Seventy years ago this month, Lydd and Ramle suffered from the single largest eviction order during the Nakba, during which 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes by Zionist militias and nascent Israeli army. Over the period of a few days in July 1948, roughly 60,000 Palestinians from these towns (80 per cent of the local population) were made homeless by Israel; many died on the subsequent death march to the east.
Lydd and Ramle lie on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As such, they were considered important to Israel’s top strategists, who deemed them thorns in the side of their newly-founded state. After the Israeli army and militias swept into the towns, the fighting did not last long; however, the impact of the atrocities committed in 1948 is enduring.
I travelled to Lydd on the 70th anniversary of the Dahmash Mosque Massacre, which took place on 11 July 1948. Over a hundred people who had sought safety of the mosque were brutally murdered by artillery and machine-gun fire. In 2012, Yerachmiel Kahanovich, a former Palmach fighter, confessed to Zochrot, an Israeli NGO, that he fired a PIAT anti-tank grenade into the building, killing scores of innocent Palestinian civilians. The walls were scattered with blood, which was left, along with what remained of the bodies, for many days. These bodies, and others strewn around Lydd, were eventually buried in mass graves at two sites: the first lies beside a road now uncomfortably named after the Hebrew acronym of the Israel Defence Forces (Tzahal Street), the other is in the Muslim cemetery, located a few hundred metres west of the mosque.
G, a local whose family has lived in Lydd for centuries, said that it was the Dahmash Massacre, above all, that started the flight from the town: “It was enough… to make a massacre, a big dramatic killing, for people to think that it would happen again,” he told me.
The official eviction order was signed the following day by future Israeli Prime Minister and Noble Peace Prize Winner Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a Lieutenant-Colonel. According to his memoirs, which were censored by the Israeli authorities but were then leaked to the press, the ethnic cleansing of Lydd and Ramla came on the direct order of David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel. He is supposed to have gestured with a wave of his hand that the Palestinian population should be driven out.
By 13 July, Israeli troops were busy expelling the inhabitants of Lydd and Ramle. According to G, orders were given for the people of Lydd to gather and to begin walking east to other Palestinian towns and villages. During the journey, they were taunted by soldiers who shouted “Go to Abdullah,” a reference to the Jordanian King.
G’s aunt was in the column of refugees who walked to Ramallah, 45km away, under the fierce July sun. Without sufficient water, many people died en route, including her three month old baby who was buried by the roadside.
Violence and looting were common on the death march. Ismail Shammout, later a renowned Palestinian artist but then a boy of twelve, recalled an incident in which an Israeli soldier put a gun to his head and ordered him to put down the water that he was drinking. Many of his paintings (most famously “Where to…?”) recall the collective trauma, suffering and desperation of those on the march.
The small number of people who had managed to remain in Lydd and Ramle were put in ghettoes. In Lydd there were two: one in the old city in the area around the mosque and the Greek Orthodox Church, the second by the railway station for the families of the railway workers who had been employed by the British during the mandate period.
Along with his father and the rest of his family, G’s father was forced to live in the crowded old city ghetto for almost two years after Israel’s attempt, in his words, “to eliminate Arab existence in the middle of Palestine”. The 503 people who lived there were not provided with anything by the occupying forces and many of their houses were appropriated and then leased to Jewish families. G drew on his father’s memories: “The military commander told them he was not responsible for any food and water,” he recalled. “And people started to starve.”
To alleviate this dire situation, the Palestinian community organised night-time foraging parties, which dug under the fence and searched houses in the vicinity for any remaining food. When the mosque’s water tank was exhausted, a well under the British missionaries’ building was used; its green, dirty water had to be boiled thoroughly to make it safe to drink.
Foaa, a resident of Lydd whose family was forcibly displaced from the Negev in the 1970s, underlined the importance of remembering the harrowing events of July 1948. “Under the Israeli school system,” she said, “no one at school teaches you about the history of this city.” Her generation of Palestinians was determined to learn about what happened in Lydd and Ramle. G agrees with Foaa’s indictment: “The Jewish Zionist education system is twisted. It works towards implanting in the students’ heads a fake history in order to justify the ethnic cleansing.”
One of the youth groups with which Foaa is involved is currently running a project called “Keep your eyes on your historical places” which seeks to teach about and protect the few historical buildings in Lydd that survived Israeli demolitions.
One of these ruins used to be the family-run Hazana oil press. A sign put up by the Israeli authorities on the outside of the building reads, “The Hazana family oil press worked until 1948” but offers no further comment or explanation about the killings and expulsions of July 1948 and the reasons for the closure of the building.
To commemorate the ethnic cleansing of Lydd, Foaa and other young members of the community will hold a meeting this week to discuss the events of July 1948. They hope to engage Elias Khoury, author of Children of the Ghetto – My Name is Adam, via Skype. His book is based largely on a child’s experiences of life in the ghetto at Lydd.
Foaa is also helping to research the story of the Nakba at Lydd for an upcoming book. She is confident that more local Palestinians now know Lydd’s history. “I now have hope because people my age… have more awareness than our parents did about the city and the history of the city.” Although most of their families originally come from different parts of Palestine, she stresses that they are “part of the Palestinian people, part of this [Lydd’s] story and part of the Nakba.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.