by Patrick O. Strickland 17 October 2014 Electronic Intifada
Osama Tannous has long campaigned for the municipal independence of Tarshiha, his hometown in the Galilee region of present-day Israel.
For decades, Tarshiha has been administratively connected to the neighboring Jewish-Israeli community of Maalot and the two share a municipality.
On all government records, paperwork and tax documents, the two have, since 1963, been classified as the town of Maalot Tarshiha. Yet the communities are geographically separated and local Palestinians have been campaigning for independent representation and municipal sovereignty for decades.
“It’s important to control your own land, institutions and budget,” Osama, a 29-year-old activist and pediatric physician, told The Electronic Intifada. “It is also politically necessary to break away from a colonial entity that was built on our land with a view that we’re the enemy.”
In addition to their uniquely challenging situation, Tarshiha’s indigenous villagers face the same institutionalized discrimination as the rest of the estimated 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. More than fifty laws curb their political freedoms and limit their access to state resources — most importantly land.
On 24 October, the villagers will mark the sixty-sixth anniversary of when Israel occupied the village — five months after the State of Israel was established in May 1948.
The tragedy will be commemorated with tours for children. The tours will focus on life before the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, as well as the village’s links to iron industry and tobacco production.
There will also be music events and small exhibitions, including photography collections illustrating the massive changes imposed on Palestinian life in the village.
“Destroying our existence”
Osama Tannous said that Israel often claims that the joint municipal project in Maalot and Tarshiha is an example of coexistence between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, a claim roundly rejected by most of the indigenous Palestinian residents.
“Maalot was established deliberately to usurp Tarshiha and to eventually destroy our existence,” he said.
Locals also accuse the Israeli land authorities and the local municipality of land theft and systematically privileging their Jewish Israeli counterparts over Palestinians.
“When Maalot takes land that belongs to Tarshiha, it is technically done in a ‘legal’ way … because we are classified as part of the same municipality,” said Nakhleh Tannous, a city council representative and a member of Balad, a political party representing Palestinians in Israel.
Israeli authorities recently began building Oranim, a religious Jewish neighborhood in Maalot on the outskirts of Tarshiha’s present-day borders. “This one neighborhood will have about the same number of houses as all of Tarshiha,” Nakhleh added.
“We all know that Maalot is allocated a larger portion of the [municipal] funds,” Nakleh explained. “It’s clear that they get more resources than we do.”
“But it’s impossible to calculate the disparities — how much they take and we don’t. On paperwork, it all goes to the same place. But we are certain that being connected to Maalot’s municipality hurts us a lot.”
A member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, during the 1990s, Shlomo Bohbot has been the mayor of Maalot since 1976.
Bohbot has repeatedly denied and blocked Tarshiha’s attempts to gain municipal independence. Ten years ago, when locals began a basketball team for Tarshiha’s youth, Bohbot pulled the funding because locals didn’t include Maalot in the team’s name.
“We raised money on our own to keep the team going,” Nakhleh said.
Today only three Palestinians are allotted seats on the thirteen-person municipality. Together, they represent the entirety of the estimated 5,000 Palestinians living in Tarshiha.
Zionist forces occupied Tarshiha on 24 October 1948 during Operation Hiram, a military offensive that aimed to expel as many Palestinians as possible from the Galilee region of historic Palestine.
Only approximately 500 of the estimated 5,000 villagers in Tarshiha were able to stay or return following the Nakba.
Nakhleh said that the problematic joint municipality “is a continuation of the Nakba. The inequality today can only be understood by looking the village’s history since the Nakba.”
Maalot was founded on Tarshiha’s land in 1957, mostly by Jewish Arab settlers from North Africa. Another seven moshavim and kibbutzim — semi-cooperative Jewish agricultural settlements — also sit atop land that belonged to Tarshiha before the Nakba.
Israel’s interior ministry has stated that the purpose of Maalot’s establishment was to prevent an independent council being set up to cater for Tarshiha’s indigenous residents.
In 1963, Tarshiha was officially absorbed into Maalot’s municipality.
Famous for tobacco
Due to the brutal assault Israel launched on the town, using warplanes to bomb large swathes of it, most of the indigenous residents fled to Lebanon and Syria. Today the surviving refugees and their descendants are in refugee camps in cities across southern Lebanon, as well as in and around the Syrian capital Damascus.
Mahmoud Abu Hassan, 87, has farmed tobacco on Tarshiha’s agricultural lands for more than seven decades. Referring to a destroyed Palestinian village about twelve miles away — near Israel’s present-day boundary with Lebanon — he recalled that “until 1948 our lands used to stretch all the way to Iqrit.”
“Tarshiha was famous for its tobacco production,” he said. “After the Nakba, most of our lands were taken and Israeli companies had a monopoly on tobacco.”
“We also sold locally grown wheat and produce to places all across Palestine, likeNablus and Gaza,” Abu Hassan added. “That mostly stopped because our best lands were taken and we didn’t have access to water as much as before [the Nakba].”
Though most of his family became refugees in Lebanon and Syria, Abu Hassan and his remaining immediate relatives in Tarshiha are one of the last families still farming tobacco in the village.
Eight Jewish-Israeli settlement communities — including Maalot — have been built on Tarshiha’s historical lands since 1948. Despite suffering from severe overcrowding, “we were only allowed to build our first new neighborhood in 1996,” Nakhleh Tannous said.
Though Israel often promotes communities that include both Palestinians and Israelis as examples of coexistence, Palestinians in Israel suffer from pervasive racism that touches nearly every part of their daily life.
Since Israel began an intensive attack on the Gaza Strip in July this year, anti-Palestinian incitement has soared in Israel. Tarshiha has not been spared from this racism.
When local Palestinians protested against Israel’s assault on Gaza, Israelis from Maalot “incited against us and economically boycotted us,” Nakhleh said. “The mayor accused us of destroying coexistence between Arabs and Jews, [rather than] Israel’s bombs on Gaza.”
Elsewhere, Palestinian and leftwing Israeli protesters were attacked by both violent rightwing mobs and police alike.
Palestinian-owned olive groves in Tarshiha were burned twice at the beginning of this month. Locals told The Electronic Intifada they suspect Israelis from a conservative religious neighborhood in Maalot were behind the attacks, though police have yet to investigate the matter.
“We will keep requesting independence and our own municipality,” Nakhleh said.
While the local Palestinians try to live as normally as possible, Nakhleh added that the surrounding Israeli settlement communities “are expanding, closing in around Tarshiha and suffocating us.”
An article about Palestine's internal refugees: Ed
The stones of Suhmata
by Isabelle Humphries 30 March 2008 Electronic Intifada
The village of Suhmata before it was destroyed in 1950 by Zionist militias. * (Unknown)
Unlike the majority of Palestinian refugees dispersed across the Middle East and beyond, Wagih Semaan can drive a few kilometers from his house, cross a ditch and a fence and sit in the stones of the village he was driven out of at the age of 11. But despite his Israeli “citizenship,” he is no more able to return to live on his land than the Palestinian sitting in Ein al-Hilwe camp across the Lebanese border.
Wagih is one of more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees who are internally displaced — they managed to remain in their homeland yet are denied access to their lands and homes. Like the rest of the million Palestinians inside Israel, internally displaced live with Israeli passports yet in all sectors are treated as second class citizens. While the brutality meted out to residents of the West Bank and Gaza demonstrates clearly that Palestinian life is not valued by the state of Israel, the second class status of Palestinians inside the Jewish state shows the inherent apartheid nature of a state defined as Jewish. Israeli apartheid would not end even in the (very unlikely) scenario that Israel totally withdrew to 1967 borders. The case of the internally displaced and land confiscation from Palestinians legally defined by Israel as “citizens” — both in 1948, and continuing since that date — undermines any Israeli claims that it functions as a democracy for its Palestinian citizens.
The Semaan family come from Suhmata, a northern Galilee village attacked by Haganah [the pre-state Zionist militia that later became the Israeli army] aircraft in October 1948. In addition to more than one thousand inhabitants, by that stage many hundreds of refugees exiled from other villages already occupied were seeking shelter in homes and olive groves. As villagers fled the onslaught in terror, 16 were killed, as Wagih explains: “they put a bullet in the head of one young man in front of his father; another woman’s body was left for the dogs to eat.” ** Some tried their hardest to stay to no avail. “My father didn’t want to leave — he hid under the trees. One time he had just moved and the tree which he had been under was hit from the air. He was lucky to stay alive,” says Wagih. The village was surrounded from all sides except the northern direction to Lebanon. The message was clear — there was no room for Palestinians in the new state. Ninety-three percent of Suhmatans became refugees in Lebanon and Syria, one famous village son being Abu Maher al-Yamani, the deputy of the late resistance leader George Habash.
Seven percent, however, succeeded in sheltering with relatives in some of the few Palestinian villages which were not destroyed in the Israel occupation, finally becoming citizens in the new Jewish state. But remaining in the homeland was not an easy option. Creeping into the fields around their village, in the first months Suhmatans saw some of their homes dynamited. The oldest Semaan brother approached the village to see that their home had been dynamited. “He just could not bring himself to tell our mother,” one of the Semaan brothers recalls. Other homes were quickly occupied by a group of Romanian Jews waiting for their own settlement to be built on the land of the village. Within a few years the village was destroyed — Jewish settlers moved into the new buildings — and Israel believed it had shattered the hopes of the refugees to return. “They even took the stones from our houses to the new settlement,” says Wagih.
From 1948 to 1966 all Palestinians remaining in Israel, not just the refugees, were subject to military law, similar to that imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in 1967. *** Military rule brought curfews, restrictions on movement and employment, and strict penalties for any political activity. At this time the struggle was simply to eat and to live, to stay alive. The Semaan family lived 13 in one room in the village of Fassuta; as Wagih explains, “lying next to each other we couldn’t move.” As a young man Wagih was pursued by the police for political activity with the Communist Party; many people were just too frightened to even try to speak out.
Although the days of military rule for Palestinians inside Israel are over, a more sophisticated system of surveillance and political control of this minority remains in place. Many Palestinians inside Israel today remain nervous of political activity, fully aware of its implications for themselves and their families, but an increasing number are prepared to speak out. To draw attention to the continuing injustice of the Nakba six decades on, the Suhmata Committee in the Galilee has launched a new petition to protest further settlement expansion on their land.
Individual village committees, and later an overarching umbrella organization to promote the right of return for the internally displaced, were formed in the wake of Madrid Conference 1991, when Palestinians inside Israel realized that their status was not to be represented at the negotiating table. Having previously relied on international movements for the liberation of Palestine, many Palestinian political activists inside Israel decided to take control of their own struggle, to fight to be seen as an integral part of the Palestinian people and not an Israeli “domestic” concern.
The Suhmata committee promotes awareness of the village amongst remaining Suhmatans, running a regularly updated website (www.suhmata.com), organizing visits and tours to the site of the village and attempting to protect remains, particularly in regards to the holy sites. Over the past decade villagers have held events at the village — today grazing ground for settler cattle — on Nakba Day, Land Day and other Palestinian national events, summer camps for children, renovation work in the graveyards. The village even has its own play, performed in the ruins (as well as other locations across the globe).
The current petition demands a halt to Israeli plans announced in January 2008 for the building of around 3,500 new housing lots on land of Suhmata to expand the Jewish town of Ma’alot. Ma’alot was founded in 1957 as part of Israeli attempts to Judaize the Galilee which still had a significant Palestinian population. The town already overwhelms and confiscates the lands of the still existing Palestinian villages of Tarshiha and Mi’lia.
Villagers are under no illusion that a petition can transform the direction of Israeli policy but see it as part of the wider struggle to spread awareness of the rights of all Palestinians to return and Israel’s continuing attempts to establish “facts on the ground” and to dictate their own terms of any future settlement — a settlement which would not bring justice to the refugees.
“Why is this land open to the Russian immigrant yet forbidden to us?” asks Wagih.
“It is enough — stop this project — this is Palestinian land. We call on the conscience of all good people, here and outside. They speak about peace, but there will be no peace without a solution to the problem of return; while they continue to build on our expense.”
* This caption originally read in error that the photograph was taken in 1950.
** This sentence originally read in error, “As villagers fled the onslaught in terror, 16 were killed, as Wagih explains: ‘they put a bullet in the head of one young man in front of his father then left the body for the dogs to eat.’”
*** The text originally stated that military law was imposed from 1948 through 1967. The Electronic Intifada regrets these errors.
Isabelle Humphries has worked for several years with Palestinian non-governmental organizations in the Galilee, and is completing a doctoral thesis on Palestinian internally displaced. She can be contacted at isabellebh2004 A T yahoo D O T co D O T uk.