by Birte Mensing
On Friday the 18th of November, almost noontime, a group can be seen hiking in the hills of a National Park south of the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. Zooming into the picture, one can see that they are carrying signs: Bayt Nattif, 22.10.1948, is written on those signs. The group is not here to hike in a National Park, however, but to explore the land, where the village of Bayt Nattif was located before Operation HaHar of the Israeli Army came that day in October 1948, expelled its more than 2000 inhabitants and reduced the village to rubble.
The tour is facilitated by the Israeli NGO Zochrot (Hebrew word for remembering), whose aim is to create “acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba” within Israeli society. Zochrot is the Hebrew word for remembering. The organization tries to counter the one-sided remembering of the events in 1948, which are usually referred to as a great moment of gaining independence and the establishment of the state, and connect it to the (ongoing) Palestinian struggle. Zochrot has a database about the Palestinian villages demolished in 1948 and actively leads groups on tours to the sites to reclaim the space through remembering. During the tour in Bayt Nattif, the activists put up signs that mark the location of the school, the mosque and the cemetery.
Zochrot aims to educate Jewish Israeli society about the Palestinian Nakba
The tour as well as the signs are in Arabic, English and Hebrew. Most of the participants need the Hebrew version, as the main target group of Zochrot is the Jewish Israeli society. The tour in Bayt Nattif is accompanied by Khadr Al-Dibs whose family was expelled from the village. He now lives in the Shu’fat refugee camp. He recalls coming to visit the place in his early childhood. He puts up the sign of the mosque. “Inshallah we will meet Khadr here next year in his new built house”, says Umar al-Ghubari, who is leading the tour.
Placing a sign where the mosque used to be (Photo: Birte Mensing)
Experiencing the beautiful view from the hills and the natural diversity from almond trees to olive trees, it is easy to understand why this land was and still is precious to the refugees that were expelled from Bayt Nattif. In 1948, the inhabitants of the village did not give in easily. The men gathered to resist and defend their families and the village. The first 35 Haganah soldiers that came across the village in January 1948 were killed during a fight with the resisting inhabitants. Today, a kibbutz on the land of the Palestinian village is named after the Haganah combatants and called Netiv HaLamed-Heh (Path of the 35). Most of the Palestinian families who originate from Bayt Nattif now live in three refugee camps in the Bethlehem area.
While in other places in Israel excavations are publicly displayed and made accessible for the public, the long history of Bayt Nattif has been ignored by the Israeli authorities. Since Roman times, it has in many periods been an important village on the route between Jerusalem and Beit Jibrin, which was also destroyed in 1948.
Zochrot has gathered information about the Nakba and especially the destroyed villages in recent years which is easily available through an app called “iNakba.” iNakba enables people to identify the locations of destroyed villages, complete with pictures and background information.
A controversial memorial on the land of Bayt Nattif (Photo: Birte Mensing)
In the 1960s, the Jewish National Fund planted trees on the land of Bayt Nattif: One thousand one hundred pine trees, in memory of Bastiaan Jan Ader, who saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi rule in the Netherlands. In 1944, he was executed by the Nazis. Why did the Jewish National Fund use this act of remembering to cover up the 1948 expulsion and mistreatment of Palestinians? A difficult question. Erik Ader, a son of Bastiaan Jan Ader’s, came to that very place on the 18th of November and joined the Zochrot tour. After the tour he gave a short statement at the memorial plate dedicated to his father to withdraw his family’s support for this action. “We never had a chance to ask him what he would have made of all this. No need either: based on what he stood for he would have been upset by this travesty of truth and justice.” He therefore withdraws any connection of his family to this forest, Erik Ader says. Soft applause comes from the people who seek shade under the surrounding trees. The audience is tired from the tour: physically tired from the long walk in the sun and psychologically tired from facing history. The tour ends, but the memory remains.
Erik Ader, Umar Al-Ghubari and Khadr Al-Dibs (Photo: Birte Mensing)