I found reading Meron Benvenisti's book a difficult experience for me for several different reasons.
Firstly, the author's own sense of pain is apparent throughout. A Zionist, whose father was a geographer who devoted his life to writing about the Holy Land and its connection with the Jewish people, Benvenisti has chosen to document the way in which Zionist institutions and the State of Israel worked successfully over the years to obliterate as much as they could from the Palestinian heritage within the new state. He at once recognizes the need of Israel to establish its own identity, and at the same time is moved by the terrible loss that this entailed to those who were displaced, and to the cultural and historical heritage of the sacred landscape. He bravely tackles the complex feelings that this duality engenders in him and the result is disturbing reading. As he says at the outset: "This book is about my troubled internal landscape as much as it is about the tortured landscape of my homeland."
Secondly, as someone who came to Israel in 1958 at the age of twenty-six as a junior official in the British Council and is neither a Jew nor an Arab, I have had to recognize how completely I, and those like me, accepted the version of history presented to me by the Israelis whom I knew at the time and who were so welcoming. On the other hand, I have had to realize how little I was aware of what the realities of the situation were for those who were displaced, or of what efforts had been made to destroy their heritage. Not only had villages been destroyed, the names of natural features, the identity of sacred places, the whole complex web that makes up a human landscape and which had existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years had been largely swept away in much of the country. All we outsiders saw were the cactuses growing round the ruins of houses, the one sign that this hill, that valley, had once been home to those who were far away. But in our excitement at the very real achievements of the new state, these failed to move us.
Thirdly, much of what is talked about in the book enables the reader to understand the depth of the passion that Palestinians still feel for their lost homeland and which, in its turn, has lead to continuous conflict, the latest round of which is currently upon us. But like many books on the conflict, this one is perhaps better at defining the nature of the wounds that plague both Israelis and Palestinians than proposing how to heal them.

Creating New Facts, Destroying the Old

Indeed, in his more pessimistic moments, Benvenisti feels that both sides have lost. He points out that such is the current pace of developments that in the end the landscape of the region will be neither the Jewish landscape envisaged by his father, agricultural settlements surrounding thriving towns, nor the traditional landscape of Palestine. "The two landscapes how now merged and been engulfed in a wasteland of cement, stone and asphalt. The Jewish landscape triumphed but it was a Pyrrhic victory."
In his introduction, Benvenisti sets out the nature of his personal dilemma and the limitations of his work. He points out that he has not unearthed new archival material, but that he has made use of readily available information. But reading the book, it seems that he has done more than he himself claims credit for. He has gathered together a mass of material, some of it from unfamiliar sources, and set it out in such a fashion that much of the information appears new. It seems likely that some of his facts will be disputed by one side or the other, but the power of the book lies not so much in the individual instances to which he refers, but in the picture he presents of sustained struggle to create new facts by destroying the old. He remains convinced of the right of the Zionist movement to struggle for a homeland and rejects the idea that the creation of Israel was some sort of imperialist endeavor, though he recognizes that this will not be acceptable to many Palestinians, but yet has spent time and energy unearthing the destroyed landscape, the vanished land. A Quixotic endeavor but one that commands respect.
The book opens with an account of the activity of Israeli map-makers in the period leading to the inception of the state and thereafter. Most of them were researchers who in the period before 1948 had sought evidence for the continuity of Jewish settlement over the centuries. In 1949, nine of them were appointed to a committee that systematically reworked the map of the area rendering obsolete the maps produced by the Mandatory authorities. Their work, and that of other committees that were set up to give new names to settlements and other geographic features, resulted in the eradication from the map of the majority of Arabic names (although some of the Israeli map-makers regretted the disappearance of the traditional names, they were powerless to prevent it). The resulting maps are compared by Benvenisti with those of the Palestinians in which "reality is frozen at 1946," and everything created by the Jews since 1882 is considered an aberration.

'Ethnic Cleansing' in the Holy Land

After his review of the way in which map-making follows on actual possession of land and property and sets a seal on their acquisition, Benvenisti turns to the position before 1948 when the Arab and Jewish worlds existed in the Holy Land side by side but separate. The Jews moved in their world and the Arabs in theirs and, to the majority on both sides, the land occupied by "the other" was just a blank space. A "glass wall" existed between the two communities and the mental map of the Jewish agricultural settlers did not include the Arab villages. While this contention would probably be disputed by members of the Mapam kibbutzim who struggled to create good relations with their neighbors (though, as Benvenisti points out, they did not scruple to take over the land of those who had fled), it rings true. He describes the way in which contemporary Israeli accounts of the creation of Israel pay scant regard to Palestinian society in the Holy Land before 1948, and gives some fascinating insights into the reality of that society as perceived by a sympathetic outsider.
Having thus set the scene, Benvenisti turns his attention to the actual conflict in 1948 and its impact on the reality of the situation and on the geographical landscape. He distinguishes sharply between the first part of the war when most expulsions of Palestinians were random and the result of communal violence on both sides, and the second when more systematic efforts were made to clear the land of Israel from unwanted Palestinian communities. In his accounts of the fate of individual villages and communities, he draws heavily on the work of Benny Morris and other historians with similar views. In his chapter on the consequences of the Israeli victory, he does not hesitate to use the heavily charged words "ethnic cleansing" and his account makes dismal reading. The Palestinians were defeated and the victors made no bones about claiming what they had won.

Israelis Should Recognize the Reality

In the second half of the book, Benvenisti deals with the detailed histories of particular Palestinian communities and with the way in which Israeli kibbutzim and moshavim absorbed the land of those who had been uprooted. En passant he deals harshly with claims that the kibbutzim established clear rights to ownership of the land they have today for which they are requiring generous compensation. He writes that compassion for the kibbutz residents who may lose their land under present Israeli government policies does not extend to "Arab farmers who cultivated the same land for a thousand years."
Benvenisti is particularly concerned with the fate of the so-called "internal refugees," Palestinians who lost their original villages within Israel but were allowed to stay in the country, many of them in what today are named "unrecognized" villages that have little in the way of social services or recognition from the state.
He deals interestingly with the way in which artists and writers from both communities dealt with what had happened and with their very different memories of what had occurred and concepts of history. He also has some material on the treatment of Muslim religious sites within Israel. Particularly poignant is his account of the way in which mosques were destroyed or neglected, and certain sacred sites taken over by Israelis in the years after the 1948 war and the names of their original holy men replaced with those of Jews.
Benvenisti's conclusions from all this are, not surprisingly, pessimistic. He writes that "Israelis and Palestinians alike feel that neither the physical nor the spiritual landscape is divisible," and correctly describes the way in which both parties fear the other's interest in, and love of, the landscape, of the land itself. The book ends with a plea that Palestinians living in Israel and, in particular the "internal refugees," receive fair treatment from the authorities, that crumbling mosques and cemeteries be restored, and that Israelis recognize the reality of what occurred rather than hide behind versions of history that do not reflect the truth. Disregarding the Palestinian history of the Sacred Land and of its people is neither possible in the long run, nor desirable in itself.
What to make of all this? From the point of view of a right-wing Israeli, Benvenisti's work can well be seen as the work of a traitor who, whether intentionally or inadvertently, strengthens Palestinian claims to the Land they have lost. For their part, Palestinians might be forgiven for thinking that if Benvenisti's account is true, then Israel will eventually weaken and fade away, destroyed by its own internal contradictions, a society based on false premises and injustice. It is a book that will be popular with few.

The Consequences for Victors and Vanquished

But from another perspective, the book appears as a gallant effort to come to terms with the fact that victory in war is often followed by disastrous consequences for the defeated and by cruel and unjust behavior on the part of the victors. The latter do not consider the feelings and interests of the vanquished. For Israeli victors like Benvenisti, embued with a sense of injustice, alive to history and to the sheer romance of the landscape of the Sacred Land in all its dimensions, there can be no easy resolution of the dilemma this poses.
This thought-provoking and, in some ways, moving book ought to be read by all those who wish to gain an insight into the many dimensions of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land and, in particular, in the complex internal landscape of many "liberal" Israelis - men and women who feel for what has happened to the Palestinians and their landscape, but who have to recognize the question marks to their own future, and that of their Israeli landscape, posed by full recognition of the disaster that has occurred to the Palestinian people. The answer must, in the end, be for both sides to make compromises and for both to recognize the value of the history and physical and mental landscape of the other, but this looks like being a work of many decades.