Expulsion of Palestinians from ancestral homeland in 1948 remembered

An organisation dedicated to remembering the Nakba – the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 – has published a guidebook to their destroyed and depopulated villages.

Palestinian Ahmed Elaian, 86, shows the keys of his home in Israel, abandoned during the 1948 Mideast war. Muhammed Mulheisen / AP Photo
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It has been dubbed one of the most innovative cities in the world, hailed for its sleek architecture and seaside boulevard peppered with bars and high-end hotels. Architecture aficionados speak of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus-influenced tall, modern buildings, which collectively make up a Unesco World Heritage site.

But beneath the concrete and glass lie remnants of a people who were persecuted, killed, jailed and forced to flee. Dig a little under the old houses atop the hills, take a closer look across the urban landscape, and you'll find traces of the city's pre-1948 inhabitants who lived in Al Jammasin, Sheikh Muwannis and Sommeil, Palestinian villages on which Tel Aviv has been built.

One organisation has made it its mission that those Palestinians are never forgotten. Zochrot raises awareness among Israeli Jews about the Nakba - the Arabic word for catastrophe, referring to the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war. The word Zochrot is the feminine form of "remembering" in Hebrew and the organisation works to live up to its name. "It's not just about knowing, it's about acknowledging memory," says Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, one of the founders of Zochrot, which also supports the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

Aparicio's idea was born 11 years ago as a result of his personal transformation from an Argentine immigrant raised on a kibbutz, to a soldier, to a citizen who felt that Zionism could never make room for peace. He was jailed twice for refusing to fight: once during the first Lebanon war and subsequently during the first Intifada. But despite his jail time and his conviction that these wars were wrong, he remained part of the Israeli reserves; the last vestige of his belief that being a good Israeli citizen meant joining the army.

After September 2000, during which he says he had his final crisis with Zionism, Aparicio understood that this ideology left no space for Palestinians. Aparicio asserts that one of his proudest moments was when his two sons refused to serve in the Israeli army. He took that to be suggestive of a transformation slowly taking place in Israel. Of course polls tell a different tale - one of an Israeli society unwilling to accept the return of Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homeland, or even the prospect of a nearby demilitarised Palestinian state.

Whatever the reality on the ground is, Zochrot is pushing ahead, working on issues that are virtually unchallenged in an increasingly self-isolating society. The organisation arranges tours every year to villages destroyed or depopulated, they publish booklets, collect testimonies from Palestinian refugees and post signs in Israeli neighbourhoods referring to these long-lost villages.

The group also put out a guide for teaching high school students about the Nakba. In 2011, an Israeli law was passed barring public funding to non-governmental groups that take part in commemorating the Nakba. Two years prior, even the word "Nakba" was banned from state schoolbooks. Not many teachers are prepared to incorporate discussions in their curriculum about the exile and depopulation of Palestinians from their homes in 1948. Zochrot helps the ones who do formulate lesson plans through a study guide and a teacher training session.

One of the more powerful tools created by Zochrot is a guidebook of many of the destroyed and depopulated villages. Sharing some similarities with mainstream travel resources, Omrim Yeshna Eretz (Once Upon a Land) offers 18 tours to some of the roughly 500 Palestinian villages destroyed or depopulated in 1948. A combination of history, maps and pictures, this book, which is published in both Hebrew and Arabic, is a comprehensive manual that provides answers to outstanding queries: What happened to these villages? Where are the Palestinians who once lived there? What were their livelihoods back then and when were they expelled?

The book also provides readers or "alternative tourists" with information on the Jewish villages (or cities) that were built on top of the Palestinian ones, and provides guidance on how to get to them, as well as advice on the best time or season to make the trek. The book, published by Zochrot and Pardes Publications with content from some 40 writers and photographers, is itself a political and civil acknowledgement of the Nakba, but it aims to do much more: to act as a constant reminder for those who know, and as a teaching tool for those who don't. The book is obviously written for an Israeli-Jewish readership, in order to provide them with historical insight and tour directions. The Arabic side of the book (which is laid out side-by-side with the Hebrew part) is a mix between the classical and the spoken language. The font used in the book often makes reading a daunting exercise, and the language does not always read easily or clearly.

In addition to a handful of spelling errors and weak phrasing, the nuances of Arabic culture are often lost in translation, which is something that the editor alludes to in his introduction, noting that the book was originally written in Hebrew and then translated into Arabic. For reasons unknown, some of the Palestinian contributors dropped out, which obviously affected its Arabic section.

However, it's easy to forgive these shortcomings when delving into the book, which provides insights into a long-forgotten or largely unknown layer in the country's landscape. These days, it is ironically the Jewish families who took over Palestinians' homes who are fighting to stop their imminent destruction by Israeli authorities. Legal battles between the Israeli Jewish families, Zochrot and the Tel Aviv municipality are ongoing; but these historical houses are quickly disappearing, making way for high-rises.

One such skyscraper, the Century Tower, stands in the heart of what was once the village of Sommeil (al-Mas'udiyya). Some old Palestinian homes from the village are still intact, standing adjacent or on top of shops and designer boutiques with little Israeli flags attached to their narrow windows. The remains of mosaic kitchen floor tiling are still visible, peeking through the shrubs of an abandoned home, and a car park stands in place of many other houses levelled to make way for cars. More towers are built in place of the village of Al Jammasin, and Tel Aviv University is built on the ruins of the village of Sheikh Muwannis. The Green House - now the university's faculty club - used to be the village mukhtar's home. The Land of Israel (Eretz Israel) Museum - the ethnography and folklore pavilion to be exact - is also located on one of the houses of Sheikh Muwannis. While the book sets out to challenge the reader to examine Israel's daily reality, this resource needs to be disseminated to a larger audience. Zochrot is looked at with a weary eye by some Palestinians and many Israeli Jews. Last year, some Palestinian activists protested when the organisation scheduled an event in Ramallah to discuss aspects of the right of return, citing normalisation as their justification.

For Israeli Jews, Zochrot is an unwelcome reminder constantly presenting them with evidence that contradicts the national myth popularised by Israel's fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir: "A land without a people, for a people without a land."

Dalia Hatuqa is a writer based in Ramallah.