History Erased: The IDF and the Post-1948 Destruction of Palestinian Monuments
SPECIAL DOCUMENT: HISTORY ERASED THE IDF AND THE POST-1948 DESTRUCTION OF PALESTINIAN MONUMENTS
This article appeared in Ha’aretz on 6 July 2007.
In July 1950, Majdal—today Ashqelon—was still a mixed town. About three thousand Palestinians lived there in a closed, fenced-off ghetto, next to the recently arrived Jewish residents. Before the 1948 war, Majdal had been a commercial and administrative center with a population of twelve thousand. It also had religious importance: Nearby, amid the ruins of ancient Ashqelon, stood Mashhad Nabi Husayn, an eleventh-century structure where, according to tradition, the head of Husayn Bin ‘Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was interred; his death in Karbala, Iraq, marked the onset of the rift between Shi‘a and Sunnis. Muslim pilgrims, both Shi‘a and Sunni, would visit the site. But after July 1950, there was nothing left for them to visit: That’s when the Israel Defense Forces blew up Mashhad Nabi Husayn.
This was not the only Muslim holy place destroyed after Israel’s war of independence. According to a book by Dr. Meron Benvenisti, of the 160 mosques in the Palestinian villages incorporated into Israel under the armistice agreements, fewer than 40 are still standing. What is unusual about the case of Mashhad Nabi Husayn is that the demolition is documented, and direct responsibility was taken by none other than the GOC [General Officer Commanding] Southern Command at the time—an officer named Moshe Dayan. The documentation shows that the holy site was blown up deliberately as part of a broader operation that included at least two additional mosques, one in Yavneh and the other in Ashdod.
A member of the establishment is responsible for the documentation: Shmuel Yeivin, then the director of the Department of Antiquities, the forerunner of the present-day [Israeli] Antiquities Authority. Yeivin, as noted by Raz Kletter, an archaeologist who has studied the first two decades of archaeology in Israel, was neither a political activist nor a champion for Arab rights. As Kletter explains, he was simply a scientist, a disciple of the British school and a member of the Mandate government’s Department of Antiquities who believed that ancient sites and holy places needed to be preserved, whether they were sacred to Jews, Christians, or Muslims. In line with his convictions, he fired off letters of protest and was considered a nudnik by the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. “I received a report that not long ago, the army blew up the big building in the ruins of Ashqelon, which is known by the name of Maqam al-Nabi Husayn and is a holy site for the Muslim community,”
Yeivin wrote on 24 July 1950, to Lieutenant Colonel Yaakov Patt, the head of the department for special missions in the Defense Ministry, and sent a copy to chief of staff Yigael Yadin and other senior officers. “That building was still standing during my last visit to the site, on 10 June—in other words, the army authorities found no reason to demolish it from the conquest until the middle of 1950. I find it hard to imagine the site was blown up due to infiltrators, as they have not stopped infiltrating the area during this entire period.” The detonation, by the way, was extremely successful. Of the ancient and holy site, not so much as a stone remained.
Yeivin’s complaint was seemingly related to procedural matters, but only seemingly. The army, he wrote, needed to understand that there were “sanctified buildings,” and if it wanted to touch them, “it is proper, honest, and courteous first to talk to the institutions that supervise these areas and buildings and to consult with them in order to find ways to avoid destruction.”
But that is not happening, Yeivin stated. “I was told that simultaneously, the mosque in the abandoned village of Ashdod was blown up,” Yeivin added. “This is not the first case. I already have had many occasions to draw your attention to similar cases elsewhere, and the chief of staff issued explicit directives with regard to the preservation of such buildings and places, but apparently none of this avails commanders of a certain type. . . I believe the commander responsible for this explosion should be brought to trial and punished, because in this case there was no justification for a swift, war-contingent operation.”
A perusal of the IDF archives shows that Lieutenant Colonel Patt forwarded Yeivin’s complaint to Yadin. Yadin, who would later become Israel’s preeminent archaeologist and whose father, Eliezer Sukenik, was an archaeologist of repute in his own right and Yeivin’s colleague in the Mandate Department of Antiquities, was not unduly upset, however. Below Patt’s letter addressing Yeivin’s complaint are handwritten remarks: “1. Confirm receipt of letter and inform that the matter is being dealt with; 2. Add to Dayan’s material for my meeting with B.-G.”—referring to then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion. It stands to reason that the handwriting is Yadin’s, as it is unlikely that anyone else could have met with Ben-Gurion concerning “Dayan’s material.” And Yadin, as is clear from another note written on the letter, did not attribute any great importance to the complaint. “Teven la’afarayim,” it says, roughly the equivalent of “coals to Newcastle”— in short, there is nothing new in Yeivin’s complaint.
Nor was Dayan unduly upset. In a response he sent to the chief of staff’s bureau, apparently on 10 August, under the heading “Destruction of a holy place,” Dayan wrote: “The detonation was carried out by the Coastal Plain District, at my instruction.” The first words of the sentence have been struck out, but a letter dated 30 August removes all doubt. Dayan replied to a letter concerning “damage to antiquities in the Ashqelon area”: “The chief of staff approached me and I gave him my explanations; the action was carried out at my instructions.”
That reply was so embarrassing that Yaakov Prolov, the head of the Operations Department in the General Staff, sent a letter to the chief of staff’s bureau asking for guidelines on how to reply to Yeivin. “A mistake was made here, and it can be assumed it will not happen again,” someone instructed him in script that looks like that attributed to Yadin in the previous letter. Whitewashing, it turns out, is not a new invention.
BLOTS ON THE LANDSCAPE
Not surprisingly, it did in fact happen again. At the end of October, Yeivin sent another letter, this time directly to Yadin, to complain about “the blowing-up of the ancient mosque at Yavneh,” a thousand-year-old structure whose minaret is still standing on a hill south of Yavneh, close to the train station. Yeivin reminded Yadin that he had been promised that those responsible would be punished this time. It turned out, however, there was an unexplained disparity between the explicit orders prohibiting damage to mosques and the actual policy in the field.
“I have just received an official reply from your bureau chief [Michael Avitzur], and after reading it I am totally at a loss,” Yeivin wrote to Yadin. “On the one hand, I have in front of me your explicit order, which speaks unequivocally about preserving places of archaeological or historical value . . . On the other hand, I read in the letter of Lieutenant Colonel Michael Avitzur that the mosque at Yavneh ‘was exploded on July 9, 1950, before the date on which the cessation of blowing up mosques was announced.’ How can these two things be reconciled?”
Yeivin’s quotation from Avitzur’s letter makes it clear that blowing up mosques was widespread enough that it required a special order to stop it. Yeivin himself wrote later in the letter, “I am extremely concerned following my talks with a number of people involved in the policy on this question.” Yeivin did not specify to whom he spoke, but noted, “I do not see myself as being able to write explicitly about everything.”
David Eyal (formerly Trotner), who was the military commander of Majdal at the time, says “he does not want to return” to that period. The historian Mordechai Bar-On, who was Dayan’s bureau chief during his term as chief of staff and remained close to him for years, says he himself did not serve in Southern Command at the time and therefore is not familiar with the destruction of mosques in Ashqelon, Yavneh, and Ashdod, and also never heard Dayan issue any such order.
“As a company commander in Central Command, we expelled the Arabs from Za- kariyya, but we did not destroy the mosque, and it is still there,” Bar-On says. “I know that in the South, in the villages of Burayr and Huj [near today’s Kibbutz Bror Hayil], the villages were leveled and the mosques disappeared with them, but I am not familiar with an order to demolish only mosques. It doesn’t sound reasonable to me.”
The affair of the mosque demolitions does not appear in Kletter’s book, Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology, published in Britain (Equinox Publishing) in 2005. Kletter, who has worked for the Antiquities Authority for the past 20 years, does not consider himself a “new historian” and has no accounts to settle with Zionism or the State of Israel. Nevertheless, the story of archaeology comes across in his book to no small degree as one of destruction: the utter destruction of towns and villages, the destruction of an entire culture—its present but also its past, from three-thousand-year- old Hittite reliefs to synagogues in razed Arab quarters; from a rare Roman mausoleum (which was damaged but spared from destruction at the last minute) to fortresses that were blown up one after the other. Had it not been for a few fanatics like Yeivin, who pleaded to save these historical monuments, they might all have been wiped off the face of the earth.
As the documents quoted in the book show, only a small part of this devastation occurred in the heat of battle. The vast majority took place later, because the remnants of the Arab past were considered blots on the landscape and evoked facts every- one wanted to forget. “The ruins from the Arab villages and Arab neighborhoods, or the blocs of buildings that have stood empty since 1948, arouse harsh associations that cause considerable political damage,” wrote A. Dotan, from the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry, in an August 1957 letter that is quoted in Kletter’s book. A copy was sent to Yeivin in the Department of Antiquities.
“In the past nine years, many ruins have been cleared. . . . However, those that remain now stand out even more prominently in sharp contrast to the new landscape. Accordingly, ruins that are irreparable or have no archaeological value should be cleared away.” The letter, Dotan noted, was written “at the instruction of the foreign minister,” Golda Meir.
Kletter reveals in his book that Yeivin and his staff occasionally tried to stop the destruction—not always, not consistently, and not for moral reasons or out of any special respect for the people (the Arabs) who lived for centuries in these towns and quarters. Their grounds were scientific, and Kletter believes this approach stemmed from their background. Before 1948 they worked for the Department of Antiquities of the Mandate government under British management, alongside Arab employees. Kletter relates that in the department they fought for the “Judaization” of the names of ancient sites, but nevertheless remained loyal to the department—so much so that after the United Nations passed the partition plan in November 1947, Yeivin proposed that the department remain unified even after the country’s division into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Eliezer Sukenik went one step farther: “I do not believe the Jewish state will preserve its antiquities,” he said in a December 1947 discussion. “We must place scientific sovereignty above political sovereignty. We are interested in the archaeology of the whole land, and the only way [to ensure this] is a unified department.”
PERJURY AT MEGIDDO
“Yeivin was not the greatest archaeologist in the world, but he had personal integrity, which is the most important trait of the British heritage,” Kletter says. “But that heritage did not suit the nationalism of the 1950s, because Ben-Gurion wanted to erase everything that had been, to erase the Islamic past.”
Ben-Gurion saw everything that existed here before the revival of the Jewish community as wasteland. “Foreign conquerors have turned our land into a desert,” he said at a meeting of the Society for Land of Israel Studies in 1950. Thus the failure of Yeivin and his colleagues was a foregone conclusion. In the 1950s, when archaeology was a fad and archaeologists like Yadin were cultural heroes, people of science were nudged out of management positions. Yeivin was forced to resign, and “technocrats” like Teddy Kollek were effectively put in charge of managing Israel’s major archaeological sites.
The Department of Antiquities was formally established in July 1948 as a unit of the Public Works Department in the Ministry of Labor. Even before this, the veterans of its Mandatory predecessor tried to preserve antiquities—and in particular, to prevent looting—but did not always succeed. The museum in Caesarea was emptied out by thieves, and the same fate befell the findings and documents at Tal Megiddo, which were concentrated in the offices of the University of Chicago archaeological expedition, which had been digging there since the 1920s. Rare collections such as the one at Notre Dame Monastery in Jerusalem disappeared almost completely, and private collections and antique shops in Jaffa and Jerusalem were also targeted by thieves.
“All the objects have disappeared from the government museum [more than one hundred fragments of inscriptions and parts of pillars],” reported Emanuel Ben-Dor, who would later become Yeivin’s deputy director, after visiting Caesarea. “The collection in the office of the Greek patriarch was destroyed.” The Megiddo incident was particularly embarrassing, as the dig was carried out by American archaeologists, and the U.S. consulate wanted to know who was responsible for the devastation. An investigation was launched under Yeivin’s supervision, and the local commanders said that Arab units had wrecked the site. Yeivin discovered that this was untrue and that Israeli soldiers had looted the site and then burned the archaeological expedition’s offices.
In a confidential report, Yeivin quoted from an internal letter of the local unit: “In consultation with the battalion commander and with the brigade’s operations officer, we agreed that in the event of an investigation by the U.S. consul general ... we will (shamefully) lie and say the place was found in this condition when it was captured and that the crime was committed by the Arabs before they fled.”
But the theft of antiquities was only a small part of the problem. The major problem was the destruction. In August 1948, the army started to demolish ancient Tiberias, apparently in the wake of a local decision. The attempts to salvage some of the town’s archaeological gems were to no avail. In September the site was visited by Jacob Pinkerfeld from the Department of Antiquities’ monument conservation unit.
“In ancient Tiberias the army began to blow up a hefty strip of buildings in the Old City,” Pinkerfeld wrote in his report. “In talks with all the responsible parties at the site, we emphasized the special importance of the ancient stone with the relief of the lions on it, which was built into one of the walls. We were promised that this antiquity dating back three thousand years would be specially guarded, but in my last visit I found precisely this stone blown to bits.”
So sweeping was the destruction of Tiberias that even Ben Gurion was taken aback when he visited the city in early 1949. The list for destruction sometimes assumed ludicrous proportions. During a visit to Haifa in August 1948, Yeivin discovered the army was laying waste to large sections of the Arab city around Hamra Square (now Paris Square) under the direction of the city engineer. In his restrained language, Yeivin expressed his astonishment at the destruction: “With our own eyes we saw the ruins of half of a building that had served as a synagogue on the Street of the Jews . . . According to Jews who live there and wandered about among the ruins, another two or three synagogues were also destroyed there . . . It would appear that with attentiveness, the damage inflicted to these holy buildings could have been avoided.”
The leveling of the villages began as soon as the fighting ended. During his visit to the North, Yeivin saw the army blowing up villages near Tiberias and Mount Tabor. He asked that before villages were demolished, consultations be held with representatives of the Department of Antiquities, because “in many villages, ancient building stones are embedded in the houses.” At Zir’in (now Kibbutz Yisrael) a Crusader tower was blown up, and the fortress at Um Khaled, near Netanya, was reduced to rubble.
But there were successes, too. An order was issued to raze the fortress at Shfaram, but Antiquities Department staff arrived at the last minute and blocked the demolition. And at al-Muzayra, a village south of Rosh Ha’ayin, a miracle occurred: The army used a handsome building of pillars in the middle of the abandoned village for target practice, apparently without knowing it was “the only mausoleum that survived in our country from the Roman period,” according to Yeivin. When, nonetheless, the decision came to blow up the mausoleum in July 1949, an antiquities inspector arrived at the site and prevented the blast. The site is now known as “Hirbat Manor” (the Manor Ruin) and is recommended in all sightseeing guides for the area.
Kletter relates that in February 1950, at the initiative of Yeivin and others who grasped that without government intervention the country’s urban past would simply disappear, Ben-Gurion agreed to establish a government committee “for sacred and historic sites and monuments.” The committee was staffed by senior government and military personnel. The report, which was submitted in October 1951, stated that certain sites had to be preserved as “whole units”—“Acre, a few quarters in Safed, small sections of Jaffa and Tiberias, small sections of Ramle and Lod, a few sections of Tarshiha.” The rest of the towns, and hundreds of villages, were already lost.
However, the state institutions failed to honor even these conclusions. According to Kletter, Yeivin was one of the first to fight the August 1950 decision to demolish all of Jaffa. Afterward, artists who had moved into the abandoned city joined the struggle, as did Development Authority personnel, and thus a few sections were spared total annihilation. Yeivin was less successful in Lod. In June 1954, he wrote a protest letter to the education minister in the wake of a decision on “the destruction of the ancient quarter in the city of Lod.” Israeli law, pursuant to British law, stipulated that only what was built before 1700 was considered an “antiquity,” but Yeivin wrote that the other sites should also be preserved—both for tourism and because they are “cultural and educational assets and living historical testimonies that every enlightened state is obliged to preserve.”
Kletter’s book leaves the impression that the destruction was not accidental and that its perpetrators were aware of its significance. The ideological foundation of the devastation is set forth in the August 1957 Foreign Ministry letter sent at the behest of Golda Meir. After the author of the document, A. Dotan, requested the Ministry of Labor to “clear the ruins,” he specified “four types” of “ruins” and the grounds for their destruction: “First, it is necessary to get rid of the ruins in the heart of Jewish communities, in important centers or on central transportation arteries; rapid treatment must be given to the ruins of villages whose residents are in the country, such as Birwe, north of Shfaram, and the ruins of Zippori; in areas where there is no development, such as along the rail line from Jerusalem to Bar Giora, one receives a depressing impression of a once-living civilized land; attention must also be directed to ruins in distinctly tourist areas, such as the ruins of the Circassian village in Caesarea, which is intact but empty. . . . Accordingly, the Ministry of Labor should assume the mission of clearing the ruins . . . It should be taken into account that the participation of nongovernmental elements requires caution, as politically it is desirable for the operation to be executed without anyone grasping its political meaning.”
Kletter says he was surprised to discover the scale of the destruction, but that to some extent he understands those who were behind the operation. The decision not to allow the Palestinian refugees to return was unavoidable, he believes, if the idea was to establish a Jewish state here. Those were the rules of the game in that period, he says, and if the Jewish community had lost in 1948, the Arab victors would likely have treated the Jews in the same way. And because it was impossible to preserve hundreds of abandoned Palestinian towns and villages, there was no choice but to demolish most of them, Kletter maintains.
He also has nothing against the archaeologists who in the early years of the state were concerned almost exclusively with Jewish sites, or in the best case with Christian or Roman sites, and ignored Muslim sites almost completely. It is natural for researchers to be interested first and foremost in their own culture, Kletter says; and besides, relative to the political pressure exerted on them by people like Ben-Gurion, who declaredly wanted to erase the Arab past of this country, they behaved honorably. “Early Israeli archaeology has something to be ashamed of and much to be proud of,” Kletter writes.
Still, Kletter says, his book is “about loss, about what could have been but was not. The loss of archaeology that began with a scientific tradition and did not continue, the loss of vast historical information, the loss of the village landscape. I don’t think this village landscape belongs to us—it belongs to the people who lived here—but still, there is longing for that lost landscape. We cannot bring it back, but at least we should be aware of the truth and not lie to ourselves.”
Kletter says this country’s great good fortune lies in the fact that it contains so many monuments that it was impossible to destroy all of them. But even those that were destroyed somehow continue to live a different life. Mash’had Nabi Husayn, the holy site in Ashqelon, was leveled in 1950, but the Muslim believers did not forgo it. A few years ago, the Shi‘i Ismaili sect, which is based in central India, established a kind of small marble platform at the site on the grounds of Barzilai Hospital; since then, thousands of believers have come there every year. In Yavneh, only the minaret remains of the razed ancient mosque, standing alongside heaps of rubble and one fig tree, but in a visit to the site a week ago I saw a group of elderly Ethiopians there on the hill, praying ardently under the fig tree. It was as if the place had remained holy even if its inhabitants had changed.