Friday, November 06, 2009

At Latrun with Zochrot

First of all, here's the link to Zochrot's English homepage: For those of you who
have wondered where to donate your money so it will have the greatest
impact for peace, this is the place, or at least I give them the best odds.

I met the founder of Zochrot, Eitan Bronstein, at a talk he gave in
NYC some time ago. He's a bit young (just shy of 50), casual, and
irreligious for a tzaddik hador, but then he may still be growing into
the role. Before starting Zochrot, Eitan served in the Israeli Army,
later doing three jail terms for refusing to serve in the first
Lebanon war and the original Intifada in the late 80s. Starting in
1991, he was a teacher at Neve Shalom, a village "established by
Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, that is engaged in
educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two
peoples" (I'm pretty sure that Neve Shalom was described to me as a
"kibbutz" many years ago, but maybe that was wishful thinking on
someone's part). At any rate, when I finally got free of Ben Gurion
airport, I visited with Eitan at Zochrot's offices in Tel Aviv, and he
invited me to accompany him on a Zochrot outing the next day, which I
gladly did. This is the story of the trip, in a few of my words, and
the story of the park, in rather more of Eitan's.

Eitan was leading a field trip for a Palestinian girls' high school
located in East Jerusalem. They showed up on one of those gian tour
buses, full to the brim with a great mass of irrepressible Palestinian
teenage girls, mostly in sweatshirts and bluejeans, several of their
teachers, and the school's headmistress (or some title to that
effect). They were overwhelmingly polite and attentive, and generally
unlike myself (or anyone I knew) at that age; Eitan had the same
thought relative to his usual Israeli groups. Even when it started
raining, and then when it started *really* raining, everyone just
huddled around and listened to Eitan do his thing. I did pretty much
the same, but tried to stay out of the way, since it was the girls'
trip and he has a very quiet speaking voice.

Eitan related the story below, along with an account of Zochrot's
multi-year struggle to get signs posted that merely acknowledged that
Palestinian villages once existed on the site. I strongly encourage
you to read the complete booklet, which is available at the following

Quoted from "Restless Park: On the Latrun villages and Zochrot",
by Eitan Bronstein, translated by Charles Kamen:

'One of Hochman's photos [an Israeli photographer who happened
to stumble upon the cleansing of the villages] shows two soldiers
standing in the doorway of one of the houses, next to an Arab woman
- perhaps one of the occupants. Laundry is still hanging outside on
the line. Such a meeting was unusual at the time the villages were
demolished, for most of the residents had already left. That’s what
Zakaria Sunbati, who lived in nearby Beit Laqiya, told us during one
of our visits to the area in 2001. At the time I was still working in the
School for Peace at Neve Shalom, and I had organized a tour for
high school students from the Brenner Regional School. One of their
teachers had taken part in the capture of the villages. He agreed to
come and tell his story. Zakaria began by telling us that a few days
before the war the inhabitants received word of plans to capture the
villages, and warnings from the army that all residents of dozens of
villages in the area should leave. At the time Zakaria was nine years
old. He remembers that they fled from their village and took shelter
in caves and under the trees nearby. War broke out, and the Israeli
army stampeded toward Ramallah. There were no Jordanian forces
to oppose the attack. On the second or third day of the war [4], Israeli
soldiers had already begun demolishing the buildings of Yalu, ‘Imwas
and Beit Nuba [5]. Zakaria remembers seeing from a distance the
buildings being blown up. A few days later the villagers were permitted
to return, except the ones from these three villages. They were razed
to the ground. After the war Zakaria, the child, came to see what was
left. He saw the destruction, and recalls that he also saw bodies under
some of the ruins. In other words, some of the houses were demolished
while people were still inside.

The teacher from Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh told his story next:
“Everything Zakaria said is correct, except for one thing. We didn’t
demolish buildings with people inside. On the contrary - we took care to
insure that no one was in them, and when we found people here and there
we At the same time the remains of the village of Latrun, whose residents
had been expelled during the Nakba and settled in ‘Imwas and Yalu, were
also razed. We removed them. It’s important for me to tell you what
happened here, because it was the blackest hour of my life. Things were
done here which should not have been done, and I participated in an
action that I shouldn’t have been a part of. I don’t come here to enjoy myself,
and in fact I haven’t been here since it was captured in 1967. Today
is the first time I’ve come, to tell you what I did.

I was part of a unit whose job was to insure that no people remained in the
buildings before they were demolished. We went from building to building,
and occasionally found an elderly man or woman whom we removed, and
the building was demolished. But then we came to a building with an old
man inside. He told us that for him to leave would be like dying, and he
preferred to die inside his home. At that moment the coin dropped. In that
second I realized the significance of what I and the others were doing here.
I knew that demolishing the buildings was intended to prevent the area from
ever being returned to Jordan or to the Palestinians. I also knew that the
destruction was revenge for Israel’s defeat here in 1948. But none of that
was worth destroying the life of that old man and the lives of thousands
who were expelled. I demanded that my commander stop the action. They
refused to listen to me, of course. We removed the old man and
demolished his home. I shouldn’t have done it.”'

4 That the destruction began at such an early stag indicates that it
was planned in advance, and establishes the capture and destruction of
the Latrun villages as the link between the Nakba and th occupation
beginning in 1967, between the massive destruction of villages in 1948
and the events of 1967 in which relatively many fewer villages were
5 At the same time the remains of the village of Latrun, whose
residents had been expelled during the Nakba and settled in 'Imwas and
Yalu, were also razed.'

This is essentially the story that Eitan told that day at Canada Park,
but then he added one critical piece of new information. Some time
after the Zochrot booklet was published, the old diary came to Eitan's
attention, written by a Lebanese monk who had lived in the area at the
time of the cleansing. Inside the pages of his diary was found a
recounting of the Brothers' efforts, together with villagers who
managed to return to the village sites shortly after their
destruction, to pull decomposing bodies out from under the rubble of
their destroyed homes.


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