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‘Tantura’ documentary reopens debate on Israel’s fundamental history


DOR BEACH, Israel — For many Jewish-Israeli visitors to Dor, a Mediterranean beach, its unremarkable parking lot is where they leave their cars on the way to the sea.

For many Palestinian citizens of Israel who live nearby, the parking lot is at the site where they say dozens of their loved ones were buried in a mass grave after a massacre in 1948, during the war that cemented the nascent state of Israel.

“When I’m here, I think of them,” said Kamal Masri, 57, an Arab metalworker on a recent visit to the beach. Mr. Masri’s parents lived in Tantura, a Palestinian village on this site which was captured by Israeli soldiers in May 1948 and later razed and replaced by two Israeli resorts, Dor and Nahsholim. “I feel like,” he added, “like I could see them.”

But to local Israeli leaders, it seems implausible, if not impossible, that Palestinians were massacred or buried en masse here just a few years after the Holocaust. “It’s hard to imagine such a thing,” said Yael Manor, chairwoman of Nahsholim’s administrative committee. “It wasn’t when they were executing innocent people.”

The legacy of the 1947-1949 Arab-Jewish War, in which the State of Israel was founded, has long been shaped by versions of these two dueling narratives. The tension between the two continues to influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

Palestinians remember the war as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, in which 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled. Millions of their descendants still live as refugees. And over the years there have been allegations of other massacres.

For many Israelis, the conflict was a war of independence and survival against invading Arab armies and hostile local militias who rejected a United Nations plan to divide the territory between Jews and Arabs, and who also committed atrocities. According to this account, the Palestinian exodus was largely voluntary and encouraged by Arab rulers, and was accompanied by the simultaneous persecution and expulsion of Jews from their homes in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Dor Beach puddle parking lot is the latest arena in this battle over Israel’s founding history. It is also the latest example of Israeli engagement, if hesitant, with parts of the Palestinian narrative.

Israeli veterans have often dismissed longstanding Palestinian claims that the Israeli army carried out a massacre in Tantura in the hours after it took over the city in May 1948, days after the state was established. Israeli.

In 2000, a group of veterans sued an Israeli graduate student who had written a thesis, citing dozens of Arab and Jewish witnesses, in which he said that Israeli soldiers had killed dozens of captured Tantura villagers before expel others. The student, Teddy Katz, briefly retracted his request under social pressure, ending the affair. And although Mr. Katz quickly retracted his retraction, his university later downgraded the status of his degree, citing irregularities in his thesis.

But a new documentary by an Israeli filmmaker, titled “Tantura,” has reignited the fury, sparking fresh debate in the Israeli media, at the University of Haifa, where Mr Katz studied, and among Arab lawmakers.

“Tantura” features new interviews with Israeli participants in the operation, as well as old recordings of conversations between Mr. Katz and Israeli witnesses. While some veterans continued to deny wrongdoing, others told the camera crew that soldiers killed Palestinian prisoners after Tantura was captured, and that there was a cover-up afterwards.

“They went wild at Tantura,” said one interviewee, Yossef Diamant, an Israeli veteran who fought at Tantura and witnessed the aftermath. “He was silenced,” he added.

In the film, Mr. Diamant recalled a soldier using a machine gun to kill captured men as they sat inside a barbed wire enclosure, and recalled others pursuing villagers with a flamethrowers and raped a woman. Reached by phone, Mr. Diamant declined to meet for an interview with The New York Times, but said the soldiers acted without orders.

A second veteran, Chaim Levin, told the camera crew he remembered seeing a man in a wide-brimmed hat kill 15 or 20 prisoners “in cold blood” with a gun. His family refused to make Mr Levin, now 101, available for a follow-up interview and criticized the film’s findings.

The filmmakers showed Israeli army documents which, while refraining from mentioning a massacre, acknowledged that soldiers had dug a mass grave at Tantura after his capture, and vaguely referred to “acts of destruction” after the victory and the subsequent deportation of the surviving residents.

The filmmakers also found aerial photographs from April 1948 and October 1949 that showed the sudden appearance, at some point in those 18 months, of a 38-meter trench that had been dug where survivors and witnesses said the bodies had been buried.

The current parking lot is at the location of this trench.

A lawyer, Giora Erdenast, who represented several veterans in the lawsuit in 2000, called Mr. Diamant’s and Mr. Levin’s claims “totally false”. Both sides may have killed a handful of enemy fighters shortly after raising their hands in surrender, but “to describe it as a massacre is utterly ridiculous,” Erdenast said.

Preview screenings of the film, which is yet to hit theaters, have already resurfaced public debate, not just about Tantura, but 1948 in general.

The film renewed calls, including from Israel’s longest-serving Arab lawmaker, Ahmed Tibi, for the exhumation of those killed, if their gravesites can be found. It also prompted scholars at the University of Haifa to call for Mr. Katz’s original degree to be reinstated.

For some Israeli historians, the film is an attempt to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.

“The point is to say that Israel was born in sin,” said Yoav Gelber, a history professor at the University of Haifa. Mr Gelber has always disputed reports of a massacre at Tantura, citing the lack of other documents. “It’s not history,” Mr. Gelber said, “and I doubt it’s cinema.”

Those who doubt claims of a massacre note that other Arab villages in the area were largely spared the war and their inhabitants were allowed to remain.

The film’s director, Alon Schwarz, who describes himself as a staunch Zionist, said the film’s effort to set the record straight would strengthen Israel, not damage it.

A lasting settlement with the Palestinians will only be possible, he said, if both sides acknowledge each other’s historical histories. And in the case of Israel, that meant recognizing that while the Arabs also committed atrocities in 1948, many Palestinians “were driven from here by force.”

“Saying, ‘Yes, it happened’ doesn’t mean we don’t have a right to be in this country,” he added. “But we can recognize what we have done. We can recognize the pain on the other side.

Some Palestinian survivors and their descendants are campaigning to build a memorial for their relatives at the site and to have their bodies properly buried.

That depends on the regional council, which declined to comment on whether it would authorize an excavation of the site.

But even if authorities dig up the parking lot, it’s unclear what they might find.

While mapping the 38-meter trench documented in 1949 aerial photographs, a mapping company featured in the film said they found visual signs that the ditch was empty at the time.

Even though bodies were buried there in 1948, the film concludes, they might have already been hidden elsewhere.

The film does not look at the exact number of Palestinians allegedly killed after Tantura’s capture – estimates vary wildly. It also fails to come to a conclusion as to whether the prisoner killings were spontaneous or premeditated.

Yossi Offer, a historian of the brigade that captured Tantura and son of one of the officers involved in the operation, said he concluded from conversations with his father’s veterans that rogue Israeli soldiers had killed prisoners in the heat of the moment. , shortly after their capture. Before being captured, Mr. Offer said, some Palestinian fighters had fought after pretending to surrender, while others had mutilated several Israeli corpses, angering the Israelis who then overpowered them.

The subsequent killing of captured Palestinians was “the spontaneous act of fools that happens in every battle”, but not a massacre, Mr Offer said.

But surviving villagers remembered a more premeditated approach.

Khalil Deeb Jarban, 82, a retired fisherman who was 8 when the village was captured, recalls being held on the beach, along with much of the village’s surviving population. Israeli soldiers and an Arab collaborator then slowly selected at least 20 men over the morning, driving them to another part of the village, never to be seen again, Mr Jarban said.

Mr Jarban said he saw the men taken away by the soldiers. “It happened,” he said, “and there’s no need to convince anyone.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad and Myra Noveck contributed report.

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