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‘Memoricide’: Zionism’s deletion of Palestinian memory 

February 29, 2024 at 3:45 pm

A girl passes by graffiti referring to the Nakba on a damaged house in Jenin, Occupied West Bank on December 31, 2023 [Maja Hitij/Getty Images]

While pursuing my Master’s degree in international relations, I took an advanced course on Palestine and Israel, arguably the most important course I have ever taken. In one of the classes, our Jewish lecturer taught us about “memoricide” and, ever since that fateful day, this word has stood like a monolith in my mind draped with its haunting and harrowing context.

The word itself was coined by Croatian Dr Miro Grmek in 1991, but was made popular by historian Professor Ilan Pappe, a persistent critic of Israel. According to the latter, memoricide is the erasure of the history of one people in order to write that of another people’s over it. History is full of countless genocides, pogroms and massacres; it is also replete with instances where an oppressor deleted the memory/history of the oppressed as if it was no more than an unwanted photograph on social media.

Memoricide primarily includes the destruction of physical property such as religious buildings, schools, houses, graveyards, statues and suchlike in an attempt to erase the former inhabitants’ history

However, it has other, more subtle, but equally iniquitous dimensions, such as renaming places like valleys, towns, streets and rivers. This is done so that the land will reflect the culture of the oppressor while the oppressed people’s memory fades away. Such egregious stratagems were leveraged by the Zionist machinery in Palestine and have today become the most infamous examples of memoricide.

Before Israel’s creation in 1948

Toponymy is the process of naming geographical locations. Naming and renaming places has historically been leveraged by the triumphant to mark their claim on the land, assert political power and whitewash the past. Professor Nur Masalha said that toponymic and remapping projects were “deployed extensively and destructively by the European colonial powers and European settler colonial movements.” In the context of Palestine, this kind of project has been utilised by the Zionists since even before Israel was created in 1948. Before its declaration of independence, many Palestinian territories were bought, destroyed, seized or depopulated by Jewish settlers who had migrated primarily from Europe. One of the earliest examples of this was Petah Tikva, the first Zionist settlement in Palestine that was established on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Mlabbis. The land was bought by Jewish settlers from two absentee Arab landlords (a deliberate practice) which led to Arab farmers being evicted. This Jewish settlement, established in the late 1880s, was hailed as the “Mother of the Colonies” by Jews and derives its name from the Book of Hosea in the Hebrew Bible.

This was just the beginning. During the British Mandatory period in Palestine (1920-1948) which followed Ottoman rule, this process of buying or destroying/capturing Palestinian land and the subsequent Hebraization of place names was expedited. The Rothschild family and others were particularly important in augmenting the Jewish settler project throughout Palestine. Zionist terrorist groups such as the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi (the Stern Gang) were instrumental in massacring Palestinians, destroying villages and towns, and forcing the Palestinian Arabs off their land.

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In the 1920s, a Zionist renaming/toponymic project was initiated called the Committee for Hebrew Names. Its job was to assign Hebrew or Biblical names to Jewish settlements. This endeavour would eventually pave the way for a Hebrew map of Israel in 1948. Basem L Raad deliberate that these renaming processes were “were fabricated by creating arbitrary Biblical connections or by ‘translating’ into Hebrew local Arabic place names for topographic features that are descriptive and have no religious or historical association.” In other words, due to the lack of towns and villages conceivably linked to Biblical or Jewish narratives, the Zionist machinery created artificial Biblical associations to places. Even Jewish scholars and academics were part of this fraudulent process by claiming that Arabic names of places were distortions and Hebrew renaming was a restoration. “Engagement in nationalist mobilisation by using the Bible and myth-making through spurious scholarly activity involves a large number of Israeli academics and social scientists…” This was all done as a nation-building exercise and to “prove” the Jewishness of the land.

In the 1920s, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) purchased Wadi Al-Hawarith from absentee Arab landlords leading, again, to the eviction of many Arab farmers. A Jewish settlement by the name of Kfar Haro’e was founded there and the valley itself was renamed as Emek Hefer (Hefer Valley). At times, the Zionists would simply translate Arabic names into Hebrew.

Moshe Dayan, Israel’s former defence minister, said in 1969: “We came to a… land that was inhabited by Arabs, and we set up a Jewish state. In a considerable number of places, we purchased the land from Arabs and set up Jewish villages where there had once been Arab villages. You don’t even know the names [of those Arab villages] … because those geography books aren’t around anymore. Not only the books, the villages aren’t around. Nahalal was established in the place of Mahalul, and Gvat was established in the place of Jibta… There isn’t any place that was established in an area where there had not at one time been an Arab settlement.”

The Nakba 

In 1947-48, a bloody war broke out between Arabs and Jews in Mandatory Palestine due to the UN Partition Plan. The British ended the mandate early and left, and Israel was born. For the Palestinians, this was the Nakba (Catastrophe). Over 700,000 Palestinians, around half of the Arab population in Mandatory Palestine, were expelled or fled due to the dread caused by Israeli terrorist groups and later the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Between 400 and 600 Arab villages were destroyed.

There were numerous massacres of the Palestinians during this time. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, Zionist forces carried out 24 massacres which killed around 800 Arabs. A popular 1992 study conducted by Palestinian field academics, noted that hundreds of Arab villages were destroyed by the Israelis during the Nakba within the 1949 armistice lines. Out of the 418 depopulated villages that the team visited, 70 per cent were completely destroyed while 22 per cent were largely destroyed. Using documents in Israel’s State Archive, Morris and Benjamin Kader revealed that Israel also surreptitiously used biological weapons against the Palestinian Arabs in 1948. There was a systematic campaign approved, it is alleged, by first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that was intended to poison wells and spread typhoid bacteria in Arab villages and towns to scare the locals away from their land.

One of the most egregious attacks on the Palestinians was the Deir Yassin massacre by the Irgun and Lehi. In April 1948, around 120 fighters from both groups massacred hundreds of Palestinians including women and children. The memoricide of this specific tragedy was that atop the destroyed and depopulated village of Deir Yassin, the Jewish neighbourhood of Givat Shaul Bet was built in 1949, which is now a part of Har Rof, home to around 20,000 Jews today. Other village massacres included Saliha where 70-80 Arabs were killed before the village was completely depopulated. Most of the built structures of Saliha were also destroyed. Today, Israeli farmers live there along with the Jewish localities of Avivim and Yir’on. Abu Shusha, another Arab village, was also the scene of a bloody massacre in 1948. Around 70 people were killed by the Zionists after which the Israeli settlements of Ameilim-Karmei Yosef and Pedaya were established in 1948 and 1951 respectively on village land. Later, the Israel Land Administration pushed for the destruction of the remains of the village under a government drive to clear all such Arab village remnants. This was done because they were regarded by Israel as “a blot on the landscape”. In his 2008 work, S. Yaqin notes that since Israel’s inception, the ongoing Zionist war involves eliminating and distorting everything non-Jewish as well as destroying archaeological sites. He asserts that this is tantamount to historical forgery.

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The movement to Hebraise toponyms endured post-1948. “We have to get rid of the Arab names for political reasons,” said Ben-Gurion, “because we do not recognise the Arab possession of this country, neither their spiritual possession nor their names.” He also said in his memoirs: “It is important to give these places old Hebrew names. If they are not available, new names should be given.” The Negev Names Committee was formed in 1949 and tasked with Hebraising the names of places in the Negev.

Muhammad Amara wrote that the Committee for Hebrew Names and Negev Names Committee were amalgamated to form the Names Committee in 1951. The committee consisted of historians, Knesset members, geographers and archaeologists, demonstrating that academics were not working in isolation to commit memoricide but were supported by the Israeli government. The committee’s main task was to assign names to new places in Israel. As before, the priority was to use Biblical or historical Hebrew names to reinforce the perceived Israeli settlers’ religious link to the land of Israel. As mentioned above, this Biblical toponymic practice was laden with controversy. In his book Sacred Landscape, the Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti reiterates that when the Zionists were forging their map of Israel, only a small amount of toponyms could be conceivably linked to the Bible, so the renaming became a more artificial and arbitrary practice. This included sometimes picking Biblical names randomly and assigning them to Palestinian villages or translating indigenous Arabic toponyms into Hebrew to give the illusion that these were always thus.

The accurate identification of Biblical place-names is an extremely perplexing task as many Bible scholars will reveal. To put things into context, the renowned Bible archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni created a Biblical atlas with around 1,400 toponyms, out of which he identified only 101 names as “probable”, 13 as “doubtful”, and 124 as having no genuine identification.

Since there are a plethora of examples of renaming Palestinian places, I will reproduce some entries from Professor Nur Masalah’s journal article below.

Palestinian villages and place names depopulated before or in 1948 Israeli settlements with toponyms derived from the names of destroyed Palestinian villages
Lubya depopulated July 1948, Arabic: Bean Lavi (kibbutz); founded 1948; Hebrew: lion
Sajara (lower Galilee); depopulated July 1948, Arabic: tree Ilaniya, Hebrew: tree
Jabal Dibba (Naqab); Arabic: Hump Hill Har Dla‘at; Hebrew: Mount Pumpkin.
Biriyya; depopulated on 2 May1948 Birya (moshav); founded in 1971
Al-Majdal (a coastal town in the south); depopulated between November and June 1950 Israeli city; renamed to the Hebrew-sounding Migdal ‘Ad in 1949 and subsequently to the Biblically sounding Ashkelon
‘Ayn Zaytun (Western Galilee) depopulated, Arabic Spring of Olives ‘Ein Zeitim (kibbutz). Hebrew: Spring of Olives, originally founded in 1891 north of the Arab village

‘Ayn Zeitun; abandoned during the First World War; Six Muslims and one Jew were recorded there in 1931, living in four houses; the Jewish settlement was re-established in 1946

Indur (Ibn Amer valley), depopulated in 1948. Arabic toponym possibly preserves Canaanite site: Endor Ein Dor (kibbutz) founded 1948: Hebrew: Dor Spring
Al-Mujaydil (village) depopulated in July 1948 Migdal HaEmek (town) founded in 1952; Hebrew: Tower of the Valley
Eshwa, or Ishwa, depopulated in July 1948 Eshtaol (moshav); founded December 1949
Kafr Bir’im (northern Galilee) depopulated in October 1948; Arabic: Budding Village Bar’am (kibbutz); established in June 1949; Hebrew: Son of the People
Wadi Sarar or Wadi Surar (west of Jerusalem; Arabic: Pebble Stream) Nahal Sorek; Nahal Sorek Nature Reserve created in 1965. Hebrew: Stream of fruitless tree derived from the Arabic toponym made to sound like a name from the Midrash, the body of exegesis of the Torah
Seil Imran (Naqab); Arabic Stream of Imran Nahal Amram; Hebrew: Stream of Amram recalling the Biblical name of the father of Moses and Aaron
Al-Khadra, or al-Khdeira (central Palestine): Arabic: the Green Hadera; established in 1891 as a Zionist farming colony; today a major Israeli city; Israeli toponym makes no sense in Hebrew

Palestinian geographer Shukri Arraf’s 1992 study reveals that around 2,780 locations had their names changed, including 340 villages and towns, 380 springs, 14 pools and lakes, 1,000 Khirabat, 50 caves, 28 palaces and castles, 198 mountains and hills, as well as 560 rivers and wadis.

1967 Onwards

In 1967, the Six Day War ended with Israel occupying the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip: the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel changed road signs to erase Palestinian memory. Furthermore, its fixation with renaming places in a Biblical light remained unsatiated. Jerusalem, or Al-Quds in Arabic, became Yerushalayim (as it appears in the Bible); Nazareth, Al-Nasra in Arabic, which currently has a 70 per cent Muslim population, became Natzrat. Authors Cohen and Kliot wrote that Biblical atlases are “replete with… Biblical settlements whose identification and location is not certain” but despite such topographical ambiguities, Israeli settlements adopted Biblical names, especially in the post-1967 Occupied West Bank. Examples include Eilon Moreh, Noama, Hadasha and Gilgal. Furthermore, beginning in 1965 the Israel Land Administration’s plan to demolish the remnants in the Arab villages (from 1948) was also extended to the Occupied Territories.

Israel also continued a pre-independence exercise of afforestation which is an integral part of its memoricide playbook. The Palestinian village of Imwas was captured in the 1967 war by Israel and was subsequently demolished. Today, its remains, as is the case with many others, are buried under non-native oak and eucalyptus trees as part of the Ayalon Canada Park. This was done to hide Palestinian memory, or perhaps to cover Zionist guilt; or both. Afforestation efforts continue today with the JNF and others spearheading green space and national parks projects. Nur Masalha said that the JNF planted thousands of acres of pine forests around Jerusalem to “to camouflage destroyed Palestinian villages and fashion in a new pastoral ‘Biblical landscape’.” Moreover, author Noga Kadman added that “[Parks’ authorities] ignore the villages altogether” when intending to obfuscate Palestinian history.


The Nakba is an ongoing process and it did not end in 1948. The world is a witness in real time on social media to the violations of international laws and conventions that the Israelis are still committing in Palestine, whether it is the current genocide in the panoptic prison that is Gaza; the countless incursions and war crimes across the Occupied Territories; the illegal and covetous Israeli settlements in the West Bank; or the continued bulldozing and afforestation efforts to dissimulate Palestinian history.

Initially, to create a Jewish homeland the Zionists embarked on a path of genocide, terrorism and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. However, to foster an identity and narrative of a purely Jewish nation inexorably linked to God, they also embarked on a Biblical whitewash of Palestinian memory through bulldozing, destruction, afforestation and toponymic changes. The only thing that has halted the complete realisation of this insidious memoricide plan is the indefatigable spirit of the Palestinian people.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.