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Social Text 21.2 (2003) 25-48

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Law, History, Memory

Samera Esmeir

One of the difficulties in discussing violence against Palestinians during the 1948 war is that "Palestine," the site of the violence, both persists and has ceased to exist. Its simultaneous presence and erasure occurs in part through the survival of Palestinians from the 1948 war in what has ceased to be Palestine. Their scattered yet persistent presence constitutes a thread with which one can return to that moment when Palestine was ruined. They embody the survival of Palestine, yet also stand for its death. This death continues both to impede their memory of what happened in 1948 and to structure it. The memories of the Palestinian survivors constitute a challenge to another kind of thread (mis)leading us back to 1948. The war also resulted in a birth—of a new Jewish state attempting to deny the simultaneous death that gave rise to its creation. The documents recording the birth of the state attempt to conceal the death of Palestine.

Documents recording the birth of the Jewish state and memories recollecting the death of Palestine were recently put on trial in Israel. The case involved a disputed historical account of the seizure of the Palestinian village of Tantoura by Zionist forces during the 1948 war and what were called the "exceptional acts of killing" that followed the village's surrender. This essay examines the memories of the Tantoura survivors and the dynamics of death/survival that structure them. It considers how legal rules of evidence and historical argument situated these memories and produced truths that transformed and often excluded them. The essay tries to rescue these narratives from the limits of positivist historiography and law, offering an alternative way of understanding them.

The Libel Case

Theodore Katz, an Israeli Jewish graduate student in history at Haifa University, wrote a master's thesis in March 1998 about the exodus of Arabs from five Palestinian villages in 1948. 1 The thesis received an exceptionally high grade. It was a product of microhistorical research on five Palestinian villages located on the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Hedera, with a special focus on two villages: Umm al-Zeinat and Tantoura. For the chapter on Tantoura, Katz wove the stories of the Tantoura [End Page 25] refugees with those of the veterans of the Alexandaroni Brigade, the unit of the Israeli army that captured the village, and the official records he located in various Israeli archives. The testimonies included reports concerning the killing, or massacring, of the village's inhabitants by Alexandaroni fighters on the night of 22 May 1948, after the inhabitants had surrendered.

Amir Gilat, a journalist, read the thesis and published an article outlining the conclusions of the chapter on Tantoura in the widely read Hebrew newspaper Ma'ariv. 2 Gilat interviewed some of Katz's witnesses, both Tantoura refugees and Alexandaroni veterans. The Palestinians talked about the massacre that took place after the occupation of the village, while the Alexandaroni fighters denied it. Gilat also solicited the opinion of several academics, some of whom praised the thesis while others dismissed it as a work of fabrication. However, what the thesis labeled as "exceptional acts of killing" after the occupation of the village were transformed in the media discussion that followed into talk about a massacre, partly drawing on the vocabulary of the Palestinian survivors and of the Israeli academics who praised the thesis.

Following the public debate about the thesis, the Alexandaroni Brigade veterans' association sued Katz for libel, seeking NIS (New Israeli Shekels) 1.1 million ($250,000) in damages. 3 Katz was understood to have argued that after the fall of Tantoura and its inhabitants' surrender, Zionist soldiers entered the village, deported the women, old men, and children to the nearby village of Furaydis, killed some 200 to 250 men, and took the remaining men as prisoners. Some of the killed were executed in groups on the shore. Others were killed in a rampage unleashed by soldiers' rage at shots fired (with lethal results for one, two, or eight of them) after...


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