Thursday, July 14, 2011

But Who Pulled the Plug?

Note how the Washington Post frames the following report:

"At the remains of an ancient metropolis in southern Israel, archaeologists are piecing together the history of a people remembered chiefly as the bad guys of the Hebrew Bible. The city of Gath... is helping scholars paint a more nuanced portrait of the Philistines, who appear in the biblical story as the perennial enemies of the Israelites. Close to 3 millennia ago, Gath was on the frontier between the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coastal plain, and the Israelites, who controlled the inland hills. The city's most famous resident, according to the Book of Samuel, was Goliath - the giant warrior improbably felled by the young shepherd David and his sling. The Philistines 'are the ultimate other, almost, in the biblical story', said Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, the achaeologist in charge of the excavation." (At site in Israel, archaeologists seek to sketch the lives of Goliath's countrymen, AP, 8/7/11)

No surprises, really. Israelites, front and centre. Philistines, mere bit players in their triumphal march through history.

Just as the Zionist master narrative dominates Palestine's modern history, so too, in the Israelites and their imagined Israel - the blind obsession of biblical studies - it dominates Palestine's ancient past.

This mutilation of ancient Palestine on the procrustean bed of biblical studies is the subject of an absolute must-read study, Keith W. Whitelam's The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996):

"The situation in antiquity as presented by biblical scholarship is remarkably similar to the modern period leading up to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Scholarship seems to mirror the late 19th century Zionist slogan for Palestine: 'a land without people, for a people without land'. What we have in biblical scholarship from its inception to the present day is the presentation of a land, 'Palestine', without inhabitants, or at the most simply temporary, ephemeral inhabitants, awaiting a people without a land. This has been reinforced by a reading of the biblical traditions and archaeological findings, interpreted on the basis of a prior understanding of a reading of the Bible, which helps to confirm this understanding. The foundation of the modern state has dominated scholarship to such an extent that the retrojection of the nation state into antiquity has provided the vital continuity which helps to justify and legitimize both. The effect has been to deny any continuity or legitimacy to Palestinian history. If there were no Palestinians in antiquity then there could not be a Palestinian history. The notion of continuity is reinforced by the assumption that European civilization, the pinnacle of human achievement, has its roots in this Judeo-Christian tradition. Europe has retrojected the nation state into antiquity in order to discover its own roots while at the same time giving birth to the Zionist movement which has established a 'civilized' state in the alien Orient thereby helping to confirm this continuity in culture and civilization. The irony of this situation is that for the past there is a Palestine but no Palestinians, yet for the present there are Palestinians but no Palestine. The politics of scholarship is brought home by the remark of Menachem Begin in 1969: 'If this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came'. In the scholarship of the past and in the reality of the present, Palestine has become 'the land of Israel' and the history of Israel is the only legitimate subject of study. All else is subsumed in providing background and understanding for the history of ancient Israel which has continuity with the present state and provides the roots and impulse of European civilization." (p 58)

So what actually happened to the ancient Philistines of Gath and other cities?

Of their fate, the Washington Post can speak plainly, albeit exclusively reliant on the Bible:

"The razing of Gath at that time appears to have been the work of the Aramean king Hazael in 830 BC, an incident mentioned in the Book of Kings... In 604 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded and put the Philistines' cities to the sword. There is no remnant of them after that." (At site in Israel...)

Curiously, however, when it comes to more modern times - 1948 to be exact - the Post gets terribly tongue-tied:

"Crusaders arriving from Europe in 1099 built a fortress on the remains of Gath, and later the site became home to an Arab village, Tel el-Safi, which emptied during the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948. Today Gath is a national park." (ibid)

The inhabitants of ancient Gath were put to the sword and their city razed, but, wonder of wonders, little Tel el-Safi just... emptied.

Ah, but who pulled the plug?

Here's Israeli historian Benny Morris:

"Operation An-Far was unleashed on the night of 8-9 July... The area covered by [Shimon] Avidan's order [to take the large village of Tel as-Safi and... 'to destroy, to kill and to expel refugees encamped in the area, in order to prevent enemy infiltration from the east to this important position'] was overrun during 8-11 July, with most of the village fleeing before the IDF columns reached each village [in the area]. Tel as-Safi was captured in the early morning hours of 9 July. Laying down a barrage of mortar and machine-gun fire, the 51st Battalion approached from the north and west. After taking the tel itself, the IDF fired on the houses down the slope 'increasing the mass flight, which was accompanied by screams of fear...'" (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, 2004, p 437)

What the Post should have said was that the people of Tel el-Safi were put to the sword and their village, like hundreds of others at the time, razed.

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