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The Story of Tantura Is the Story of Palestine’s Nakba

The story of the 1948 massacre at Tantura exposes the brutality of the Nakba – and the coordinated effort to deny Palestinian accounts of atrocities in favour of Israel’s whitewashed narratives.

The Palestinian village of Tantura, photographed between 1920 and 1933 during the British Mandate. (Wikimedia Commons)

In May 1948, more than two hundred Palestinians were massacred by Israeli forces at the village of Tantura and buried in a mass grave. The site of that mass grave is now the car park for the popular Dor Beach in Israel.

Details of the massacre were reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, in an article which contained testimonies from former soldiers of the brigade that committed the massacre of the village in the early days of Israel’s establishment. Alongside others, the testimonies appear in a new documentary by Alon Schwarz, Tantura, which was screened twice last weekend at the Sundance Festival in Utah.

The broader violence leading to the formation of the State of Israel is referred to as the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) because of the deliberate obliteration of Palestinian villages and communities, the deaths of thousands of civilians, and the mass exodus of at least 750,000 refugees. Yet the new conversations around Tantura village shed light on the true scale of the barbarity perpetrated—and on who gets to set the historical record.

The massacre at Tantura was reportedly carried out by the 33rd Battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade. One veteran said ‘they all knew’ about the atrocities committed after the village’s conquest and about a tacit agreement to pretend that nothing unusual had occurred. Arab fighters defending the village surrendered in May 1948, after which the massacre followed.

In a grim account, one soldier described an officer who would go on to be ‘a big man in the defence ministry. With his pistol he killed one Arab after another.’ Another recalled his first months as a combat soldier during this period: ‘I was a murderer. I didn’t take prisoners.’ He intimated that even if Arab soldiers were standing with their hands raised, he would shoot them all. Regarding how many Arabs he killed, he said, ‘I didn’t count. I had a machine gun with 250 bullets. I can’t say how many.’

‘It’s not nice to say this. They put them into a barrel and shot them in the barrel. I remember the blood inside the barrel,’ recalled another former soldier in reference to a separate episode in the village. His fellow soldiers did not behave like humans at Tantura, he summed up.

One set of testimonies were gathered as part of a thesis on Tantura written in the late 1990s, research that was subject to deliberate suppression. Theodore Katz submitted his Masters thesis at the University of Haifa in 1998 titled ‘The Exodus of the Arabs from Villages at the Foot of Southern Mount Carmel in 1948’, at the heart of which were taped oral testimonies from Alexandroni Brigade soldiers and Arab refugees.

Two years later, the findings of his thesis were summarised and published in Maariv, a Hebrew-language daily newspaper in Israel. What followed was an attempt to intimidate Katz and obscure the realities of what had occurred. Veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade sued Katz for libel (seeking one million shekels, or $321,000 in today’s value); after review by a committee the university suspended the thesis and refused to offer Katz any support.

Katz suffered a stroke just weeks before the first meeting in court, which he and his family attribute to the intense pressure that came from all directions.

Historian Ilan Pappé, then a professor at Haifa University, supported Katz during this period, and referred to the story in detail in a journal article titled ‘The Tantura Case in Israel: The Katz Research and Trial’. He pointed to sections of Israeli society, and particularly the academic department’s move to distort the actuality of the Nakba. In 2007, he was forced to resign from his tenured position at the university for insisting a massacre did take place in Tantura.

Pappé himself has conducted considerable research on the violence predating Israel’s inception and published a book in 2007 documenting the organised ethnic cleansing that took place, including other villages massacred. Palestinian scholars and survivors of the Nakba have also long documented their ethnic cleansing through oral and written accounts, describing in detail the more than four hundred Palestinian villages that were demolished or depopulated.

Some massacres are already well known, like the violence that took place in the Palestinian Arab village of Deir Yassin in April 1948. As many as two hundred and fifty people, including women, children, and the elderly, were purportedly massacred, with rapes and mutilations reported too. That alongside the known massacres there are others are now being admitted, like Tantura, underlines the violence of the Nakba.

The attempted silencing of people like Katz and Pappé, meanwhile, showed that sections of the Israeli authorities began as they meant to go on when it came to burying the truth. In 2019, Haaretz revealed that a security department in the defence ministry had been systematically sealing archival documents for at least a decade to conceal evidence of the Nakba.

Some of the documents reportedly revealed details of looting, massacres of Palestinians, forcible expulsion, and demolition of villages by Israeli militias. A book by the Israeli historian Benny Morris referred to one of the documents quoting details of a massacre in the Palestinian village of Safsaf.

According to Morris, the notes recorded: ‘Safsaf 52 men tied with a rope. Dropped into a pit and shot. 10 were killed. Women pleaded for mercy. [There were] 3 cases of rape. Caught and released. A girl of 14 was raped. Another 4 were killed. Rings of knives.’

Haaretz reported that these documents, along with others, had disappeared from the Israeli archive. Anything other than Israel’s narrative has been widely disregarded. History is written from the vantage point of the colonisers themselves, and in this instance, Palestinian identity is undermined and attacked, too.

That strategy has been institutionalised over time. In 2011 the Israeli Knesset passed the Nakba Law, which stipulates that state-funded institutions could lose their support if they allow the commemoration of the Nakba on Israeli Independence Day. It’s also commonplace for those in upper echelons of Israel’s establishment to trivialise the Nakba: Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, used her first speech in her new role to describe the Nakba as a ‘very strong and very popular Arab lie’. She also called the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 ‘a made up story’.

This ongoing denial represents a different dimension of the Palestinian struggle in the face of Israel’s colonial violence, but it is paramount that a transition is made from a culture of impunity to one of accountability and recognition. Only then can the violence that took place in 1948 be reckoned with—let alone the violence that continues today.