The Best Runner in the Class
Ilan Pappe, 28 May 2007
It was the quiet lapping of the waves that reminded her of that awful day. Like now, it had been the middle of May, and roughly — or was it? — the same time of day, the Mediterranean dusk, when the skyline above the sea becomes a glowing display of colors, contours and configurations. But of course, on that day she did not rest as comfortably as she did now, with her bare feet dug deep into the crisp warm sand of the beach near her village.
The flickering water and fading sunlight prodded the painful memories to surface and trouble her mind to the point of derangement. Then a sudden silence fell, for the shortest possible moment but crystal clear and sharp, as if everyone and everything was frozen in time. Fifty years ago it had been the same: a very brief interlude that allowed everyone on the beach — killers, victims and bystanders — to absorb the moment, even to grasp it in a lucid manner that would never repeat itself. Now her own realization was more stoical, and free of the panic that had gripped her then. This time a sense of surrender enveloped her. “Illi fat mat,” bygones are bygones, Fatima murmured to herself.
Yet they were not gone. It was all the fault of that insistent student. Nosey and unpleasant as far as she was concerned, with broken Arabic, who had interviewed her about those traumatic days in the past. Fatima tried desperately to brush aside the memory of the meeting she had had with him that morning and to distance herself, as far as she could from the beach and its dark secrets.
She walked to the gate — a gate that was not there fifty years ago. In 1948 none of the villages in Palestine had gates; but there was no village now. Its houses had become a kibbutz, its fields tourist bungalows and its graveyard a parking lot. In the last fifteen years she had walked through this gate every Saturday at noon and such comparisons did not trouble her. But this pushy student had brought it all back.
At the entrance to the parking lot, the old graveyard, her son Ali was already waiting in the driver’s seat, patiently as usual, mesmerized by the voice coming out of his car radio. “That same wretched cassette,” grumped Fatima inaudibly. She was fond of the singer and did not really dislike the song, but had had enough of hearing it again and again. But wait, there was someone in the back of the battered Toyota. Oh no, not that Jewish student.
“He happened to be in the area for his research and I ran into him,” Ali explained, and of course he had invited him not only to the house but also to dinner.
The ‘of course dinner’ pained Fatima, who did all the cooking. Out of her four boys and two girls, only Ali, the youngest, was still at home and whenever he felt hospitable it meant more work — and Ali was very sociable. Well, what could one do?
“Marhaba,” she muttered.
Yaacov appeared even more preoccupied than before. He did not wait for them to arrive at the house, or till the end of the small talk that was customary before food was served. He was obviously in a hurry and, as it turned out, did not run into them incidentally, but by intent.
“Fatima, I need to know exactly where the mass graves are.”
“Well, I told you, ya Yakub, it has been fifty years now and Allah is my witness, my memory betrays me.” She stopped, looked anxiously at Ali, who seemed to focus on the road more attentively.
“Hear him out, ya Mama, it is important. Tell her, Yaacov.”
“They want to come … and it, I mean, they, will not be here. We have to show the world the bodies … before them.” He interchanged Arabic and Hebrew at such speed that she lost him. He became even less coherent, unable to articulate his thoughts clearly. The rest of his explanation was rushed, and only parts of it made sense to Fatima.
“The professor, Dr. Awad, is willing to alert the media and they will come and photograph and film the graves and then the world will know and …”
And then what, indeed? wondered Fatima. From her late husband she had learned what happened if you annoyed the powers-that-be. Every trivial aspect of your life was affected by tax burdens, permits for this and that, and, worst of all, by a constant and almost daily harassment by the police and the devils from Shabak, the Israeli Secret Service.
“This is for the sake of truth,” Yaacov continued, in the same muddled manner.
‘Science’ and ‘national pride’ were the only fractions of phrases she could make out from what now became an unstoppable diatribe, against Israel and the scholarly world, and in favor of the Palestinian struggle.
“Let’s go home and talk further there.”
Ali had saved her, and the car ended the short drive between what had been her village and the neighboring village that became her new home fifty years ago. She now lived in one of the few villages that had survived the ethnic cleansing on the coastal plain of Palestine during those violent months of 1948.
They came through the barley fields — a sea of tawny stalks swaying back and forth in the early afternoon breeze of mid-May. The five young men who took it upon themselves to protect the village from the southern flank frantically raised their Hartushes, the old shotguns from the day of the Great War that were used for hunting, and aimed at the invaders. In less than five minutes they were gone; struck down by the troops who entered the village from the east, south and north, completing a full encirclement with the navy people who landed on the west from the sea.
Fatima was in her teens and on her way back from the new school for girls that had opened the previous year. Tired from a long day of parroting what the teachers asked her to memorize, she was heading home when she met her elder brother who hurried her along, yelling at the womenfolk in the house to hide wherever they could, because “the Jews are coming.”
Fatima knew in a timeless way, in those days of May 1948, that the Jews were coming. For the last six months shreds from the daily news — traditionally the domain of the men in the village — had reached her. She was aware that the British were leaving and that the Jews were occupying nearby villages at a frightening rate. She also heard the men complaining about the Arab world’s betrayal: its leaders made inflammatory speeches, promising to send soldiers to save Palestine, but not matching their rhetoric by any real action. Yet the daily routine of those days was not interrupted even once, so that the threatened arrival of the Jews was like an evil spell, against which the blue-painted door and ornate ceramic Hamsa — the amulet hand hanging on one side of it — should be sufficient protection.
But on that fateful day the evil spirits were stronger than any talisman or benevolent djinns hovering over the village to safeguard it, as they had in the past, from Crusaders, Napoleon and other would-be invaders who frequented the Palestine coast on the way to another conquest, or seeking a Christian redemption of the Holy Land.
Hiding was no use. The troops found them and ordered them to leave their houses, without exception. It took several hours and they huddled on the beach, not far from where Fatima now sat reflecting, fifty years later, relishing the warm holes carved by her feet in the soft sand. The one thousand villagers were immediately separated into two groups, one of men and the other of women and children, seated a hundred yards from each other. They were ordered to put their hands behind their necks and sit cross-legged in a circle. Fatima saw one of her brothers, aged twelve, in the women’s group, and from the distance she spotted another, aged fourteen, counted as a man with the male members of her family.
Fatima sat facing the sun, and when the men were moved toward the sea with loud shouts and kicks, their silhouettes were so blurred that she could not tell who belonged to her family and who did not. But she did hear the ear-splitting shots, the quick bursts of machine-gun fire. Then a silence — echoed now on the beach — descended on the scene. And she ran, as one who was the top runner in her class. She did not understand the Hebrew curses shouted behind her as she flew through the scrub and made it to the old school, now empty and desolate, on the eastern side of the graveyard. Shivering with fear, she curled herself into a ball, crouching in what must have been the storage part of the school, and found a small aperture through which she could see a limited view of the outside world.
Later she learned that the noises she heard were the vehicles that transferred the women and children from the village to a distant location. She still refused to leave her hideaway, and then saw what was now, fifty years later, so valuable in the eyes of a nagging Jewish student: the piling up of the bodies. Two huge pyres; but they were not set alight. The heaps were amassed by a group of villagers, most of whom she did not recognize, who were then shot and thrown on top of the corpses. The vision seared itself into her mind, and she never let it go.
Musalem Awad was the only practicing Palestinian historian in Israel who had a permanent post in a university. He was also Yaacov’s supervisor, and had been interested for years in the 1948 catastrophe, particularly in the war crimes committed in the coastal area. Yet he never dared to write about it himself and felt uneasy when he assigned it to Yaacov.
Musalem was a conservative historian, believing in hard facts as the core material for telling the story of the past. Such evidence, he believed, had been brought to him by Yaacov. Here was the explicit documentation of atrocities that he was looking for. Yaacov had found the documents, not in the military archives whose directors were economical about such truths, but in his cousin’s house. The material was so hot that Musalem became obsessed with it to the point of unconsciously using his student as an extension of his own mind.
The massacres on the coast had never been admitted by Israel, and international historiography did not mention them. “Let’s face it,” Musalem would say, “there is no conclusive evidence.” A declaration that got him into trouble with the less professional, but more politically committed, Palestinian literati and pundits in the country who wrote about the past.
In Fatima’s village, survivors of the massacre — a few women and those who were under thirteen at the time — told Palestinian historians they had only heard shots, but had never seen anyone killed, and that the buses had taken them deep into Jordan, where they waited in vain to be reunited with husbands, brothers, sons, cousins and friends. Fatima missed the bus convoy and was adopted by her relatives in a nearby village, where she found refuge after the soldiers left her own village and before Jewish settlers took over the remaining houses and built their kibbutz, beach resort and parking lot, covering the scene of that dreadful day.
By the time he was half-way through the material in his cousin’s attic Yaacov knew he had hit a gold mine. “More like a minefield,” retorted his cousin Yigal. He could not understand Yaacov’s excitement: why did he care about a bunch of old diaries left behind by his wife’s father? The father had been an officer in the units that carried out military operations along the Palestine coast in May 1948. One of the entries detailed the frenzied events that ended with the slaughter of all the men and male teenagers in Fatima’s village. A manic deputy commander, a very harsh battle the day before, and above all, the atypical decision of the villagers to stay and not run, as was usual in the hundreds of villages the troops had entered. Why he had recorded the description in his diary was a question that did not bother Yaacov for long. It was there, it was hot, and even ‘sexy,’ he told Yigal, and he hastened not only to Musalem, but also to the press.
The very marginal space accorded to the story was enough to produce an extraordinary litany of confessions and testimonies about the atrocities committed by the Israelis in the 1948 war. Massacres were revealed, tales of rape and loot were exposed, and the at first confident and condescending official Israeli response was soon replaced by indignation, panic, and in some more thoughtful Israeli circles, remorse.
It was Musalem’s ingenious idea that led Yaacov to enlist Palestinian legal aid, with the aim of demanding the exhumation of the graves in five villages along the coast where the same army unit had seemed to copycat the original massacre of Fatima’s village in succeeding months. A group of young, professional and articulate lawyers filed the suit and made sure the world knew about it. The initial rebuttal became a public embarrassment. The army, used to dealing with Palestinians by force and firepower, felt somewhat helpless. Everyone now looked to the east, to the holy city of Jerusalem, where the Supreme Court of the land was asked to resolve the issue.
The Supreme Court, always the window of the state and reflector of its guilt complexes, ruled that in only one site, Fatima’s village, would exhumation take place, and another decision would then be taken on the matter. Should the allegation turn out to be false, no further action would follow. However, if mass graves were found, the court would reconvene to discuss its next move.
The year 1948 never looked more menacing to the Jewish society as it did in those days of potential exhumation — some Palestinians even called it resurrection — of the victims of massacre and war crimes. The Independence War, the war of liberation, that miraculous war that was regarded as the emblem of Jewish valor and moral superiority, suddenly seemed tainted by suspicion and discomfiture. It could even lead to pressure on Israel to accept responsibility for the ethnic cleansing within which these particular killings took place, and lend credence to the demand for the right of return, voiced for years by the millions of refugees crammed into camps since their expulsion.
The new triangular building of the Israeli Supreme Court reminded Fatima of a Crusader castle she had seen in one of the many albums that Ali collected obsessively. She was highly impressed, though, with the clinical cleanliness and polish of the long corridors that criss-crossed one another with alarming multiplicity. Musalem navigated her safely into courtroom C, where three distinguished judges were to rule on the question of exhumation.
A strange mix of people made up the crowd that day. Old men and women like her, some recognizable, some not, from the villages were compressed into the back seats and looked bewildered by the occasion. Another elderly group was of Jewish war veterans. To Fatima, they seemed to be clones of one person, the then Prime Minister: obese, white-haired, yet with round youthful faces. The media made up the rest, many of them equipped with the high-tech paraphernalia that went with the latest version of the information superhighway.
The session was amazingly brief, almost record-breaking, in terms of the usual slow turning of the Israeli wheels of justice. The pleasant and handsome advocate, Youssuf al-Jani, presented the demand. The equally personable representative of the state replied, and the chair of the session, who was the president of the Supreme Court, suggested that “before we all sink into an endless and useless long trial, we may have found a way out of this muddle.”
Musalem and Yaacov looked baffled. This was not what they expected. Their surprise grew when the president, instead of calling for witnesses or opening speeches, requested the lawyers on both sides to join him in his chambers.
Fatima moved slowly toward the local cafeteria, where she was hardly rewarded by a stale cake and murky coffee. Fifteen minutes later they were joined by the lawyer and the professor. “Good news,” radiated Musalem. “They will allow — in fact they will order — an exhumation of the graves in your village, and if bodies are found then the graves in the rest of the villages will be dug as well.”
Fatima did not smile, and Yaacov suddenly realized why.
Fatima’s cottage was at the very end of the eastern slopes of the ancient mountain. Her husband’s clan owned all the houses in that corner. It was simple but very welcoming. The door was immaculately white — Fatima had lost faith in the protective blue shields of the past, and did not bother with a proper lock even when crime soared in a community that had been impoverished and marginalized for years since it was occupied in 1948.
Yaacov twisted his lean body into a chair that seemed meant for toddlers rather than grown-ups, but he preferred to sit there, in a kind of an apologetic posture of someone who was conscious of having intruded into another’s private space, in an unpleasant reminder of the past.
He was impatient, but knew he had to wait till Fatima returned from the kitchen. He glanced momentarily at Ali, but lowered his eyes, preferring to sit still. The table was laid with traditional salads, tastier than the food in the ‘oriental’ restaurants, as Palestinian restaurants were called in Israel. He was frugal with food that he usually devoured greedily, and could not control the tapping of his feet.
Finally he found the courage to look directly at Fatima’s face. “I listened to the tape … the one in which you talk.” Fatima dropped her eyes. Here it comes, she thought. “I listened again and again. You say they piled the bodies, you never said they dug in the bodies. Did they dig holes? Did they throw the bodies into a mass grave”? Fatima did not answer. Ali seemed to awake from a dream or a nap:
“Did they, Mama?”
Of course they did not, but why should she tell this, her secret, to Yaacov; and what would happen to her beloved Ali if it all came out? The bulldozers needed only five to ten minutes to move the bodies into lorries, and Fatima, the best runner in her class, had followed them. Three miles she ran, and nearly collapsed, but then the vehicles stopped and the roaring bulldozers came in behind them. They excavated huge holes in the ground and shoveled the bodies into them, tidying the ground by running over it back and forth, back and forth. Years later, she found that they had planted pine trees over it, and the woods were named after the unit that had occupied her village and in memory of its own casualties in the conflict. Such pine trees became the recognized symbol of the recreation areas built over the ruined Palestinian villages of 1948.
If she wanted, she could take Ali and Yaacov there now, but why should she? Ali had the unnerving habit of reading her mind.
“They moved them, ah ya Mama? Where to?”
She knew that if she spoke a local Arabic dialect quickly, Yaacov would not understand. She was about to repeat to Ali the worst case scenario that would unfold if they went on with this episode. But Yaacov interrupted:
“You know where the bodies are, don’t you, and worse?” He was now talking to himself. “The army and the Supreme Court knew that they are not in the graveyard. They will come tomorrow, excavate the graveyard and show us as fantasy people, don’t you see, we have to take the media to the right place.”
He meant to go on and explain the historical, indeed the political, significance of the whole affair, but he felt emotionally depleted and look desperately at Ali for salvation.
She had not heard those loudspeakers for years. The last time was in the early 1950s when the villages were under strict military rule, and the jeep would roll into the narrow alleyways and order everyone to stay home till the end of the curfew. It was the same Iraqi accent as years ago. Even before Yaacov sank back into his squeezed space of a chair, the loudspeaker penetrated the air.
“All the good citizens are asked to stay in their homes; a curfew is in place; anyone found outside will be shot”.
Ali was the first to spell out what was going on outside Fatima’s humble cottage. The Israeli army had encircled the village — against Fatima? Probably not, but just to make sure that the excavation would not be interrupted. It seemed that the well-publicized ceremony had been brought forward, that they wanted to finish that night and were determined no Arab would disturb them. They did not know that Fatima knew — and was terrified.
Ali, on the other hand, felt triumphant. He was willing to sit a whole year, confined to his mother’s home, and then to lead the journalists to the right spot and shame the Israelis. Fatima also seemed suddenly determined:
“Yalla, let’s go now”.
“We can’t, ya Mama”, Ali laughed nervously. “There is a curfew. Don’t worry, tomorrow, or next week, or next month, no hurry”.
“I am going,” she said.
“La ya Mama,” he beseeched her.
But she was heading to the door. Ali would never dare to obstruct her bodily, but Yaacov now tried. She nearly knocked over the lean student on her way out, but he was no obstacle. She needed to finish this business for once and for all.
The air outside was cool and pleasant and Fatima marched steadily, not looking back, believing that the two young men were behind her. In fact she was alone, a sole figure crossing the dark, dimly lit village square, when shouts of “Stop, or I shoot,” overtook her.
“Aha,” she smiled to herself, “but I am the top runner of my class,” and she felt as if wings elevated her, allowed her to hover above the air in a realm remote from the bullets fired at her.
Yaacov could not bear to participate in the funeral. He stood some distance away from the graveyard, leaning against a lone pine tree outside the grove that had been planted over a small mound three miles from Fatima’s village, in memory of the brave soldiers who liberated Israel.
Ilan Pappe is senior lecturer in the University of Haifa Department of political Science and Chair of the Emil Touma Institute for Palestinian Studies in Haifa. His books include, among others, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (London and New York 1992), The Israel/Palestine Question (London and New York 1999), A History of Modern Palestine (Cambridge 2003), The Modern Middle East (London and New York 2005) and his latest, Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006).