“Orders came to evacuate one village, to destroy another village. We were told that we had to expel them, the Palestinians. Expel them to Gaza. To leave no one… We didn’t let them come back. Those were the orders from our command. We did some really ugly things… War is ugly.”
This testimony from Amnon Noiman, a veteran of the 1948 Zionist brigades known as Palmach, as well as other accounts from both Jewish veterans and Palestinian refugees was shared on International Human Rights Day, December 10, in the southern region of Israel known in Hebrew as Beersheba and in Arabic as Bir al-Saba’, at a Public Truth Commission organized by the Israeli human rights organization Zochrot.
At the commission both Palestinian refugees from 1948 and Israeli veterans who fought in the “war of Independence” spoke to a panel of human rights and civil society lawyers and activists, in a packed hotel room of nearly 200 people. The majority of the audience was Israeli, including two high school classes that came from Tel Aviv, but also included a couple dozen internationals and several Palestinians.
Over two years in the making, the December 10 Commission was the first of its kind, based off of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that took place after South African apartheid was resolved, but unique for the fact that today in Palestine, the crimes by the state of Israel being discussed are still taking place.
“This is not just about researching the truth,” said Liat Rosenberg, the director of Zochrot, speaking to Middle East Eye. “The truth of the Nakba is to a large degree known, but the task is to expose the truth to the Israeli Jewish public—both so that it is forced to take responsibility for what happened and so there can be accountability.”
Zochrot said it had chosen the former Bedouin city of Beersheba for its lesser-known history of forced Palestinian expulsions that not only took place in 1948, but continued for many years after. Witness testimonies focused on exposing the atrocities and war crimes that took place in the Negev and the South of Israel between the years of 1948 and 1960. Today the area is one of the largest Jewish cities in the Negev region and most of the refugees from that area live in Gaza.
Zochrot is an organization which works in the field of “memory activism” in order to raise awareness within Israeli society about the Palestinian Nakba, under the belief that no just or sustainable solution to the conflict can ever come without Israelis taking responsibility for 1948, including addressing the problem of Palestinian refugees. While much of their focus is naturally on the past, this is based in an understanding of how the history of 1948 continues to shape the present in what is known as both Israel and Palestine, and that while via different mechanisms than were used over six decades ago, the Nakba is today still ongoing as Palestinians continue to be displaced from their homes and ethnically cleansed of their neighborhoods whether they’re in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza.
According to Zochrot’s Debby Farber, while the majority of Israeli human rights groups and activists consider the 1967 war to be the foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zochrot instead emphasizes that the conflict originated in 1948, with what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (catastrophe). In that year over the course of a few months more than 700,000 Palestinians were violently displaced from their homes and 531 Palestinian villages were destroyed by Israeli forces.
This reality of the Nakba, what Israelis refer to as the “War of Independence,” is considered one of the biggest taboos in Israeli society. In 2011 a law was even introduced barring public funding to any organization that teaches, discusses, commemorates, or publicly mourns the historic event.
However, popular Israeli independence mythology is rife with contradictions which point to another side of the history kept under the rug. For example it is simultaneously taught that it was the Israeli army’s strength and ability that won the war, while other Israeli and Zionist accounts describe the Palestinians as simply leaving their villages due to their own whims (thus negating the need for the heroism of the Israeli forces).
While much of Zochrot’s work attempts to bring light the mass displacement of Palestinians that took place over a few months in 1948, such as regular public tours the organization leads through destroyed villages, their hope was that hearing the testimony directly from the people who experienced the events might even more deeply affect Israeli society.
“For the most part it’s not new to hear from 1948 refugees,” said Dana Myrtenbaum, Zochrot’s Civic Transitional Justice Coordinator. “But hearing from the veterans who actually committed the crimes, I think that is much more shocking to people, especially to Israelis.”
Although the commission had no state backing or sanction, or any power to bring about reparations for the witnesses, according Myrtenbaum the hope is that the findings from the commission can be used in future activism and to help to inspire Israeli civil society to take responsibility for these crimes. The commission is going to use the testimonies provided in order to issue a report that will include recommendations for how to address alleged wrongdoings which is set to be released in the next months.
However, the lack of weight held by the commission frustrated at least one of the Palestinians witnesses, 87-year-old Salem, who before delving into his own story spent several minutes arguing with his interviewer that without the presence of the guilty party, there was no reason for him to speak.
“I have no problem telling you my story,” he said, “but as long as the accused is not present and a judge is not present, the committee must take things most seriously and voice our testimonies to committees abroad and put it in their hands and then bring both sides before a judge.”
To this the interviewer responded: “We hope that one day we will be able to conduct a trial, but today we are trying to expose these stories. Most Israelis don’t even know what happened that needs to be tried.”
The majority of the Palestinian testimony, from three different witnesses interspersed with the testimonies of the Jewish veterans, depicted scattered snapshots of expulsion.
“Military trucks came to our area and started cutting the ropes of the tents we were living in,” said Salem, talking about what happened in 1952 after being asked to describe in more detail just how he was expelled. “Then they did the unacceptable. They took batons and started beating people. I saw people with their arms broken.”
After giving his account, asked what he thought would be a solution, Salem responded, “I don’t think that Israel ever wants to solve anything. I think that what we have now is considered sweet compared to what we will have tomorrow.”
While the refugees’ accounts were moving but not particularly revelatory, most telling from the day was that which was left unsaid.
Following Salem to speak was Amnon Noiman, a Jewish combatant from the War of Independence born in 1929 and who served in Israel’s 9th battalion. Noiman prefaced his account by explaining that, counter to the way the history is generally told, in most of the Arab villages where he went there were no serious battles due to the Palestinians’ lack of military technology on top of what he described as their situation of “dire poverty.”
Multiple times Noiman emphasized the fact that at the time he was only a kid, hardly aware of what he was doing.
“We were soldiers, we followed commands,” he said. “I was eighteen and a half years old. We were children…”
“We didn’t understand what we were doing,” he continued. “All we knew was [as we had been led to believe] that we were in constant danger. If we didn’t win this then we would all be dead and that was it. I don’t know of anyone that refused [to serve.]”
Brushing over specific details Noiman explained that “orders came to evacuate one village, destroy another village. We were told that we had to expel [the Palestinians.] Expel them to Gaza. To leave no one… We didn’t let them come back. Those were the orders from our command. It has to be stressed, a soldier does what they are told.”
Pressed for more detail as to what the “expulsions” more concretely looked like, Noiman paused.
“We did some really ugly things,” he said.
“War is ugly.”
Pressed again for detail (“the point of the commission is for others to learn about those ugly things. Sometimes memories, however ugly, must be heard for the benefit of all,” urged the interviewer) he said, “Why are you taking me back? It’s not going to help anything to force me to remember such painful things… Enough of the past. The past was horrible. We have to now look forward for solutions.”
The same afternoon as the Commission, PA Minister Ziad Abu Ein was killed by IDF forces during a non-violent olive tree planting ceremony in the village of Turmusaya, an event which was also organized to take place on Human Rights Day.
As Israeli blogger Moriel Rothman-Zecher tweeted,
“At #TruthCommission about the Nakba, I read that a Palestinian minister was killed by IDF planting trees in West Bank. The past isn’t past.”