Saturday, April 09, 2005

Deir Yassin & Modern Victims of Extremism

With every passing day in the West Bank, more and more of the “facts” of history that I learned growing up the United States as a Jewish-American dissolve into myths as I hear first-hand stories about the past and present of Israel and Palestine. I recently learned that 57 years ago today, members of the Irgun and Stern gangs, two armed underground Zionist militias, broke into homes in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin in the middle of the night and systematically murdered between 110 and 140 peaceful inhabitants. The village lay outside the area recommended by the United Nations to be included in a future Jewish state, but within the area coveted by Zionist forces and eventually declared part of Israel.

Deir Yassin is now in ruins, wiped off the map and forgotten by most. The modern Jewish neighborhood of Har Nof in East Jerusalem now stands where the village used to be, and remaining buildings have become part of a local hospital. My colleague Hannah attended an anniversary memorial service in Deir Yassin and wrote the following in her journal:

One survivor of the massacre was there, and she began to tell stories, personal stories about many of the killings. She talked about the good relations the Palestinians and Jews had previously enjoyed, how they had been friends, how she doesn’t know what the Palestinians could have done to the Jews to make them do this to her family. She talked about pregnant women being sliced through the stomach and killed, old men thrown off the roofs of houses, seven young boys sleeping in bed who were rounded up, taken outside, lined up, and shot. A few members of her family (herself included) were given the choice of whether they wanted to be shot or stabbed to death, only to be saved at the last minute by one gang member who said, “Don’t kill them, let them go.” This is how she survived, along with the other families that were put on a truck and shipped out, away from their village where they’d been for so many centuries. Still they cannot go back.

According to witnesses, Jewish commanders took 25 male villagers, paraded them through the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and then shot them dead in a stone quarry along the road from Givat Shaul to Deir Yassin. The leader of one of the gangs, Menachem Begin of Irgun, was later elected Prime Minister of Israel. In his own words, “Arabs throughout the country” were “seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives; this mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated.”

The version of history that I heard growing up was that the Palestinians fled in 1948 following radio broadcasts urging them to get out of the way, so that the surrounding Arab armies could drive the Jews into the sea. This is the same story that my mother was told, and Hannah, and millions of other American or Israeli Jews. Yet numerous Israeli scholars and others have examined the archive of Arab 1948 radio broadcasts and found virtually no evidence to support the claim that Arab leaders incited Palestinians to leave their homes as part of a tactical maneuver.[2]

This should come as no surprise: what population in history has ever voluntarily left its ancestral homeland to facilitate a military maneuver led by a foreign power? People don’t just uproot their families because some foreign leader tells them to. Would you? The vast majority of Palestinians who fled in 1948 were forced out or left out of fear induced by stories like that of Deir Yassin and the many other Palestinian villages that suffered similar fates at the hands of radical Zionists.

In 1948, Israeli militants wanted the land of Deir Yassin to build a small airfield for the Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Today they want a parking lot, or a highway, or a garbage dump. The evacuation and destruction of Palestinian communities with the goal of Jewish purity and privilege is far from over. The massacres continue, at a slower pace but on a greater scale. So today, while many Palestinians honored the lives lost in Deir Yassin, I conducted interviews with some of the modern victims of Zionist extremism.

I interviewed victims of settler violence in As-Sawiya, the hometown of a good friend of mine who had invited me many times to visit. He showed us around the ancient village, introducing us to friends and family. His mother welcomed us emphatically and wouldn’t stop feeding us, even as she told a story of being attacked by settlers during the 2002 olive harvest. The old woman explained that two men from the nearby settlement of Eli approached her, kicked her until she fell down, and then stole her donkey and olives. (She recovered the donkey 2 days later.) She’s a tough old lady and continues to work on her land every day, but some of her friends are not so resilient. Down the street lives a carpenter whose house was broken into by settlers one night that same fall. The intruders reportedly broke his windows and doors, damaged his carpentry tools, and burned his wood. Journalists documented the incident, but no arrests were made nor was compensation offered. Traumatized, the old carpenter is now too frightened to return to his land near Eli, even though his carpentry work alone is insufficient to provide for his large family.

Built on a slope, As-Sawiya looks across a small valley at five vast hills of land belonging to the village, each one now topped with a settlement or outpost. The settlers have seized far more land than they actually use and have established a seemingly arbitrary “safety line” far below their houses, above which the villagers are prohibited to farm. Even below the “safety line,” villagers frequently report attacks by settlers with guns, sticks, chains, and guard dogs that they sic on children from the village.

Many villagers have appealed to the Israeli army for protection. The army grants the village 2 days of protection per year—one during the olive harvest and the other during plowing season—an impossibly short period of time to tend to their 15,000 acres of land. The rest of the year seems to be a free-for-all. According to witnesses, soldiers have stood by as settlers bathed in the village’s precious water source, as they built a road without government permission through Palestinian land, and as they poisoned 40 of the village’s trees. One villager reported being shot in the foot by a settler while a soldier looked on.

Then there are the schools. Eli settlers have organized repeated nightly raids on the local girls’ school, presumably because of its proximity to a main settler highway. One night, locals witnessed 45 settlers enter the premises and set fire to classrooms, books, computers, files, and furniture. After the incident, the village worked together to refurbish the school and raise money for new computers and other lost property. But just one year later, the settlers returned to steal the new computers and further damage the buildings. Now the school must hire guards, but its financial situation is already so dire that it has had to lay off desperately-needed teachers and staff in order to do so.

The settlers enter the girls’ school through a gate less than one hundred yards away from a village house occupied by soldiers, yet the army has never attempted to prevent or stop an attack. At the boys’ school, settlers broke in and damaged the gate, windows, chalkboards, walls, and the pole where they hang their Palestinian flag.

The settler attacks on As-Sawiya are not anomalies. Neither was the massacre in Deir Yassin. The assault on Palestinian life has never ended; worse than that, it has never really been acknowledged. We don’t want to believe that Jewish people are capable of abusing power and privilege or inflicting horrors reminiscent of those suffered by their parents and grandparents. It is always easier to believe you are the victim, not the oppressor. But people are responsible for their actions regardless of their past. When the United Nations calls upon Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and to allow for the return or compensation of refugees who fled in 1948, the international community is holding Israel to the same standard as any other country in the world. That is not anti-Semitism, or insensitivity to the plight of the Jewish people; it is equal treatment, which persecuted Jews yearned for before Israel existed. Today Israel ranks among the richest countries in the world; it is time to learn that with equal treatment comes equal responsibility.

[1] Noam Chomsky, Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), p. 170.

[2] See Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), p. 43; See also Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p. 86; See also Erskine Childers, The Spectator (London, May 12, 1961); As cited in personal correspondence with Jason Weeks (November 19, 2006); For more sources and information on the myth of voluntary exodus and for the breakdown of how many inhabitants fled for which reasons, see Appendix IV.***

No comments: