Meron Rapoport: History Erased

Roundup: Talking About History

[Meron Rapoport is a journalist for Haaretz in Israel.]

In July 1950, Majdal - today Ashkelon - was still a mixed town. About 3,000 Palestinians lived there in a closed, fenced-off ghetto, next to the recently arrived Jewish residents. Before the 1948 war, Majdal had been a commercial and administrative center with a population of 12,000. It also had religious importance: nearby, amid the ruins of ancient Ashkelon, stood Mash'had Nabi Hussein, an 11th-century structure where, according to tradition, the head of Hussein Bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was interred; his death in Karbala, Iraq, marked the onset of the rift between Shi'ites and Sunnis. Muslim pilgrims, both Shi'ite and Sunni, would visit the site. But after July 1950, there was nothing left for them to visit: that's when the Israel Defense Forces blew up Mash'had Nabi Hussein.

This was not the only Muslim holy place destroyed after Israel's War of Independence. According to a book by Dr. Meron Benvenisti, of the 160 mosques in the Palestinian villages incorporated into Israel under the armistice agreements, fewer than 40 are still standing. What is unusual about the case of Mash'had Nabi Hussein is that the demolition is documented, and direct responsibility was taken by none other than the GOC Southern Command at the time, an officer named Moshe Dayan. The documentation shows that the holy site was blown up deliberately, as part of a broader operation that included at least two additional mosques, one in Yavneh and the other in Ashdod.

A member of the establishment is responsible for the documentation: Shmuel Yeivin, then the director of the Department of Antiquities, the forerunner of the present-day Antiquities Authority. Yeivin, as noted by Raz Kletter, an archaeologist who has studied the first two decades of archaeology in Israel, was neither a political activist nor a champion for Arab rights. As Kletter explains, he was simply a scientist, a disciple of the British school and a member of the Mandate government's Department of Antiquities who believed that ancient sites and holy places needed to be preserved, whether they were sacred to Jews, Christians or Muslims. In line with his convictions, he fired off letters of protest and was considered a nudnik by the IDF.

"I received a report that not long ago, the army blew up the big building in the ruins of Ashkelon, which is known by the name of Maqam al-Nabi Hussein and is a holy site for the Muslim community," Yeivin wrote on July 24, 1950, to Lieutenant Colonel Yaakov Patt, the head of the department for special missions in the Defense Ministry, and sent a copy to chief of staff Yigael Yadin and other senior officers. "That building was still standing during my last visit to the site, on June 10 - in other words, the army authorities found no reason to demolish it from the conquest until the middle of 1950. I find it hard to imagine the site was blown up due to infiltrators, as they have not stopped infiltrating the area during this entire period."

The detonation, by the way, was extremely successful. Of the ancient and holy site, not so much as a stone remained. ...

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