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Daily Life

An Old Refrain Stabs at the Heart

By Meron Benvenisti
May 20, 2004

Photo of a Palestinian mother and daughter fleeing from Rafah, Gaza. A Palestinian mother and daughter flee from their home in Rafah, Gaza.
(Click photo to enlarge.)

The sights of Rafah are too difficult to bear – trails of refugees alongside carts laden with bedding and the meager contents of their homes; children dragging suitcases larger than themselves; women draped in black kneeling in mourning on piles of rubble. And in the memories of some of us, whose number is dwindling, arise similar scenes that have been a part of our lives, as a sort of refrain that stabs at the heart and gnaws at the conscience, time after time, for over half a century – the procession of refugees from Lod to Ramallah in the heat of July 1948; the convoys of banished residents of Yalu and Beit Nuba, Emmaus and Qalqilyah in June 1967; the refugees of Jericho climbing on the ruins of the Allenby Bridge after the Six-Day War.

And perhaps the most shocking of all, the grandfathers and fathers of the Rafah refugees, abandoning the houses in Yibna in which they were born, in fear of the approaching Israeli army on June 5, 1948. “At dawn,” reported the AP correspondent, “it was possible to see the civilians fleeing from the town [Yibna] in the direction of the coast, without the intervention of the Israeli attackers.”

Some 56 years have passed, and they are again fleeing in fear of the Israeli attackers.

And the attackers adopt the same tactics, spread rumors and fire warning shots; and when the residents flee out of fear, they claim that they are not responsible for the flight, but then destroy the homes, for “after all, they are empty and deserted.”

Laundered language and sterile military terms camouflage a primitive desire for vengeance and uninhibited militancy. Slogans such as “combat heritage,” “righteousness of our path” and “the most moral army in the world” immunize the soldiers and their commanders from having to contend with the humanitarian tragedy they are creating.

The political echelon, which is supposed to guide the army according to ethical criteria, reveals even crueler and more extreme tendencies that the commanders of the army. All they are interested in is the “image” of Israel and the condemnation of the “hostile media.”

S. Yizhar has already said these harsh sentences about all of us: “To be deceived open-eyed, and to on the spot join the big, common throng of liars – composed of ignorance, expedient apathy, and simple unashamed selfishness – and to exchange one big truth for the clever shrug of the shoulder of a veteran criminal.” He said this in May 1949, in reference to the incident at Khirbet Khiza’a, some of whose former residents live in one of the Rafah refugee camps.

The community of those seeking vengeance, and who crave “the appropriate response” will no doubt respond with anger and abuse: How can you show empathy for a bunch of base murderers, desert savages who are led by corrupt gang chieftains? But there is a sneaking suspicion that this too is “combat heritage” – exploitation of the murderousness of the Palestinians to “punish” them, uproot them from their homes, “bare” their fields and then “redeem” the abandoned land for the needs of Israelis. Generation after generation, we cause them to abandon their homes, settling in them, and afterward, when the opportunity arises, take over their sanctuaries as well, and drive them away from there.

Generation after generation, we feed the refugee consciousness, reconstruct the pain of displacement and expose another generation to the powerless rage of the displaced person. Afterward we face, frightened and threatened, the “return” – the life’s hope of every refuges and a stain on the settler’s conscience.

Something basic has gone awry here. If commanders, the sons of the fighters of 1948, send the grandchildren of the fighters for independence to “widen the route” – which means the expulsion of the grandchildren of the refugees of 1948 – on the pretext of existential threat, then there was something defective in the vision of the founding fathers.

If after a half-century their enterprise still faces existential threat, this can only mean that they condemned it to eternal enmity, and there is no community that can for years on end survive a violent war for its existence.

And if this is merely a pretext – and Operation Rainbow in Rafah was an instinctive reaction that evolved into second nature – we must reflect deeply and sadly on our own responsibility for the enterprise that at its start embodied so many exalted ideals.

Is there some “original sin” that lies at the foundation of the Zionist enterprise? Those who initiated the Rafah operation, and those who are executing it, should know that one of the outcomes of their actions will inevitably be the raising of questions about this heresy.

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