He was…immediately arrested. One old mason, driven desperate by unemployment, tried to get out of [Israel] to escape. About a hundred of them collected from all parts of the State were taken from the prison camp, [and] herded into two motor trucks… The army blind[folded] them, barking at them and waving their rubber coshes.
On the long tedious journey through the burning countryside one of the victims would occasionally try to see but was hit over the face or back with a cosh…At last…they reached the remotest…part of the frontier. It was no eight o’clock in the evening and they had had nothing to eat and drink all day. A compassionate captain ordered two buckets of water to be brought, but as soon as his back was turned the soldiers spilled the water into the dust. The bandages were now taken from their eyes and they were told that three would be counted and anyone not running by then would be shot…As they ran Bren gunfire opened above and between them so that they were forced to split up into groups of three and four. This story, I know, is sickeningly familiar, and it is only the roles which have been changed. The outcast race is not the Jews and the state is not…Nazi Germany…
The frontier area is the terrible Wadi Araba…a desert valley far below sea level where only lizards and locusts can live, and where in the daytime the sand scorches the bare flesh. Since there was only moonlight when the prisoners were released, nearly all were hopelessly lost by the time the sun rose…The luckiest were picked up on the second day by friendly Bedouins… Others were wandering for four days, eating lizards and drinking stagnant water or their own urine… By the fourth day some 70 out of 1000 had been saved, but many had stories of others they had been forced to leave dying in the desert… I interviewed nine or ten of them separately…their stories coincided… I saw weals and sores caused by prison beating, scorched and swollen feet, and two almost nailless fingers of the young grazier… Nothing can excuse the inhuman brutality of their treatment.
Moshe Dayan, who was then the head of the army’s Southern Command, blamed the atrocities at Arava on “Turkish and Moroccan [Jewish] soldiers” who “lack moral fiber.” He added, “I hope that there will perhaps be another opportunity in the future to transfer these Arabs from the Land of Israel, and as long as such a possibility exists, we must do nothing to foreclose the option.”
Joseph Kuzkovsky's painting, "Led to the Slaughter -- Baba Yar," hangs in a hallway in the Israeli Knesset
The Nakba briefly appears in Tom Segev’s magisterial history of Israel and the Holocaust, “The Seventh Million.” In a single (very long) paragraph, Segev tells the story of how survivors of a genocide were transformed by the Zionist enterprise into participants in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Photo by Oren Ziv of the initial expulsion and destruction of Al Arakib, a Bedouin village in the Negev that the state of Israel has destroyed 21 times in the past year
Segev writes on pp. 161-62: “Then the War of Independence broke out, and tens of thousands of homes were suddenly available. This was what Shaul Avigur called ‘the Arab miracle’: Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled, and were expelled from their homes. Entire cities and hundreds of villages left empty were repopulated in short order with new immigrants. In April 1949 they numbered 100,000, most of them Holocaust survivors. The moment was a dramatic one in the war for Israel, and a frightfully banal one, too, focused as it was on the struggle over houses and furniture. Free people–Arabs–had gone into exile and become destitute refugees; destitute refugees–Jews–took the exiles’ places as a first step in their new lives as free people. One group lost all they had, while the other found everything they needed–tables, chairs, closets pots, pans, plates, sometimes clothes, family albums, books, radios, and pets. Most of the immigrants broke into the abandoned Arab houses without direction, without order, without permission.For several months the country was caught up in a frenzy of take-what-you-can, first-come, first-served. Afterwards, the authorities tried to halt the looting and take control of the allocation of houses, but in general they came too late. Immigrants also took possession of Arab stores and workshops, and some Arab neighborhoods soon looked like Jewish towns in prewar Europe, with tailors, shoemakers, dry goods merchants–all the traditional Jewish occupations.”