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Outliving memory

Al-Ahram Weekly – 4 April 2003

Khairieh Abu-Shusheh braved the checkpoints of East Jerusalem last week to make a pilgrimage to the village of Deir Yassin.
 
Here 55 years ago, in one of the darkest episodes of the Jewish state’s creation, nearly 100 men, women and children were butchered by the Irgun and Stern militias. Several captives were taken and paraded in Jerusalem before being killed.
 
The massacre on 9 April 1948, several weeks before the state of Israel had been declared, as well as news of other slaughters, triggered an exodus that ended in 80 per cent of the Arab population being forced from the new Jewish state.
 
Abu-Shusheh, a member of the Deir Yassin Remembered organisation, joined some 100 protestors last week outside the perimetre fence of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital — a complex of buildings which is all that remains of Deir Yassin.
 
It was only the second time that a commemoration had been held at the site. On the first occasion, in 1999, Abu-Shusheh and others brought a truck laden with 93 coffins for each of those killed. Police prevented all but five being carried to the old cemetery — now mostly hidden under the tarmac of the main road running through the west Jerusalem district of Givat Shaul.
 
This time too there was a heavy police presence, almost matching the turnout by the demonstrators.
 
Few Palestinians were in a position to join the procession: most are locked up by the military blockade of the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, for the first time, a delegation of 80 Jews attended the ceremony, many from a new organisation called Zochrot (Remember) which tries to educate Israelis about the history of 1948, including Israeli attacks on unarmed Palestinians and the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages.
 
The re-education of Israelis, however, is likely to be an uphill struggle if last week’s event was anything to go by. Dozens of Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, came out from neighbouring apartment blocks to curse the demonstrators. One old woman circled the group, repeatedly shouting: “Bleeding hearts”.
 
A black-skullcapped boy, no more than 10 years old, cornered Zochrot’s founder Eitan Bronstein and demanded of him: “Do you believe in the Torah? Do you know what it means to be a Jew? Are you really a Jew?”
 
“They have no idea or interest in what we are doing here,” said Ofer Neiman, a “refusenik”, one of several hundred men who have been jailed for refusing to serve in the army in the occupied territories. “We might as well be from Mars.”
 
Bronstein put up a list of 93 names of the known dead on the hospital’s fence as speakers told of Al-Nakba that befell the Palestinian people with the loss in 1948 of 78 per cent of their homeland — the area of Palestine taken by Israel in the ensuing war.
 
Abu-Shusheh had brought her neighbour, 81-year-old Abdul-Barakat, whose mother’s family was from Deir Yassin. Seventeen of his relatives were included on the list.
 
He recounted the morning when the Irgun and Stern militias arrived, waking the villagers with the sound of gunfire. “The slaughter began from 4am in the morning and lasted till 6pm,” he said. Those who fled ended up in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Jordan.
 
The leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, who went on to become a prime minister of Israel, later wrote that the massacre had been decisive in winning the Jews their state. The Palestinians, hearing of the killing, “were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives”.
 
Barakat, however, also recalled a different time, when Jews and Arabs lived as neighbours, when he had gone to the cinema and smoked nargilleh with Jewish friends. “One day, God willing, Jew and Arab will once again be able to breathe the air together.”
 
After the speeches, Bronstein erected a signpost to the village. “There are more than 400 villages that were destroyed in order to create our state but as a people we refuse to acknowledge the fact — even to this day,” he said.
 
“There are no signposts to any of them, nothing to acknowledge that they ever existed.”
 
Bronstein has held similar ceremonies at 10 other destroyed villages but says the signposts are always taken down by police or local families within hours. “At the moment, the signposting is just a symbolic act — we know that no one wants to know where these places are or what happened there.”
 
In fact, it is a popular misconception — encouraged by Israel — that most of the 400 or so “destroyed” villages were wrecked during the 1948 War. In fact, a large number survived intact or were only minimally damaged, including Deir Yassin.
 
The decision to erase them from the landscape of the new state was taken later. Levi Eshkol, the then head of the settlement division of the Jewish Agency, argued loudly for developing the remaining Palestinian villages as communities for newly arrived Jewish immigrants.
 
So why did so few of them survive? Aharon Shai, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, has spent years trying to find out. Israel’s two main land-holding bodies, the Jewish National Fund and Israel Lands Administration, refused to let him see their archives.
 
The true picture only emerged after he gained access to the records of the Association of Archeological Survey, housed in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. According to their files, a programme to destroy the villages was implemented jointly by the ILA and JNF in 1965 and carried on for several years.
 
The programme was described as “cleaning” the land and several arguments were martialled in its favour. One was that the villages were spoiling the landscape, another that unattended springs would encourage snakes and scorpions that could attack children. The Foreign Affairs Ministry was concerned that tourists might ask “unnecessary questions”, and the ILA argued that destruction would spare the country’s Arab citizens — or at least those who had been internally displaced — “the sorrow they felt when passing near their birth villages which they still long for”.
 
The Association of Archaeological Survey was established in 1964, its job being to issue permits for the destruction. By the 1967 War, the department had approved the razing of about 100 villages inside Israel. After the 1967 War, it turned its attention to destroying Palestinian villages in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
 
Many of the “destroyed villages”, like Saffuriya, close to Nazareth in the Galilee, are no longer visible, the rubble of their homes covered by fir trees planted to conceal the distant crime. But close to the fir trees large sabra cacti usually flourish, a sure sign, according to Palestinians, that a village once stood there.
 
But a few villages survive to this day wholly or in part. In Lifta, little more than a kilometre north of Deir Yassin, some 70 grand houses still stand, though they have been allowed to fall slowly to ruin. The remnants of the village are a faint echo of the 420 homes that once housed the 2,500 Palestinians forced to flee after militias gunned down six inhabitants in a local coffee house in early 1948.
 
Set in what was once an idyllic grassed valley, Lifta is now surrounded on three sides by the busy bypass roads that encircle Jerusalem.
 
Nowadays its only visitors are Hassidic Jews who make the steep descent on a rocky path to the centre of the village where a mikva pool, or Jewish ritual bath, has been created from the spring. An armed policeman stands guard by the water’s edge.
 
The same distance south of Deir Yassin is Ein Kerem, once home to 3,000 Palestinians. Most of the buildings have survived and the village has been reinvented as a Jewish community on the lines of Eshkol’s original plan.
 
The reputed birthplace of John the Baptist, Ein Kerem has three working churches.
 
The one mosque, however, sits neglected in a far corner of the village overlooking a wooded valley. It is untouched, although inaccessible: its doors are always padlocked shut and its windows concreted up.
 
The adjoining building has been turned into an art gallery and a trendy restaurant called the Pundak, where patrons can sip a beer in the terraced garden.
The young security guard on the door, Doron, says he doesn’t know much about the building’s history. “Once it was a farm, I think,” he says. Asked how old it is, he says that maybe it is 40 or 50 years old. “It’s pretty. It was done in an Ottomanic style,” he adds.

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