Arab refugees on the Lebanon Road after fleeing their homes in the Galilee during fighting between Israeli and Arab forces, November 1948. AP

Palestinians Uncover History of the Nakba, Even as Israel Cuts Them Off From Their Sources

For Palestinian historians researching the 1948 exodus of their people, the greatest challenge is getting access to the few surviving documents of the period: most are locked away in Israeli archives

When Salim Tamari was researching his book on Arab neighborhoods in the Jerusalem area that were destroyed or conquered during the 1948 war, he had to ask Jewish-Israeli colleagues to go to the Israel State Archives to retrieve material for him. As a Palestinian, he did not have a permit to travel to the city, just 33 kilometers (20 miles) from his office in the West Bank.

He was seeking family papers, photos and diaries – precisely the kind of primary source material vital to piecing together any period in history. However, this material is often out of reach for Palestinian historians of the Nakba (the Palestinian term for the formation of Israel, which means “Catastrophe” in Arabic).

While Israelis will celebrate 70 years of the Jewish state this week, it is remembered as a national trauma by the Palestinians. Over 700,000 lost their homes in wake of the War of Independence and millions of their descendants live in refugee camps scattered throughout the Middle East.

Telling the social history of this period from a Palestinian perspective is a challenge.

When Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes – the matter has long been the subject of fierce debate – the contents were often looted or confiscated, among them the letters, books and photo albums needed to help tell the history of that period and the life that preceded it.

The limited material that remained was collected and cataloged by the nascent Israeli authorities and stored in archives. In the case of some 30,000 books collected and housed by the National Library of Israel, for example, the belongings were labeled “absentee property” and, like other materials, placed out of reach of the majority of Palestinians.

One archive of particular interest for demographic and ethnographic information is that of the Haganah (the underground, pre-independence army of British Mandatory Palestine’s Jews). This contains the so-called “Village Papers” – intelligence collected on individual villages before the war began. The materials include hand-drawn maps of Arab villages; the number of people living in them; and those they had incriminating information on who might be tapped as informers. None of it is digitized.

An Israeli soldier stopping some Arabs in a street in Nazareth, July 1948, as they are traveling after the allotted curfew time. AP

“The biggest difficulty is getting to Jerusalem,” says Tamari, a professor at Birzeit University who heads the Institute for Palestine Studies and is currently teaching at Harvard.

But even if you succeed in getting to Jerusalem, he notes, there are some archives that “if they find out you’re Palestinian, they become very difficult about giving you material like maps that should be available to the public,” he says. “They say you need security clearance to get them.

“But I have found Jewish friends who can get me material,” he adds. “The ethnic divide can be helpful in this case to circumvent barriers.”

Compounding the challenge for anyone trying to research 1948-era Palestinian history is the wide array of documents that are completely inaccessible to all scholars, says historian Dr. Shay Hazkani (a professor at the University of Maryland who has written about Israeli censorship of its archives).

Salim Tamari. "If they find out you’re Palestinian, they become very difficult about giving you material like maps," he says about the Jerusalem Municipal Archives. Courtesy of Salim Tamari

These mostly concern the Israel Defense Forces Archives, but also relate to the Central Zionist Archive and State Archive. These feature documents that were declassified in the 1980s, but were reclassified more recently, Hazkani says.

Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian of the Middle East and professor at Columbia University, says there is a unique challenge collecting historical records from the point of view of the victim. “We already have the archives for writing the history of the Nakba ‘from above’ in the records of the perpetrators and their enablers: Israel, the U.S., etc. Various historians, mainly Israeli, have already used them. For writing the history of the Nakba ‘from below,’ as it were – from the perspective of those it was perpetrated against – the materials do exist but they are scattered and hard to find,” he says.

Tamari was 2 years old when his family had to flee Jaffa in 1948, eventually settling in the West Bank (where he still lives). Like other families, his left with only a few belongings, certain they would soon be returning to their home on one of Jaffa’s main streets.

“Three pictures from our Jaffa life and that is all we have – one shows me as a little baby in a carriage. Another one is on a balcony; the other is me on a playground,” he relates.

Lost in transliteration

Elisha Baskin, an Israeli who works mainly as a researcher for documentary filmmakers and artists, knows the Israeli archive system well. She says she has often assisted Palestinian researchers who cannot physically get to Israel to access the archives.

Elisha Baskin Courtesy

“It’s like being the Shabbos goy but I’m the ‘Archive Jew,’” jokes Baskin, referring to the non-Jew who performs certain types of work that observant Jews are prohibited from doing on Shabbat.

There are many barriers for her Palestinian counterparts beyond the issue of physical access, she says.

“There is a lot of politics, and a lot of archivists – even at the smaller archives – feel the documents belong to them because they are emotional about history,” says Baskin. “Even if you are not Palestinian and not trying to get something very sensitive, there is pushback. There is not always an open door,” she observes.

Then there’s the dearth of pre-1948 Palestinian material itself in comparison with the Israeli narrative. Baskin believes that’s partly because, ahead of statehood in 1948, the Zionist movement was “meticulous in documenting everything.” The movement was fundraising and needed to show the world and Jews abroad that the Zionist projects were thriving and growing, she says.

A Palestinian boy holding a symbolic key to the house his family left in the 1948 war, during a rally marking the 63rd anniversary of the "Nakba" ("Catastrophe"), in Gaza City, May 2011. AP

Additionally, the various archive databases in Israel are not usually searchable in Arabic, only Hebrew and English. Baskin says when she was doing research about villages around Haifa in 1948, she found there were as many as 35 different ways village names were transliterated.

“This all factors into a very large disparity between the amount of resources you have as a historian or a scholar to look for things – and that is before you even set foot into the archives,” Baskin says.

Historians and researchers often talk about the serendipity of what they find when they research a specific issue or question and then find potential answers or clues to others. That is part of why being physically able to comb through material is key, they argue.

“What’s interesting about archives is you always find things you were not planning to find,” observes Baskin.

Researchers like Baskin argue that it’s fear of what might be found that facilitates the culture of wariness when it comes to 1948-related materials.

According to Hazkani, much of the archival files on the Palestinian exodus from their homes in 1948 are still sealed in Israeli archives. Even though, he notes, their period for being classified has expired. And although some were declassified and discovered by the so-called New Historians in the 1980s and ’90s – who went on to challenge the official Israeli narrative of 1948 – many of those have now been reclassified. Specifically, Hazkani says those documents that mention the expulsion of Palestinians and massacres or rapes of Palestinians by pre-state forces have mostly been censored or are out of reach, categorized as “top secret.” In some instances, the state said it was protecting the privacy of Palestinians who were expelled or targeted, Hazkani says.

His doctoral thesis, “1948 from Below: A Transnational History of the War for Palestine,” is a study of both Israeli and Arab soldiers who fought in the 1948 war, based almost solely on letters they wrote home.

He says archival documents from Palestinian or Arab sources “often tell the exact opposite story from the Israeli narrative.” For example, among documents he found from the Arab Liberation Army (an army of Arab volunteers in 1948) was material from the Arab leadership forbidding Palestinians from leaving their homes. It went as far as to warn them they would be shot or houses taken over if they did. This contradicts Israeli claims that Arab forces encouraged the Palestinian exodus.

The Israel State Archives recently began digitizing its collection. So far, though, only a fraction of the material is available online – which is currently the only way for the public to access material. The reading room that the public and researchers could use in the past is now closed.

So far, 20 million documents from the archive’s collection have been uploaded to its website. But if specific material is not available online, a request for the specific document can be made. If it is unclassified, it is then sent to the requestor by email.

In response to this article, the Prime Minister’s Office (which oversees the state archives) wrote: “The claim that there is discrimination with regard to the accessibility of documents for researchers of different backgrounds is baseless – especially in light of the new website, which does not require any form of identification to order any document. There is no way for the archive to know where any given request comes from, who requested it or what their background, gender or any other information is. The only information requested is an email address – and that could even be false. The claim that information is being hidden about Palestinians with the excuse of protecting privacy is also completely baseless. We protect people’s privacy regardless of their identity.”

The Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, which works to improve access to archival material, has sharply criticized this digital-only approach.

“The move that was meant to increase public access to archival materials will, in fact, deny access to many of the most important and valuable documents stored in the Israel State Archives; one step forward, two steps back,” Akevot wrote in a report reacting to the archive’s decision to close its reading room.

Three members of the Haganah (the pre-independence Jewish militia in British Mandatory Palestine) escorting Palestinian Arabs out of Haifa after they were expelled from their homes, May 12, 1948. AFP

Akevot finds, digitizes and catalogs archival information on the conflict and shares it with individual researchers and organizations. But among those critical of the lack of access to archival materials is also Israel’s own chief archivist, Yaacov Lozowick.

In January, he submitted a report to Israel’s High Council of Archives, in which he charged: “Israel is not dealing with its archival material in a manner befitting a democracy. The vast majority of the material is sealed and will never be opened. The little of the material that will be made accessible will be accessible only with unreasonable restrictions. The process of releasing records lacks any public accountability or transparency,” he wrote.

Tamari is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestinian Studies and is among those seeking the Palestinian public’s help in crowdsourcing family archives. Personal memoirs, diaries, letters, photo albums, etc., are sometimes referred to as “shoebox archives” (as they are often stored in boxes in the back of closets).

“The Palestinians have developed a fetish for organizing narrative material because they thought they were capturing a moment that was lost – and a traumatic moment at that,” Tamari says.

Many oral histories have also been recorded over the decades, and the challenge is to flesh out the images those testimonials impart with primary sources.

Khalidi wrote in an email: “Although it is sometimes hard to find, and there is no central archive (because the Palestinians have been prevented for 100 years from having a state), there is a huge amount accessible inside and outside Palestine in the form of family papers and various other kinds of records, and in autobiographies, of which there are many, some of them including documents.”

Arab historian Adel Manna. "It’s important to tell the micro story within the greater history." Emil Salman

A historian’s journey

In 1951, when he was 4, Adel Manna’s father paid a Lebanese fisherman to smuggle the family, including his mother – then seven-months pregnant with his younger sibling – from southern Lebanon to the northern coast of Israel.

Palestinian refugees from a village in the Galilee, the family were officially breaking the law by reentering Israel. Manna would grow up to become a prominent historian of Palestinian and Ottoman history. His most recent book, “Nakba and Survival: The Story of the Palestinians Who Remained in Haifa and the Galilee, 1948-1956,” is focused on Palestinians during Israel’s first decade. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, physical access to Israeli archives was not a problem for him. In the book he argues it’s problematic that Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian historians are often looking at different sources when trying to recount the events of 1948 – in part because of the language divide.

Manna, who speaks and reads Hebrew, English and Arabic, tried to tell the story of the Palestinian experience inside the new State of Israel.

Among the documents he found were some relating to his own village’s story.

“It’s important to tell the micro story within the greater history,” he says. “It’s part of the puzzle we work to put together.”

For that puzzle, he adds, he needed not just the oral histories and memoirs but also the documents he found in Israeli archives. But it was not easy to get the state or IDF archives to help when he requested 1948-related folders. After hitting resistance, he sent a Jewish assistant in his place.

“I had him ask instead,” says Manna. “And he was more successful.”

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