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From Isdud to Ashdod: One man's immigrant dream; another's refugee nightmare

author Friday April 14, 2006 00:13author by Report post

The Palestinian village of Isdud, about 50 km south of Tel Aviv on the Israeli coast, was taken over by Israeli forces during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.  The town's 4,000 Palestinian inhabitants became refugees.



They were among the 750,000 Palestinians that were forced to flee their homes in what is now Israel in 1948, becoming refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring countries as the Jewish state was formed.

In 1956, the remains of Isdud village became the base on which the Israeli city, "Ashdod" (a Hebrew-ization of the Arabic name Isdud) was built.  The first Jewish immigrants talk of building a city out of nothing......but Palestinians who were pushed out of Isdud tell a very different story.

The 'creation' of the city of Ashdod on the emptied town of Isdud began with a letter that the Israeli finance minister, Levi Eshkol, sent on May 15, 1956, to "Mr. Oved Ben Ami, Netanya," and to "Mr. Philip Klutznik, Park Forest, Illinois, U.S.A.", two Jewish businessmen who were looked to as possible funders for the new Jewish city.  In the section entitled "Basic Assumptions," Eshkol wrote: "As part of the government's population dispersal plan [a plan of the early Israeli government to spread the Jewish population throughout Palestine], an urban center must be built in the south of the country; the most appropriate area for this purpose is the area which extends between the ancient city of Ashdod and the seashore (including the place known as 'Wadi Sukari') and as far as the dunes of Yavneh in the north."

The story of the first Mayor of Ashdod:

"When we came here, there was only sand and sea, a few huts and a few 'Californias' - structures with cardboard walls," says Haim, Ashdod's first mayor, from 1958 to 1964.

Haim says, "I got here altogether by chance. When we decided to leave Egypt, in 1956, I wanted to go to France. The ship we sailed on anchored at Piraeus and I went to look for a French ship. On the way I ran into someone from the Jewish Agency, who came over to me and asked whether we could talk about Israel. I asked him to explain to me what was there. He said there is a city, right next to Tel Aviv. I told him that I had a profession, that I was a glass engineer. He gave me a look and said, 'What a coincidence - that's exactly what we are looking for there.' Twenty-four hours later he returned and said, 'You are sailing for Israel.' I asked him just to write down where to go, and he wrote: Ashdod Yam."

Haim recalls the ordeals of the first day, the truck they were put on, arriving in the dead of night to the sound of jackals howling, the hut in which his wife broke into bitter tears, the first night, on which he promised her that they would leave immediately, only to get up at dawn and find himself on the beach, with "the water and the sky attached to each other." That was the moment at which he also knew that he would break his promise to his wife and stay there.

And stay he did, watching new immigrants arrive day after day, at first Moroccans and Egyptians, then the Poles, who "at first did not want to get off the buses that brought them, and afterward refused to get on the buses, unless they were promised that they would be taken to Ashdod." Between one thing and another, Haim helped with the immigrant absorption process, and in 1958 the immigrants elected him their mayor.  When he took over as mayor, the city had a population of 5,000; when he left, the population stood at 25,000. He also changed the city's name from Ashdod Yam to Ashdod. Why? Well, that, too, is a story in itself.

One day Haim decided that what the town lacked was a library, but he had no money for the project. Just then he received an invitation to attend a reception hosted by Baron Edmund de Rothschild. Haim devised a plan to make use of his fluency in French in order to extract a donation from the baron. The first part of the plan went well. The foreign minister at the time, Yigal Allon, introduced him to the guest as the mayor of Ashdod Yam. But then the baron was surrounded by people and Haim found it difficult to approach him. As soon as he saw him standing by himself, he went over to the baron to remind him who he was. "I remember," Rothschild said. "You are from that kibbutz [Jewish collective farm], from Sdot Yam." Haim was deeply hurt. "What kind of kibbutz?" he rails, 50 years on. "In my imagination I was actually the mayor of Paris."

Offended by what he saw as a rebuff by Rothschild, Haim determined that his 'great city' of Ashdod Yam would never again be mistaken for a mere kibbutz.  The intensity of that affront gave him a sleepless night, he continues, and in the morning he went to see the interior minister, Haim Shapira. "How much is it going to cost me today?" the minister said as he entered, but Haim explained that it would cost nothing - all he wanted was to change the city's name. The minister agreed, asking only that Haim get the authorization of the municipal council. Haim went into the next room, dictated a letter to the secretary and returned to the minister's office. "Here is the authorization," he said.

Thus, he says, because of his wounded ego, the name of the city was changed. "What kind of Paris?" he chuckles about himself, looking back nearly half a century. "Even Tel Aviv was light-years away."

Haim strikes a serious note only when he talks about the character of the city. "This is a city that has never known ethnic discrimination," he asserts. "We did not have Ashkenazim and Sephardim [two types of Jews - European and non-European -- which are given different statuses in Israel]. I erased that issue from the outset. That is what I drummed into their heads and that is the way it has stayed. We all became Ashdodis."


A Palestinian perspective:

A very different history is told by Abdullah Zaqut, who was a resident of Isdud village who was expelled in 1948.  The great, multicultural city of Ashdod described by Haim, its first mayor, was for Palestinians who had lived there for centuries, a site of expulsion, pain, blood and tears -- separation of families, curfews, martial law, imprisonment and forced removal.

"I was born in Isdud in 1923. Close to four thousand people lived there. I was born to a family of falahim [peasants], farmers. We had lands, vineyards, orchards. Isdud was one of the large villages. Close to 60,000 dunams. The residents lived off agriculture. During World War II they worked at the British army camps. A simple life. People were not hungry. There were many orchards and vineyards.

"At age 9 we went to school. I studied in Isdud for 5 years and in Majdal for 3 years and in Gaza two years. Afterwards I started instruction as a school teacher. I was a teacher in Isdud. Until 1948, Isdud was in the Palestinian part of the partition plan. The Egyptian army came. There was a war against the British army. At the end of 1948 the Egyptian army retreated. We remained in the village and we encouraged people to stay, we wanted to live with the Jews in coexistence. In Isdud there were about four thousand residents and more than 500 remained.

"The Israeli army came and enacted a curfew. Afterwards the military rulers came to look for planes that had fallen. The following day they told us to go out to the street. We didn’t think they would take us prisoner. The young people, above age 17, were taken prisoner. The elderly and the women were expelled to Majdal.

"After a few days the Israeli military leaders opened the way from Gaza to Majdal. At the end of 1948 there was no longer an Arab majority. The Israelis expelled us. But so that no one would say we were expelled, they said that the Arab armies had called the people to leave, and that’s not correct. They expelled us. They expelled me to Majdal. I was a teacher there. There was a military governor in Gadera, Zuckerman, who tried to help. People started to leave. At night there was a curfew. We lived in a ghetto. Go out to work with guards and return with guards. People worked, made a living. After three months they decided to expel the residents. The army would come at night to scare people. They gave money, bribes to people to sell belongings and move to Gaza. Those who didn’t want to leave for Gaza, they brought to Lod. Part of my family is in Gaza.

"In the beginning of 1950 Zuckerman was no longer the governor. Others came. They decided to expel people at the beginning of 1950. They couldn’t just drive people out. Israel was recognized by the United Nations. I was one of the people who opposed the expulsion. We thought there would be peace, that people would return and we would live in our villages. They saw that it wasn’t working out that way. Israel was new, couldn’t do what we planned. They were clever about it, so the world would see that it wasn’t them who were driving people out right away. They didn’t act directly.

"They didn’t let me teach school. I wanted to stay in Majdal. I didn’t leave. We were a group who opposed the expulsion, young educated men. I didn’t collaborate. They deported me to Acre. They hadn’t started expelling people then. They couldn’t, the world saw. In the Majdal ghetto people worked. Jewish contractors arrived to take laborers to work. About three thousand people lived in the ghetto. In the middle of 1949 Jews started arriving in Majdal. The Jews lived outside of the ghetto. I worked in the harvest with Jews. People from Amal would come to the ghetto to drink coffee. In April 1950 I was deported to Acre.

"We would present ourselves to the military governor of the Western Galilee. Every few villages in the Galilee had a governor. Every morning we would present ourselves there. After a few weeks they deported me to Tarshicha. The governor drove me from Acre to Tarshicha. His name was Moshe Reiss. He said that we were spreading propaganda against the government. They deported me because I opposed the expulsion from Majdal.

"We arrived in Tarshicha. I had to appear twice a day at the police station. No house, no work, nothing, and it was forbidden to go out of the village. Come to the police, sign. I asked where the Bishara family was, I looked for someone who had been a guest at my family. When Ramle was occupied, the residents surrendered under military conditions, but nonetheless they expelled all the residents after a few days. There was a man who stayed and demanded the lands and then they deported him to Tarshicha. I heard that he was staying with the Bishara family. I lived there. I would present myself at the police station every day.

"One day I heard there was an assembly in Pki’in. I wanted to come to the assembly, to know what was happening with my wife and daughter. It was forbidden to go out of Tarshicha. My wife and my daughter had stayed in Majdal. I arrived at the assembly in Pki’in. The police came to look for us and some people took me to the house of some falahim [peasants]. The police didn’t find me. The following day I came to Tarshicha. They told me that the police had been looking for me. The captain told me that I had been in Pki’in, told me to clean the stables. I refused. He beat me. I told him he would pay for it. He brought me back to Acre. From there they brought me back to Tarshicha. I was detained. In the evening people from the army came, apologized for the beating, and said that I would be free on the condition that I would not complain about it to the Knesset or to a lawyer. Free to be in Tarshicha. If I submitted a complaint they would put me on trial. I agreed. I returned to the Bishara family. I wanted to go out to work, to leave the prison. I agreed not to complain. People from the communist party wanted me to complain. They submitted a parliamentary question to the Knesset. They took me to court and sentenced me to four months in Jaffa prison. I was released in September 1950.

"I arrived in Majdal. The army controlled the city. I saw people with furniture and clothing, there were people who wanted to leave for Jordan. Some of the people wanted to stay. The following day they took me to Acre and to Tarshicha. I hadn’t presented myself at the police station. I worked a little while. In November 1950 I got a letter that my wife and daughter were in Lod. I returned to Acre to get a permit to return. Reiss, the governor, was responsible for the whole Galilee. He said he would give me a house, I could go back to work. I told him that as long as he was in military uniform I didn’t want it. He gave me a letter. I returned to Lod, and from there to Ramle at the instructions of the communist party, to manage the branch. I didn’t want to be in the prison of Tarshicha. In Tarshicha I was in prison, I couldn’t leave the borders of the village. In Ramle I worked in agriculture and later in a factory, until I retired. I raised seven children.

"Before 1948 in Majdal they would weave, weaving was an important source of income for the residents of Majdal. Every house had a loom and people would make a living from it. The whole family would work. The standard of living was good. During World War II Majdal became wealthy, they let them bring fabric from India for weaving. The whole family would work on the loom. There were also lands and orchards. A large and wealthy city. They would come here from every area, to the shuk, to the flour mill. During the period of martial law they continued to work in weaving and agriculture in cooperation with the Histadrut [Israeli national labor union]. Mor, from the Histadrut, didn’t let them expel people. They were helpful. They couldn’t expel people without their agreement."


The forgotten history

In a 2003 event organized by an Israeli peace group, Abdullah Zakout was able to visit his former home, “Here was a coffee shop and there was the school", he pointed out as he walked in the streets of Ashdod.

Zakout makes sure he tells his own story in response to Israeli claims over the village. “Some time ago I visited the village and saw a family touring the area and their father telling them about it. I told him I used to live here, but he was surprised and said that there was nothing here but some ruins. I told him that this was not true and that 4,000 people used to live here including myself,” he said.

Zakout’s words encouraged the group to paint the name of the village in Arabic and Hebrew on the remaining parts of the coffee shop, meanwhile Zakout went to do a job he never managed to finish in 1948. Filled with emotion, and determined to finish it 55 years later, he and the group hung a sign saying “Boys Elementary School in Isdud,” written in both Arabic and Hebrew, on the remaining walls of the boys’ school that residents of the village had just finished building before they were expelled in 1948.

Commemorating the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) in Isdud is part of a wider campaign initiated by Zochrot (Hebrew for remembering) to bring knowledge of the Nakba to the Israeli public to raise the issues of historic responsibility and the Palestinian right of return. The initiative to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba did not come from an Israeli leftist politician but from an ordinary computer programmer.

“I was a Zionist” says Uri Zachem, “until I read the book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, by Benny Morris. I learned what I never wanted to learn before: that there was a nation who lived in Palestine before 1948. I realized the notion of ‘a country with no people’ is only a myth. I was told lies.”

“I started to drive around and looked at the landscape from a different point of view. Going through ruined villages I felt the sorrow and pain of Palestinian refugees. The Nakba is the mother of all sins,” said Zachem.

Zachem who lives in Kufur Saba (Kfar Sava in Hebrew) insists calling the town by its Arabic name, which he says “are the real names of villages and towns. What exists now is built either on the ruins of those places or next to them.”

Zachem explained that remains of Palestinian villages were being removed by Zionist groups and the Israeli government, but that groups like Zochrot were fighting to preserve the remaining parts of Palestinian villages and towns. Although Zachem does not feel personally responsible for the Palestinian catastrophe, he does feel that “as a Jew, it is my duty to do the best I can to change the beliefs of other Jews and correct all the bad deeds of our actions.”


Telling the untold story

Truly, Isdud represents one of the villages referred to by former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who said in 1969 in a talk to Jewish students in Haifa, "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

Asad Ghanem, head of political science at Haifa University, is one of a number of Israeli educators who have been distributing a new textbook to Arab-Israeli schoolchildren, to tell the untold history of places like Isdud.  He says, “We are trying to break the stranglehold of the Education Ministry on the information given to our children, which is always presented from a Zionist perspective".  Arab-Israelis, former Palestinians who managed to remain in Israel after 1948, now represent 20% of the Israeli population.  

The idea for the booklet came in response to increasing efforts by the Education Minister, Limor Livnat, to force schools to emphasise Jewish heritage and Zionism in the national curriculum. One of her first acts on joining the government in 2001 was to threaten Arab schools with financial penalties if they failed to fly the Israeli flag or play the national anthem during morning services, ignoring arguments that the anthem’s words and the symbol of the Star of David excluded Arab citizens.

In September 2003 she launched a new initiative, requiring all schools to participate in a weekly study program based on “100 terms in Jewish Heritage, Zionism and Democracy”. In particular, all pupils were expected to learn about important Jewish figures, including Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Baron Edmond de Rothschild, as well as to memorise entries on 33 terms considered basic to Zionist history, such as “Jewish democratic state”, “the War of Independence”, “the Law of Return”, and “Jewish National Fund”.

“Not only did much of the curriculum have no relevance to Arab schoolchildren, but it was designed to exclude their history and narrative,” said Dr Ghanem. “Our booklet is trying to rectify that.” He added that Arab education had also been damaged after decades of interference from the domestic security service, the Shin Bet, which has been vetting Arab teachers since Israel’s creation in 1948.  The books had to be sent to the homes of Arab-Israeli schoolchildren, as the Education Ministry of Israel would not allow them to be sent to the schools.

On hearing of the booklet’s publication, Livnat said: “The Education Ministry is the only body authorized to determine the content of the education system, and no other body, including the monitoring committee, has the authority to distribute any materials in schools in the Arab sector.” She said she would be seeking the attorney general’s advice about whether publication of the booklet was legal.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has issued an instruction to all schools, including Arab ones, to begin teaching the “legacy” of Rehavam Ze’evi, the leader of the extreme-right Moledet party who was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen in October 2001. Ze’evi had repeatedly called for the “transfer - or expulsion - of Palestinians from the occupied territories and “inducements” to “encourage” Arab citizens to leave the region.

An Israeli law passed in July 2005 created a state-funded Ze’evi Heritage Centre and requires schools to establish a curriculum to “honour” Zeev’ memory. The drafters of the legislation argued that they were not interested in his political views but wanted only to teach children about his “love of the land”.

*this article was sourced from reports in Ha'aretz newspaper,  Ilam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel, and Zochrot.

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