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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Palestinians struggle to keep Nakba memories alive in Tantura

A crumbling stone structure nestles on the beach. Its arched entrance and carefully laid stones hint at a grander past but the building looks out onto the Mediterranean alone. There is little to suggest that it was once part of a thriving fishing village in what was then northern Palestine.

It’s one of the only remaining structures of Tantura, a village once home to 1500 people about 24 kilometers south of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.

“Here we find the harbour,” recalled Abu Jamil Masri who grew up in the village. “The boats used to go fishing for sardines.”

The 84-year-old walked carefully towards the beach, his cane steadying him as he recounted childhood memories.

Seventy years ago this month, the residents of Tantura were forced to flee their homes as part of the Nakba, or the catastrophe. With each passing year, the memories of what Tantura and Palestine were was once like fade. Masri is one of the few people left who still remembers life in the village, but others are working to preserve his memories.

Abu Jamil, 84, sits in the remnants of the Palestinian village of Tantura. Willy Lowry / The National
Abu Jamil, 84, sits in the remnants of the Palestinian village of Tantura. Willy Lowry / The National

“What to tell you? It’s hard to express,” Masri said nostalgically. “During the harvesting season, they would plough the land, like this, form a furrow to throw in the seeds. The produce of watermelon was bountiful, 20 to 25 kilos each.”

Masri’s childhood came to an abrupt end. Late in the night on May 22 1948, Israeli soldiers known as the Haganah came to Tantura.

The village was in the area that the UN's partition plan had designated for an Israeli state. Moreover, Tantura lay on the strategic road between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The Israeli government had decided to expel or subdue the villagers.

“There was a commotion I asked my friend what this was all about,” said Masri. “He told me we are being attacked by the insurgents, then I prayed.”

Masri say the soldiers killed unarmed villagers. He said his father and brother were among the dead.

The story of Tantura is complicated and disputed. In many ways it is a microcosm of what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba. According to the surviving Tantura residents, they were victims of unprovoked Israeli aggression. But the Israelis say that anyone who died there was killed as a result of fighting.

According to an article published in the New York Times on May 24, 1948, Tantura was a key weapons smuggling point for Palestinians and one of the last Palestinian strongholds along the strategic coast road. The article quoted an Israeli communique issued after the village fell. “Hundreds of Arabs and a large quantity of booty fell into our hands,” it read.

Masri doesn’t remember much more from that night, he says, hit on the head and left unconscious for much of it. The next morning he was put on a bus and sent to the nearby village of Fureidis, where he still resides.

What is not in dispute is that during that night all the residents of Tantura fled. They have never returned to live there.

In the immediate aftermath of the founding of Israel, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homeland. At the time there were 64 Palestinian villages along the coast from Jaffa to Haifa, including Tantura. Today there are only two left.

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The violence against Palestinians in Tantura was more severe than nearly anywhere else. "According to what I know, Tantura was the second place in the number of people that were killed,” said Teddy Katz, one of the first Israelis to research the recent history of Tantura.

After an Israeli newspaper published some of Katz’s findings in 2000, Israeli veterans who fought in Tantura sued him for libel, forcing him to retract his master's thesis.

But today Katz is adamant that something terrible happened in the small village.

He’s not alone.

Jihad abu Raya and his wife Hazzar run a small palestinian NGO called Falestaniyat, which documents the events of 1948.

“Fear and horror discouraged people from talking about these matters,” said Abu Raya. "[But] we have managed to obtain some people’s responses and extract some of these stories to document and ­­­present them at Palestinian activities and events.”

Every year on the anniversary of the fall of Tantura they organize a march. Most of the surviving townspeople live in exile in Syria and beyond but Falestaniyat brings back as many as possible.

Abu Jamil Masri will be there this year. He’s one of the few left still living near Tantura.

But with each passing year there are fewer in attendance.

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