Palestine: Revealing a massacre

Palestine: Revealing a massacre
Ramzy Baroud | Arab News

DNA testing has made it possible to trace one’s roots back many generations and there are even free websites that can help users trace their family history based on a few simple clues.

Recent findings in my own personal history have been interesting indeed. The present task of tracing my family roots was inspired by a book project with Pluto Press, narrating the story of my father, who died recently under tragic circumstances in the same refugee camp to which he was expelled, along with his family 60 years ago. Just weeks into my research, I found myself stumbling into the details of a massacre.

And what started as a mere phase of my father’s torn childhood in Palestine has become the core of my book’s narrative.

My family came from the village of Beit Daras, one of the hundreds of villages destroyed by Zionist Jewish gangs prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. Growing up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, decades after the destruction of Beit Daras, I heard many stories of our village that now only exist in memory. It was a daily narrative that simply defined our internal relationship as a community.

The “Bedrasawis” were often stereotyped as “large headed” and stubborn. Although we Bedrasawis protested the recurring accusation, we also felt unspoken pride in it.

Israeli historian Benny Morris, in his volume, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem”, makes a couple of references to Beit Daras. Nothing notable, aside from the fact that a Haganah’s unit, Givati, had shelled the village on May 10, 1948 “promoting the flight of its inhabitants.” But there is more to what took place in Beit Daras than Morris’ footnote. Arab historians, Walid Khalidi, Salman Abu Sitta, among others, provided the story within a greater context. Still, documenting the history of anywhere between 400 and 500 destroyed Palestinian villages in one volume will not give you a complete picture.

As sinister as the above summation is, much is left untold. Peoples, faces and families were torn apart, often never to meet again, along with the decimated village’s 401 homes, two mosques and lone elementary school. Those killed in the “massacre of Beit Daras,” according to Palestinian accounts, were 265, largely women, children and elders. Palestinian fighters of Beit Daras were engaged in fighting against successive Zionist units, first involving militants from a nearby settlement, then Haganah forces and finally Givati units. The battle for Beit Daras was long and arduous, and duly mentioned in the writings of Jamal Abd Al-Nasser, the first president of Egypt, during his military service in southern Palestine, and of David Ben Gurion’s “War Diaries” (1947-1949).

Morris’ research methods discounted the fact that although Beit Daras was located in southern Palestine — approximately 30 km north of Gaza — the Zionist aggression to conquer the once peaceful village began earlier than the Givati’s “Operation Lighting” (Mivtza Barak) of early May 1948, and that the village didn’t fall for at least another month after the date he sketchily provides. Indeed, Beit Daras’ strategic location, near important Zionist military hubs — located inside settlements bordering the village — and near the supply routes to the Negev made it a target as early as March 16, and several times more in the same month; then, again, in April, and twice in May, and finally in June. Zionist losses were high and their attempts failed, time after time. There was much fury that a small village of roughly 2,000 people would not surrender under intense bombardment. A single day of fighting resulted in the death of 50 Arabs, according to Ben Gurion’s own account.

Um ‘Adel is an 80-year-old woman who now lives in Gaza. Today she sells foodstuffs at a tiny and humble stand to help her family as they struggle to survive the siege on Gaza. She vividly recalls the events that led to the massacre in 1948. (Those killed were families of the fighters who insisted on defending the village to the end, but hoped to sneak their wives, children and elders to safety before the decisive battle in early June.) It struck me how apolitical she was, and how, until this day, she is dumbfounded, not able to comprehend the dramatic events of those short months between March and June of 1948. Until now, she views the fight for Beit Daras based on a simple equation: They tried to take our land, and we fought them off until the end. “They (the Zionist militias) knew well that we, Bedrasawis would not go down easily. They knew that their fight for that whole area was one battle, but to take over Beit Daras was another.”

As simple as the equation was, her confusion regarding the whole event haunts her until this day, and she explained to me that in those days, the Jewish villages and the residents of Beit Daras were close friends and neighbors, and even now decades later, she is still baffled as to what happened and why the people of her village were betrayed in such a way. Beit Daras, lived up to its reputation of hard-headedness and tenacity, but many details remain murky.

One can only hope that the memory of the village survives without having to wait the authentication of an Israeli historian, which may or may not ever arrive. I know that I will do my part to make that happen. After all, I owe Beit Daras my (relatively) large head, and the tenacious spirits of my children, who carry the names of those who lived in Beit Daras, and died there.

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