The first-ever “truth commission” in Israel will feature confessions from veteran Israeli fighters of the 1948 war that they perpetrated war crimes as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes. The event is the culmination of more than decade of antagonistic confrontations between a small group of activists called Zochrot, the Hebrew word for Remembering, and the Israeli authorities and much of the Jewish public.
For 66 years Israel’s founding generation has lived with a guilty secret, one it successfully concealed from the generations that followed. Forests were planted to hide war crimes. School textbooks mythologised Israel’s creation. The army was blindly venerated. But while Israeli Jews tried to enjoy guilt-free street parties last week, news reports focused on the Nakba marches held by the fifth of the population who Palestinians.
Palestinians were due to stage marches to commemorate Thursday the loss of their homeland 66 years ago – an event they call the Nakba, or “Catastrophe” – a little more than a week after Israeli Jews celebrated the anniversary of the Jewish state’s birth. But for many Israelis, it is becoming ever harder to mark their Independence Day without confronting the fact that Israel’s establishment created a new set of victims.
A dream long nurtured by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians made refugees during the establishment of the state of Israel has become a concrete reality at a small makeshift camp atop a windswept hill. A dozen young men have set up the camp at a site in the Upper Galilee from which their grandparents were expelled more than six decades ago. Today, all that remains of the village of Iqrit, close to Israel’s border with Lebanon, is a Catholic church on the hill’s brow. But in 1948, the village was home to 600 Christian Palestinians.
Nazareth found itself transformed twice-over by the 1948 war. A town of 13,000 more than doubled in size over the course of a few months as 15,000 refugees from nearby villages poured in seeking sanctuary from the Israeli army. And, with other cities vanquished inside the new state of Israel, Nazareth unexpectedly found itself the only urban Palestinian space to have survived. Swollen with refugees and in a position to become the political and cultural capital of the Palestinians inside Israel, the city attracted the sustained attention of Israel’s military and political leadership.
The discovery of a rare aerial photo of Jerusalem in the 1930s, taken by a Zeppelin, has provided the long-sought after proof that when Israel occupied the Old City in 1967 it secretly destroyed an important mosque that dated from the time of Saladin close to the al-Aqsa mosque. The destruction of the Sheikh Eid mosque – in an area widely considered to be the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – revives questions about Israel’s continuing abuse of Islamic holy places under its control.
On a rocky slope dropping steeply away from the busy main road at the entrance to West Jerusalem is to be found a scattering of ancient stone houses, empty and clinging precariously to terraces hewn from the hillside centuries ago. Although most Israeli drivers barely notice the buildings, the small ghost town of Lifta — neglected for the past six decades — is at the centre of a legal battle fuelling nationalist sentiments on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Despite the loss of their village, the 4,500 Palestinian refugees from Saffuriya and their descendants have clung to one hope: that the Jewish newcomers could not buy their land, only lease it temporarily from the state. According to international law, Israel holds the property of more than four million Palestinian refugees in custodianship, until a final peace deal determines whether they will be allowed back or compensated for their loss. But last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, forced through a revolutionary land reform.
Canada’s chief diplomat in Israel has been honoured at an Israeli public park – built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of international law – as one of the donors who helped establish the park on the ruins of three Palestinian villages. Jon Allen, Canada’s ambassador to Israel, is among several hundred Canadian Jews who have been commemorated at a dedication site. A plaque bearing Mr Allen’s name is attached to a stone wall constructed from the rubble of Palestinian homes razed by the Israeli army.
Visitors to Canada Park, a few kilometres north-west of Jerusalem, enjoy its spectacular panaromas, woodland paths, mountain-bike trails, caves and idyllic picnic areas. A series of signs describe the historical significance of the landscape, as well as that of a handful of ancient buildings, in terms of their Biblical, Roman, Hellenic and Ottoman pasts. Few, if any, visitors take notice of the stone blocks that litter sections of the park. But Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, is committed to educating Israelis and foreign visitors about the park’s hidden past – its Palestinian history.
Among the images of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations to be found on the internet is a photograph of CNN reporter Ben Wedeman being kicked firmly on the behind as he tries to run from the boot of an armed policeman. All around him, as other photographs reveal, journalists are fleeing for safety, families are being charged by mounted police, and parents can be seen grabbing toddlers as clouds of tear gas engulf them. The stragglers are shown with bloodied faces after a beating with police batons.
Salwa Salam Qupty clutches a fading sepia photograph of a young Palestinian man wearing a traditional white headscarf. It is the sole memento that survives of her father, killed by a Jewish militia during the 1948 war that established Israel. Six decades on from his death, she has never been allowed to visit his grave in Galilee and lay a wreath for the father she never met. This month, after more than 10 years of requests to the Israeli authorities, she learnt that officials are unlikely ever to grant such a visit, even though Mrs Qupty is an Israeli citizen and lives only a few miles from the cemetery.
There are few clues to help locate the cemetery of al Birwa. Its unmarked entrance is at the end of a dirt track, and most of the gravestones are strewn across untended, rocky ground. The brittle, sun-blasted stalks of Galilee thistle that shoot up from the ground here each spring are the only reliable visitors. This is the spot, close to the coastal city of Acre in northern Israel, where the family of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s “national poet”, said he would have chosen to be buried. Instead, he is due to be laid to rest today in Ramallah in the West Bank.
It has been a week of adulation from world leaders, ostentatious displays of military prowess, and street parties. Heads of state have rubbed shoulders with celebrities to pay homage to the Jewish state on its 60th birthday, while a million Israelis reportedly headed off to the country’s forests to enjoy the national pastime: a barbecue. But this year’s Independence Day festivities have concealed as much as they have revealed. The images of joy and celebration seen by the world have failed to acknowledge the reality of a deeply divided Israel, shared by two peoples with conflicting memories and claims to the land.
Amin Mohamed Ali (Abu Arab), 73, is a refugee from the village of Saffuriya, three miles northwest of Nazareth. The village, home to 5,000 Palestinians, was one of the largest in the Galilee and among the first to be bombed from the air, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Most of its refugees ended up in Lebanon, but some fled to nearby Nazareth, where they established a neighbourhood, Safafra, named after their village.