Across Israel, the sirens have been blaring out this week, closing shops and offices early and bringing Israelis to a minute’s silent halt wherever they find themselves, whether in the house or pulled into a layby at the side of the road. Israel has been commemorating its soldiers who fell in the country’s many wars: a long roll call of names appeared on television screens, and military cemeteries were packed with visiting families.
But yesterday, on 3 May, the sombre mood finally lifted as Israel celebrated its 58th Independence Day, marking the declaration of statehood on midnight 14 May 1948 (the anniversary varies every year because it is commemorated according to the Hebrew calendar). Boisterous youngsters piled into the streets, enjoying free public concerts and firework displays, and families headed to the forests for barbecues. Every other car seems to be flying an Israeli flag.
In Nazareth Elite, the Jewish town built above Nazareth on land confiscated from its Arab neighbour, children barely able to walk were guided by parents over the massive metal frames of two bunting-festooned tanks stationed in a public park. Older boys and girls played at being gunners or learnt how to operate an army radio. Similar scenes were played out in towns across the country.
But not everyone was included in the celebrations. One in five of Israel’s population is Palestinian. The names of their dead from the 1948 war — including unarmed women and children killed in a spate of massacres documented by Israeli historians — were not listed on television. In Nazareth the local children were not offered tanks as playthings, nor did friendly officers come offering lessons in soldiering.
There is no other time when the two national historical narratives contained in Israel are so at odds: the celebrations in Jewish communities could be taken for gloating were it not so apparent that most Israeli Jews have almost no appreciation that their own nation’s gains came at another nation’s expense. Few Israeli Jews understand that the “Arabs” living alongside them — those sitting next to them in the doctor’s surgery or restaurant, or shopping by them in the mall — might have little cause to celebrate this time of year.
Many Israeli Jews have never heard of the Nakba (the Catastrophe), the mirror event to Israel’s Independence, when at least 80 per cent of the Palestinian population — some 750,000 — were forced or terrorised to leave the land that would become Israel. It is not something discussed in Israeli schools or the Hebrew media.
A few Israeli historians, however, have shown that the exodus of Palestinians did not come about by chance; most likely Israel’s leaders, including the first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, plotted the expulsion through military operations such as Plan Dalet.
But if it was not carefully worked out in advance, the mass flight of Palestinians was certainly encouraged by the country’s founding fathers when they realised that well-publicised massacres of Palestinian civilians — like the infamous one at Deir Yassin near Jerusalem on 9 April 1948 — were terrorising away the native population.
After the year-long war in 1948, only 150,000 Palestinians remained inside the peripheries of the new state — in the northern region of the Galilee and in the southern desert of the Negev. The centre of the country, what today is Tel Aviv and its sprawling suburban hinterland, was almost entirely ethnically cleansed.
Even those observers who still object to the characterisation of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in 1948 as ethnic cleansing can hardly deny that in subsequent years Israel covered up the way it systematically dispossessed the Palestinians of their homeland under cover of war.
At the heart of the project was the destruction of more than 400 villages emptied of their Palestinian inhabitants by the Israeli army. The government set up a special department to oversee the razing of these Palestinian communities, officially on the grounds that Jews might find the remains upsetting and that the crumbling buildings were a safety hazard: children might fall into the wells, and the walls offered hiding places to snakes.
Next the Jewish National Fund used tax-deductible donations from American and European donors to buy millions of trees to bury the remains of the villages, creating national parks and forests to “camouflage the ruins”, as Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jersualem, once wrote. It is in these parks, scattered across Israel, that Israeli Jews celebrated Independence Day with barbecues.
Ensuring that the villages were placed permanently out of bounds to the refugees, even to those still living close by in Israel, was considered of paramount importance. Israel refused even the tiniest concession to the villagers, fearing that it might establish a precedent for the general right of return for the Palestinian refugees.
But in the past few years the absence of a Palestinian narrative of 1948 — one not acknowledged by Israeli Jews and little understood by Europeans and Americans — has been publicly challenged. Israel’s Palestinian citizens and a small number of Israeli Jews have joined together to show that the memories of 1948 cannot be erased as easily as Palestinian homes were.
Until the late 1990s, most of 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Israel — a quarter of the the country’s total Palestinian population — staged their own private commemorations in the villages from which they were expelled. They chose Israel’s Independence Day (even though it rarely fell on Nakba Day of 15 May) for the simple reason that it was the one day of the year when they could return to their destroyed homes without fear of arrest or intimidation. The authorities tacitly agreed to turn a blind eye.
But the refugees in Israel only got organised in the mid-1990s when they founded an Association for the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID), largely in response to Palestinian concessions on the right of return implicitly made in the Oslo agreements. Ever since the refugees have been arranging a main procession in a different village each year to mark the Nakba.
The event, say organisers, is an attempt to commemorate what is lost, to remind younger Palestinians in Israel of a history they cannot study in their schools, and increasingly to help Israeli Jews understand that there was traumatic flipside to their independence. One Jewish group, Zochrot (“Remembering” in Hebrew), has joined ADRID in its processions and has established a website that educates Israeli Jews about the Nakba in their own language.
This year the march was held in Umm al-Zinat, once an important village owning more than 5,500 acres on the lower slopes of Mount Carmel near Haifa. It was attacked by the Golani Brigade before sunrise on 15 May 1948, a few hours after the Declaration of Independence was issued.
There are still a few physical clues that 1,500 Palestinians once lived here: the stones littering the ground are the rubble of 250 houses that were wrecked by the army; the solid foundations of the school can be made out; and the gravestones of the cemetery are visible. No trace of the village’s mosque, however, is left. Vigorous Sabr cactuses originally used by Palestinian families to mark out the boundaries of their property have survived attempts to destroy them better than the houses. Covering all of it is a forest of fir trees planted many years ago courtesy of the Jewish National Fund.
In 1948 no resistance was provided by the villagers, peasant farmers who relied on income from selling the produce of their extensive olive groves and of their herds of sheep. But they were expelled nonetheless.
Most of Umm al-Zinat’s refugees were unable to attend the procession because they are now living in exile in Jordan or the West Bank. Israel almost always refuses entry permits to Palestinians from the occupied territories and Arab states.
Instead it was left to the small number of refugees who managed to stay inside Israel, today living nearby in Haifa or the Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel, to tell their story.
Badria Fachmawi, who was 14 when Israeli soldiers advanced on the village, says she remembers the sound of Israeli gunfire and fleeing with her parents and siblings. They had heard about the massacre at Deir Yassin a month earlier, she says, and knew it was dangerous to stay.
Her family ended up in Daliyat al-Carmel, where they were joined by as many as 10,000 refugees from other villages seeking shelter. Because the Druze had signed a pact with the Jewish state’s leaders to fight on Israel’s side, their communities were not attacked.
A few days later, she says, the Israeli army arrived with 18 buses to transport the refugees across the border into Jordan. “My father, uncle and cousins hid among the Druze and escaped the expulsion, which is the reason why we are still here today and most of the refugees are not.”
For the past 20 years, Badria and her family have ventured back to the village to pick the prickly-pear fruit of the cactuses that flourish on the mountainside. “It’s hard to come back, though, when we have so many sad memories associated with this place,” she said. “But it is important to bring the children here so that they know where they are from.”
Salim Fachmawi, a 65-year-old refugee from Umm al-Zinat, helped organise this year’s procession. He says he still remembers the war crimes the world has forgotten. Three of the village elders who refused to leave when the army arrived in 1948 were executed in cold blood, he says.
And later, when the buses arrived in Daliyat al-Carmel to expel the villagers to Jordan, armed guards took aside many of Umm al-Zinat’s men and arrested them. “They were just farmers but the Israeli army jailed them as prisoners of war for 18 months. Eventually they were exchanged by Israel for Jewish soldiers captured by Jordan.”
His aunt was on one of the expulsion buses that drove towards Jenin, from which the villagers were to be forced into Jordan. “She had with her her gold jewelry and savings stuffed into a pillowcase but she was not allowed to take any possessions with her. Her life savings were stolen by the soldiers.” Then, Salim says, the guards pushed the villagers towards Jenin, shouting, “Go to Abdullah!”, referring to the King of Jordan, and “Don’t look back or we will shoot.”
Salim’s commitment to the village has brought him into repeated confrontation with the authorities. In 1969 he spent two years under house arrest for his political activities. A week ago he was called to his local police station for interrogation after it was learnt that he had held meetings at his home about the march and posted adverts. “They asked me why I wanted to stage the march and I replied: ‘Because you built your state on my homeland. I am older than your state’. I am an old man and they cannot so easily intimidate me.”
Earlier, in 1998, when his father died at 93, Salim also clashed with the police. He had promised his father that he would bury him in the cemetery of Umm al-Zinat, the ruins of which have been fenced off. But when the family arrived with the coffin at the graveyard, they found it surrounded by more than 100 armed police.
“I spoke with the captain and told him of my promise to my father,” Salim said. “But he replied simply: ‘If you want to bury your father here you’ll have to bury me first’. I understood what he meant. We turned back and buried my father in Daliy instead.”
JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is www.jkcook.net