The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II scarred American history for years to come.
Now, a new research paper argues that Palestinians share a similar traumatic experience. Pointing to a barely discussed chapter in the history of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the paper highlights a time when the fledgling Jewish state interned more than 6,000 Palestinian citizens without charge in camps across the country.
The descriptions included in the research paper, which was published in the summer volume of the Journal of Palestine Studies, are chilling: arbitrary arrests of civilians who were jailed in prisons described as “concentration camps” and subjected to torture, hardship, food deprivation and forced labor. The references made in the study to Nazi camps are not coincidental.
“It is amazing to me, and many Europeans, who have seen my evidence,” the study’s co-author Salman Abu Sitta, told the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, “that a forced labor camp was opened in Palestine three years after they were closed in Germany, and [was] run by former prisoners. There were German Jewish guards.”
But just like almost every other episode in the history of the Israeli–Arab conflict, the new study also quickly played into the battle of historic narratives waged between both sides. What Palestinians view as a new revelation of Israeli atrocities that included concentration camps and unlawful internment of innocent civilians is seen by Israelis as no more than a known and acknowledged, if little examined, chapter in Israeli history in which prisoners of war were held in internationally recognized camps under Red Cross supervision, and in accordance with all practices and rules set by the Geneva Convention. The allegations of “torture,” they point out, come not from the Red Cross’s reports but from oral testimonies that Abu Sitta and his co-author, Terry Rempel, gathered from internees many decades after the fact.
“We all know that there were cases of massacre, that there were expulsions and so forth. Why do you need this addition? How does this insignificant chapter help the Arab sense of catastrophe?” asked Alon Kadish, a professor of history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who argued that the new research is merely an attempt to “amplify the calamity” without offering any new facts.
“An easy way to silence a scandal is to say that it’s not new and was investigated in the past,” responded Ariella Azoulay of Brown University, whose book “From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947–1950” documented some of the camps used by Israel to hold Palestinians during the war. “It was investigated a bit in the past and is known, but that is too little for a crime of this magnitude.”
Abu Sitta is a Palestinian scholar based in London whose research is focused on Palestinian refugees. Rempel is a founding member of BADIL, a resource center on issues relating to rights of Palestinian refugees.
Their research is based on documents from the Red Cross archives that include reports and correspondence from the organization’s representatives who visited the camps, and on interviews conducted with former detainees. The reports and testimonies paint a troubling picture of innocent civilians thrown into camps in subhuman conditions and forced to work for their captors.
“We had to cut and carry stones all day [in a quarry]. Our daily food was only one potato in the morning and half-dried fish at night. They beat anyone who disobeyed orders,” Marwan Iqab al-Yehiya, a former prisoner, told the authors. He added that detainees were “lined up and ordered to strip naked as a punishment for the escape of two prisoners at night.”
Another inmate, Tewfic Ahmed Jum’a Ghanim, said: “Anyone who refused to work was shot. They said [the person] tried to escape.” According to Ghanim, the Palestinians’ pervasive fear of being shot by their guards led them to alter the basic nature of their own movements. “Those of us who thought [we] were going to be killed walked backward, facing the guards,” he said.
The focus of the study’s research was on the way the Red Cross dealt with the POW situation. The authors conclude that “in the last analysis, Israel was able to ignore with impunity” any complaints the Red Cross raised, “thanks to the diplomatic cover of major Western powers.”
The treatment of Arab civilians concerned Israeli leaders from early days of the nation’s War of Independence, even before statehood was declared on May 14, 1948. In the early months of the war, waged between Jewish and Arab paramilitary groups sharing the land of Palestine under British mandate, both sides, for the most part, did all they could to avoid the burden of prisoners — whether this meant simply killing those they captured or leaving them be if they were judged to be no immediate threat.
But once Israel became a state with an organized military force, it changed its policy for dealing with local Palestinian civilians found in combat zones. Some were expelled, creating one of the most contentious and sensitive chapters of the War of Independence. But in many cases the order was to take all able-bodied men as prisoners, out of fear that if left behind, they’d join the fight against Israeli forces.
The prisoners were held in five camps: Ijlil, near Tel Aviv; Atlit, south of Haifa, and three smaller camps, all in central Israel. The camps were set up in haste, in some cases, such as Atlit, utilizing former British prisons that had been used in the past to confine illegal Jewish immigrants. In other cases, Israel built makeshift tent cities surrounded with barbed wire. In addition, there were several temporary camps in the front lines, used to hold prisoners before they were transferred to the permanent installations.
Treatment of POWs was determined by the highest ranks of Israel’s leadership, including Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The Israelis were careful to inform the Red Cross whenever Palestinian civilians were imprisoned, and allowed Red Cross officials to visit and document the camps.
In the camps, prisoners were sent to work. Some labored on Jewish farms and factories that had lost their working hands when the war broke out. Others were sent to work building and reinforcing military and government facilities. In principle, going out to labor was voluntary. But most prisoners joined, mainly because it promised them a larger food ration and minimal wages.
At their peak, the camps held, according to Israeli and Red Cross records, 6,300 prisoners. Most were civilians living in villages and towns taken over by Israel. A minority were enemy combatants from Arab countries. On average, most spent less than a year in the camps, which were largely emptied by 1950. But a few prisoners were moved to prisons and held — without charge — for longer, some until 1955.
There is little dispute about these facts. But when it comes to their interpretation, Israelis and Palestinians paint two different pictures. The diverging terminology and context provide opposite stories of what happened to thousands of Palestinian civilians during the war.
Abu Sitta and Rempel, in their study, view the episode as an Israeli attempt to humiliate Palestinians and eventually facilitate ethnic cleansing of the land.
Both authors declined to be interviewed for this article.
Writing in the liberal Haaretz daily, columnist Amira Hass described a “nightmare question” about the role played by Holocaust survivors in allegedly torturing Palestinian POWs. “Whether they were German Jews or not, forcing prisoners to line up naked and using boots on those who fall are part of the family histories of many of us, but from the other side,” she wrote.
For Israelis, however, this historic episode represents an entirely different story.
Aaron J. Klein, an Israeli historian and author, said he was shocked to read the new study. Klein had researched the very same issue in the late 1990s for his master’s thesis at the Hebrew University. A version of it was later published in a collection of works on the War of Independence, edited by Kadish. Klein said the new study adds nothing to the facts already revealed and published in his thesis. He described himself as “disgusted” by the attempt to describe Israeli POW camps as concentration camps. “This is an attempt to enlist another piece of history to the Palestinian narrative, but it isn’t serious,” Klein said.
His reading of the documents from the time paints a picture of an Israeli leadership eager to win international legitimacy by adhering to the Geneva Convention and working with the Red Cross. The civilians arrested by Israel were legally recognized as POWs; their internment conditions were no better or worse than those of all Israeli soldiers at the time, and working outside the camps was seen as beneficial to the inmates. “Whoever reads the reports sees that the Red Cross understood the circumstances and gave Israel, all in all, good grades.”
But much of the firsthand testimony gathered by Abu Sitta and Rempel more than six decades later starkly contradicts Klein’s account of the Red Cross reports.
“We were tortured,” Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Qadir Abu Sayf, a former internee told the researchers. He described a prison room with “a sandy floor to absorb blood and pus.”
“Many had broken teeth, hands and legs,” the ex-prisoner recalled. “Food consisted of one loaf for every 15 people, and one piece of vegetable floating in a big pot. In the early morning we were taken to work. They hit us on our heads to move. If one fell, they hit him with their boots…. Torture sometimes continued at night. More people came. They were picked up like us, in pastures or in lonely places.”
The Israeli researchers argued that it would be a mistake to give oral testimonies recorded 60 years after the events took place the same credibility as Red Cross reports that were documented and prepared in real time.
So why did this episode get lost in the broader picture of the tumultuous days of 1948?
In part, because of shame. As Abu Sitta states, Palestinian detainees felt their experience in the camps paled in comparison with the suffering of their fellow Arabs who lost their homes and, at times, their lives.
Israeli camp guards, according to Klein, were also reluctant to speak of their experience. The guard force was made up primarily of former members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang, two right-wing underground groups. The ruling Haganah leadership sidelined them to noncombat positions as POW guards. “They felt humiliated by not being included in the combat units,” Klein said.
But whether forgotten or not, authors of the new paper believe that the events surrounding the capture and internment of Palestinian noncombatants during the war can serve as an early indication of Israeli behavior, as seen by the Palestinians. “Gaza today,” Abu Sitta said, “is a concentration camp, no different than the past.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.