Tel Aviv University was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwannis. The university’s faculty lounge is the village mukhtar’s former home. At the corner of Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol streets, where the Century Tower skyscraper stands, a Palestinian village named Sommeil used to exist.
When activists from the Israeli group Zochrot set out into the heart of Tel Aviv’s “Independence Day” festivities to educate revelers about these facts, they were accused of engaging in criminal activities.
As soon as the activists attempted to exit an office building to place small placards on Ibn Gvirol Street memorializing Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba, riot police surrounded them with metal gates, blocking them inside. The police informed them that they would be arrested if they attempted to interact with the crowds celebrating Israel’s birth. “We will not allow you to enter the celebrations with your pictures or your fliers,” a cop told Zochrot’s Eitan Bronstein. “We will not allow this form of protest. It might disturb the peace so we won’t allow it.” Another police officer told Bronstein his placards represented “inciting material.”
Though the police repression can hardly be excused, there is some reason to believe the Zochrot activists could have been subjected to harsh violence if they had been allowed to proceed with their action. While caged behind the metal gates, passersby surrounded the activists and held forth. “You’re lucky the police is here. You should thank them,” said a bald, beefy man who had to be led away.
Another hulking character who identified himself as a member of Unit 51 from the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade paratrooper corps barked at the activists, “The only thing you are is a bunch of traitors. Every day people here are fighting… This is unbelievable. You are traitors and if we had the chance we would shoot you one by one. One by one we would shoot you…”
The demonstration concluded with police violently arresting three participants including one man for the crime of reading aloud the names of destroyed Palestinian villages.
Lia Tarachansky of the Real News Network filmed the melee. Her footage is below:
The repression of Zochrot’s educational action was the street level manifestation of the campaign the Israeli government has waged to mute discussion of the Nakba and punish those who violate the code of silence. Last year, the government passed a law that allows the denial of state funding to NGO’s that participate in Nakba commemorations. In 2009, it banned the use of the term “Nakba” in school textbooks. Limor Livnat, a right-wing Knesset member who co-sponsored the so-called Nakba Law and banned textbooks using the word during her term as Israel’s Education Minister, declared that merely allowing students to learn about the mass expulsion of Palestinians during 1947 and 1948 would encourage them to work against the Jewish state.
The images of brawny riot cops — literal thought police — roughing up the small band of Zochrot members for publicly reading “inciting” facts recalled a passage from a widely publicized book about the importance of promoting democracy around the globe. “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm,” the book read, “then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.”
The book is called “The Case For Democracy.” One of its authors, Natan Sharansky, was a former Soviet dissident who currently heads the Jewish Agency, a key arm of Israel’s settlement enterprise. The other author is Ron Dermer, an advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu known as “Bibi’s brain.” Together, the two called for overthrowing repressive regimes around the world, inspiring former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to quote their so-called “Town Square Test,” while they actively guided Israel’s descent into authoritarianism.
How could Sharansky and Dermer fail to see the irony in their actions? As the scenes from Zochrot’s demonstration illustrated, reflection is never an option in a fear society.
I recently spoke to Alternet’s Joshua Holland about law and politics in Israel. Our conversation focused on the image of Israel as a Western style democracy coping with legitimate security concerns versus the reality of Israel as an ethnocratic state managing its demographic peril through authoritarian measures approved by the Jewish majority. The discussion can be heard here. Below is a transcript via Alternet:
Joshua Holland: Max, I don’t want to talk about Iran today. I don’t want to talk about the Israeli lobby in the United States, and I don’t want to talk about the Occupation. I want to talk about something I don’t think gets enough attention in this country, which is the sharp rightward turn of the Israeli government.
One of the great non-sequiturs of our political discourse is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And I say it’s a great non-sequitur because it’s usually used as a response to, for example, criticism of the Occupation. You say this Occupation is terrible, and people say it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.
Anyway, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, accused Benjamin Netanyahu recently of, “an attempt to transform Israel into a type of dictatorship.” Kadima lawmakers said that recent legislation passed by the Knesset represented, “the gravest challenge to democracy since the establishment of the state in 1948.” Tell me about the sharp rightward lurch. When did this happen, because I remember when I was a kid Israel was almost a socialist country.
Max Blumenthal: Well, by not wanting to talk about Iran you’re an anti-Semite and I condemn that.
JH: Max, I’m a self-loathing Jew — please get this straight.
MB: Part of Netanyahu’s goal in focusing on Iran is taking the Palestinian question off the table, and so it’s good that you’re talking about this. Israel has never been a democracy in the sense that we think about a democracy. It’s a settler, colonial state that privileges the Jewish majority, which it created through violent methods of demographic manipulation over the indigenous Palestinian outclass.
That’s true even inside Israel. So when you hear people like Tzipi Livni — who is for now the head of the Kadima Party but soon to be ousted, and actually came out of the Likud Party and was aide to Ariel Sharon – when you hear liberal Zionists, people on the Zionist left, warning that Israel is turning into a fascist state what they’re talking is the occupation laws creeping back over the green line, and that these right-wing elements are actually starting to crack down on the democratic rights that have been afforded to the Jewish majority inside Israel. So Jews who are left-wingers, who are dissidents and speak out against state policy are actually beginning to feel a slight scintilla of the kind of oppression that Palestinians have felt since the foundation of the state of Israel. That’s where this criticism is coming from.
I think we really need to get beyond the discourse of occupation and the discourse of fascism, and instead to talk about institutional discrimination and apartheid, which is what has been present since the foundation of the state of Israel.
JH: Now I want to talk about some of the specific measures that have been proposed, some of which have passed. There are some things that have been pulled back or tabled temporarily due to international pressure, and other have actually gotten through and become law. Tell be about the crackdown on NGOs.
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.”