Evidence of new mass graves in Tantura

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 30 May 2023

Based on the findings of a UK study, a Palestinian legal rights centre has addressed the Israeli authorities to demarcate mass graves of Palestinians killed in the Tantura village by Zionist militias in 1948, Amira Howeidy reports

Mass grave in Tantura


From the evening of 22 May 1948 till the early hours of the next day, Zionist soldiers in the 33rd Battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade attacked, captured and looted Tantura, a Palestinian fishing village on the Mediterranean. The overnight onslaught culminated in a massacre despite the village’s surrender. According to survivors’ accounts, close to 280 Palestinians were executed and buried in several mass graves.

Multiple testimonies delivered by different witnesses suggest a possible additional mass execution and grave site near a remaining building by the village’s seashore source: Forensic Architecture’s 3-D model of the Tantura village 

Multiple testimonies delivered by different witnesses suggest a possible additional mass execution and grave site near a remaining building by the village’s seashore. Source: Forensic Architecture’s 3-D model of the Tantura village

Today two Israeli settlements and a beach resort sit on the remains of the village, which was obliterated beyond recognition. The memory of the massacre and the village’s history has not been erased, however. On 24 May, exactly 75 years after the night, 11 descendants of the displaced Tantura families filed a request with the Israeli authorities to mark, fence and place signage around both the mass graves and the village’s cemetery.

The letter, which was presented by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, attached a detailed investigation citing the exact GPS location and size of two mass graves and referred to two others, totalling four mass graves. One is suspected to be beneath a parking lot, the other beneath an open area. The letter also enclosed documents from the Israeli army’s archive of 31 May 1948 referring to “mass graves” in Tantura.

The detailed locations presented by Adalah are part of a year-long investigation by Forensic Architecture (FA), a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which investigates human rights violations including violence committed by states and armies.

Adalah’s initiative and the accurate findings of FA are unprecedented and mark uncharted ground. For the past 75 years, ample evidence of the ethnic cleansing, genocide and forced expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, based on eyewitness accounts, oral history as well as legal and academic documentation by Palestinians and even Israeli historians had never come close to locating mass graves connected to Zionist massacres.

“Everyone knows there are mass graves in Tantura,” said Suhad Bishara, Adalah’s legal director who filed the request. “But most people thought it was one mass grave and no one could tell where it was exactly, which is why legal action was very hard because we needed to identify the exact location. That’s why we contacted Forensic Architecture to conduct an investigation,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly by telephone from the United Kingdom.

FA’s research agency used archival maps, photographs and videos, aerial photographs and satellite images, village surveys, memory sketches drawn by former residents of the village, an original survey of the village’s remaining buildings, and an interview with a living survivor of the massacre to reconstruct a model of the village.

The model revealed two key sites, which the agency says are very likely mass graves from the time of the village’s occupation, including one previously unidentified.

“Taken together,” FA said in a statement, “the component parts of our investigation demonstrate the ways in which the memory of the land supports the memory of its inhabitants.”

Tantura’s name has long been associated with the massacre, one of those committed by Zionist militias in hundreds of Palestinian villages in 1948 . Tantura’s details, relayed by survivors, exacerbated fear and horror among the Palestinian population to speed their forced expulsion to make way for the creation of Israel.

The accounts of 75 years ago have been corroborated many times: the men were separated from the women and children before they were moved away in batches and killed. Some were shot lined up against walls, others dug their graves before they were executed. Those who weren’t killed were taken prisoner in abysmal conditions for months.

Most of the women and children sought shelter in the nearby Feredeis village. Photos of their expulsion are widely available on the internet. They show visibly distressed and barefoot women walking on a sandy road, carrying toddlers in their arms and what few belongings they could tie up in a bundle anchored on their heads.

FA’s striking 3D construction of Tantura is featured, among eyewitness accounts, in a 17-minute film on their website, bringing the destroyed village to life. In one video interview from 2006, Hussein Al-Ashmawi, who witnessed the massacre at the age of ten, before ending up as a refugee in Syria, described what he saw.

“Then we arrived at the cemetery, where we found a congregation of men and women. From afar we could see people carrying stretchers with dead bodies. About 100 metres away was a huge ditch. They were taking the bodies and dumping them into this ditch. Those same people who carried the dead bodies on stretches to the ditch were killed by a wave of bullets and dumped into the same ditch. That sight, I will never forget. It’s as if I’m seeing it all over again today.”

In many ways, the massacre and subsequent obliteration of Tantura came to symbolise Palestinian dispossession. In 2008 Egyptian-Lebanese filmmaker Arab Lotfi produced a documentary, Over their Dead Bodies: Tantoura, the Forgotten Massacre, which featured survivors giving testimonies. In 2010 acclaimed Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour published her haunting novel, The Woman from Tantoura, about the Nakba and its repercussions.   

But it was not until the Israeli documentary, Tantura, by Alon Schwarz, was released in 2022 that the massacre suddenly came to the attention of non-Arabs. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before it was broadcast on national Israeli TV, featured testimonies of Israeli soldiers who participated in the massacre; sending shockwaves across Israel, which has traditionally denied the Nakba.

“They turned us into murderers,” one of the soldiers who was in Tantura said in the film. “We made the Arabs line up and we shot them for no reason.” Another recounted how, after capturing 15 young Palestinians, the soldiers stuffed them in a barrel and fired at them till their blood flooded the barrel.

The film’s impact was felt more profoundly within the Arab community in Israel, which until the film was broadcast, could not refer to the Nakba without fear of persecution.

Sami Al-Ali, the 42-year-old Palestinian activist and coordinator of Tantura’s Descendants Committee which filed the petition with the Israeli authorities, says the documentary validated what Palestinians have been saying since 1948.

“We don’t need Israeli confessions to prove the truth. But the fact is, the international community has always questioned the Palestinian narrative,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly by telephone from the Arab town of Jesr Al-Zarkaa, near Haifa. “The Israeli documentary’s added value has been helpful in refuting Israeli myths.”

Both Al-Ali’s uncles lived in Tantura before the Nakba and witnessed the massacre. At 16, his uncle Anis joined the Palestinian resistance after the fall of Tantura before he was captured and ordered shot. But he survived due to a squib load in the Zionist soldier’s gun.

There has been no response yet from the Israeli authorities to Adalah’s letter. According to Bishara, the centre’s legal director, this is a process that will take some time.

“It’s hard to anticipate their response,” she said. Even a rejection, Bishara explained, has to be presented by the Israeli authorities in written form.

“On the one hand there was a very clear political decision to erase any signs of Tantura, which was totally destroyed, its land used in ways that erased any sign of what is underground there: grave yards and mass graves.” On the other hand, Adalah’s letter was “very specific” in its demands, which are based, Bishara emphasised, “on very basic human principles and that is for the families and descendants of Tantura to have dignified access to where their loved ones are buried.

“This is a right that cannot be disputed based on international law and human values and that is why we tailored our demands to them.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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