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As a matter of fact: the disputed history of Ashkelon and Majdal

14 October 2003

By Larry*, ecumenical accompanier with the WCC's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI)

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, or so the adage goes. And being by nature based on personal interpretation, opinions ought to be open for discussion. But what about facts? They are supposed to be immutable. The sun does indeed rise in the east and set in the west, doesn't it? In Israel and Palestine however, even the facts are likely to be subject to debate. As demonstrated, for example, by what happened one sunny Saturday in the Mediterranean resort town of Ashkelon.

From the looks of it, Ashkelon, just north of the Gaza Strip, could easily be a beach community in New Jersey. But it doesn't need too discerning an eye to sense an eerie presence of a not-too-hidden past. Amid the bright new buildings, the tiny museum and the sidewalk snack-bars are signs of a very different past: a large building lies in ruins and a minaret, once part of a mosque, rises amidst the tables where Russian Israelis sip coffee. These are signs that another town once existed here - the remains of Majdal, a Palestinian town that was emptied of its residents in 1950 to make way for the current city of Ashkelon. But this fact is not easily accepted by the Israeli residents, despite the physical evidence.

On 20 September, a sunny Saturday, members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) accompanied dozens of refugees from Majdal and their families on a tour of what is left of their town. Most of them, refugees and descendants, have been living in the Palestinian-Israeli town of Lod, northeast of Ashkelon, since 1950. The tour was arranged by the Israeli organization Zochrot. The word means "remember" in Hebrew. Zochrot was founded with the goal of raising awareness of the "al Naqba" ("catastrophe" in Arabic) in Jewish-Israeli society. The term refers to the expulsion of Palestinians and the destruction of their villages as part of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

One of Zochrot's most visible activities is putting up signs testifying to the existence of demolished villages and towns. The idea is simply to acknowledge what once existed, and to encourage reconciliation between the two peoples. It is Zochrot's dual hope that Palestinians might return to their villages, and that Jewish Israelis might gain an understanding of Palestinian suffering, and of the need for equality of all citizens of Israel - Jewish and Arab.

On 20 September, Zochrot put up four signs in Ashkelon indicating, in Arabic and Hebrew, the former home of a prominent Majdal family, two former street names, and the spot where the residents were gathered before being forcibly removed in 1950.

Taha Alkhtib was one of the many Palestinians participating in the event. His father was only nine years old when his family was removed from its house. Every time there is a tour arranged by Zochrot, the family members go to tell their story. "We have to bring our children and youngsters here to make them understand their past," Alkhtib said. "I don't really believe any more that we can move back, but I think it is important to remember so that one day, people will recognize our struggle."

All seemed to be taking place peacefully... until suddenly, a heated exchange broke out beneath the sign commemorating the spot where the residents of Majdal were rounded up. Urged on by two of his neighbours, an Ashkelon resident had removed the sign and was running off with it, a Palestinian woman in hot pursuit. The man claimed that the sign offended him because it wasn't true. He had lived in Ashkelon all his life and had never seen any Palestinians living there. His neighbour threw in his two shekels-worth, and a heated exchange ensued. With anger in their eyes, the four people confronted one another: the Palestinian woman expressing her frustration in fervent words, one of the Israeli men raising his fist, his anger so strong that he did not seem to realize that a camera crew was standing right beside him, documenting the scene. Their respective historical understandings did not fit.

Teddy Katz, a Jewish Israeli who had come for the demonstration, came to the woman's defence. Amid a heated discussion as to "who was here first," Katz asked the most agitated neighbour: "But the mosque? Tell me, who built the mosque?" The staunch reply was that this was a Jewish mosque!

"I was truly surprised to see how differently people interpret history," said Louise, an ecumenical accompanier (EA) who witnessed the exchange. "The historical facts no longer exist, only people's own memories. This event showed me exactly why there is a conflict. Dialogue and listening to each other is too often forgotten. Ignorance combined with fear is a dangerous weapon."

"It's sad to see that sometimes the entire conflict boils down to the question of 'Who was here first?'" said Lena, another EA. "It doesn't help when you argue about who was here first because either side can always claim that they were here first. It was moving, shocking even, to see how one person was so hurt by the other's claim. It hurt so much to accept that this was once a non-Jewish place."

Through continued dialogue, the confrontation between the Palestinian woman and the Jewish inhabitants of Ashkelon eventually did calm down. The man who had taken the sign down decided to put it up again. He even offered the Palestinian woman a glass of water as a token of reconciliation. When he did so, his neighbours grudgingly walked towards their homes, muttering that all this was the fault of Meretz, the Israeli political party to which Katz belongs. Meretz supports peaceful reconciliation between Israel and its Arab neighbours, including Palestinians both within and outside the state.

The man's act impressed Lena. "I was encouraged because he was so moved by her feelings that he put the sign back up!"

Addressing the gathering, Katz summed up the reason why actions like this one can help forge a new understanding among Israelis as to how the state was created: "There were many Palestinians pushed away from here, and from many other places. There were 500 villages here that no longer exist. Here, they [the Majdal Palestinians] lived, went to school, worshipped in the mosque. We must understand that this place was not, from the beginning, a Jewish one. It was after 1948 that Majdal was ruined and Ashkelon was built."

"This is a statement of recognition. You [the Palestinians] belong here," Katz concluded. "It [the land] is yours as well as ours. We are sorry for the war. Those of us who have come today want a compromise with Palestinians in order to live here equally. Even if this is a Jewish state, there is a place for Palestinians. You have rights not because we give them. You have your rights in the same way we have them."

So who was actually in Ashkelon or Majdal first? If people can't even agree on the facts of the past, how can an honest discussion about the future of these two peoples take place? This may be one of the critical roles of the accompaniers. By being present in support of the Palestinians and organizations like Zochrot, the EAs helped replace shouting with discussion and a sign of reconciliation. A small step, but a crucial one in building a culture of truth and lasting peace.

Walking past the minaret that called the people of Majdal to prayer over 50 years ago, and returning to the scene of the confrontation about an hour later, the sign was still in place. Perhaps there is hope after all.

* * * *

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) was launched in August 2002. Ecumenical accompaniers monitor and report violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, support acts of non-violent resistance alongside local Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Israeli peace activists, offer protection through non-violent presence, engage in public policy advocacy, and stand in solidarity with the churches and all those struggling against the occupation. The programme is co-ordinated by the World Council of Churches.

*Larry, 37, is from the United States and is Roman Catholic. He began his career as a sports writer and editor, but now teaches world history and cultures. As an ecumenical accompanier, Larry is working as a managing editor and communications officer, travelling throughout the area writing features on the experiences of the accompaniers. EAs Lena (from Sweden) and Louise (from Denmark) contributed to this article.

Ecumenical accompaniers are not named in full for security reasons.

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