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Shards of Memory

By Gideon Levy

This is the most Arab-free area in Israel. It was the scene of total ethnic cleansing, which left not a vestige apart from the heaps of ruins and the sabra bushes. On the coastal plain, between Jaffa and Gaza, not one Palestinian village remains intact. Now the settlers of the Gush Katif bloc from the Gaza Strip are to be brought here. In a bitterly ironic jest of fate, the settlers who sowed ruin and destruction in the Gaza Strip will now live on the ruins of the homes of the residents who were their invisible neighbors in the refugee camps.

Again they will see nothing. From Gush Katif they saw nothing of the devastation that was wrought in Khan Yunis and in its refugee camp; and in the Nitzanim region they will see nothing of the rich fabric of life that existed here and was destroyed. It was all erased from the face of the earth (eternity is only dust and earth). Only the skeletons of a few beautiful homes, which somehow still stand, and the piles of stones, the orchards and the natural fences made of sabra bushes remain as mute testimony among the eucalyptus groves, the new settlements and the orchards that were planted on the sites of the destruction. From the Ashdod-Ashkelon road it is possible to see a few of the ruins, but who pays attention? Who asks himself what these houses are, what used to be here and where the former residents are as he shoots past on the highway?

There is no memorial and no monument. No signpost and no sign of the dozens of villages that were razed. In Moshav Mavki'im, on the ruins of the village of Barbara, in a grove where dozens of bulldozers and trucks are now working to prepare the ground for the evacuees, we actually found a monument between the trees: "Here rests our beloved dog Mozart Hanin, of blessed memory, 1991-2003."

In the center of Kibbutz Zikim from the left-wing Kibbutz Haartzi movement a sign stands next to a ruined Palestinian mansion: "Danger, dangerous building. Keep away." An illustration showing a skull and crossbones embellishes the sign, so threatening is the memory. In Mavki'im the last vestiges are being leveled. This week the industrious tractors already removed a few piles of stones that were once homes. Thus the final remnants of the indigenous people, the previous residents of the land, are being erased. In a country that has a law mandating "rescue digs," a country that delays and sometimes prevents construction wherever archaeological remnants of its ancient past are found, the near past is being trampled into dust.

Only in one place was it decided to be considerate of the past. Three kilometers south of the community of Nitzan, in the orchards of the Mehadrin Company, whose chairman is the head of the Disengagement Administration, in a place where settlers will also be moved under the plan of the Housing Ministry, it was decided not to touch the land on which the center of the village of Hamama once stood. Why? Because of the concern that digging here would turn up Byzantine ruins. Byzantine ruins are liable to delay the construction, but not Palestinian ruins. But this lovely region also has a near past which is a bleeding present in the refugee camps, and no heavy engineering equipment will be able to erase the memory.

We drove like detectives across the dunes, between the natural brush, the fruit groves, the garbage dumps and the local communities, hunting for any sign of earlier life. In one orchard we found an old faucet, in another the remnants of a millstone. We entered every ruin, turned over almost every stone. In the second part of the journey to uncover what is hidden from the eye we were joined by the director of the Nitzanim Field School, Yair Farjun, who is very learned in remote history and also, amazingly, in the recent history that has been repressed out of the collective memory.

Farjun can not only identify every rare plant and the footprints of every deer that has trod here, he can also relate the history of every ruin. Now he shrinks at the sight of every bulldozer that slashes into the soil so the settlers' new homes can be built. There are bulldozers aplenty here. Earth-moving contractors again have more work than they can handle, the whole coastal plain is inundated with heavy equipment. It is the unfolding of the country's history in metal: the equipment that once built the Bar-Lev Line and then the settlements line and then the separation wall is now building these new communities.

About a kilometer south of the Ad Halom junction, on Highway 4, the remnants of a fence surround a mosque, two homes and the sabra fence that contains a secret. There were sabra fences around every village, and now they are living fences of dead villages. This was the site of the town of Isdud, 4,910 residents in the years 1944-1945 - 4,620 Palestinians and 290 Jews - according to the historian Walid Khalidi's book "All That Remains." In a field of withering hummus, which looks as though it was only recently abandoned, behind an electrified fence on which are signs warning against entry and hunting, another handsome home stands on a limestone hill, defying the attempt to erase everything.

East of the road, behind a sign inviting local residents to a performance by the singer Zehava Ben in the "Queen's Courtyard," located in the Kanot industrial zone, a splendid house of arches is perched atop a lofty hill amid a dump of building refuse. "1948 will return to the Muslims," declares graffiti on the peeling wall, and also "Man, you stole." Rusty iron cables dangle from the high ceilings, all that's left of the lights in the Isdud house. On the southern wall someone has drawn an Israeli flag in blue and white. This is the battle for home. The carcass of a sheep is lying next to the balcony which is covered with arches. There are few architects in Israel today who could build such a beautiful house. The tiles in the next-door house, a one-room place, still preserve vestiges of their turquoise glory. On the cracked wall is an empty clothes hanger.

The double-decker red train from Ashkelon to Tel Aviv passes by quickly. It would be interesting to know if any of the passengers turn to look at the remains of the school which is hiding in the shade of the giant ficus tree, west of the road and east of the tracks. Some of the schools were not demolished, Farjun explains, because they were built by the British and Ben-Gurion was afraid that they would be angry, just months after their departure from the country. This was a small educational center: a few classrooms, arches and a well in the courtyard. An empty Bamba bag lies in the yard. Where are the children who went to school here and played in the shade of the tree? On the house closest to the highway, on its very edge, by the road that goes to Emunim and Azrikim, someone has written "Isdud" in Hebrew. On the side is a call to place the Oslo criminals on trial. On the fence is a sign: "Private property. Kibbutz Hatzor." It too belongs to Hakibbutz Haarzti.

About a kilometer to the south the earth-moving trucks of Zalman Barashi spread locust-like over the dunes. Soon expanded Nitzan will arise here, that is, the new Neveh Dekalim. The bulldozers of Haim Yisraeli & Sons roll across the fields of Mavki'im, namely the Palestinians' Barbara. All that remain here are piles of stones from a village with a population of 2,410, according to Walidi. Mavki'im was founded in January 1949 on the southern lands of Barbara, to block the return of refugees from Gaza to the village. It is a meager-looking moshav, without even one upgraded house, its economic situation gloomy, awaiting the bonanza that is perhaps closer than ever. The restaurant that serves bland Hungarian goulash in the gas station at the entrance to the moshav stands on the ruins of the school of Barbara.

The bulldozers are hard at work to the west of the moshav houses, removing the last piles of stones that stand for Barbara. In 1949, after demolishing the schools, the workers of the Jewish National Fund pushed aside the ruins and unwittingly created mute monuments in the form of these piles of stones among the eucalyptus trees they planted on the ruins. Barbara was abandoned between the 4th and 5th of November 1948 during Operation Yoav, which was carried out by the Givati Brigade under the command of Yigal Allon, who left no Arab population in any of the areas he conquered - in Operation Yiftah, in Operation Dani and finally in Operation Yoav, which was originally called "Operation 10 Plagues." It was perhaps the case that even without Allon saying anything specific, "[his] officers knew what he wanted," Benny Morris notes in "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949."

Abed, a construction worker from Gaza, who was originally from Barbara and built the houses of Nitzan on the land of his lost village, told Farjun that his father said on his deathbed that the family had fled and not been expelled and that he never forgave himself for the hasty decision. "We saw everyone running away, so we ran too," the old man told his son apologetically. They were convinced that when the fighting abated they would be able to return. But whether they fled or were evicted, they were never allowed to return. Now an Arab driver from the Israeli village of Tamra, who works for Haim Yisraeli & Sons, removes the last remains of Barbara for Zvi Hendel and his daughters.

Kibbutz Zikim is also expanding. The expansion, which was originally earmarked for the private market but did not succeed, will probably now be sold to the state to house the settlers (in nearby Carmiya another 53 homes are being built for them, on the land of the lost village of Irbiya). Next to the water tower of Kibbutz Zikim stands the multi-arched house of Mussa al-Alami, overlooking the lawns of the communal settlement. At the entrance to the kibbutz is another abandoned building from a spectacular Arab orchard, on the walls of which the baskets of the Zikim orchard workers still hang. Also on the cracked wall are scratched photographs of avocados, on the floor lie old books on agriculture about exterminating pests in lettuce and about growing papaya. "Long live peace," a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement wrote on the wall of the Arab structure. An issue of Yedioth Ahronoth reports in its headline: "Investments in territories to create employment and accelerate separation." The paper is from April 11, 1983, 22 years ago. No employment and no acceleration: time stands still in an occupation.

Shikmim Field School of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is located in Nitzanim in a fine Arab house, one of the few that has been renovated here, with a balcony of arches and high ceilings. "Restoration and preservation work is under way here within the framework of `50 settlement and revival sites.'" This building was in fact bought from its owner, the Effendi Surkaji, in 1942.

The zoologist Dr. Michael Satner sits in Farjun's office, exhausted from a day of searching and extremely worried. "You are destroying the last habitat of the gray force in the coastal plain," furious researchers from around the world are writing to him in the wake of the construction project for the settlers, on the eve of a major international conference on the gray force due to be held in Bonn. Gray force? The Hebrew word for force - koach [see Leviticus 11:30] - turns out to have another meaning: the monitor lizard. A great daytime predator, Satner explains, sandals and canteen in a sheath-like holder. He spent the whole day under the broiling sun looking for footprints of monitor lizards in the sands of Nitzan and barely found four. His master's thesis was on the monitor lizard in the dunes of Nitzan and his doctoral dissertation on the snakes in Hadera. Before Zionism there were apparently more of these lizards here. Satner is worried that the lizards that already leave footprints are all elderly. The Latin name of the lizard, Veranus, derives from Arabic, he notes.

Farjun, from the Society for the Protection of Nature, looks the part. A hero of the Yom Kippur War in the fighting on the Golan Heights, a disabled war veteran, matted beard and hair, resilient in T-shirt and sandals. He looks younger than his 52 years, a knowledgeable expert who speaks fluent Arabic. "In terms of the Zionist ethos, the best work was done in the south. If not for that work, Ahmed and Mustafa would now be holding a discussion about us, and I prefer me holding a discussion about Ahmed and Mustafa." That is the gist of his Zionism. "Anyone who tells you that there was no ethnic cleansing here will be lying, and anyone who tells you that without the ethnic cleansing Israel would have been established will also be lying."

We travel on a dirt road, but an amazingly beautiful one, to Hamama; this was once the service road of the farmers between Majdal [today's Ashkelon] and Hamama. The entire concealed way is rich with groves, with a row of ancient sycamores planted along both sides. The white wild strawberries taste of paradise - maybe this is the taste for which the refugees yearn when they talk about their childhood. In 1945 the population of Hamama was 5,070 souls. Now it is a Mehadrin orchard of the settler evacuator Yonatan Bassi. Some of the settlers will be moved here, too, though not, as we noted, to the area that was the center of the village, because of the Byzantines. Shards are scattered between the rows of young and well-tended citrus trees; Farjun explains that the red shards are Byzantine, the black ones Palestinian. He finds the remnants of a Palestinian faucet and a rusty window handle. Here are remnants of rabbit traps and here are sections of stone from a sea boulder that was brought here from the shore to be a wall. The writing on the door of the adjacent storeroom is in Thai.

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