I first visited Israel and the West Bank in late 2010. I soon realized that any understanding of the region would have to begin with an inquiry into the defining moment in its history: the Arab–Israeli War of 1948, which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel. The war and its aftermath led to the depopulation of more than 450 Palestinian towns and villages and the flight of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians to neighboring countries, refugee camps, and areas under Israeli military rule. It was, in effect, the dissolution of Palestinian society, and has left a wound that has never healed.
Anyone wishing to learn about the region, and certainly anyone intending to spend time there, must understand more about the legacy of that war and its long-term effects on a divided society. Traveling between Israel and the Palestinian villages of the Occupied Territories, I talked to the older generation of both Arab and Israeli men who had been combatants in the war, but who had, in many cases, prior to the hostilities lived together as neighbors, even speaking one another’s language. Hearing their experiences, I was curious to see what the spaces and battlegrounds they spoke of looked like, and what might remain there.
Over the following months, I visited dozens of villages that had been evacuated in 1948. Initially imagining that some signs of their history would be apparent, and that the latent past would spring to life, I often found that, in fact, clues were hard to discover, and time and again the traces of former inhabitation and historical events were difficult to find. The sites were rarely formally acknowledged, either on maps or signs, as former Palestinian villages. Often, it was only after long walks through the countryside that I found the site of a village, with what I had read about its history infusing its ruins. In many cases, it was the vegetation typical of Palestinian settlement—the cacti that forms the natural protective fence around the village, or the varieties of trees and shrubs: almond, pomegranate, olive, and citrus—that identified the spot. Many villages had been razed to the ground and the rubble scattered or removed. Others had been repurposed, appropriated, newly inhabited, or rendered inaccessible within closed military zones or forests planted on the site to obscure what lay beneath.
During my research, I came upon an old British Mandate era map that had been used in the time after the founding of the state. Beneath each of the villages that had been depopulated and demolished, the word “destroyed” had been printed in Hebrew in purple ink. As the new Israeli government gained its footing, a Naming Committee was set up, initially as an endeavor of the Jewish National Fund, which employed cartographers, archeologists, and historians to fashion a new Hebraized map that offered the country a new history to build upon.
This book is an attempt to recognize and respect the history of that period, and to acknowledge the traumatic effects of its legacy. As I worked, I often felt as if I was functioning as a kind of conduit, finding and visiting sites of upheaval, combat, and even massacre, which had been depopulated during the war and its aftermath, then moving across the border—both physical and psychological—to the Arab–Israeli towns of Israel and into the Occupied Territories, searching for villagers who had fled in 1948. Most of those I talked to had never been back to their homes or villages. When I reached the elders, now in their 80s, 90s, and even some over 100, they shared memories of their former homes, and pointed out landmarks or special places they wished me to look for—and sometimes to photograph for them. In recounting the events of that time, they did so with an accuracy and emotion that brought the scenes back to life in vivid detail. As the generation of witnesses to the events of ’48 begins to pass away, so, too, the sites, the vestiges of their homes and villages are fading, subsumed into the landscape, vanishing from both view and consciousness.