A Second Call for a 'Race Against Time

In his 'Foreword' to one of the great works of oral history, Blood of Spain, on the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, Roy Fraser wrote: “Major historical works…have charted most of the features of that conflict, and it would be vain to hope to add anything new to the overall map of the period. But within the general and even detailed knowledge, one area has remained unarticulated: the subjective, a spectrum of the lived experiences of people who participated in events.”(2)

 Historians still describe the events of 1947/1948 in Palestine in classic military history terms such as 'war', 'defeat', and 'rout'. This fundamentally misrepresents what happened in 1948, for which the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has claimed the term ‘ethnic cleansing’, a usage justified by Nur Masalha’s research on the idea of 'transfer' in Zionist archives.(3) What is entirely missing so far is the experience of ordinary Palestinians of the expulsions of 1948. Displaced Palestinians are portrayed as simply statistics, not political actors, and not potential chroniclers of events. A gap yawns here between the meaning of 1948 for displaced Palestinians, and its representation by historians.

Today some Palestinian oral history work is being done by individual scholars and NGOs, so the canvas is not entirely empty. However this individual work needs to be connected to expand the picture, fill in gaps and to point to the important questions. It requires trans-diaspora cooperation between institutions, local groups and individual scholars. We need to think about the crucial questions which would serve future historians. Many aspects of the expulsions are still not clear, for example:

• The build-up to the expulsions, which began in late 1947; pre-1948 Zionist attack plans and preparations that ordinary people could observe, such as Zionist scouting expeditions to reconnoiter the countryside; weapons and methods in different phases of the year-long struggle (e.g. air strikes, when and how these were used); the use of psychological warfare, rumours, radio propaganda, spies; the use of Jewish mukhtars to convey messages.

• Did the Zionist/Israeli forces use a similar pattern of attack against villages, as a researcher in the Galilee area suggests?(4) Was this pattern restricted to one area, or one stage of the expulsions?

• Variations in methods and degree of intensity of expulsions in different areas/ under different commanders/ stages; expulsions during truces.

• Massacres: According to the historian Michael Palumbo,(5) Israeli brutality increased in last phase of war. There is a need for knowledge of massacres that are still not widely known even to Palestinians, for example Safsaf, ‘Eilaboun, Tantura, Majdal Kroom, al-Jish, the ‘Arab al-Sbeh (near Kfar Kana), al-Dawayima, Beersheba and other parts of the Naqab.(6)

• Rape: Palumbo cites a number of testimonials to the incidence of rape, though this is a topic that has hardly been dealt with up to now by Palestinian historians, except in relation to Deir Yassin. The recent revelation in Ha’aretz of the rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman in 1949 should alert us to the need for further research, also to the value of Israeli testimonies.

• Prevention of refugee return: Palestinian research has focused on the destruction of villages; but other methods were used as well, such as bombing areas of refugee concentration, and booby-trapping homes.

• Variations in Palestinian reaction: for example why did residents of the same area make different choices, some choosing to flee, others to stay? What were the trajectories of leaving Palestine? Where did people go and why?

• The early experiences of those who stayed in what became Israel. Some work has been done here, mostly by individual researchers.(7)

• Most work so far has been with people originally from villages, except for some individual research in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Nablus. There is a need to fill gaps in knowledge through recording with a broader span of social sectors. We need to add to the record the recollections of: women - their memories of the hijra [migration/displacement] and the aftermath certainly differ from men’s; city people of all classes; Bedouin from different areas; minorities of different kinds – e.g. Bahais, Armenians; prisoners of war and labour camp workers; the blind or otherwise handicapped;(8) refugees who were children during the hijra.(9)

Research on the first years after 1948 also remains a black hole in Palestinian studies, even though somewhat covered by individual memoirs and special sector studies.(10) Some of the questions to be explored are: a) Settlement patterns in exile: what forces and motivations were at work in refugee movement; what were host government policies and to what extent did they predominate over refugee ‘clustering’? b) How were the refugees' social relations affected by exile and separation? How did scattered families and localities re-establish connection? c) Why was there a collective silence on the part of Palestinians about the massacres and, in some cases, rapes that accompanied the expulsions? Why was Deir Yassin remembered and the others ‘forgotten’? e) How was connection with Palestine maintained in the early years? How did some people manage to return, some to stay, others to be expelled?

These and a host of other questions about the destruction of Palestinian society in Palestine and its reconstruction in exile, or under occupation, wait to be posed and to be answered.

The ‘Race Against Time’

The dwindling number of Palestinians who can remember Mandate Palestine, or the expulsions of 1947/48, or the period immediately after the Nakba, gives an extra urgency to the question of recording with survivors. Saleh Abdel Jawad was right when he called such a recording project a ‘Race Against Time’. A demographer's estimate of the total number of Palestinians aged over 70 in 2003 was around 2% of the whole population (there are slight differences between regions). This would make a 'pool' of around 205,000, counting only Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel.(11) This number seems substantial until you remember that it is diminishing daily. There is no question that we are now in the very last years when recording with older Palestinians is still possible. Now is the time to strengthen links not only between research organizations, but within the community, to demonstrate the importance of coordinated oral history work. In the urgency to pursue such a project, the political purpose must not be forgotten: the protection of refugee rights now and in the future.

Dr. Rosemary Sayigh is an anthropologist and oral historian living in Beirut, author of Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries (1979) and Too Many Enemies: The Palestinian Experience in Lebanon (1994).

(1) I should like to acknowledge that the phrase “Race Against Time” was first used in relation to Palestinian oral history by Saleh Abdel Jawad, a lecturer at Birzeit University, to entitle a project proposal aimed at recording with remaining survivors of the expulsions of 1948, a project which up to now has found no institutional support. Interview in, al-Jana (2002), Special Issue on Palestinian Oral History. Published by the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts.
(3) Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.
(4) Sahera Dirbas, al-Jana, supra note 1, p. 23.
(5) Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland. London: Faber, 1987.
(6) Benny Morris mentions new documentation revealing atrocities in al-Husayniyya in the Galilee, and at Burayr, near Beersheba. Benny Morris, “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,” in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The War for Palestine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 49.
(7) Sabri Jiryis was an early writer on the topic. For personal reminiscences see, Fawzi al-Asmar, To Be an Arab in Israel. London: Frances Pintner, 1975. For legal, military and institutional measures of the new Israeli state to control Palestinians see, Gaby Abed, Jamil Arafat, Sahera Dirbas, Sharif Kanaana, and Awatef Shiekh, “The Arabs of Israel 1948-1966,” in al-Jana, supra note 1.
(8) See, Rawan and Dima Damen in al-Jana, supra note 1, pp. 17-18.
(9) Ibid.
(10) For example, oral histories of women activists, Faiha Abdulhadi (ed.), al-mara’ al-Filastiniyya wa al-dhakra: Awraaq warshat ‘amal hawl al-tarikh al-shafawy al-siyasi lil-mara’ al-Filastiniyya. Ramallah: Directorate of Gender Planning, 1999. Autobiographies have helped fill this gap. See, e.g., Fawaz al-Turki, The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972; Fawzi al-Asmar, op. cit.; Ghada Karmi, In Search of Fatima. London: Verso Press, 2002.
(11) An estimate from 1995. Area breakdowns are: Jordan: 39,393; Syria: 6,297; Lebanon: 18,493; the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip: 79,479; Israel: 66,774. (The figure for Israel is for the whole population, not Palestinians alone.) Marwan Khawaja: personal communication.