The Tantura Massacre, 22-23 May 1948
On the night of 22-23 May 1948, a week after the declaration of the State of Israel, the Palestinian coastal village of Tantura (population 1,500) was attacked and occupied by units of the Israeli army's Alexandroni Brigade. The village, south of Haifa, lay within the area assigned to the Jewish state by the UN General Assembly's partition resolution. In its occupation, depopulation, subsequent destruction, and seizure of all its lands by Israel, the fate of Tantura was similar to that of more than 400 other Palestinian villages during the 1948 war. But it also shared with some two score of these villages the additional agony of a large-scale massacre of its inhabitants.
Word of the Tantura massacre was completely overshadowed at the time by the fighting between Israel and the regular armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, which had entered the country after the state had been proclaimed. The first written reference to it was made by Haj Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib, a Muslim cleric who had been an active member of the Arab National Committee of Haifa (the highest local political body) before its capture by the Haganah on 23-25 April. In about 1950, Khatib published in Damascus under the title Min Athar al-Nakba (Consequences of the Catastrophe) a compendium of writings, including his own memoirs on Haifa and several eyewitness accounts by Palestinian refugees from various parts of the country. Khatib's work, along with those of two other Arab authors, was translated into Hebrew in 1954 by the Israel Defense Forces, General Staff/History Branch, and published under the title Be'einei Oyev (In Enemy Eyes). Khatib's references to the Tantura massacre comprise a short account by Iqab al-Yahya (a notable of the village) and a longer and more detailed account by his son Marwan (pp in Min Athar, etc.). Khatib also reports cases of Tantura female rape victims being treated in a Nablus hospital. Later, using Marwan's testimony, Walid Khalidi referred to "the methodical shooting and burial in a communal grave of some forty young men in Tantura village" in the famous triangular Spectator correspondence between Erskine Childers, Jon Kimche, and himself (12 May-4 August 1961; republished in 1988 in JPS 18,1). Nonetheless, the entry under Tantura in Khalidi's inadvertently omitted All That Remains (Washington, IPS, 1992), mention of the massacre.
The issue of the Tantura massacre has come into recent prominence because of the work of an Israeli researcher, Teddy Katz, who dealt with it at length in his 1998 master's thesis at Haifa University. A summary of his research, particularly his finding that more than 200 Tantura villagers, mostly unarmed young men, had been shot after the village surrendered, was published in an article in the Hebrew press in January 2000. The article unleashed a storm in Israel, culminating in a 1 million shekel libel suit brought by veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade against Katz (though his research was based on taped testimonies not only of survivors but also of members of the brigade). What happened at the December 2000 trial is dealt with in an article in this issue by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, who also discusses the research itself and its ramifications.
The fate of Tantura was sealed long before the night of its fall. It was one of the tens of Palestinian villages and towns inside and outside the boundaries of the UN-envisaged Jewish state specifically targeted for capture under the notorious Plan Dalet, the Haganah master plan for the military establishment of Israel on the largest area possible of Palestine (see JPS 28,1 for the full text). Tantura itself fell within the zone of operation of the Alexandroni Brigade, one of the erstwhile Haganah's six Khish (field force) brigades (to be distinguished from its strike force, the three Palmach brigades). The official history of the Haganah, Sefer Toldot Haganah (vol. 3, pp. 1474-75), summarizing the operational orders to the brigades under Plan Dalet, lists the assignments of the four battalions constituting the Alexandroni Brigade. These include the "occupation of al-Tantura and al-Furaydis" as well as the capture of "twenty villages in enemy territory" (i.e., land assigned to the Arab state under the UN General Assembly partition plan). Plan Dalet was put into operation in the first week of April, six weeks before the end of the Mandate and the entry of the Arab regular armies. The task of capturing Tantura was assigned to the Alexandroni Brigade's 33rd Battalion.
After the fall of the village and the massacre, the women and children were taken to the nearby village of Furaydis, which had already fallen but whose inhabitants had not been expelled. The surviving men were held in prison camps and were eventually transported under prisoner exchanges out of Israel; their families followed. Today most live in refugee camps in Syria or in the al-Qabun quarter of Damascus. In June 1948, a few weeks after Tantura's fall, the kibbutz of Nachsholim was established on its lands by Holocaust survivors. The village itself was razed, except for a shrine, a fortress, and a few houses. The site of the village is now an Israeli recreational area with swimming facilities, and the fortress houses a museum.
The evidence provided by the testimonies published below supplements the evidence of the two Yahyas and the research of Katz, albeit from the inevitably fragmented and narrow perspective of individual villagers caught in the vortex of events beyond their capacity to comprehend. The testimonies were selected from tens of interviews collected during the summer of 2000 by Mustafa al-Wali, a Palestinian researcher living in Damascus. First published in the autumn 2000 issue of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, JPS's sister quarterly, they form part of a larger oral history project on 1948 to be published later this year.