Search for truth about Nakba rattles Israel

by Jonathan Cook

© Katie Ramadan

Jonathan Cook is a British journalist based in Nazareth since 2001. He is a former winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism and the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most recent “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (2008).

The first-ever “truth commission” staged in Israel has featured confessions from veteran Israeli fighters of the 1948 war, admitting they perpetrated war crimes as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their homes.
The commission, held in December 2014, is the culmination of more than a decade of clashes between a group of activists called Zochrot, the Hebrew word for Remembering, and the Israeli authorities.
Founded in 2002, Zochrot seeks to educate Israeli Jews about what Palestinians call the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe”, referring to Israel’s creation on the ruins of their homeland more than six decades ago. The group also campaigns for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel.
The commission, which had no official standing, is intended as the first of several events to investigate atrocities and war crimes committed in different localities, according to Zochrot.
Liat Rosenberg, the group’s director, said they had looked to other commissions, such as South Africa’s, as models, but had excluded the goal of reconciliation because the conflict was still unresolved.


The Israeli government has sought to minimize attention on the Nakba. It passed the so-called Nakba Law in 2011, denying public funds to institutions and organizations that commemorate the event.
Last year the Culture Ministry threatened to block a government grant to a leading Tel Aviv cultural center after it hosted a Zochrot film festival on the Nakba.
The truth commission was held in the city of Beersheva in December 2014, a Bedouin town until 1948 and today the largest Jewish city in the Negev region in southern Israel.
The project is the latest effort by Zochrot, which includes Israeli Jews and Palestinians, to discredit a traditional Israeli narrative that some 750,000 Palestinians left under orders from Arab leaders and that Israel’s army acted only in self-defense.
Rosenberg said the goal was to force the Israeli Jewish public to take responsibility for the massacres and ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948.
Two years ago Zochrot launched an alternative archive of the Nakba, filming testimonies from Palestinian refugees and Israeli veterans. Activists fear that, as the generation of refugees and fighters dies off, they will take their secrets to the grave.
Israel’s military archives from 1948 began being opened to academics in the late 1980s, but that process has slowed. Many of the more controversial episodes of the war remain unclear.
Three Israeli fighters and three Palestinian witnesses testified at the commission. Their names had been kept secret, for fear that friends and family would pressure them to withdraw.
The commission possibly proved a rockier process than the organizers expected. The first Israeli fighter was loath to admit that his brigade, the Negev Battalion, had done anything wrong, although he conceded that Palestinian homes in Beersheva had been looted.
His account was contradicted by another fighter in the battalion, who said they had been ordered to expel Palestinians and destroy their villages: “The government’s policy was to expel as many people as we could in the North and South of the country.”
He was not troubled by these actions at the time. “We were young, we didn’t understand the implications of what we were doing and we were always in danger.”
Under questioning, he recalled an incident in which a fighter had raped and killed a Palestinian woman.


In testimony filmed by Zochrot, a veteran of the Negev Battalion, Amnon Neumann, said the Bedouin put up almost no resistance to advancing Jewish forces because they “had no weapons.” The Israeli army terrified the villagers away by shooting either at them or above their heads, he said. “By the morning there was nobody there. We burned their houses.”
When villagers tried to sneak back to tend crops at night, he recounted, the soldiers opened fire. “We would shoot and kill them. This was part of the horrible things we did.”
Israeli veterans had come forward out of a sense of guilt. “I was told to do things that I do not want to mention [here]. I did them with no doubts at all… It is already 50, 60 years that I am filled with regret.”
According to Rosenberg, many of those testifying have been reluctant to go into details of the war crimes they participated in, making it hard to get a full picture of what occurred.
One Palestinian witness, Nuri al-Uqbi, told of a massacre in which 14 Bedouin from his village were rounded up and executed.
Raneen Jeries, a Zochrot organizer, said the expulsions had yet to end in the Negev and the occupied territories.
Zochrot had been successful in confronting Israelis with the darker side of the 1948 war, said Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. “A decade ago, if I mentioned the Nakba in a class of 150 students, hardly any of them would have known what I meant. Now 80 or 90 percent would know.”
But as the Nakba has become more visible, sensitivity about it has grown. Ahead of Nakba Day last year, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu criticized commemorations, saying: “They are standing silent to mark the tragedy of the establishment of Israel.”
In Zochrot’s early years, its main effort was directed at escorting Israeli Jews and Palestinian refugees to some of the more than 500 Palestinian villages Israel destroyed during and after the 1948 war. The villages were razed to prevent refugees from returning.
Eitan Bronstein, who founded Zochrot, said Israelis “have to stop thinking of [the Nakba] as just propaganda against Israel.”
The Israeli right wing has grown increasingly rattled by Zochrot’s agenda-setting events. The popularity of a far-right youth movement, Im Tirtzu, has grown rapidly on Israeli university campuses, in part as a backlash to Zochrot’s work.
Last year the group launched a phone app, called iNakba, which provides detailed maps and information on the destroyed villages (16th June 2015).

Book recommendations

Rogan, L. Eugene & Shlaim, Avi (ed.) (2008) The War for Palestine. Rewriting the History of 1948 University of OxfordThe, 2nd Edition, Oxford.

Pappé, Ilan (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, One World, Oxford.

Benvenisti, Meron (2002) Sacred Landscape: Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, University of California Press.

Khalidi, Walid (1992) All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.

Masalha, Nur (1992) Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. The Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut.