Sunday, June 23, 2013

How Palestinian Beersheba Became Israeli Be'er Sheva

The ethnic cleansing of 85% of the Palestinian Arab population living in the area overrun by Zionist forces in 1948 included that of the town of Beersheba in Palestine's southern Negev Desert area.

Some idea of what the inhabitants of Beersheba were forced to endure at the time may be found in an illuminating book on the Palestinian Nakba by Israeli photography and visual culture theorist Ariella Azoulay: From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction & State Formation, 1947-1950 (2011). In her book, Azoulay combines Israeli archival photographs of the time with her own insightful, contextualising 'readings' of them.

Here are some of Azoulay's 'readings' which relate to the fate of Beersheba and its people. (The numbering relates to the order in which the photograph and its 'reading' appear in the text.):

1) "These are the mosque's final hours serving the town's Palestinian population. The new inhabitants will change its function many times, ignoring the original purpose for which it was built. When the photograph was taken, it was being used as a detention camp. Most of the people seen outside the walls of the temporary detention camps established in public buildings are Israeli soldiers. The army left 100 healthy, strong Arab men in the city to help them clean up and remove rubble. Until a few days ago they had lived in the buildings whose ruins they're now required to clear away. During the few hours they're not engaged in that activity, they're shut up in the mosque with mattresses, blankets and other belongings they've managed to save from their homes. The official caption describes them as 'Arab prisoners of war'. They'll soon be transferred to a different prisoner of war camp in Israel.

2) "About 3,000 Palestinians lived in the town at the end of the British Mandate. The day after Beersheba was captured, the only people on the street were armed soldiers on patrol whose job was to prevent life in town from returning to normal and lay the groundwork for transforming Beersheba into a Jewish town. The orders were to settle 3,000 Jews. The residents expelled from the town won't be able to enjoy the beautiful trees which will grow from the saplings recently planted along the sidewalk, and the mosque will no longer be a place of prayer."

3) "According to the [UN] Partition Plan [of 1947], seemingly accepted by the Jews, Beersheba was to have been part of the Palestinian state. But this was neither the first nor the last time Israel had violated the conditions set by the ceasefires that had been reached and the UN resolution (acting in the spirit of 'UN - Shmoo-N,' even before that policy had a name), creating facts on the ground that were inconsistent with these agreements. The conquest of Beersheba was an example. Men who had been captured, and who the soldiers suspected had not surrendered all their weapons, were shot. Others were transferred to prison camps. It's not possible to tell from the photograph what will happen to the captured Egyptian soldiers leaving the building [with hands in the air]."

5) "The [Hebrew] slogan on the bus, 'On to Gaza,' doesn't refer to the destination of the 'Egyptian prisoners of war.' They'll be exchanged a few months later, in February 1949, as part of the armistice agreement with Egypt, and now they're on their way to a prisoner of war camp. The slogan might be the warcry of fighters on their way to capture Gaza - even though, at the end of the day, they didn't capture Gaza then - or the sign on the buses that carried the residents of Beersheba who had been expelled to Gaza. Dozens of buses were put at the disposal of the residents after the town was captured, and the orders were clear: 'If we see anyone here after 8 o'clock tomorrow, we'll kill them'."

74) "The actual capture of the town during what is officially described as a 'war' was only the first in a series of non-military occupations that validated the army's behavior and played their part in expropriating the town from its residents. These began with the caption's official wording that, in one version or another, was on everyone's lips - 'The town is empty of inhabitants' - until, a few days later, this building became the JNF House. The owners of the shops on the ground floor, like the owners of the apartments above, must have been among the 450,000 refugees who in the 1960s filled out property-claim forms for the UN Reconciliation Commission that prepared an estimate (published on April 28, 1968) of the value of 'abandoned' Arab property. There's no need to mention that Israel rejected the document and ignored its implications."

88) "Military occupation was not enough to turn Beersheba, which was to have been included in the Arab state, into a Jewish town. Civil occupation was also necessary. Beginning in October 1948, after extensive areas had been captured in military operations in the south and in the north, feverish discussions were held regarding the appropriate procedure for taking over Arab land. These discussions occurred in various committees established for that purpose - the Transfer Committee headed by Yosef Weitz, the Ministerial Committee for Abandoned Property, the Committee for Distributing Lands, the JNF - as well in conversations and discussions between the Prime Minister and his associates. The solution eventually found, after many revisions, was for the state to 'legally' sell the 'abandoned' lands to the JNF as part of a 'development plan' so that the rights of the ongoing owners would allegedly be preserved. In May 1949, when Israel was accepted as a member of the United Nations, the hairsplitting ceased, and all the territory which was 'held' became part of the sovereign state of Israel. It was now important to quickly get the buildings ready for new Jewish immigrants. During the early years, the state used DDT to fumigate both the bodies of Jewish immigrants from North Africa so they wouldn't transmit disease, and the walls of the Arab houses before the Jewish immigrants moved in. If the boy has already learned Hebrew and knows how to ask what the man holding the large, noisy apparatus is doing, the proud reply would certainly be that he's preparing a lovely, disease-free home for him."

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