Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni studies maps with his aides, including Kassim Rimawi. Body guards and other fighters are behind them. Undated. Chalil Rissas (Rassass)

Why Are Countless Palestinian Photos and Films Buried in Israeli Archives?

Palestinian photos and films seized by Israeli troops have been gathering dust in the army and Defense Ministry archives until Dr. Rona Sela, a curator and art historian, exposed them. The material presents an alternative to the Zionist history that denied the Palestinians’ existence here, she says



The initial reaction is one of incredulity: Why is this material stored in the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry Archive? The first item is labeled, in Hebrew, “The History of Palestine from 1919,” the second, “Paintings by Children Who Go to School and Live in a Refugee Camp and Aspire to Return to Palestine.” The third is, “Depiction of the IDF’s Treatment and Harsh Handling of Palestinians in the Territories.”

Of all places, these three reels of 16-mm film are housed in the central archive that documents Israel’s military-security activities. It’s situated in Tel Hashomer, near the army’s National Induction Center, outside Tel Aviv.

The three items are barely a drop in an ocean of some 38,000 films, 2.7 million photographs, 96,000 audio recordings and 46,000 maps and aerial photos that have been gathered into the IDF Archive since 1948, by order of Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion. However, a closer perusal shows that this particular “drop in the ocean” is subversive, exceptional and highly significant.

The footage in question is part of a collection – whose exact size and full details remain unknown – of “war booty films” seized by the IDF from Palestinian archives in raids over the years, though primarily in the 1982 Lebanon War.

Recently, however, following a persistent, protracted legal battle, the films confiscated in Lebanon, which had been gathering dust for decades – instead of being screened in cinematheques or other venues in Israel – have been rescued from oblivion, along with numerous still photos. The individual responsible for this development is Dr. Rona Sela, a curator and researcher of visual history at Tel Aviv University.

For nearly 20 years, Sela has been exploring Zionist and Palestinian visual memory. She has a number of important revelations and discoveries to her credit, which she has published in the form of books, catalogs and articles. Among the Hebrew-language titles are   “Photography in Palestine/Eretz-Israel in the ‘30s and ‘40s” (2000) and “Made Public: Palestinian Photographs in Military Archives in Israel” (2009). In March, she published an article in the English-language periodical Social Semiotics on, “The Genealogy of Colonial Plunder and Erasure – Israel’s Control over Palestinian Archives.”

Now Sela has made her first film, “Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel,” an English-language documentary that surveys the fate of Palestinian photographs and films that were “captured” and deposited in Israeli archives. It includes heretofore unseen segments from films seized by the IDF from Palestinian archives in Beirut. These documentary records, Sela says, “were erased from consciousness and history” for decades.

Getting access to the films was not easy, Sela explains. Her archival journey began in 1998, when she was researching Zionist propaganda films and photos that sought to portray the “new Jew” – muscular, proudly tilling the soil – in contradistinction, according to the Zionist perception, to the supposedly degenerate and loutish Palestinian Arab.

“After spending a few years in the Central Zionist Archive in Jerusalem and in other Zionist archives, researching the history of Zionist photography and the construction of a visual propaganda apparatus supporting the Zionist idea, I started to look for Palestinian visual representation as well, in order to learn about the Palestinian narrative and trace its origins and influence,” she says.

That task was far more complicated than anyone could have imagined. In some of the Zionist films and photos, Sela was able to discern, often incidentally, episodes from Palestinian history that had “infiltrated” them, as she puts it. For example, in Carmel Newsreels (weekly news footage screened at local cinemas) from 1951, showing the settlement of Jews in Jaffa, demolished and abandoned Arab homes are clearly visible.

Subsequently, Sela spotted traces and remnants of a genuine Palestinian visual archive occasionally cropping up in Israeli archives. Those traces were not immediately apparent, more like an elusive treasure concealed here and there beneath layers of restrictions, erasures and revisions.

Thus, one day she noticed in the archive of the pre-state Haganah militia, stills bearing the stamp “Photo Rissas.” Digging deeper, she discovered the story of Chalil Rissas (Khalil Rassass, 1926-1974), one of the fathers of Palestinian photojournalism. He’s unknown to the general public, whether Palestinian or Israel, but according to Sela, he was a “daring, groundbreaking photographer” who, motivated by a sense of national consciousness, documented the pre-1948 Palestinian struggle.

Subsequently she found hundreds of his photographs, accompanied by captions written by soldiers or Israeli archive staff who had tried to foist a Zionist narrative on them and disconnect them from their original context. The source of the photographs was a Jewish youth who received them from his father, an IDF officer who brought them back with him from the War of Independence as booty.

Unknown photographer / IDF and defense establishment archive / from the book 'Made Public'

Forgotten works

The discovery was unprecedented. In contrast to the Zionist propaganda images that exalted the heroism of the Jewish troops and barely referred to the Palestinians, Rissas’ photographs were mainly of Palestinian fighters. Embodying a proud Palestinian stance, they focused on the national and military struggle and its outcome, including the Palestinians’ military training and deployment for battle.

“I realized that I’d come across something significant, that I’d found a huge cache of works by one of the fathers of Palestinian photography, who had been the first to give visual expression to the Palestinian struggle,” Sela recalls. “But when I tried to learn more about Chalil Rissas, I understood that he was a forgotten photographer, that no one knew the first thing about him, either in Israel or elsewhere.”

Sela thereupon decided to study the subject herself. In 1999, she tracked down Rissas’ brother, Wahib, who was working as a photographer of tourists on the Temple Mount / Haram a-Sharif in Jerusalem’s Old City. He told her the story of Chalil’s life. It turned out that he had accompanied Palestinian troops and leaders, visually documenting the battles fought by residents of the Jerusalem area during the 1948 War of Independence. “He was a young man who chose the camera as an instrument for changing people’s consciousness,” Sela says.

Around 2007, she discovered the archive of another forgotten Palestinian photographer, Ali Za’arur (1900-1972), from Azzariyeh, a village east of Jerusalem. About 400 of his photos were preserved in four albums. They also depicted scenes from the 1948 war, in which Za’arur accompanied the forces of Jordan’s Arab Legion and documented the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem. He photographed the dead, the ruins, the captives, the refugees and the events of the cease-fire.

In the Six-Day War of 1967, Za’arur fled from his home for a short time. When he returned, he discovered that the photo albums had disappeared. A relative, it emerged, had given them to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek as a gift. Afterward, the Jerusalem Foundation donated them to the IDF Archive. In 2008, in an unprecedented act, the archive returned the albums to Za’arur’s family. The reason, Sela surmises, is that the albums were captured by the army in battle. In any event, this was, as far as is known, a unique case.

Sela took heart from the discoveries she’d made, realizing that “with systematic work, it would be possible to uncover more Palestinian archives that ended up in Israeli hands.”

Still from a film looted in 1982 from the PLO's Cultural Arts Section.

That work was three-pronged: doing archival research to locate Palestinian photographs and films that had been incorporated into Israeli archives; holding meetings with the Palestinian photographers themselves, or members of their families; and tracking down Israeli soldiers who had taken part in “seizing these visual spoils” and in bringing them to Israel.

In the course of her research Sela met some fascinating individuals, among them Khadijeh Habashneh, a Jordan-based Palestinian filmmaker who headed the archive and cinematheque of the Palestinian Cinema Institute. That institution, which existed from the end of the 1960s until the early ‘80s, initially in Jordan and afterward in Lebanon, was founded by three pioneering Palestinian filmmakers – Sulafa Jadallah, Hani Jawhariyyeh and Mustafa Abu Ali (Habashneh’s husband) – who sought to document their people’s way of life and national struggle. Following the events of Black September in 1970, when the Jordanian army and the Palestine Liberation Organization fought a bloody internecine war, the filmmakers moved to Lebanon and reestablished the PCI in Beirut.

Meeting with Habashneh in Amman in 2013, Sela heard the story of the Palestinian archives that disappeared, a story she included in her new documentary. “Where to begin, when so much material was destroyed, when a life project falls apart?” Habashneh said to Sela. “I can still see these young people, pioneers, bold, imbued with ideals, revolutionaries, who created pictures and films and documented the Palestinian revolution that the world doesn’t want to see. They refused to be faceless and to be without an identity.”

The archive established by Habashneh contained forgotten works that documented the Palestinians’ suffering in refugee camps, the resistance to Israel and battles against the IDF, as well as everyday life. The archive contained the films and the raw materials of the PCI filmmakers, but also collected other early Palestinian films, from both before and after 1948.

Still from the films looted by the IDF in Beirut in the '80s.

This activity reflects “a spirit of liberation and revolt and the days of the revolution,” Habashneh says in Sela’s film, referring to the early years of the Palestinian national movement. That spirit was captured in underground photographs and with a minimal budget, on film that was developed in people’s kitchens, screened in tents in refugee camps and distributed abroad. Women, children, fighters, intellectuals and cultural figures, and events of historic importance were documented, Habashneh related. “As far as is known, this was the first official Palestinian visual archive,” Sela notes.

In her conversation with Sela, Habashneh nostalgically recalled other, better times, when the Palestinian films were screened in a Beirut cinematheque, alongside other works with a “revolutionary spirit,” from Cuba, Chile, Vietnam and elsewhere. “We were in contact with filmmakers from other countries, who saw the camera as an instrument in the hands of the revolution and the people’s struggle,” she recalled.

“Interesting cultural cooperation developed there, centering around revolutionary cinema,” Sela points out, adding, “Beirut was alive with an unprecedented, groundbreaking cultural flowering that was absolutely astonishing in terms of its visual significance.”

But in 1982, after the IDF entered Beirut, that archive disappeared and was never seen again. The same fate befell two films made by Habashneh herself, one about children, the other about women. In Sela’s documentary, Habashneh wonders aloud about the circumstances in which the amazing collection disappeared. “Is our fate to live a life without a past? Without a visual history?” she asks. Since then, she has managed to reconstruct a small part of the archive. Some of the films turned up in the United States, where they had been sent to be developed. Copies of a few others remained in movie theaters in various countries where they were screened. Now in her seventies, Habashneh continues to pursue her mission, even though, as she told Sela during an early conversation, “the fate of the archive remains a puzzle.”

‘They marked us’

What Habashneh wasn’t able to accomplish beginning in 1982 as part of a worldwide quest, Sela managed to do over the course of a few years of research in Israel. She began by locating a former IDF soldier who told her about the day on which several trucks arrived at the building in Beirut that housed a number of Palestinian archives and began to empty it out. That testimony, supported by a photograph, was crucial for Sela, as it corroborated the rumors and stories about the Palestinian archives having been taken to Israel.

The same soldier added that he had been gripped by fear when he saw, among the photos that were confiscated from the archive, some that documented Israeli soldiers in the territories. He himself appeared in one of them. “They marked us,” he said to Sela.

Another former soldier told Sela about an unusual photo album that was looted from the home of the prominent Nashashibi family in Jerusalem, in 1948. The soldier added that his father, who had served as an IDF officer in the War of Independence, entered a photography studio and made off with its archive, while other soldiers were busy looting pianos and other expensive objects from the Nashashibis. Another ex-soldier testified to having taken a photo from the corpse of an Arab. Over time, all these images found their way to archives in Israel, in particular the IDF Archive.

In 2000, Sela, buoyed by her early finds, requested permission from that archive to examine the visual materials that had been seized by the army in the 1980s. The initial response was denial: The material was not in Israel’s hands, she was told.

“But I knew what I was looking for, because I had soldiers’ testimonies,” she says now, adding that when she persisted in her request, she encountered “difficulties, various restrictions and the torpedoing of the possibility of perusing the material.”

Still from the films looted by the IDF in Beirut in the '80s.

The breakthrough came when she enlisted the aid of attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zacharia, in 2008. To begin with, they received word, confirmed by the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser, that various spoils taken in Beirut were now part of the IDF Archive. However, Sela was subsequently informed that “the PLO’s photography archive,” as the Defense Ministry referred in general to photographic materials taken from the Palestinians, is “archival material on matters of foreign affairs and security, and as such is ‘restricted material’ as defined in Par. 7(a) of the Archives Regulations.”

Then, one day in 2010, Sela received a fax informing her that Palestinian films had been found in the IDF Archive, without elaboration, and inviting her to view them. “There were a few dozen segments from films, and I was astonished by what I saw,” she says. “At first I was shown only a very limited amount of footage, but it was indicative of the whole. On the basis of my experience, I understood that there was more.”

A few more years of what Sela terms “endless nagging, conversations and correspondence” passed, which resulted in her being permitted to view dozens of segments of additional films, including some that apparently came from Habashneh’s archive. Sela also discovered another Palestinian archive that had been seized by the IDF. Established under the aegis of the PLO’s Cultural Arts Section, its director in the 1970s was the Lod-born painter and historian Ismail Shammout (1930-2006).

One of the works in that collection is Shammout’s own film “The Urgent Call,” whose theme song was written and performed by the Palestinian singer Zainab Shathat in English, accompanying herself on the guitar. “The film was thought to be lost until I found it in the IDF Archive,” says Sela, who describes “The Urgent Call” as “a cry about the condition of Palestine, its sons and its daughters.”

Viewing it takes one back in time to the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the cinema of the Palestinian struggle briefly connected with other international revolutionary film movements.

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