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What lies beneath

A few days ago, the Associated Press reported that the small Israeli town of Kiryat Yam is suing Google for slander, after a Google Earth user “inserted a note on the map” saying that the town was built “on the location of Ghawarina”, a Palestinian village destroyed in 1948.

A town official said this was impossible, as Kiryat Yam was founded in 1945, while Google emphasised that their service “depends on user-generated content that reflects what people contribute, not what Google believes is accurate”.

The user in question, a Palestinian from Jenin called Thameen Darby, has already made other, similar, notes, though in this specific case he said if the location is “proven wrong by reliable sources, I will be quick to reallocate it”. Apparently even cyberspace is not immune from the competing claims to the landscape of Palestine/Israel.

It brings to mind a small news item from Ha’aretz last week, describing an apparent victory for the Zochrot organisation in their struggle to get recognition for the destroyed Palestinian villages whose land became part of the parks administered by the Jewish National Fund (JNF).

Senior JNF officials were said to have notified Zochrot that “in parks that have a sign explaining the history of the area, the Palestinian villages that were once located there would also be mentioned”.

“Thus”, wrote Yoav Stern in Ha’aretz, “some 31 villages … will be saved from the brink of oblivion.” It’s not a done deal, however – “the JNF did not confirm the agreement” and even a positive decision “will take a long time” to implement.

Nevertheless, Zochrot’s director, Eitan Bronstein, said the JNF decision was “a revolutionary and interesting change”. Encouraged by the development, Bronstein observed that “today there is more openness to the subject and it is starting to be less threatening. The sky will not fall if we tell people that we kicked out Arabs and destroyed villages.”

I have read both stories as I draw to the close of a fascinating book by Meron Benvenisti. Benvenisti served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978 and his father was a prominent geographer and mapmaker. Sacred Landscape, which is subtitled “The buried history of the Holy Land since 1948″, is a rich blend of memoir, history, anthropology, geography, and politics. Benvenisti describes how, from Israel’s birth on, to acknowledge that “the Israeli landscape was built on the ruins of the Palestinian landscape” and to examine “the essential contribution consciously made by the Israelis to the obliteration of an entire physical and human universe” has been seen as tantamount to “contesting the Jews’ right to shape the landscape of their homeland”:

The destroyed Arab landscape of their homeland was overlaid with the blossoming and prosperous Israeli landscape, and anyone seeking to delve beneath the foundations of Israel’s landscape would not only arouse slumbering ghosts from their lair but also would undermine the foundations of the entire structure and bring it tumbling down.

So the solution became to simply “ignore” the Palestinian landscape, making it possible “to stifle questions liable to destroy the Zionist mythos”. This erasure of the Palestinian presence was both a literal manifestation, and powerful symbol, of the way in which the Zionist endeavour renders the Palestinian invisible. Eyal Weizman, in Hollow Land, relates an anecdote about the head of the architecture department in Ariel College (a settlement) in the West Bank, who claimed that his architecture students watching out of their classroom windows “see the Arab villages, but don’t notice them. They look and they don’t see. And I say this positively.”

Even now, discussions and argument about Israel are often seen solely in the context of Jewish concerns, and Zionism is defended with an almost exclusively Jewish frame of reference – in the light of western anti-semitism, Jewish identity, and 19th and 20th century persecution. Critique and opposition, therefore, is understood as being “anti-Jewish”, rather than originating in the consequences of Zionism for the Palestinians.

Decisions like the one made by the JNF are definitely signs of progress, but there is still a long way to go. What is necessary is that the two landscapes, Jewish and Palestinian, are not seen as mutually exclusive, an understanding that can profoundly shape not just individual attitudes but also the foundations of a final settlement.

In his deeply personal introduction, Benvenisti describes meeting refugees in a camp near Jerusalem shortly after the 1967 war. As he heard the names of their villages, he realised that “my triumph had been their catastrophe”. But this is nothing to do with “winding back the clock”. Benvenisti, rightly, still holds firm to his own “birthright to this Land”. In this year of both celebration and remembrance, here is a model that is challenging, inspiring – and hopeful.

Published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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