Casting terror

Casting terror

Casting terror
How massacres made the Nakba possible
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What is the first smell that comes to mind when a person thinks of their childhood? Oven-baked sweets on a rainy evening? The first love gift, a yellow flower picked from the school garden? Or is it simply that unique smell that no child can describe despite knowing it before being born, the smell of a mother? Perhaps Rahma Ibrahim Al-Haj had such memories before the age of seven, but afterwards there was a single smell that replaced it all and remained with her for the rest of her life. It is the smell of the flesh of the burned sons and daughters from her razed village, in the middle of a harvested field on a July evening in 1948.

The creation of this trauma and its replacement of ordinary memories may appear to belong to some sick imagination, but it is one of the most important facets of the Nakba (catastrophe). The Nakba was not a momentary event, but rather the outcome of a political project which aims to displace a people from its homeland. But politics alone was not enough to achieve this, and it was essential that Palestinian memory also be stained with blood.

The massacres resulted in displacement, killing, abuse, and the theft of the lands of thousands of Palestinians. They played a fundamental role in the systematic strategy of intimidation that the Zionist movement employed as a means of seizing Palestinian lands. While Zionists only owned 7% of the land of Palestine in 1947, the number rose to 78% after the acts of eviction and displacement. The massacres dispossessed 805,067 Palestinians and demolished 531 villages and towns. Moreover, they killed 16,721 Palestinian and Arab fighters, and those are only the ones whose numbers, dates, and location of martyrdom, are known.1 The number of massacres has not been definitively determined so far, but those documented in Palestinian sources and Zionist archives range between 35 and 110 massacres.2 And of course, the events preserved in popular memory cannot be reduced to mere numbers.

  • 1. Al-Aref, Aref. Al Nakba wa al-Firdaws al-Mafqud, al-Juz’ al-Sades [The Catastrophe and the Lost Paradise, Part 6]. Dar al-Huda, 1958, p. 9.
  • 2. Abu Sitta, Salman. Haq al-‘Awda [The Right of Return]. Gaza: al-Marqaz al-Qawmi lil-Dirasat wa al-Tawthiq, 1999.
Musrara Quarter Rubble

Fire in a harvested field

Rahma, who was not older than seven, didn’t know anything of the world except her village of al-Tira, which at the time had a population that did not exceed 6000 people. Despite being a village where things rarely happen, what Rahma witnessed on July 19 in 1948 made up the scenes of the most important event of her life, and of many others like her.

In the months preceding that day, Rahma would hear her elders speak of the number of Zionist forces—50,000, a number she had only then just heard for the first time. This was a force of armed fighters backed by air and naval forces, as well as tanks and artillery. They were met with 7000 Palestinian fighters in semi-organized groups, as well as 3000 Arab volunteers, and dozens of others from Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, Africa, and even a small number of English volunteers.

The women would speak about the massacres taking place in neighboring villages as though they were speaking about outer space. Women  raped, children slaughtered, pregnant women miscarrying, men lined up and killed with bullets—all of  this was just talk, until al-Tira’s turn came. Suddenly, all the rumors were verified.

When she saw groups from the Haganah distributing flyers that threatened the villagers and warned them of cooperating with the Arab Liberation Army, Rahma ran. Before she and her family and their neighbors could recover from the scare of the leaflets, the Zionist special forces, under the guise of Arabs, raided the village in search of volunteers. These operations were labelled “violent surveillance,” which aimed to enter unarmed and unfortified villages at night and remain for a few hours, killing whomever leaves their home. After a few days, a struggle began which would evolve into two months of protracted confrontations and steadfastness. The men of the village took out the weapons hidden in the ceilings and wells, and gave battle to regain the village’s fortunes.

On July 16, the Jews entered the village. Until that moment, 13 men were martyred. Some of the fighters withdrew outside the village, while 30 men were taken to an unknown location, which was later discovered to be the prison of Acre. Soldiers had gathered those that remained from the village, choosing 300 men and women, and placing them in 20 buses that took them to al-Lajjun. In each bus, a group of Jewish guards armed with machine guns accompanied them. Upon arriving at the border along which Iraqi forces were stationed, the Jewish guards kicked them out, making them flee towards the Arab areas while firing bullets at their heels.

On July 19, the twenty-fifth day of Ramadan, the remaining villagers took stock of their losses. Recognizing that their days in the village were numbered, they gathered what they could in order to leave. They carried their clothes in bindles, while women hid house papers, birth certificates, and small amounts of money in their chests. The Jews returned to the village, where only 60-80 elderly people remained, some of whom were blind. Afterwards, everything happened quickly. The Jewish guards cried out:

Saa’, Saa’, let’s go, let’s go.

Everyone climbed onto buses under Jewish guard, made up of 10-15 individuals. They reached an area East of al-Lajjun at around eight PM. The buses stopped on the road to Afula near some new houses that were recently demolished. The villagers of al-Tira were commanded to get down as they carried their bindles in their hands. They sat in a circle around 200 meters from the main road in a recently harvested wheat field. They were informed that they were near Arab lines. The guards handed over the residents to other guards from a nearby colony, and it was later found out that they were Jewish settlers that had taken over the police station, and wore hats that resembled police hats. After a long day of travelling in Ramadan, the villagers grew thirsty and requested a drink of water. After a long wait, the settlers returned with gallons of something that resembled water and poured it over the heads of the residents as they sat over their bindles on dry grass. Rahma detected the smell of gasoline and ran.

The guards lit the villagers on fire and left them to burn, shooting whoever tried to run.

Rahma Ibrahim al-Haj says in her testimony: “I ran and hid under a rock until the morning. I saw the fire ablaze and people screaming and crying out for help. In the morning, I went to the place of the burning. When my sight fell on the charred bodies I was engulfed with horror. I didn’t stay for a single moment to count them. I ran until I reached the village of Zalafa. There, I fell on the floor from exhaustion and fright. The residents of the village took care of me and then took me to Jenin.”1

It is not completely known how many survived the burning, because the survivors were separated and sought refuge in the camps of Nablus, Irbid, Damascus, and Sidon. Some of the United Nations observers were able to record the testimony of 10 out of the 15 people believed to have survived. Those that were burned alive did not exceed 55 people.2

Deserted Streets of Tirah in Israel, 1950 - Film 95010

Empty streets of Tirah 1950

The Angels of Death

Rahma was not the only one to have left her village, nor was she the only one to remember it as though it were yesterday. Fawzi, who now lives in Tulkarem, also remembers what happened in his hometown of al-Tantura very well.

In 1945, Fawzi Mahmoud Tanji, who at the time was only a child, was one of more than 1490 people living in Tantura. The village enjoyed a rich life, as it overlooked the Mediterranean Sea, and was an important port living mostly on agriculture and fishing.

It was widely believed that weapons reached revolutionaries through the village. Moreover, historians believe that its fall a month after the declaration of the creation of the nascent Jewish state was a main reason behind the fall of neighboring villages. These events took place on the days of April 22 and 23, when the Haganah’s 33 unit attacked the village.

From the first moment, it was apparent that ethnic cleansing was taking place.1 Zionist gangs attacked the village from all sides, without leaving a place for residents to escape, as had happened in other villages.2 The residents were chased and gathered on the shore then in the village’s cemetery, where executions were carried in front of everyone. The testimonies and research vary in the estimate of the number of martyrs in the Tantura massacre, which was performed by an organized military, as opposed to other massacres. However, the scene imprinted in memory is of the soldiers forcing the men of the village to dig a large ditch, where their bodies were later buried. Based on the conflicting testimonies, it can be estimated that the number of martyrs ranges between 90 and 250.

“They gathered us near the sea shore, men on one side and women on another,” says Fawzi.  “The boys and youth whose age was over 12 were placed with the men, while the younger ones were with the women. After that, they would pick seven to ten men, bring them to a place near the village mosque, and there they would shoot them. Then they would return and lead another group. This is how the number of people killed reached close to 90 by the end.

  • 1. Khalidi, Walid. Kay la Nansa [All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948], 2nd ed. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1998, pp. 106-108.
  • 2. Pappe, Ilan. Al-Tathir al-‘Irqi fi Filastin [The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine]. Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 2007, p. 145.

“A party of soldiers went with every group, while the village residents waited as they watched what was happening. After that, they took whoever remained to the village cemetery, stopping them there. They intended to shoot everyone, but after a while, around 50 to 60 people from the Kibbutz of Zichron Ya’acov arrived. The moment they saw what was happening, a number of superior officers interfered and stopped the slaughter, saying: ‘enough’.”

“Those men, whose faces I will never forget for as long as I live, seemed like the angels of death. While I was standing there, I was certain that they were the last moments of my life, that they will take me also,” the elderly Abu Khaled, who is 74, bursts into tears and says: “it would have been better if I died there without carrying this story with me to this day!” 1

  • 1. Theodor Katz, Television interview on Aljazeera

On the dawn of April 9 1948, a month before the events of Tantura and two weeks after the signing of a peace truce requested by the heads of neighboring Jewish settlements and signed on by Deir Yasin residents, Irgun forces entered the village from the East and South. At the same time, LEHI-Stern Gang forces entered from the North, completely surrounding Deir Yassin save for the Western route. The objective of the forces was to surprise the villagers as they slept. However, the attack was confronted with a level of resistance to which the Zionist forces were unaccustomed. It resulted in four casualties from their side, while 40 were injured.

“The aggressors never fought such a battle before” the French author Patrick Mercier said in a testimony. “It was easier for them to throw bombs in the middle of crowded markets rather than attack a village that fought for itself. For that reason, they were not able to advance in the face of this violent fighting.”

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To confront the steadfastness initiated by Deir Yasin, the attackers had to use the Palmach forces present in one of the military camps near Jerusalem, who then began to bomb the village with mortars to advance the mission. At noon, the village had been completely emptied of any resistance. Thus, as Mercier explains in his testimony, the Irgun and Stern forces decided to use dynamite. This is how they got control of the village after destroying house after house.

As with the Tantura massacre, historians differ on the number of deaths from the Deir Yasin massacre. Palestinian sources confirm that the number ranges between 250 and 360 people, while Western sources recall that the number of those killed did not exceed 107. The journalists that were able to cover the Deir Yasin massacre agree that the number of people killed reaches 254 villagers. The consensus which does exist surrounding the Deir Yasin massacre holds that the levels of torture and abuse were unprecedented. Perhaps it is because the resistance from inside the village was unexpected. It made the men and women of the Irgun and Stern Gang, “who were people with high ideals” says Mercier, “transform into ‘butchers; that kill brutally and coldly just as the Nazi forces did.”

The murder alone was not what made Deir Yasin a distinctive part of the Nakba’s history. It was because the “young and educated” Igun forces deliberately abused and maimed the victims. There were various acts of torture, assault, decapitation, and slaughter of pregnant women after guessing the sex of the baby. At the same time, 53 babies were thrown alive behind the village’s old wall. Moreover, 25 men were led in buses that drove them around Jerusalem, circling around the city in triumph as the ancient Roman armies did, until they were subsequently executed with bullets. Their bodies were thrown in the village’s well and the doors were sealed shut to conceal the crimes.1

  • 1. Khalidi, Walid. All That Remains, pp. 619-620.

The Poisoning of Acre

The massacres did not only take place against human beings, but also against its homes, trees, and animals, who were not beyond murder and abuse.

After the fall of Haifa on April 22, 1948, thousands of refugees flooded from Haifa to Acre. The city, still under British control, began to crowd. Zionist forces surrounded the city in the first week of May and fired at it with a barrage of mortar bombs.

At the time, drinking water used to reach the city from a canal that would run from the northern village near al-Kabri, 10 kilometers from Acre. The canal is also known as the al-Basha canal. En route to Acre, the canal would pass through several Zionist colonies. At one of those points, the Zionists infected the water with typhoid, and soon enough typhoid fever spread among British soldiers and residents. In a report, Red Cross doctor, Dr. Domiron, says: “The situation is serious, and the outbreak of the disease has included civilians, military personnel and police.” Moreover, the Brigadier, Bafardaj, who was the director of military services, said that “this is the first time that this pandemic happens in Palestine,” despite the displacement and panic of residents across Palestine at the time. The greater fear was the spread of the plague with the refugees heading to Lebanon.

Preliminary surveys show the number of those infected to be 70 civilians and 55 British people. However, many others were afraid to report their illness out of fear of being detained. It is enough to say that the number of Acre’s residents during that period decreased from 25 thousand to 8 thousand people, due to displacement. As with the case of the other villages where massacres took place, the goal was the same: to expel people either through displacement or murder.1

The mayor of Acre was absent at the time, which weakened the efforts to contain the epidemic. Despite the insistence of the ICRC, the municipality was not able to rehabilitate the water canal, “the source of the epidemic.” It doubled the emigration of residents and prevented them from returning to their homes out of fear of getting ill. The main objective of the epidemic was to “prevent residents from returning home.” At the time, as a continuation of the attack, the Haganah intensified its attacks on the city with mortar bombs and artillery. Moreover, Israeli vehicles would circle and call out via loudspeakers: “your choice is to surrender or commit suicide. We will exterminate you until the last man.”

When a number of the city’s dignitaries signed a peace treaty, Acre fell. With its fall, Zionist terrorism began to take over the city. Every young man and sheikh was arrested, all considered prisoners of war despite being civilians. Looting operations spread across the city and the women and children were cast out, with neither food nor shelter.

  • 1. Pappe. Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Lieutenant Petit, who monitored the truce, stated in a detailed report upon visiting the city after its fall: “a systematic operation of looting homes occurred to prevent the residents from returning. A massacre was committed, resulting in the death of 100 civilians, especially from the new city’s residents that refused to decamp to the old city based on Israeli orders.” This testimony brings to mind the story of Mohammad Fayez Sufi, one of the residents that refused to move. Mohammad had miraculously survived while three of his colleagues died after being forced to drink cyanide poison, and had their bodies thrown into the sea.1

Acre was not the only city to fall, and poison was not the only weapon used to empty the land of its inhabitants. Those who have read the work of historians and eyewitness accounts of the Nakba massacres will know the role of many cases of rape in instigating Palestinian flight. For rape was also used as an instrument to spread terror among residents to force them to abandon their lands. Meanwhile, approximately 50 thousand men and women were forced to leave Lydda and Ramla in what became known as the March of Death.  They were forced to walk for several consecutive days in the most torrid areas, many dying on the road from thirst and exhaustion.2

  • 1. Abu Sitta. A Study of Usurped Lands.
  • 2. Pappe. Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, pp. 195 - 198.

This is how the land was emptied of its inhabitants and how the story of exile, diaspora, and the Nakba began. Palestinians kept their country, their homes, their villages, and their memories in their hearts forever.