Archives belie Israel’s narrative of Palestinian conflict

Residents of Nazareth playing backgammon and smoking narghiles, circa 1903. (photo by GETTY/Buyenlarge)

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an image can also be as dangerous as a cannon. This appears to be the conclusion reached by two women, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, who have dedicated most of their lives to researching images related to the conflict and their use and fate.

Summary⎙ Print Early members of the Zionist movement and later Israelis have consistently attempted to control the narrative of the conflict with the Palestinians, including by seizing photographic evidence of Palestine and the Palestinians’ history.

Rona Sela, a curator and lecturer at Tel Aviv University, recounted to Al-Monitor how she first became involved with these images 20 years ago. “I was doing research in the mid-1990s,” she began. “My focus was an analysis of Zionist photography in the early stages of the state of Israel. I researched the way institutional Zionist propaganda departments from the 1920s to 1948 used visual images to construct a national identity to build people’s consciousness about national issues. As the Palestinian narrative was, in most cases, missing from the Zionist one, I started searching for Palestinian images.”

Early on in her research, Sela found a large group of images by the photographer Khallil Rasas, whose work was not known but had been looted from his studio in Jerusalem. Rasas’ images of Palestinian life during the first half of the 20th century, never made public, often contradicted the official Israeli narrative. Sela published a few texts about Rasas and his work as well as other Palestinian photographers active in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sela explained, “In the beginning, it was accidental that I came across traces of the looting, but then I started deliberating trying to find more material that was plundered and to understand what the meaning of these images was and how they fit into the larger narrative of the conflict.”

Another Sela discovery was a pre-state Zionist project called Village Files, Aerial Photos and Surveys. Sela went public with her research in 2009 and later published it in the Jerusalem Quarterly in 2013.

The project involved detailed documentation of pre-1948 Palestinian villages in which the Jewish underground was interested. The Village Files included photographs and surveys of most of the 418 Palestinian villages that have since been demolished or repopulated by Zionists after the Nakba. According to Sela’s published research, many of the images were taken from the air by young Jewish couples often posing as tourists taking romantic flights over the villages. In fact, they were documenting the area and providing the photos to the Jewish underground.

The images were to have been kept secret to prevent the possibility of comparisons between before and after photos. Sela believes that the secrecy behind Israeli efforts to hide the images is part of an attempt to protect the monopoly enjoyed by the Israeli narrative. She remarked, “From my experience, correspondents, talks and processes, it is very clear that Israel is interested in one narrative prevailing.”

Sela has published numerous articles on the subject, held exhibits and produced films detailing what she has unearthed. Sela’s publications and exhibits, as per her website, include “Photography in Palestine/Eretz-Israel in the 30s and 40s” (2000), “Six Days and Forty Years” (2007), “The Absent-Present Palestinian Villages” (2009), “Made Public — Palestinian Photographs in Military Archives in Israel” (2009), “Chalil Raad, Photographs, 1891-1948” (2010), “Effervescence (Unrest) — Housing, Language, History — A New Generation in Jewish-Arab Cities” (2013) and “Rethinking National Archives in Colonial Countries and Zones of Conflict” (2015).

Sela’s most recent essay, “The Genealogy of Colonial Plunder and Erasure — Israel’s Control over Palestinian Archives,” focuses on two archives: those of the Palestinian Research Center and the Film Center of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Media Department, both of which were stolen by the Israeli army after invading Beirut in 1982. Published in March 2017 in the “Journal of Social Semiotics,” Sela’s article reflects on what she calls a “characteristic of colonial archives,” describing “how the ruling state plunders/loots the colonized’ archives and treasures and controls them in its colonial archives — erasing them from the public sphere by repressive means, censor.”

According to Sela, she has a forthcoming article on the looting of the films in Beirut in the academic journal “Anthropology of the Middle East,” and an essay about Rasas is also in the works.

Researching and attempting to publicize looted Palestinian imagery has also been a passion of Azza el-Hassan. When the Israeli army looted the Palestinian film archive, Hassan, a Palestinian documentary filmmaker born into a PLO family, was 11. She recalled that Hiba Jawharia, daughter of the Jerusalem-born Hani Jawharia, who filmed much of the material for the PLO’s film unit, had been a childhood friend of hers in Beirut. Hani was killed on April 11, 1976, while filming in south Lebanon, leaving Hassan and her friend forever shaken.

Hassan went on to study at the University of Glasgow, where she obtained a BA in film in 1994, and a year later obtained an MA in television documentary from the University of London. After concluding her studies, she was able to move to Palestine with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord. She related to Al-Monitor how the story of the missing archives — including the footage shot by her childhood friend’s father — never left her. Hassan ultimately decided to trace what had happened to the films.

Before the Israelis arrived in Beirut, some of the films had been collected at the last moment and hidden in different homes and locations. Most, however, were seized by Israel and are now in its army’s archives. Hassan decided to embark on a journey that would eventually take her to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel in search of the missing material. She documented her adventure and search in “Kings and Extras,” a 2004 German-Palestinian production.

A 2006 review of the film by the author Maymanah Farhat published by the Electronic Intifada touches on the historical and cultural importance of the search in Palestinian history. “’Kings and Extras’ begins to gain importance not only with the documentation of a missing piece of history, but also as a portrait of a people resolved to maintain their community, culture and political struggle,” wrote Farhat.

The efforts by Sela, Hassan and others to search, document and present the public with hidden images of Palestine and the Palestinians flies in the face of the prevailing Israeli narrative, which aims to negate the Palestinians and therefore justify the continued occupation and colonization of the land and the people. Ongoing attempts to muzzle information and keep the truth hidden from a curious public will not succeed in erasing the memories and images that show what Palestine was before the Zionists and Israelis attempted to erase its history and with it the Palestinians’ presence and rights in Palestine.

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The clock tower stands as one of the most important historical Ottoman landmarks in the Old City of Nablus, Nov. 14, 2013. (photo by FACEBOOK/Beam Engineering Technology)

The Ottoman legacy in Palestine

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In 1901, to commemorate the 25th year of enthronement of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the Ottoman Empire, the sultan gifted 30 clock towers to the regions under the Ottoman state’s control. Palestine received seven of these, including the clock tower at the entrance to the Old City in Nablus, north of the West Bank.

Summary⎙ Print In the historical Old City of Nablus in the West Bank, buildings from the days of the Ottoman Empire stand tall.


TranslatorPascale Menassa

The clock tower stands today as one of the most important touristic and historical sites in the city. It still functions, and it represents the central landmark of Nablus.

The sultan’s gift was considered the city’s guiding light and time reference for a long time. Even now, citizens set their watches according to the clock tower. The tower has stood its ground, like the others in Jaffa, Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and Safed. The seventh, which was erected in Jerusalem, was destroyed in 1922 during the days of the British occupation.

Clock towers — like some other historical Ottoman landmarks in Palestine such as schools, mosques and prisons — preserve the Ottoman architectural character. The Nablus clock tower is the only one of its kind in the West Bank, but it isn’t the only Ottoman building in the city.

The Old City is a small geographic area, with no new buildings or structures. Nablus’ urbanization has only affected the Old City’s surroundings, in the north and east.

Naseer Arafat, an engineer and member of the Reconstruction Committee of the Old City of Nablus, said all the buildings are Ottoman except for two shrines that date back to the Mamluk period (1250-1517).

He further explained that there are underground constructions in the Old City, such as water and oil wells and water tunnels. He said, “These buildings were not affected by earthquakes, and some of them are still intact.”

The Old City suffered several earthquakes throughout history, the last of which struck in 1927. Most buildings that were erected before the Ottoman rule, during the Mamluk and Byzantine periods, were destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt under the Ottoman rule.

Arafat distinguished between Ottoman governmental buildings that were built with purely Ottoman planning, funding and engineering and are still used for their original purposes, and buildings that the local citizens built at their own expense and used for civilian purposes during the Ottoman era. All of the civilian buildings were residential, and most remain such today, aside from 91 historical sites visited by tourists.

However, Arafat told Al-Monitor, “The [remaining] governmental buildings that were completely financed by the Ottoman government at the time included only two schools and the clock tower. One of the schools was destroyed by an earthquake that hit in 1927, while the Rashidiya School and the clock tower remain.”

Khaldoun Bechara, head of the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation, said, “The Ottoman buildings in the Old City — which was a central city during the Ottoman era, just like Jerusalem — are part of the Ottoman buildings erected in historical Palestine.” Bechara was speaking of the Palestine that was under Ottoman rule and is now considered the 1948 territories: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The Ottoman buildings in Nablus’ Old City constitute more than 95% of the Palestinian historical construction, he said.

Bechara said that Ottoman architecture is the traditional architecture in historical Palestine. This style of architecture started emerging in the 16th century and continued until the beginning of the British occupation in 1917. The architecture is characterized by the use of stones, thick walls, arches in doors and windows, and Crusader arches and domes in which the ceiling’s main column has the cross sign.

Bechara added, “Although this architecture has an Ottoman character, it still has a local aspect. For instance, clock towers in Palestine were different from those in Istanbul and the Balkans; they differed between cities depending on the influence of the local surroundings.”

Moreover, Ottoman governmental buildings that were built under the supervision and planning of Turkish engineers were different from the civil buildings that were overseen by local engineers.

According to Bechara, the Ottoman construction was modern and influenced by the West, but some oriental touches of local construction remained.

Ottoman architecture influenced Palestine more than any other occupational eras for two reasons. First, the Ottoman Empire ruled in Palestine for 400 years (1516-1915), and Palestine and Istanbul had a strong relationship. Some religious cities in Palestine, such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre and Nablus, were administratively subordinated to the leadership in Istanbul, given its religious and geographical importance, as well as its central location between the eastern and western worlds.

Second, the cultural exchange between Palestine and Turkey was huge back then, and it could be seen in citizens’ taste in architecture. According to Bechara, 300 Palestinian students studied in Istanbul at the time.

According to Riwaq, 50,320 historical buildings were identified in 1994 in Palestine. Bechara said that only a few of those were built before the Ottoman era. This is because Palestine was rebuilt in the last 500 years according to Ottoman architecture based on the existing infrastructure from previous eras. For instance, the architecture in the Old City of Nablus was mostly Byzantine, but the buildings were destroyed due to the 1927 earthquake and rebuilt with an Ottoman character.

Bechara believes it is very important to preserve these buildings and restore them, as they constitute a historical reflection of civilizations that left their mark on Palestine. The Ottoman era was perhaps the most influential era regarding architecture.

According to Rami Sab Laban, deputy coordinator of Turkey’s development aid program, the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), funded by the Turkish government in Palestine is conducting restoration activities to preserve the Ottoman heritage in Palestine, especially the historical public buildings. The Nablus clock tower was renovated in December 2012 with funding from TIKA, as well as the Rashidiya School in May 2015, which was reopened thanks to the Turkish government’s efforts.

In addition to restoration activities, the agency supports student and cultural exchange between Turkey and Palestine and builds health- and education-related facilities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sab Laban told Al-Monitor that his agency accepts restoration applications for all historical buildings that have public use. However, more attention is given to historical Ottoman buildings specifically, and 10 have been restored so far in the West Bank.

According to Sab Laban, municipalities in the West Bank submit restoration applications to TIKA, which studies the application, then accepts or rejects them. Most restoration activities are executed by these municipalities through foreign funding, as the Palestinian government can’t finance them.

In addition to the clock tower and the Rashidiya School in Nablus, Sab Laban said, the restoration activities include the Educational Directorate in Qalqilya; the Wall of Jerusalem near the Chain Gate or Bab al-Silsila; Sabil al-Sultan Abdul Hamid in Gaza, which is built on a water source that passers-by drink from for free; and the historical Ottoman building in Salfit that is currently used as a women’s center. The Bab al-Silsila minaret in Al-Aqsa Mosque was also restored, as well as Prophet Moses’ building in Jericho.

Perhaps this interest in restoring Turkish buildings in Palestine reflects the Ottoman era’s influence on Palestinians, not only in terms of construction, but in all aspects of life. The Turkish influence spans to food, habits and words that entered their language and are still spoken today.

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The Bar Kokhba revolt

marked a time of high hopes followed by violent despair. The Jews were handed expectations of a homeland and a Holy Temple, but in the end were persecuted and sold into slavery. During the revolt itself, the Jews gained enormous amounts of land, only to be pushed back and crushed in the final battle of Bethar.

When Hadrian first became the Roman emperor in 118 C.E., he was sympathetic to the Jews. He allowed them to return to Jerusalem and granted permission for the rebuilding of their Holy Temple. The Jews’ expectations rose as they made organizational and financial preparations to rebuild the temple. Hadrian quickly went back on his word, however, and requested that the site of the Temple be moved from its original location. He also began deporting Jews to North Africa.

The Jews prepared to rebel until Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah calmed them. The Jews then satisfied themselves with preparing secretly in case a rebellion would later become necessary. They built hideouts in caves and did shoddy work building weapons so that the Romans would reject the weapons and return them to the Jews.

The Jews organized guerilla forces and, in 123 C.E., began launching surprise attacks against the Romans. From that point on, life only got worse for the Jews. Hadrian brought an extra army legion, the “Sixth Ferrata,” into Judea to deal with the terrorism. Hadrian hated “foreign” religions and forbade the Jews to perform circumcisions. He appointed Tinneius Rufus governor of Judea. Rufus was a harsh ruler who took advantage of Jewish women. In approximately 132 C.E., Hadrian began to establish a city in Jerusalem called Aelia Capitolina, the name being a combination of his own name and that of the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinus. He started to build a temple to Jupiter in place of the Jewish Holy Temple.

As long as Hadrian remained near Judea, the Jews stayed relatively quiet. When he left in 132, the Jews began their rebellion on a large scale. They seized towns and fortified them with walls and subterranean passages. Under the strong leadership of Shimon Bar-Kokhba, the Jews captured approximately 50 strongholds in Judea and 985 undefended towns and villages, including Jerusalem. Jews from other countries, and even some gentiles, volunteered to join their crusade. The Jews minted coins with slogans such as “The freedom of Israel” written in Hebrew. Hadrian dispatched General Publus Marcellus, governor of Syria, to help Rufus, but the Jews defeated both Roman leaders. The Jews then invaded the coastal region and the Romans began sea battles against them.

The turning point of the war came when Hadrian sent into Judea one of his best generals from Britain, Julius Severus, along with former governor of Germania, Hadrianus Quintus Lollius Urbicus. By that time, there were 12 army legions from Egypt, Britain, Syria and other areas in Judea. Due to the large number of Jewish rebels, instead of waging open war, Severus besieged Jewish fortresses and held back food until the Jews grew weak. Only then did his attack escalate into outright war. The Romans demolished all 50 Jewish fortresses and 985 villages. The main conflicts took place in Judea, the Shephela, the mountains and the Judean desert, though fighting also spread to Northern Israel. The Romans suffered heavy casualties as well and Hadrian did not send his usual message to the Senate that “I and my army are well.”

The final battle of the war took place in Bethar, Bar-Kokhba’s headquarters, which housed both the Sanhedrin (Jewish High Court) and the home of the Nasi (leader). Bethar was a vital military stronghold because of its strategic location on a mountain ridge overlooking both the Valley of Sorek and the important Jerusalem-Bet Guvrin Road. Thousands of Jewish refugees fled to Bethar during the war. In 135 C.E., Hadrian’s army besieged Bethar and on the 9th of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, the walls of Bethar fell. After a fierce battle, every Jew in Bethar was killed. Six days passed before the Romans allowed the Jews to bury their dead.

Following the battle of Bethar, there were a few small skirmishes in the Judean Desert Caves, but the war was essentially over and Judean independence was lost. The Romans plowed Jerusalem with a yoke of oxen. Jews were sold into slavery and many were transported to Egypt. Judean settlements were not rebuilt. Jerusalem was turned into a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina and the Jews were forbidden to live there. They were permitted to enter only on the 9th of Av to mourn their losses in the revolt. Hadrian changed the country’s name from Judea to Syria Palestina.

In the years following the revolt, Hadrian discriminated against all Judeo-Christian sects, but the worst persecution was directed against religious Jews. He made anti-religious decrees forbidding Torah study, Sabbath observance, circumcision, Jewish courts, meeting in synagogues and other ritual practices. Many Jews assimilated and many sages and prominent men were martyred including Rabbi Akiva and the rest of the Asara Harugei Malchut (ten martyrs). This age of persecution lasted throughout the remainder of Hadrian’s reign, until 138 C.E.

SourcesEncyclopedia Judaica. “Bar Kokhba”. Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem.
H.H. Ben Sasson, Editor. A History of the Jewish People. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969.
History Until 1880: Israel Pocket Library. Keter Publishing House Ltd., Jerusalem, 1973.
The Jewish Encyclopedia. “Bar Kokba and Bar Kokba War.” Funk and Wagnalls Co. London, 1902.
Kantor, Morris. The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia. Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, 1989.


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