Rona Sela: It took a village
In retrospect, the [Nakba] village files… sometimes constituted the last testimonies of the Arab villages, just before they were emptied of their inhabitants. They are the last remaining vestiges of the villages before they were destroyed or settled by Jewish immigrants who streamed into the country in its first years; villages which were erased from the Israeli map because of their Arab identity.
IOA Editor: Newly revealed documents on the Nakba, directly from the files of its perpetrators. This Israel-centric exposure of Israeli war crimes might, over time, one day help change Israelis’ view of history, or so one hopes.
By Rona Sela, Haaretz – 20 May 2011
In the 1940s, the Haganah collected detailed intelligence information about hundreds of Arab villages and photographed them, in many cases from the ground and also from the air. Only a few dozen of these ‘village files’ survive in local archives, but their photos constitute a valuable, missing chapter in Palestinian history.
This story begins as a clandestine affair of espionage marked by daring, adventurism, improvisation and imagination as embedded in the official Israeli narrative. In the 1940s, squads of young scouts from the Haganah, the pre-state army and forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces, collected information about the Arab towns and villages in Palestine for intelligence purposes: in preparation for a future conflict and as part of a more general project of creating files of target sites.
The information was usually collected under the guise of a nature lesson aimed at getting to know the country, or for hikes that were common in that period. The scouts systematically built up a database of geographical, topographical and planning information about the villages, which included detailed descriptions of roads, neighborhoods, houses, public buildings, objects, wells, caves, wadis and so forth.
Overall, this intelligence effort was known as the “village files” project, referring to the fact that most of the sites about which information was collected were the Arab villages that existed in Palestine before 1948. The scouts’ work included perspective sketches, maps, drawings and photographs of each village and its surroundings. The maps used by the scouts were collected in a secret base on Mapu Street in Tel Aviv, located in a cellar that was given the cover name of the “office of the engineer Meir Rabinowitz” and code-named “the roof.”
Detailed information about the villages was meticulously catalogued and organized in files by the planning bureau of the Haganah general staff and held in the organization’s territorial commands around the country. Greater boldness and courage were required when the Haganah commanders decided to photograph the villages from the air in order to broaden the information that existed in the files. Sophisticated ruses were used to deceive the British authorities, who forbade such activity. The villages were photographed under the guise of the activities of a flying club or romantic aerial excursions; the camera and negatives were hidden in and around the plane. Innovative means were developed to collect information secretly. Women played a significant role in this process, and one of them became, as far as is known, the first female aerial photographer of the Yishuv, or Jewish community of Palestine.
Personnel from Shai, the Haganah’s information service, and afterward Arab informers as well, collected detailed and extensive information – historical, social, economic, demographic, educational, agricultural, military, architectural, planning and more – about the villages from the beginning of the 1940s. Based on this information, textual surveys of the Arab settlements were compiled. Over the years, many such surveys were conducted, covering the country thoroughly.
Yet the products of this historical national project also bear the potential to create an alternative narrative today. They can challenge official history – based on original, official materials. Doing this also requires resilience and boldness, but of a very different kind than what was needed back then.
The official version
Most of those involved in the village files story are no longer alive. I interviewed some of them a few years ago as part of the research for a book dealing with the origins of military photography in Israel and the methods used by the pre-state Jewish forces and by their successors in Israel’s army to collect information about the Palestinians. In addition, the majority of those who took part in the project left detailed testimonies in books and archives. However, due to space limitations only a few of the names will be mentioned here.
According to Yitzhak Shefar (who later changed his name to Eran ), who was the chief instructor of the Haganah field corps in Tel Aviv and a graduate of a scouts officers course, the idea of creating village files was conceived by a number of people simultaneously, both in the general staff and at the field operations level.
In 1942, Shmuel Zalman Zelikson (Ziama Dibon ) of the planning bureau of the Haganah general staff, who had previously commanded the field corps in the Jerusalem area, came up with the idea of preparing files about the Arab villages with which a military clash was deemed likely. Concurrently, Zerubavel Vermel (Arbel ), from Kibbutz Maoz Haim, used scout squads from the field corps to collect information about villages in the areas of Mount Gilboa, the Jordan River and the Arab town of Beisan (Beit She’an ), and started to organize the material in files.
Vermel said in testimony he gave later, “I told myself that if we find ourselves in a war, we will have to conquer these villages … But did we know anything about them? Nothing, it turned out.” The files were shown to Yigael Sukenik (Yadin ), a senior member of the planning bureau (and later IDF chief of staff ). He organized a meeting between Zelikson and Vermel, whose cooperation laid the foundation for ramified and orderly intelligence work.
After a model was devised for the structure of the files, the Haganah conducted a course for scouts, held at Shfeya youth village near Haifa. Maj. Gen. (res. ) Moshe Gornitzky (Goren ), a graduate of the first Haganah course for intelligence officers (and later chief scouts officer in the general staff ), described how the participants sat on a hillside above Fureidis, one of four villages chosen as examples in the course, and sketched the landscape.
Intended for operational purposes, the village files consisted mostly of topographical, geographical, planning and physical elements – information about the locale’s main structures, access roads, water sources and so on. In 1945, the scouts started to photograph the villages, as photographs were considered an “objective” source of reliable, accurate information. Shefar, an amateur photographer, and Yisrael Spector, a Haganah member and a photographer, urged the use of photos to enhance the files. According to Shefar, in a book he published in 1994, because the reconnaissance missions were undertaken under cover of excursions, either while scouts were passing through the village or its outskirts, taking pictures would be considered “natural.”
Sukenik, at the time the Haganah planning officer in the Tel Aviv district, was persuaded. A number of cameras were purchased. Henceforth, the village files would be based mainly on photography. The scouts generally avoided including themselves in the photographs, and their work was of a clandestine character.
“In some cases, the scouts ‘were lent’ a few female ‘hikers’ to embellish the cover story,” related Shefar. According to the manual prepared for the photographer-scouts, “If you are unable to hide the act of photography, ‘cover’ it by taking pictures of your friends or of the local people. In the former case, ensure that your friends do not appear [in focus] in the photo, not even from the back … If, nevertheless, people do appear in the picture (as a result of carelessness ), blur them on the negative.”
Pinhas Aptekmann (Yoeli ), the head of the maps division, who took part in planning the scouts course (and was later president of the Israel Society of Cartography), said in testimony that he gave to staff at the Archives of the History of the Haganah about the village files project, in 1973: “The kuntz [trick] was to pose the scouts so that the ‘show’ would be perfect, but they would not appear in the photo, for fear that if the file was seized the scouts would be identified. There was no choice but to delete them from the photographs.”
At the end of 1945, Gornitzky and Shefar initiated the effort to photograph the Arab villages and sites of operational importance from the air, in order to collect “contingency information under convenient conditions for a time of battle.” Gornitzky recalled that Sukenik, who was by then head of planning in the general staff, was invited for a test flight, along with Ari Glass, from Kibbutz Yagur, who had been an aerial photographer in the German Army in World War I, and Emanuel Zuckerberg (Zur ), a pilot in the Jewish Agency’s Aviron company. The results proved satisfactory, and systematic, organized flights began.
To photograph the target sites without arousing suspicion, the pilots pretended to be members of the Aviron flying club. At first the flights assumed a romantic cast. A couple would come to the airfield, said Shefar, “wearing Shabbat clothes, as befit such occasions. The woman always carried a large enough handbag to hold the camera and the films. Later, another cover was added: an asthmatic child, who had been instructed by the doctor to fly high in the air!”
The “asthmatic” was Nimrod, the son of Galila Plotkin; he now lives in the United States. Plotkin herself, who is 93, is the daughter of Baruch Katinka, a weapons instructor in the Haganah, who also engaged in arms purchases and was the engineer who built the YMCA building in West Jerusalem. Plotkin attended a commanders course at the age of 15, trained guards and commanded outposts. She can also be considered the first female aerial photographer in the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community.
“At first I accompanied them as a cover, and afterward I started to photograph myself,” she said in her testimony. “It was Gershon, my husband, who originated this. We used to take our son, who was a year and a half old … That was excellent camouflage. I hid the camera in our son’s bag, between his diapers and the rest of the equipment, and fortunately he would nod off as soon as we took off and sleep soundly.”
Plotkin was not worried about the danger of the photographic missions. “We did the calculation for the altitude for taking the photographs in the office, and when the pilot announced that we were at the right altitude, I would stick my head out the window and take pictures. But it was absolute torture, because my hair got tangled up by the wind. Absurd as it may sound, it was really horrible, until I got hold of pilot’s headgear.”
The flying club
By this time, a flight squadron of the Palmach, the Haganah’s elite strike force, was already fully formed and organized. It was decided to entrust the squadron with the mission of taking the aerial photographs. Since the pilots were already registered as members of the flying club, it was only natural for them to want to chalk up flying time. In the Palmach they were known as the “airborne department,” but for external consumption they were presented as “the flying club of the Aviron company.” At first they used large bellows cameras, but switched to small Leica because of the need to reload frequently.
To train pilots for photographic missions, Shefar established the School for Aerial Photographers from the Underground. The “school” was located in the one-room apartment that he shared with his wife, Hassia.
“In the middle of the room,” he recalls, “there was a table that was covered by a blanket. On the blanket there was a chair. There were two training props: the camera and … a box of matches attached to a string. On the floor, perpendicular to the side of the table, a chalk line was drawn. The apprentice sat on the chair. I pulled the matchbox and the apprentice had to press the button the moment the matchbox crossed the line … After accomplishing this feat several times in succession, he was awarded the title of ‘authorized aerial photographer.’ Up to this point things were more or less logical. What was less logical was [the fact] that the pilots actually brought back good, even excellent photographs.”
The pilots hid the films in the Aviron hangar in Ramle, and on their body in order to remove them from the hangar. To avoid having to take the camera in and out, they hid it in a cache in Ramle. When the British intensified their investigation of what they saw as suspicious Haganah operations, the pilots flew over a designated spot near the Palmach’s tent camp at Kibbutz Na’an and dropped the film from the plane before going on to land in Ramle. The films were hidden in a small pocket in bags sewn in Na’an, which were filled with sand and marked with a colored tail to make it easier to find them.
Shefar: “That was actually the conventional mode of air-surface communication in the British Army before the development of the wireless. Flying over Na’an on the way to landing in Ramle did not create suspicion. We landed with an empty camera, which we then hid in the cache. We also had a cache in the plane itself, if there was concern that for some reason we would not be able to get the camera into the hangar immediately upon landing … We gave the impression of being a seemingly innocent flying club, but they [the British] didn’t really buy the story. They collected information about us, but they never found a concrete reason to put us on trial or at least to terminate our activity. This situation was our daily lot, but when all is said and done they never found a film or a camera. We were clean.
“There was constant surveillance,” he continued, “with searches and interrogations, and for our part we upgraded the caches, the deceptions and the cover stories. For example, a ‘special navigation training flight’ or a ‘special teaching flight’ – things that were meant to explain all kinds of strange loops and excursions in the air, which we did in order to take pictures. Occasionally we also flew over Jewish settlements in order to mislead the British. We did not always drop the films from the plane over Na’an.
“Sometimes, for various reasons, we hid them in the cache on the plane and dropped them on the next flight, or we had a few pilots stay until late evening, supposedly for the maintenance of the planes, because after the special detectives went for beer and rest it was easier to remove things. Sometimes the fellow with the film left the base on an Arab bus, which was less suspect. He would take the film to Jaffa, then to Tel Aviv, then to Rehovot and make his way from there to Na’an on foot! All these evasive maneuvers to cover our tracks were logical.”
Many of the village files have been lost; only a few dozen remain in the various archives. However, a large number of aerial photographs exist, along with many textual surveys of the Arab settlements. An example is a report from September 1943 about the village of Rantiya (in the Jaffa sub-district ), which would be conquered five years later by the IDF in Operation Dani, when its residents were uprooted; three Jewish communities – Mazor, Nofekh and Rinnatya – were established on its land.
According to the survey, Rantiya was founded 600 years ago and lay about 1.5 kilometers east of the Lod-Petah Tikva road and the same distance west of the railway line. The village had one well from which local women carried water to the houses; its pump was built by the British government, which managed the well. There were three types of structures in the village: of cement and reinforced concrete, of wood and tiles, and of bricks and mortar (the minority ). The village was surrounded by vineyards. A wadi running nearby from east to west reached the village of Al-Yahudiya (where the Israeli town of Yahud was afterward built, though originally David Ben-Gurion wanted to raze the village ). Rantiya had an area of 4,500 dunams (1,125 acres ), of which 550 dunams were planted with citrus trees and 100 dunams with grape vines and olive trees. Various types of grains were grown on the rest of the land. “The harvest is generally very good,” according to the information in the file. Of the 650 residents, some 140 were property owners, but none were effendis. There were two clans, which maintained “satisfactory” relations. The village had only one simple store and did not have a cafe. There was also one mosque, “in good condition and very clean,” and a school in which one teacher taught between 40 and 50 children. There were 150 laborers in Rantiya, but no clerks working in the service of the British administration. During the period of the Arab Revolt, 1936-1939, some of the farm work stopped, and one person was killed on the Ras al-Ein road. The British authorities detonated a few buildings.
Shimri Salomon, the person in charge of the Haganah archives in Tel Aviv, researched the project of the surveys of the Arab villages and is completing a comprehensive study of the village files.
What was the origin of the village files?
Salomon: “The first initiative was that of Zelikson and Vermel, who understood that the Haganah did not have a database of intelligence information that could be used to plan operations against Arab targets. They certainly did not see the War of Independence looming on the horizon, but did anticipate the possible outbreak of a new wave of ‘troubles’ [i.e., another Arab revolt] probably more severe than the last one, and thought that the Haganah should deploy for this organizationally and from the intelligence aspect. Shai [the information service] had been operating since 1940, but its personnel were not trained to collect field intelligence and did not engage in that. Zelikson and Vermel concentrated their efforts precisely in that direction; from 1943, the village files project became a central element in the effort to collect operational intelligence. It functioned alongside Shai and supplied what Shai neither tried to supply nor was capable of supplying.”
Why the focus on the villages?
“During the Arab Revolt the villages served as bases of departure and places of sanctuary for the gangs – the armed groups that acted against the Mandate authorities and against the Yishuv. The villagers also supplied the gangs with money and food, and many members of the gangs were recruited from the villages. Collecting information about the access roads to the village, the places of hiding in its vicinity, its sources of water, its physical structure and the location of observation points in our direction, and the concentration of this information and of other relevant information in a special file was considered a vital and effective means in case the need should arise to act against the village or against a gang that relied on it.”
What is the difference between the surveys of the Arab settlements and the village files?
“The surveys include general and verbal information about the villages. For example, number of inhabitants, the land and its use, the clans, the village mukhtar and also about security issues: how many weapons the residents possessed and of what type, whether the village assisted the gangs during the Troubles and which of the villagers joined the gangs. In the first years of the surveys project, historical information about each village was also compiled: when it was founded, whether it was located on an ancient site and contained antiquities, where the inhabitants came from.
“A great deal could be learned about the village and its inhabitants from this information, but it could not be used to plan military operations, so the need arose to collect operational intelligence. That was the purpose of the village files. It should be noted that in addition to the village files, files were also compiled of Arab neighborhoods in mixed cities, of police stations and of the British military bases in the country. The work of compiling the files on the police stations and the bases was intensified during the period of the armed struggle against the British, from the end of 1945 onward, and some of those files were used to plan operations.”
Were the village files used in the conquest of the villages in the war of 1948?
“Testimonies exist, particularly of commanders and soldiers who were involved in the village files project before the War of Independence, stating that in general the files were used and proved useful in the war – for example, in the fighting in the villages around Jerusalem – but I found only a few references to the use of specific files in the war. In my estimation, if files were used, it was mainly in the first half of the war, in what is now usually referred to as the inter-communal war or the civil war – that is, before the invasion of the Arab armies.”
What use was made of the files in the war?
“In my estimation, the files were used primarily to plan limited operations against villages, whether for deterrence or for punitive purposes. In certain cases files might have been used to plan the conquest of a village. At the same time, advance surveillance was usually conducted before such operations, in which updated and specific intelligence was collected. After the invasion, when the fighting was against regular armies, the situation changed. The deployment and the activity on the ground were influenced by the change in the character and in the mode of operation of the major enemy the IDF now confronted. There were also other changes which reduced the relevance of the village files. In the second half of 1948, the ability of the IDF’s mapping and photographic service to supply the forces with real-time aerial photographs improved apace, and in some cases it was also possible to carry out flights manned by scouts who provided information to the combat units.”
What happened to the village files?
“Some of them were apparently destroyed in connection with ‘Black Shabbat’ [in June 1946, when the British arrested many of the Yishuv's leaders], for fear they would fall into the hands of the British, or they were hidden and not found afterward. Some of them were lost in the storm of the War of Independence. But there is no doubt that quite a few files survived the war. What became of them? I imagine that most of them were cleared out by intelligence officers.”
Hilik Libal, who served as an intelligence soldier in IDF Central Command beginning at the end of 1950, told me what happened to the files of the Haganah from the villages that came under his responsibility. This information enables us to conjecture what befell other files, which were stored in the Northern and Southern Commands.
“After the establishment of the state, we continued to draw up files in enemy territory,” Libal, now 80, said. “I was a field scout, an air scout and an analyst of aerial photographs in Central Command. We operated mainly in the West Bank. You have to remember that the austerity regime was in effect during the period of my service, and there was a shortage of everything, including cardboard cartons that were used to prepare intelligence files. So I took old cartons that the Haganah had used for the village files before the state’s establishment and used them for the new intelligence files. As for the rest of the material that was in the old village files – maps, photographs, sketches and so forth – I burned it.
“For the most part, the files that were burned documented the Arab villages in the Jerusalem Corridor. We also destroyed the negatives of the aerial photographs. We sold the silver iodide they contained to raise money for the unit. Today I regret this. I don’t remember if I acted on my own or at the order of my commander. But already at an early stage I realized what a mistake I had made. Therefore, after my discharge from the army I returned to intelligence as a civilian employed by the IDF. At first I served in the computer unit and afterward as a department head in the research division. Until my retirement, I worked hard to document and preserve history for future generations.”
In retrospect, the village files (charts, sketches, drawings, maps and ground photographs ), the textual surveys and the aerial photographs sometimes constituted the last testimonies of the Arab villages, just before they were emptied of their inhabitants. They are the last remaining vestiges of the villages before they were destroyed or settled by Jewish immigrants who streamed into the country in its first years; villages which were erased from the Israeli map because of their Arab identity. Concurrently, much Palestinian visual and textual history was lost or fell victim to wars and to the national conflict, leaving behind few remains.
In 1992, the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi published (in English ) the book “All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.” The product of years of research, the book is a compendium of geographical, demographic, architectural, historical, agricultural and other information about more than 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed, or in which Israel settled Jewish migrants after 1948, and about the Arab inhabitants who were uprooted from their land and for the most part became refugees. Khalidi’s pioneering work made it possible to restore to the public sphere and to public consciousness important information about these settlements.
Paradoxically, the information that was intended to assist the Jewish organizations in their struggle against the Arabs now makes it possible to describe extensive sections of the Arab entity that existed in Palestine before 1948. This information can assist in many areas of research – architectural, agricultural, geographical, social, demographic, historical and others – and can fill in blanks in the missing worldview. Thus, for example, if Khalidi’s book contains information about 400 villages, the surveys provide information about 750 settlements (not only those that were destroyed or were populated by Jewish immigrants ). In addition, the village files and the aerial photographs offer real-time visual information, which Khalidi’s book does not contain.
The existence of this significant and comprehensive information in Israeli archives has been made known in a few publications, though little research use has been made of it. Much of the material was collected for Israeli military use, is tendentious in character, marked by Zionist national terminology, and reflects the relations between the forces at the time. Nevertheless, recovering the material will make it possible to become acquainted with various aspects of life in the villages, and to restore to the collective lexicon – Israeli and Arab alike – the sights and sites of this land before 1948.
Already in 1973, in the testimony Pinhas Aptekmann gave about the village files project, he said, “These photographs … are the only remnant left of the villages, as the villages themselves no longer exist.”
A contemporary reading of the Israeli archives which includes intelligence material about the pre-1948 Arab community in Palestine, based on a critical approach which neutralizes their tendentiousness, enables us to make sober and conscious use of them. Such a reading does not seek to erase the primary aim and purpose of the village files and the surveys, or to obscure the calamity that befell the Arab towns and villages and their inhabitants. At the same time, it has the power of restoring to the public sphere significant and important information which was lost, but actually exists in the archives, and of completing the missing chapters in Palestinian history.
A national conflict sometimes engenders deceptive, illusory situations and overturns meanings, and the history of one becomes the history of the other. This “new” history puts to the test the inner fortitude, resilience and strength of Israeli society, which is called upon to cope with its past. Is there a body that will be willing to finance the publication of a comprehensive lexicon of the villages, based on this material? Will Israeli society manifest here, too, the same daring that glorifies the pages of the official history?
Dr. Rona Sela is a curator and researcher specializing in the visual aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first undercover photographer
As far as is known, Israel Netach (Ben-Yitach), who was born in Acre in 1918 and died in Ramat Gan in 2008, was the first Jewish undercover photographer, meaning that he posed as an Arab in order to infiltrate the Arab community. When he was 2 years old, economic problems prompted his family to move to Damascus. At the age of 13, he joined his cousin, Shlomo Ben-Yitach, in helping to smuggle Syrian Jews from Damascus to Palestine on behalf of the Jewish Agency. He joined the Haganah in 1935, and in 1947, posing as an Arab himself, with an Arab friend, Netach joined “the Arab gangs that roamed the country. We collected information and details about their types of weapons and about their plans.”
An amateur photographer, Netach bought a Kodak and posed as an Arab press photographer, operating for the Haganah’s information service and using false press cards of the newspapers Filastin and Al-Yum. With his Arab friend he was able to infiltrate “various gangs and for five months document their activity in Hebron, Gush Etzion [a Jewish bloc of settlements north of Hebron] and around Jerusalem. The Haganah used the photographs to acquaint themselves with the events, with the weapons possessed by the enemy and with his methods of operation. At the same time, we distributed the photographs to the Arab press and gave them out as souvenirs to the members of the gangs. The exposure and the publication [of the photos] in the press helped establish our status within the gangs.”
According to Netach, “I took the last photograph of [Palestinian military commander] Abd al-Kader al-Husseini, of the battle for the Kastel, of [Palestinian military commander] Hassan Salameh and others.”