The razed grounds of 182 erstwhile Palestinian villages – almost half of the villages depopulated by Israel in 1948 – are today included within the boundaries of Israeli nature and recreation spaces: mainly national parks, nature reserves and Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and parks.
Most of the Palestinian villages were intentionally destroyed by Israel during and after the 1948 war or gradually dilapidated due to lack of official care as they were not considered heritage sites worthy of preservation. However, many of the villages were centered on ancient ruins, whose historical value led in some cases to declarations of national parks on the grounds of former villages. Similarly, villages near a natural spring were later classified by Israel as nature reserves or recreation areas; and, lastly, one of the goals behind the planting of some of the JNF forests in Israel – later turned into recreational areas – had been to obscure the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages.
Hence, the lands on which many Palestinian villages stood have been transformed into touristic, nature and recreational sites frequented by Israeli (and foreign) visitors. Although most of the villages have been destroyed, a few remains – stones/rubble scattered in the ground and even sometimes whole buildings – bear witness to a vanished community. Which raises the question at the heart of our inquiry: Are Israelis – roaming the crumbling ruins and enjoying the almond blossom – presented with an opportunity to learn about the history and fate of the villages? Visiting those sites, I checked the park and forest navigation signs and surveyed the informational brochures distributed to the visiting public. Reading their content, I documented whether and how the villages are presented to visitors.
I found out that the authorities who run Israeli nature and recreational sites willfully ignore most of the village sites in their parks. In a minority of cases, when their signage and brochures do mention villages, the information is usually partial and sporadic. Information is rarely provided regarding the history and society of the village, and at times the village name and national identity of the villagers is obscured. The texts tend to focus on earlier sites, usually Jewish, or Zionist history in the surrounding area. Occasionally, village ruins are portrayed as simply part of nature – non-historical elements of the landscape, such as streams and springs, or landmarks on a hiking trail. Many villages are mentioned as hostile elements or targets of conquest in 1948, but the circumstances of their depopulation are nearly always silenced.
To clarify how this is being done, let’s move to virtually visit two of the JNF parks that include village sites:
- Carmel Coast Forest:
- the JNF planted over 2,470 acres of trees south of Haifa, including over the remains of ‘Ayn Ghazal, Jaba‘, and Sawamir. Fruit orchards, as well as one standing structure and a few remains, are all of what is left of the villages.
- Biria Forest:
- Spread over more than 5,000 acres near Safad in the Galilee, the forest contains the previously built up areas of ‘Amuqa, ‘Ayn al-Zaytun, Fir‘im, Mughr al-Khayt, and Qaba‘a. Other than one structure in ‘Ayn al-Zaytun, the villages have been demolished.
Is the Village Mentioned, and What Information is Given About It?
JNF has posted signs throughout the two parks, including near four village sites, but has found room to mention only one village. In the parks’ brochures, only three of the aforementioned eight villages are mentioned, most of them are omitted from the brochures’ maps, and none of them appear in the general description of the park; that of Biria Forest, for instance, lists “woods, orchards, springs, an ancient synagogue, a lime pit, tombs of [Jewish] sages and rich vegetation, scenic roads and hiking trails, alongside picnic sites and observatories.” The five depopulated villages within the forest aren’t mentioned.
Text of sign: Ayn Zaitun. “In past periods Israel lived in this village, in which there were gardens and citrus orchards and many olive trees and a living spring” [probably a quote from an ancient source]. Until the war of independence Ayn Zaitun (named by the surrounding olive groves) was an Arab village. During the war it served as a base for Arab fighters. The spring that flows in the Imam’s house was known in the country for the high quality of its water and was a source of attraction for a long period. The saints’ tombs testify to the fact that Jews settled in Ayn Zaytun since medieval times till the 18th century. Later on pilgrims used to visit the place on their way to Safad. On 5/1/48 Ayn Zaytun was occupied by a Palmach force, and access to the Jewish quarter in Safad was gained.
Moreover, the texts of signs and brochures tend to marginalize or ignore the history of the Palestinian villages, while yoking ancient Jewish and modern Zionist history into one seemingly uninterrupted narrative. A brochure on Biria Forest, for instance, extensively describes the Biria Fortress, including its ancient Jewish history, and relates that “Jews abandoned the site in the late 16th century.” Then, glossing over centuries of history, it turns its attention to the Zionist enterprise of acquiring land and settling Jews in the area. There is not a single word about the Arab settlement that existed on the site throughout the preceding centuries. The nearby village of ‘Ayn al-Zaytun, where nearly a thousand people had lived prior to its depopulation in 1948, is mentioned only in passing in the same JNF brochure, in the context of its proximity to a Jewish colony: “The old ‘Ein Zeitim – […] the colony was founded near the Arab village of ‘Ayn al-Zaytun.”
Even signs and brochures that do mention villages teach visitors very little about them: the founding of a village, its inhabitants, and the latter’s livelihoods are all conspicuously absent. One JNF sign recounts a folk tale about a “good water” spring in the Imam’s house in ‘Ayn al-Zaytun that attracted visitors. This tale, however, is related without stating that the village ceased to exist after 1948; needless to say, the violent circumstances through which this occurred are completely absent from the text.
The touristy guides tend to describe the park atmosphere as calm and idyllic. Carmel Coast Forest, for example, is described as “the most magical place in the country. It is vast and has many accessible spots of grace and beauty. The forest is a refuge from the noise and tumult of the big city and its mountainous, evergreen landscapes create a magical atmosphere, akin to a fairy tale. We invite you to walk with us along the green forest belt that wraps the [Jewish] communities of Kerem Maharal and ‘Ofer. To visit magical forest trails. . . .” The depopulated villages of Jaba‘, ‘Ayn Ghazal and al-Sawamir, their former lands the foundation of the park, are not mentioned in the text.
Some of the texts refer to remnants of villages – structures, orchards and springs – with no mention of the village to which they had belonged or bordered. A JNF brochure, for instance, describing a trail in Biria Forest, says: “The Fighters’ Path continues and arrives at a big abandoned structure of two stories. In the southern part of the structure, under an arched dome, flows the spring of ‘Ein Zeitim (‘Ayn Zaytun). Orchard trees stand all around.” [Emphasis mine.] Neither the village, from which the spring draws its name, nor the villagers who drank from the spring and built the structure above it are mentioned.
Signs and brochures, more often than not, refer to village ruins as landmarks along hiking trails, such as rivers, hills, and springs, without any further elaboration on the village and its residents. Some texts refer to orchards while ignoring the rest of the village. Instead, the orchards are described as part of the natural landscape, without any history or human agency. One text describing a hiking trail in Biria Forest directs hikers to the site of the village of ‘Ayn al-Zaytun, focusing on the surviving orchards: “Near the stream many orchard trees remain, which ‘invite’ us to spend time among them.” The village itself, whose residents tended the very same orchards, is mentioned only further down in the text, in passing, in the context of the Jewish colony of ‘Ein Zeitim, as noted above.
Every so often, the texts refer to the village sites and their remains as simply part of the tranquil picturesque landscape. Thus, the remains of ‘Ayn Ghazal are described as “adorning the slope.” Such pastoral descriptions are clearly incongruous with the 1948 war that had violated the peacefulness of the place and brought about the destruction of the village, and is left unmentioned.
While Palestinian villages are never properly recognized, the JNF does honor non-local Jewish history and individuals: on the site of dozens of depopulated villages lying within JNF parks or forests, memorial or dedication stones have been placed to commemorate lost Jewish communities or pay tribute to Jewish donors from abroad. The JNF hasn’t dedicated any space within its forests to the memory of the expelled villagers, whose levelled homes it has planted trees on.
The 1948 War and the Depopulation of the Villages
In reference to the 1948 war, some Carmel Coast and Biria Forest signs and brochures paint villages as hostile and violent without mentioning Israeli atrocities directed at their residents or elaborating on the circumstances that led to their depopulation. The texts speak only of the villagers’ alleged aggression, and their subsequent occupation by Zionist forces, without ascribing a civil nature to them; one of an agricultural community with daily routines and family life. For example, all that is stated by a JNF brochure about Jaba‘ and ‘Ayn Ghazal is that they “sabotaged Jewish transportation on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road.” The military attacks against Jaba‘ and ‘Ayn Ghazal included, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge University Press, 2014), heavy bombardment of the villages by artillery and airplanes, followed by the expulsion of the residents. These attacks, regarded as “unjustified” by Count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish UN Mediator for Palestine, are not described by the JNF, which only states that Israeli forces “acted” there, and that the villages “were abandoned and their residents escaped, without a battle.”
According to Morris, units of the Palmach Jewish forces expelled the elderly, women and children in ‘Ayn al-Zaytun by shooting over their heads. Around 70 men from the village and nearby villages were gunned down, their hands tied, at a nearby creek following the instructions of a local battalion commander. Meanwhile, Palmach units blew up and burned houses in the village. The JNF provides no information on these events, and has placed a sign that reduces a communal village to “a base for Arab fighters,” which was overrun by a Palmach force. This text doesn’t even explicitly state that the village ceased to exist following its occupation – otherwise made clear by looking at the flat space on which the sign stands – only stating that “until the War of Independence, ‘Ayn Zaytun was an Arab village.”
The JNF texts provide no information regarding the fate and the whereabouts of the villagers after their uprooting. Although the existence of ruins is evident on the ground, the texts do not explain how a village had been reduced to ruins, why, and by whom.
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The way depopulated Palestinian villages are being presented by the JNF in the parks we have just visited is reflective of the general presentation in JNF parks throughout Israel. The JNF has chosen to ignore most of the depopulated villages on recreational sites within its responsibility, and to refer to the rest of them in a partial and selective manner; stressing Jewish and Zionist history, referring to the villages as battle sites, or describing them as nature sites. This is characteristic of some of the ideas at the very core of the Israeli-Zionist ideology and practice: the Judaization of the land, the marginalization or silencing of its Arab history, the shrugging off of responsibility for the refugee problem, and a one-sided view of the War of 1948. This ideological approach is communicated to visitors at forests and parks, and contributes to the shaping of their views and their national identity, as they engage in everyday activities like hiking or picnicking in nature.
Noga Kadman is a researcher and licensed tour guide. She is the author of Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 (Indiana University Press, 2015).