Many knew, but...
Abu Sitta: “The US and UK planted Israel on the soil of Palestine, so it is clear that they knew about the expulsions, massacres and all. Until today they support Israel to do the same.”
For decades it has been an open secret. Palestinians who were detained in concentration or labor camps under the command of Zionists, between the late 1940s and 1955, told the younger generations about the hardships they endured: poverty, poor hygiene, hunger, disease, forced labor, torture, attempts to escape punished with execution. By the end of September, however, facts came to the fore, abundantly documented. The journalist Yazan Al-Saadi published an article in the English version of the daily Al-Akhbar on the existence of at least 22 concentration and labor camps, mostly within the territory that came to be known as Israel, between 1948 and 1955.Thousands of Palestinians were kept in the most appalling conditions. Al-Saadi based his article on research conducted by the historian Salman Abu Sitta and the co-author Terry Rempel.
An expert on Palestinian refugees and their right of return, Abu Sitta published the results of his research in the September issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies. During over two decades of investigation, Sitta, 76, studied almost 500 pages of reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Written by ICRC delegates such as Emile Moeri during the War of 1948–9 that gave the State of Israel to the Zionists, the documents are indispensable for evaluating the sub-human conditions imposed on the detainees.
The concentration camps, surrounded by watchtowers and barbed wire with sentries at the gates, resembled those famous camps in Poland. There, teenagers and men between 16 and 55 years were treated with the greatest severity as they were all considered POWs. According to an entry of November 1948 in the diary of David Ben-Gurion, the legendary Zionist leader who became Israel’s first premier, the camps had 9,000 POWs. There is also documentation proving the presence of a number of children and senior citizens.
It is difficult to understand why this tragic theme has only been “discovered” now. Abu Sitta explains to the daily Al-Akhbar: “Many former Palestinian detainees saw the concept of Israel as a vicious enemy, so they thought their experience laboring in these concentration camps was nothing in comparison to the other larger tragedy of the Nakba. The Nakba overshadowed everything.” The Nakba (“disaster”) refers to the mass departure of thousands of Arabs who escaped or were expelled
from their homes in Palestine during the War of 1948–9.
Although Magid Shihade, from Birzeit University and currently visiting professor at the University of California at Davis, recognizes the huge contribution made by Abu Sitta’s research to Palestinian history, he does not expect further studies on the Israeli concentration camps. “As you will see, even when these facts become known to all, and documented by third parties, this information will be put on the shelf.” This is because, continues Shihade, “knowledge is not the only factor here, but what stops this information being disseminated is the power of Israel and the United States to block any action based on the existence of concentration and labor camps, or earlier ones as well.” Shihade continues: “And the Western media rarely share these stories, and consequently most students will not have access to them.”
Shihade is right, in part. Al-Akhbar published the article by Al-Saadi. This piece was published by CartaCapital, a Brazilian weekly. The article printed by the Journal of Palestine Studies will have some repercussion. Abu Sitta sums up to Al-Akhbar: “The more and more you dig the more you find crimes that have taken place that are not reported and not known.” According to Abu Sitta, the ICRC agreed to open the files because it was accused of having collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. In his travels to the institution’s archives in Geneva, Sitta found documents proving the existence of five concentration camps administered by Israelis. Four were defined as “official.” The fifth, Umm Khalid, was perhaps not considered “official” as it was a labor camp and, moreover, was closed at the end of 1948.
Abu Sitta looked up the detainees cited in the ICRC documents. He obtained 22 testimonies of former detainees, all of them corroborating the existence of camps of concentration and of labor. Shihade is not surprised. “Actually, these and other racist and violent acts committed by the Israeli State were known, and Palestinians have been talking about them for long. The only difference in this case is that the Red Cross archives were open for interrogation, and so many documents from that period compiled by Red Cross officials corroborated what Palestinians had said decades earlier.” A former Umm Khalid detainee interviewed by Abu Sitta and Rempel declared: “We had to cut and carry stones all day in a quarry. Our daily food was only a potato in the morning and half dried fish at night. They beat anyone who disobeyed orders.” Other reports reveal that guards fired on prisoners of war, often with the excuse that they had tried to flee.
A report by the ICRC delegate Emile Moeri drafted in January 1949 reveals the vicissitudes suffered by the Palestinians. Children aged from 10 to 12, and many elderly detainees, died from tuberculosis. The Jewish authorities did not allow these people to be treated in Arab hospitals.
After interviewing several former detainees, it became clear to Abu Sitta and Rempel that there
were at least 17 more “unofficial” concentration camps. The fact that the vast majority of these were located within the boundaries established by the UN for the existence of the Jewish state makes these revelations extremely serious.
Some say that the Red Cross decided to “adapt” to the Israeli regime to “protect” the minimum civil rights of Palestinians. In fact, the Red Cross ended up conniving with the brutality of the Israelis, who were violating human rights with impunity.
As Al-Saadi writes, “The study essentially shows the foundations and the beginning of Israeli policy towards the Palestinian civilians that comes in the form of kidnapping, arrest, and detainment.” The journalist adds: “This criminality continues till this day. One merely has to read the reports on the hundreds of Palestinians arrested prior to, during, and after Israel’s latest war on Gaza mid-summer of this year.”
The study, of course, also shows how the Western countries supported Israel turning a blind eye to the Palestinian concentration camps. As Abu Sitta says to CartaCapital, “the United States and United Kingdom planted Israel on the soil of Palestine, so it is clear that they knew about the expulsions, massacres and all. Until today they support Israel to do the same.”