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Digging Up the Nakba: Israeli Archaeologists Excavate Palestinian Village Abandoned in 1948

The first-of-its-kind project uncovered the ruins of Qadas, a Palestinian village near Lebanon, which Israel bulldozed so that refugees would have no home to return to

Ruins of homes in Qadas, bulldozed in 1966 [Sasha Flit]

At a quick glance, there is nothing unusual atop the hill of Tel Qedesh. Wild boars frolic among the dry grass and the sparse trees on this apparently unassuming mound in the Upper Galilee, just a stone’s throw from Israel’s border with Lebanon. But look closer and you can see signs of past human habitation peeking through the overgrowth: a fragment of a door lintel here; the foundations of a wall there; some weathered gravestones. These are the ruins of the Palestinian village of Qadas, whose residents were forced to flee during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The abandoned village was then bulldozed by Israeli authorities so that refugees would have no chance of reclaiming their homes and lands.

For the last three years, the site has been the focus of a unique project by Israeli archaeologists, who have sought to expose those ruins and shed light on the last days of Qadas and its subsequent destruction.

The dig is the first in Israel specifically dedicated to archaeologically exploring the legacy of what Palestinians remember as the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic): the uprooting of more than 700,000 Palestinians amidst the creation of the Jewish state and the first Arab-Israeli war.

“Here is something that has been hidden, erased from history, and it’s the archaeologist’s job to reveal the hidden past and highlight its relevance for the present, even though we are dealing with events from only 75 years ago,” says Prof. Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University, who leads the project together with independent archaeologist Gideon Sulimani.

The water reservoir of Qadas [Ariel David]

Honor thy top layer

The excavation at Qadas uncovered new insights about the village’s history during the 1948 war. But more broadly, it aims to put Israelis face to face with the Nakba, a controversial and oft-ignored topic, as well as make a point about Israeli archaeology, its practices, and its role in erasing recent Palestinian history.

Technically, Israeli archaeologists have excavated many destroyed Palestinian villages before, as ancient settlements in the Levant are often marked by continuity throughout the millennia. Israel is dotted with “tels” just like Tel Qedesh, mounds formed by the stratified remains of human settlements built atop each other over thousands of years.

In many cases, the top layer of these mounds is an Arab settlement like Qadas, abandoned in 1948 and which may have been around since Ottoman times or earlier. But archaeologists operating in Israel will invariably dig around or through this top layer in order to get to the juicier remains below, Greenberg and Sulimani note. Monumental Roman and Hellenistic buildings, Bronze Age mega-cities, and, of course, anything relating to biblical times and to the ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land all take precedence over studying the lives of Palestinian communities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The first thing we encounter in most digs in Israel is a Palestinian village. This top layer is not considered antiquities by Israeli law and by archaeologists, it’s seen as something you need to pass through to get to the antiquities,” Greenberg says. “We wanted to do the opposite and honor the top layer.”

A wall spared from destruction likely because of the ancient column leaning on it [Ariel David]

While archaeological investigation of the recent past has become common practice abroad, in Israel it is still unheard of, largely because it means dealing with the uncomfortable realities of the Nakba, Sulimani adds.

The commemoration of the Nakba is still highly controversial in Israel, as are questions surrounding its unfolding, such as to what degree the Palestinians were forcibly expelled by Israel, fled amidst the fighting or heeded calls by their own leadership to abandon the nascent Jewish state. The barebone facts are that after the Arabs rejected the November 1947 UN partition of British Mandatory Palestine, war broke out between Israel’s pre-state Jewish forces and local Palestinian militias, later backed up by volunteers and invading armies from neighboring countries. Israel survived and, by the end of the war in 1949, the vast majority of its Arab population (700-750,000 people out of 900,000) had been uprooted, dispossessed and was living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, where millions of their descendants still languish today.

Qadas was home to 300-400 people and the surrounding area saw heavy fighting during May-June 1948. It was then that the residents fled to Lebanon, although the village temporarily remained in Arab hands. Qadas was occupied by forces of the Arab Liberation Army, a pan-Arab volunteer force led by Fawzi Al-Qawuqji, an Arab nationalist leader and experienced military commander who had pledged to “rid Palestine of the Zionist plague.”

The Arab Liberation Army remained in Qadas until October 1948, withdrawing amidst operation Hiram, with which Israel took control of the entire Upper Galilee.

“In their oral histories, villagers describe life right up to the time they left, and historians have recorded the details of the battles fought nearby,” Greenberg explains. “But we are largely in the dark about the four months of war that followed the villagers’ exodus, as well as the sequence of events that led to the utter destruction of their houses: that is what we set out to recover."

Enter the bulldozer

The abandoned village remained largely intact atop Tel Qedesh in the next couple of decades after the war, even as its farmlands were parceled out to surrounding kibbutzim and towns, Greenberg says. In 1966, Qadas and dozens of other deserted Palestinian villages were razed ahead of the lifting of the military rule that Israel had imposed on its remaining Arab population since the War of Independence.

The demolitions were ordered to ensure that, once the restrictions on movement were removed, displaced Palestinians couldn’t return to reclaim their lands and homes, Greenberg says. “The goal was that there would be no place to return to, so the village was bulldozed and erased from the maps,” he says.

The tel was turned into a national park and its more ancient layers were subjected to intense archaeological investigations over the years. Today, signage from the Nature and Parks Authority tells visitors about the site’s history: its beginnings as a large city in the Early Bronze Age, some 5,000 years ago; its mention in the Bible as an Israelite city; the later Hellenistic town and the presence of an important Roman-era temple and burial ground. The signage even expounds on the “beautiful view” and the surrounding “grove of Atlantic pistachio trees.” The village of Qadas and its history are not mentioned.

Vandalized sign at Tel Qedesh National Park recounting the site's history. No mention of the Palestinian village. [Ariel David]

Archaeologists played an important role in this erasure, especially when they participated in a survey that preceded the 1966 demolitions, deciding what should be preserved for posterity as precious antiquities and what could be bulldozed, Greenberg tells Haaretz on a recent tour of the site. Ultimately, only those structures that contained reused antiquities, as well as walls adjacent to trees, were spared.

“We knew these people, some of them were our colleagues or teachers,” Greenberg says as he shows survey reports from archaeologists who signed off on the demolitions. “As archaeologists and Israelis we wanted to know what was done in our name.”

The researchers partnered with an existing excavation of the tel by Drs. Uri Davidovich and Ido Wachtel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which is exploring the Bronze Age layers of the site, notes Liora Kolska Horwitz, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University and one of the initiators of the Qadas project.

For years Kolska Horwitz had been pushing for such an excavation, “but most of these sites are on state land, you can’t just go and pick a village, and there was no way we were going to get a permit specifically to explore one,” she says. “Our goal was to encourage archaeologists to document the villages at the sites they dig, irrespective of their political views, just because it’s good archaeological practice,” Kolska Horwitz says. “But we also wanted to use material finds to confront our own history.”

Roman sarcophagi at Tel Qedesh vandalized with blue paint [Ariel David]

The project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation in Germany, focused mainly on the period following Qadas’ evacuation in May 1948 and the Arab Liberation Army occupation as well as on uncovering evidence of the 1966 demolition. Only limited investigation was conducted into the pre-1948 life of the village because of the difficulties in establishing a dialogue with residents and their descendants, who mainly live in Shi’a villages in southern Lebanon, the archaeologists say.

“It is common for archaeologists who work on recent periods to consult with descendants or the relevant community,” Greenberg says. “We asked ourselves whether we can tell their descendants how they lived without having a dialogue with them.”

Unlike most archaeological digs, where the foundations of ancient buildings are clearly visible, the area of Qadas that Greenberg and colleagues worked on looks more like a quarry or a field randomly strewn with stones. It takes a practiced eye to make out the faint outlines of old buildings.

A room in the village that may have served as a stable [Sasha Flit]

“The destruction [in 1966] was so violent that we cannot identify even the foundations of many of the buildings. I can find walls that are from 3000 B.C.E. that are in better condition,” says Greenberg, whose original field of research is the Bronze Age in the Levant.

Among the ruins, the archaeologists found artifacts linked to the stay of the Arab irregulars in the village: fragments of gramophone records of popular Arabic music; beer bottles from a Lebanese company; medical equipment and glass medicine bottles in what they surmise may have been an Arab Liberation Army infirmary. The researchers also excavated concrete pillboxes and fortifications surrounding Qadas that were set up by the ALA as a defensive ring.

“It’s always assumed that anything built with concrete was done by the British,” Greenberg says. “It does somewhat change our image of the ALA as a ragtag army of irregular volunteers who didn’t know what they were doing.”

Bedpan, medical supplies and materials found in a room which likely served as an ALA infirmary [Sasha Flit]

Glass bottles that probably contained medicine for the ALA infirmary [Ariel David]

Mixed reviews

Over the last three years, the archaeologists have opened discussions on the project with the Palestinian community – in Israel and the West Bank. “There is a spectrum of reactions, from the positive, ‘finally someone is interested in our past’ to the negative ‘why are Israelis nosing around in our destroyed villages’,” Greenberg says. “At least it’s an ongoing conversation.”

Part of that discussion involves what to do with the artifacts that date back to the ALA’s occupation of Qadas, as well as with the few pre-1948 finds that the project unearthed. Under Israeli law, only objects made before the year 1700 are considered antiquities and belong to the state.

“The state doesn’t want these objects, the university doesn’t want them,” Greenberg says. “Should we rebury them? It’s an open question.”

The project has so far kept a low profile in Israel, and is being publicly discussed for the first time here, partly because the archaeologists did not want to jeopardize the indirect contacts with the Palestinian community. However, they did show the site to Israeli colleagues and interested locals from the surrounding communities.

A Roman-period temple in Qadas [Ariel David]

Again, the reactions were mixed.

“Most older scholars are silent, they do the tour and don’t ask any questions. Maybe they don’t want to offend us, but we feel that silence is actually the worst reaction we can get,” Greenberg says. “The younger generation tends to be surprised, they realize that this is something different than a typical excavation, and among some of them there is even some anger at the fact that this story was kept from them, especially if they are people who live in the area.”

The Qadas project is serving as an “important model” for Israeli archaeologists who are going through a “slow awakening” about the contribution they might make to the study of recent history, says Dr. Ido Koch, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University. In recent years there have been conferences and academic papers on the topic, while archaeologists have started to document and collect more carefully finds that date to the last two or three centuries, independently of which community they belonged to. Koch himself directs the dig at Tel Hadid, an ancient mound near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. In 2022, he and Prof. Yoav Alon, a historian of the modern Middle East, launched a project to explore Al-Haditha, the depopulated Palestinian village that covers the top layer of the mound.

The idea behind such projects is to inspire a different kind of archaeology in Israel, Greenberg says. The British and other colonial powers used archaeology as a tool of imperialism, taking artifacts back home to fill their museums. Israeli archaeologists inherited this attitude, with the added ethos that their job was, first and foremost, to find evidence of the historical connection of the Jewish people to the land, he notes.

It is not a coincidence that Israeli law doesn’t recognize the archaeological value of anything that was made less than 300 years ago, says Dr. Ramez Eid, an anthropologist at the Open University and a partner in the Qadas project.

“Laws are an expression of prevailing ideas in society, and this law expresses the ideas shared by the main political parties and also by many archaeologists,” Eid says. “Archaeology promotes nationalistic ideas in many countries, not just in Israel, and it is used to legitimize certain practices of destruction or emphasize certain periods.”

It is also a discipline that tends to focus on what elites built and left behind, rather than on the lives of the vast majority of humans, which makes topics like rural Palestinian communities sound even less glamorous to archaeologists, he adds.

Yet the lack of research into these hundreds of abandoned villages is a missed opportunity for Israeli scholars to understand more about Palestinian history, the changes in Palestinian society and its relationship with pre-state Jewish communities, Eid says.

Conversely, for Palestinian Israelis like himself, as well as for the many others who participated in the Qadas dig, such a project is a chance to explore their own past, one that was – and still largely is – locked away from the community.

“We are not able to research our own past, we are not able to dig freely, we have no access to this memory even though it exists next door to us,” he says. “This is an opportunity to understand our past and our heritage. For some people, this can be a healing process.”

Religious vandalism

There is an interesting contemporary coda to the conflict over history and memory at Tel Qedesh. Recently, groups of ultra-orthodox Jews have come to believe, possibly on the basis of medieval traditions, that the site hosts the tombs of Asher and Naftali, two sons of the biblical patriarch Jacob, as well as the burial of the prophetess Deborah.

Improbably, a Roman sarcophagus, one of many that lie in the open in the ancient necropolis at the foot of the tel, has been elected as the tomb of Asher and Naphtali. It has been covered in plaster and is now honored by worshippers who leave stones, according to Jewish funerary tradition, and notes on which they scribble prayers.

A Roman sarcophagus covered in plaster and dubbed the tomb of Asher and Naphtali by ultra-orthodox groups. [Ariel David]

Earlier this year, the Roman burial ground was desecrated by vandals who sprayed blue paint on the sarcophagi and scrawled “Deborah the prophetess” on the national park’s entry sign to “Tel Qedesh.” The devout vandals also took it upon themselves to remove those parts of history that offend their religious views from the park’s signage – yes, the same signage that doesn’t mention the existence of the village of Qadas. For example, they erased the name of Baalshamin, the deity to which the local Roman temple was dedicated.

Entrance sign to Tel Qedesh National Park vandalized with the writing "Deborah the prophetess" [Ariel David]

Perhaps, in all this there is a lesson about how those who try to forget the past and selectively remove uncomfortable memories are destined to have their own version of history challenged and erased.


(c) 2023, Haaretz


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