Why the inconvenient truths of the Nakba must be recognized

By Tom Pessah

Limor Livnat was furious. The minister of culture was speaking at a Knesset discussion about the Independence Day arrests in Tel Aviv, following an attempt by a small non-profit called Zochrot to commemorate the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948. The Israeli police surrounded the Zochrot office in central Tel Aviv, preventing the activists from exiting. One person spent a night in jail for reading aloud the names of destroyed Palestinian villages from a history book. But Livnat’s anger wasn’t directed at the police, but rather at those arrested:

I went in with my iPhone to the Zochrot association [website], and there it was. There are some details there, including places. What are the Arab villages that the Zochrot association is talking about, that it tries to present to the public? The public should know what this is about. They present a map, and the map has dots. Dots, dots, dots […] from the north of the country to its south, south of Be’er Sheva. And these dots, which are the villages we’re talking about, the points are in all the State of Israel! Not in Judea and Samaria, not in the Gaza region, not in what you call the Occupied Territories […] Here, inside Tel Aviv! I found some like that in the Tel Aviv area, dozens of dots.

During and around the 1948 war, over 400 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed by Israeli forces. Over 80 percent of the Arab population of what became the State of Israel was either expelled or banned from returning. Many of those who managed to stay were internally displaced, their village lands were given to Jewish communities or turned into parks. These are all documented historical facts, yet their discussion is considered so outrageous that the minister of culture didn’t need to explain what was wrong: for her, it was self-evident that a website mentioning destroyed Palestinian villages inside Israel (even inside Tel Aviv!) is an abomination.

Israelis, especially younger generations, approach the history of 1948 through a number of well-trodden formulas: the UN decided on a partition creating a Jewish and Arab state, the Arabs refused, neighboring Arab countries intervened, and at the end of a bloody war, some Palestinians found themselves on the other side of the border. These things, we are told, happen in wars.

I remember hearing for the first time about the expulsion of Majdal, today Ashkelon. The town had been known as the “Arab Manchester,” and several of its textile workers were affiliated with the Histadrut labor union. Despite protests from the Histadrut, the town’s inhabitants were loaded onto trucks and dumped in the nearby Gaza Strip. But this didn’t “happen in war.” It happened in 1950, after the ceasefire. When I heard this for the first time, I thought it must be a mistake: how could this have happened after the war? What was the security reason?

Israeli historian Benny Morris found a communique from the previous year by Yigal Allon, one of the senior commanders, who urged the army to transfer the town’s Arabs. For him, the Palestinian population was too close to the Egyptian front lines, and their presence could serve as a base for enemy infiltration. In June 1948, Allon thought the Arabs of Ramle would also be a threat, and gave orders to expel them. In April of that year, according to his own testimony, he used threats to push the Palestinians of the eastern Galilee to flee: their villages could have served as bases for the Syrian army. And, according to a letter he wrote to Ben-Gurion, he would also have liked to have conquered the West Bank to eliminate the security risk posed by the Jordanian army. This letter mentions a potential problem, the presence of a civilian population, but Allon reassures Ben-Gurion that “a large part, especially the refugees, will retreat eastwards as a result of the military operations… The plan for the offensive must take into account leaving an opening for the retreat of the enemy army, and the refugees following it.”  Had Ben-Gurion resumed the offensive, the West Bank could have been emptied too.

When you dive into the history of 1948, certain features become familiar. Some Palestinians used violence against Jews; some generals stretched the definition of security risk to its widest possible interpretation. There were Israelis who protested: Ben Dunkelman, the commander who conquered Nazareth refused to expel its inhabitants; Rabin recalls how soldiers instructed to drive out Lydda’s population had to undergo “extensive propaganda activities.” But most Israelis didn’t object: they trusted their security forces that had successfully repelled the incoming Arab armies, and they often benefited from the vast properties the refugees left behind.

Remaining unaware of this history is a form of illiteracy: it has deeply influenced anyone living in the country or connected to it in any way. The simplistic formulas that most Israelis believe leave them incapable of understanding Palestinian experiences and expectations, and are a major barrier to reconciliation. And ignorance of the systematic expulsions enable them to continue in different forms – see, for example,  current plans to displace tens of thousands of Bedouins in the Negev.

Jewish Israeli history will remain intertwined with the fate of Palestinians. Genuine awareness of our shared history is essential. Zochrot is holding another event to commemorate the Nakba: this time they invited Livnat. Perhaps one day she, or another minister of culture, will attend.

Tom Pessah is an Israeli sociology student, currently studying the Nakba as part of his PhD