From my journal, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. My dispatches based on my latest work in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019.
We must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
(Captions indicate name-current home-ancestral village)
WHERE AND WHEN?
Since one year ago exactly, September 3, 2018, I have traveled, lived, and worked in Palestine-Israel on my refugee photographic project for 4 months. Initially, I titled it “On Our Way Home,” referring to the Great March of Return in Gaza that was one of my motivations for this project, but, after meeting people who seemed securely situated but were universally fearful of further expulsion, I retitled it, “The Ongoing Nakba.” I have met no Palestinians living in Palestine who feel safe from forced removal by the Israelis.
WHAT IS THE NAKBA?
In 1948, Israel expelled some 750,000 indigenous Arabs to clear the land for Jewish settlement, leading to the foundation of the state of Israel. Thus the Nakba (in Arabic), or Catastrophe. Some 5 million Palestinians now live in the West Bank and Gaza—the “internally expelled.” And, with few exceptions, they are not permitted to return to any of their original 400 villages and towns, even for short visits.
With help from many others, I meet the refugees, now often living in refugee camps in Palestine, interview and photograph them, photograph their current living conditions, and return to their ancestral homes (now in Israel) to photograph. I include photos of where and how they live currently in internal diaspora to contrast with their earlier, often pastoral lives, in destroyed villages—in contrast also to how Israelis are privileged to live. Eventually, I’ll add archival photos of their regions before the expulsion.
On my first trip for this project, September and October 2018—my overarching project began in October 2003, in part inspired by the martyrdom of Rachel Corrie that spring—I photographed 14 Palestinians, mostly first-generation refugees (expelled during the Nakba); 4 were second and third-generation refugees. I also located all the destroyed villages they’d lived in, 8 of them, an arduous process because of deliberate disappearance and displacement by Israeli communities and parks, and because of their new names—the process of Judaization.
On my second and most recent trip, mid-May thru mid-July 2019, I interviewed and made portraits of 24 more Palestinians forcibly removed or threatened with removal, all but 4 first generation. In addition, I plan to photograph another 10 or so Palestinians living in New England who I know personally and who come from Nakba-suffering origins. I will also photograph where and how they live currently, as well as their destroyed villages.
Of the second group’s 15 destroyed Arab villages, I found about half, mostly along the Mediterranean coast. Many sites are now major Israeli cities and towns like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramle and Lydda, virtually completely erasing their Arab history. A few are parks where I’ve discovered remnants like rubble, cacti, and rock walls. I’ve not seen any markers on either trip indicating prior Arab habitation.
DISAPPOINTMENTS AND FAILURES
So these are achievements. Disappointments and failures fall into 2 categories: finding people to photograph and locating their original villages. For the first 3 weeks of my recent 8-week trip, I found no one and suspected this might be true for the remaining 5 weeks. No one to photograph for this project. I can’t simply hike into a refugee camp, announce myself, ask for volunteers, and photograph. I need contacts, intermediaries, people trustable to those I need to photograph. And I need to trust the intermediaries. During my second week when I was most desperate, I met a local man in Ramallah who offered to help me. I was suspicious, asked about him, learned he was unreliable, and decided not to hire him.
The second category, the villages themselves (for my second trip), are mostly buried by urban development. Little remains. For instance, Tel Aviv, the major Israeli city, lies atop at least 8 villages. In Jerusalem, the Nakba forced all Arabs living in what is now called West Jerusalem, now all Jewish Israeli, out entirely of Jerusalem or into East Jerusalem (which I call the Palestinian sector of Jerusalem). Ironically the new Museum of Tolerance builds atop some of the historic Arab cemetery in downtown Jerusalem. Earlier, Israel built Independence Park atop a portion of the cemetery, governmental buildings including the Israeli Ministry of Trade and Industry, and several roads.
Consider the United States, New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, most cities. What do they erase? How many Indian sites lie beneath these metropolises?
I desperately need a professional fixer or colleague who I’d hire to travel with me in Israel. Someone who knows where these villages are—and where in the village sites are the remains like cemeteries, mosques, other buildings, wells, cisterns, cacti, rock walls, rock debris, and remnants of buildings, the usual telltale signs I search for.
I’ve been graced with several excellent Palestinian colleagues, Nidal Al Azraq, Fareed Taamallah, Ayed Al Azeh, Musa Al Azeh, Murad Abusrour, Eman Wawi, Amos Gvirtz, David Nir, Sahar, Meras Al Azza, Linda Dittmar, and a few others. But two organizations, natural fits with my project, BADIL, and Zochrot, have failed to fully respond to my inquiries for assistance. (I mention this mainly because I believe it is a major factor impeding progress in activist circles generally). BADIL, the Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, and Zochrot (Remember in Hebrew), an Israeli NGO that, among other tasks, leads tours to destroyed Arab villages, have for various understandable reasons been disappointments. They failed to fulfill their promises in the first case or didn’t fully respond to my phone and email requests in the second. Likewise with individuals who might have helped with the project—no response. Sure: general busyness, a crisis within the organization, or people not knowing or trusting me could all help explain the silence. That Deep Dark Pit that good intentions often disappear into.
Uncovering the Lost Palestinian Villages Underneath Glitzy Tel Aviv, by Mira Sucharov (2016)
A new guidebook “Omrim Yeshna Eretz” (Once Upon a Land) published by Zochrot and Pardes Publishing). It is a bilingual tour guide, in Hebrew and Arabic, to what is left and—mainly— what was erased, almost without a trace.
TO BE CONTINUED