In his book, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes the Palestinian village of Tantura, on the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa, as a “trophy” in the ethnic cleansing process drawn up by the Zionist Plan Dalet.
On May 15, 1948, the villagers refused an offer to surrender made by Zionist intelligence officers. A week later, the Alexandroni Brigade of the Haganah, which was a paramilitary unit under David Ben Gurion’s leadership, closed in on the village on the night of May 22, leaving no avenue for escape.
Palestinians were forced to dig mass graves and bury the bodies.
Prior to selecting the Palestinians from Tantura for execution, the Alexandroni Brigade went on a rampage throughout the village, unmercifully massacring Palestinians inside their houses. Palestinians were then forced to dig mass graves and bury the bodies. A group of men, some of whom had been involved in the 1936 revolts, were gunned down on the beach of Tantura and buried at what is now known as Dor Beach. A parking lot was later constructed over the mass grave.
Palestinians’ written recollections of Tantura date back to 1950. Pappe’s book quotes Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib from Haifa, who describes the scenes inside the village, “We resisted in the streets and houses and in the morning the corpses were seen everywhere. I shall never forget this day all my life. The Jews gathered all women and children in a place, where they dumped all bodies, for them to see their dead husbands, fathers, and brothers and terrorize them, but they remained calm.”
However, it was when the massacres were exposed in Israel through an article published by Ma’ariv in 2000, which was based on a Master’s thesis by Israeli researcher Teddy Katz in 1998, that furor erupted over the disclosure, rather than over the terror acts themselves.
The Alexandroni Brigade sued Katz, who was forced to retract his findings while his degree was revoked by the university. Although, 12 hours later, Katz regretted his decision, and the matter was taken to the Israeli Supreme Court, where he was met with another rejection.
The massacre happened to pave the way for the Zionist project at the expense of the Palestinians.
With the recent documentary “Tantura” by Israeli filmmaker Alon Schwarz, which premiered at the Sundance Festival in January, Israeli media revisited its own narratives about the massacre. The exposure, however, was dissociated from the settler-colonial politics of the Israeli state. The massacre happened for a purpose, to pave the way for the Zionist project at the expense of the Palestinians.
Schwarz, who defines himself as a staunch left-wing Zionist, wants a Jewish state and is “not for the right of return by any means.” He said he was intrigued by Katz’s story about Tantura, particularly the dismissal of hours of recorded testimony. “History doesn’t belong to historians. Oral history is legitimate. If not, they can go close Yad Vashem,” Schwarz told the Times of Israel in a very detailed interview which, at times, reveals an apologist tone.
But how does one affirm oral history as legitimate while simultaneously denying the Palestinians’ right to the same as well as political justice?
To get the Israeli oral testimony of the remaining veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade, Schwarz said, “I didn’t tell them I was going to ask about Tantura.” It was through talking about their experience of the Nakba, which Schwarz describes as “war,” that Tantura was mentioned.
The Alexandroni Brigade members are presented as experiencing the trauma of the perpetrator. “I don’t dislike them. These people are like my grandparents . . . Most of them didn’t do the killing themselves, but they saw their friends kill and moved to the side. This is the essence of it all,” Schwarz said.
Such sentiment is a far cry from the Argentinian mobilization, “Historias Desobedientes,” which is an initiative by the sons, daughters, and relatives of perpetrators of torture, killings, and disappearances committed during the Jorge Videla dictatorship. One significant contribution was the drafting of a bill that is still pending debate, which would allow sons and daughters of military officials to testify against their parents as a contribution towards justice and collective memory in Argentina.
Veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade, like other Zionist paramilitaries, have committed war crimes for which justice has not only been delayed, but eradicated. This is a fact that can only be brought to life by Israel thoroughly reckoning with its origins. Any associated endearment based upon familiarity is objectionable when the documentary discussing the war crime is supposed to facilitate a critical look at Zionist ideology and actions.
Schwarz’s concept of recognition barely scratches the surface.
Despite acknowledging the Tantura massacre, Schwarz’s concept of recognition barely scratches the surface and makes no connection between Zionist paramilitary ethnic cleansing and the foundations upon which Israel was built.
Recognition of Tantura, according to Schwarz, could be achieved by erecting a public monument and offering a public apology. “What we need is for the prime minister to publicly say that every nation has its dark history and we recognize ours. It was two-sided and what we did was wrong, and that we look forward and extend our hand in peace.”
However, peace without justice is just diplomacy, which is a far cry from the role decolonization should play in allowing Palestinians narratives to thrive, both for Palestinians themselves and for the Israelis to reckon with the crimes of its settler-colonial existence.
Justice for ethnic cleansing requires more than a monument of remembrance. It is incumbent upon Israel to re-educate its settler-population about the history which wiped out not only Palestinian reality but also the settler-state military complicity in ethnic cleansing.
Justice for ethnic cleansing requires more than a monument of remembrance.
Schwarz’s documentary corroborates Katz’s earlier research and provides evidence from within Israel that the Tantura massacre happened. However, Israelis need to acknowledge that its foundations are built upon the perpetration of such massacres, all normalized by the Israeli Declaration of Independence in May 1948 and a year later by the international community when the UN recognized Israel in May 1949. A dispassionate look at Israel’s colonial origins is required if the Zionist massacres of the Nakba are to be validated in their entirety as genocidal ethnic cleansing.
The Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research describes Tantura as the complicity of silence which prevented many soldiers from speaking about their experience. That, however, is the Israeli story imbued from within by normalizing and repressing its crimes into oblivion. Tantura is much more than that.
It is a Palestinian narrative wrought by Israeli ethnic cleansing, documented by Palestinians, and archived mostly for reference because the Palestinian people have been denied their right to their collective memory as part of their political struggle for rights and liberation.
The documented revelations now surfacing in Israel will fail to serve a purpose if Israelis do not consider the Alexandroni Brigade, in this instance, as a former paramilitary that was tasked with ethnically cleansing Palestine for the Zionist colonial project.
Israel’s existence relies on denying Palestinian memory, and Palestinians do not need apologetic and dissociated Israeli colonial accounts. Nor do Palestinians need a Zionist approach retelling their stories of Tantura, which would invalidate and marginalize Palestinian oral history and collective memory.
If the Israel narrative of Tantura is to yield any result in setting the record straight on Zionist ethnic cleansing, it needs to be unequivocally tied to Israel’s existence and current presence.