Before 1948, Tantura was a Palestinian coastal fishing village of 1,500 residents located just north of the Israeli town of Zichron Yaakov. As war threatened and conditions worsened for Palestinian residents, the wealthier fled to Haifa. About 1,200 remained to tend to their farmland. Because Tantura was located along the coastal highway connecting Tel Aviv to Haifa it was deemed a key strategic target to protect access between the two major Israeli cities. A week before the war began, historian Benny Morris writes that the Palmach decided to expel the residents of Tantura and several other nearby Palestinian villages. Two days later, according to Ilan Pappe’s account, David Ben Gurion implicitly urged them on in this task, reminding the Palmach to “focus on its primary task,” which was to ethnically cleanse the area and eliminate any possible security threats.
On May 23rd, the Palmach’s Alexandroni Brigade surrounded Tantura on three landward sides with infantry and a naval vessel prevented fishermen from escaping by sea. The soldiers were armed with machine guns and, though the town had agreed to surrender, they commenced an attack. Within hours the town was in Israeli hands and they encountered little resistance. 500 residents were taken prisoner.
Soldiers believed the villagers concealed weapons in their homes and began interrogating them. In order to pressure them into giving up the information, they began killing the civilians. When this did not have the desired effect, eyewitnesses say the soldiers became agitated and angry with the Palestinians. That led to a wholesale massacre:
Another combat soldier in the brigade, Micha Vitkon, talked about an officer “who in later years was a big man in the Defense Ministry. With his pistol he killed one Arab after another. He was a bit disturbed, and that was a symptom of his disturbance.” According to Vitkon, the soldier did what he did because the prisoners refused to divulge where they had hidden the remaining weapons in the village.
A conservative estimate says that over 50 were killed by Israeli forces. But another Israeli eyewitness claims even more died:
According to one testimony, provided by a resident of Zichron Yaakov who helped bury the victims, the number of dead exceeded 200, though this high figure does not have corroboration.
The troops also engaged in large-scale looting indicating a total lack of unit discipline.
One soldier forced people into a barrel and proceeded to shoot it till blood ran out into the street. Another, who his comrades said had mental issues, machine-gunned victims by the dozen:
According to Diamant, speaking now, villagers were shot to death by a “savage” using a submachine gun, at the conclusion of the battle.
Another veteran of the incident added further evidence:
Another combat soldier, Haim Levin, now relates that a member of the unit went over to a group of 15 or 20 POWs “and killed them all.” Levin says he was appalled, and he spoke to his buddies to try to find out what was going on. “You have no idea how many [of us] those guys have killed,” he was told.
A soldier who became a senior IDF commander offered his own gruff tough-nosed, but unapologetic assessment:
“What do you want?” asked Shlomo Ambar, who would rise to the rank of brigadier general and head of Civil Defense, the forerunner of today’s Home Front Command. “For me to be a delicate soul and speak in poetry? I moved aside. That’s all. Enough.” Ambar…made it clear that the events in the village had not been to his liking, “but because I didn’t speak out then, there is no reason for me to talk about it today.”
Finally, the most blood-curdling account:
Amitzur Cohen, who talked about his first months as a combat soldier in the war: “I was a murderer. I didn’t take prisoners.” Cohen relates that if a squad of Arab soldiers was standing with their hands raised, he would shoot them all. How many Arabs did he kill outside the framework of the battles? “I didn’t count. I had a machine gun with 250 bullets. I can’t say how many.”
After the killing spree ended, the perpetrators dug a large pit on the beach and shoveled the bodies into it. There were so many bodies, it took a week to complete the task. After their work was done, an officer found that the pit remained exposed and the unit commander was disciplined Further work concealing the evidence was done and another officer who followed up, sent a written message that the work had been satisfactorily completed.
Today, the pit is a parking lot for Dor beach near Kibbutz Nachsholim. Special aerial radar probes have identified precisely where the bodies are buried underneath (pictured above).
Some survivors of the massacre sought refuge in the Lebanese city of Tyre. Others became refugees in the Tulkarem camp. To this day, they are forbidden to visit their ancestral home. After the War, Israel founded a kibbutz and moshav on the land which had been ethnically cleansed. Initially, the new Jewish immigrants squatted in the homes of the Palestinians who had been expelled.
Perpetrators and Their Crimes
For decades, none of the surviving perpetrators wanted to talk about what they had done. They either were silent or, even worse, denied it. They did so for their own personal and ideological reasons. Israel for decades has maintained that Zionism observes a special moral code. Its army supposedly honored a value system called “the purity of arms.” Subsequent history has given the lie to this notion. Israel’s military history is replete with mass murder, rape, looting, and forced expulsion.
The veterans who committed the atrocity and denied it were driven by nationalist motives. They knew that if the truth were known it would stain not only their reputations, but the entire nation. It would give Israel’s enemies ammunition to mount their own attack on the state and its founding national ideology.
One of the darkest ironies of this tragedy is that the Alexandroni soldiers spent a week digging a mass grave for 200 Palestinian dead, just as Nazis dug graves for hundreds of thousands of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Babi Yar is perhaps the most infamous example. The voices of these Palestinian dead cry out just as loudly as those of the Jewish dead. There are hundreds of monuments and historical markers acknowledging the Jewish dead, but not a single word commemorating the victims of Tantura. There can never be true peace, true justice, true reconciliation until both sides, but especially the Israeli Jews, can acknowledge their crimes.
Teddy Katz: the Code of Silence and Paying the Price
In 1999, University of Haifa graduate student, Teddy Katz, wrote his master’s thesis on the massacre. He did extensive research, interviewed Palestinian survivors and Israeli soldiers, went into the State and IDF archives and examined all the documentary evidence he could find. When he presented his thesis to his academic committee it was judged excellent work and earned a mark of 97. Katz’s plan was to continue with doctoral studies. But it was not to be.
The next development is where things went awry. A journalist discovered Katz’s thesis and decided to write an article about it that was published in Maariv. When the remaining Alexandroni veterans read the report they were outraged. Katz, in their eyes, had stained not only themselves, but the cause for which they shed their blood in the fight to establish the State.
Several of them brought a libel case against Katz. He went from being a star student to being pilloried in the media. He became a target for every right-wing flag-waver. The pressure was enormous. He had also suffered a stroke a year earlier. After meeting with his accusers, his family pressured him to recant his work. Under tremendous duress, he agreed to do so. In exchange, the libel suit was dropped. Within hours, Katz changed his mind and recanted his recantation. But the damage was done. In a subsequent Supreme Court case, it refused to hear his appeal seeking to undo the settlement agreement.
In light of these developments, the University of Haifa formed a second academic committee to re-examine his work. Doing so was purely a political, rather than academic act. It is unprecedented for a university to do such a thing. Academic precedent is always respected. You simply don’t second-guess your colleagues once they have made a considered judgment. That engenders mutual respect, which is at the heart of the academic enterprise. Unsurprisingly, the second, hand-picked committee found the work deficient and failed him. Katz never returned to academia. His career ended in a manufactured scandal.
If anyone ever argues against an academic boycott of Israeli state universities let them remember this incident, which smells to high heaven. Israeli universities are the handmaidens of Occupation and apartheid. They go hand in hand with the military-security-political apparatus. They are not ivory towers. They are not shining beacons of truth and academic purity. They are ordinary state institutions following social consensus, even when it is wrong or even worse, evil.
Prof. Ilan Pappe, who consulted with Katz during the process of preparing the thesis, wrote the definitive account of the controversy. In fact, after Pappe came to Katz’s defense the university (where he was a faculty member) turned against him. As a result, he took a leave of absence and took a position on the faculty of the University of Exeter, where he has taught for the past fifteen years.
Now, over twenty years later, Israeli documentary director, Alon Schwarz, has returned to many of the same individuals Katz interviewed as part of his research. He has put them on camera and, as the saying goes: the camera does not lie. It also offers irrefutable visual evidence. Schwarz premiered his film, Tantura (Hollywood Reporter review, Walla profile), which is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. No one can dispute what they say. And many of them concede the truth: there was a massacre. They did it. They may have objected to it. They may have found what their comrades did to be distasteful or embarrassing. But they confirm what Katz had said all along.
A question begging to be asked: as important as this film is in revising and restoring historical truth, why did it take a film by an Israeli Jew to force Israelis to confront and accept the truth? Why didn’t they accept the eyewitness accounts of Palestinians? Why are Palestinians erased from their own history, just as the graves of Tantura’s victims were covered and hidden underground?
In Haaretz, Adam Raz quotes another Israeli eyewitness:
Now, at the age of 90 and up, a number of combat soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ brigade have admitted that a massacre did indeed take place in 1948 at Tantura
He quotes their testimony:
“They silenced it,” the former combat soldier Moshe Diamant says, trying to be spare with his words. “It mustn’t be told, it could cause a whole scandal. I don’t want to talk about it, but it happened. What can you do? It happened.”
The film was funded by Israel’s leading cable channel, Hot and the Israel Film Fund. Apparently, the atmosphere has changed since 1999. Not necessarily because Israel has become a more honest place willing to confront its sins. But perhaps for the opposite reason: Israel has become a place in which such outrages have become commonplace. No one is shocked by them. They happen virtually every day. In this atmosphere, the survivors may feel freer to speak since their crimes were, to their minds, not much worse than what happens today. Perhaps a cynical point of view. But one learns that cynicism is warranted when it comes to Israeli war crimes and the subsequent writing of history.