Salman Abu Sitta, researcher of Palestinian history, writes in response to Eitan Bronstein's question about the existence of labor camps in Palestine during and after the Nakba
Thank you for bringing up this important subject which is rarely mentioned, but should now come to light. Labor camps were indeed set up in Palestine. This is how it happened:
Typical expulsion pattern of a Palestinian village followed these lines:
The village is attacked and besieged from 3 sides leaving the fourth open to facilitate expulsion. Men and women were separated in two groups. The women with children were expelled to Lebanon, Jenin, Ramallah or Gaza (depending on location) after being stripped of their valuables. Young men, about 20 - 100 in number, were selected, shot and killed in groups of 4 - 6, after an earlier group had been ordered to dig mass graves for them. Other able-bodied men were taken to labor camps. Their immediate task was to bury the dead in other villages, to demolish Arab houses, to remove the debris from already demolished houses and carry salvaged items to Jewish homes. Generally they did arduous and dangerous jobs. They were fed a slice of bread daily. They were kept in crammed concentration camps. Their conditions improved after Red Cross (ICRC) visits.
I have two pieces of solid evidence of labor camps:
1. The testimony of a survivor from Tantoura massacre as published in 1951. His last station was in Ijlil labor camp. (Tantoura massacre was the subject of an accepted and passed MA thesis at Haifa University by Teddy Katz. He was taken to court in December 2000 and expelled from the University in November 2001. The Inquisition court of Haifa University is now planning to expel his professor, the celebrated Ilan Papp?. Such is justice in "the only democracy in the Middle East").
Sheikh Mohamed Nimr al Khatib, a well known Imam of Haifa, in his book "Nakbat Palestine", published in 1951, reported the following moving testimony by Al-Tantoura witness, Marwan Iqab Al-Yihya, whose house-structure is still standing. The witness said:"I was working in Haifa and after its fall, I returned to my village Tantoura where I was born. The Jews attacked and occupied Kafr Lam in the north, and Ceasaria (Kisarya) to the south. To the east, there was Zikhron Yacoub colony and to the west, the sea. We were surrounded. The people decided to resist, more so because they were the last Arab village. On the night of 22/23 May the Jews attacked from 3 sides and landed in boats from the seaside. We resisted in the streets and houses and in the morning the corpses were seen everywhere. I shall never forget this day all my life. The Jews gathered all women and children in a place, where they dumped all bodies, for them to see their dead husbands, fathers and brothers and terrorize them, but they remained calm.
They gathered men in another place, took them in groups and shot them dead. When women heard this shooting, they asked their Jewish guard about it. He replied we are taking revenge for our dead. One officer selected 40 men and took them to the village square. Each four were taken aside. They shoot one, and order the other three to dump his body in a big pit. Then they shoot another and the other two carry his body to the pit and so on.
I waited my fate until I heard the order: get in the bus. They took us to Zakhron Yacoub and were led to a damp dark cellar. It seemed that I entered a mass grave. We were about 300. There was standing room only. We stayed 3 days without food. I felt dizzy and exhausted. Some had to walk over lying bodies. Then suddenly the door was opened. We were anxious about what is next. We were packed standing in waiting trucks. When the truck was full, they shut it and ordered everyone to sit down. They threatened to shoot any head they can see. But how can we sit? They knocked and beat all standing heads. There was so much splashed blood. Under guard we were driven to Um Khalid [now absorbed by Netanya]. There we were taken to a concentration camp and from there to forced labor. We had to cut and carry stones all day [in a quarry]. Our daily food was only one potato in the morning and half dried fish at night. They beat anyone who disobeyed orders. After 15 days they moved 150 men to another camp. I was one of them. It was a shock for me to leave my two brothers behind. As we left the others, we were lined up and ordered to strip naked. To us this is most degrading. We refused. Shots were fired at us. Our names were read, we had to respond 'Sir' or else. We were moved to a new camp in Ijlil village. There we were put immediately to forced labor which consisted of moving stones from Arab demolished houses. We remained without food for 2 days, then they gave us each a dry piece of bread...etc. One day an English speaking officer announced that we shall be treated as POW and Geneva convention was to apply. We were elated. Next our treatment was improved a little...etc. Five months later we were moved again back to the first camp...[.....]. Two months later, 20 people escaped. I was one of those who remained. Next morning, when the escape was discovered, they put Tantoura people in a cage, poured oil on our clothes and took away our blankets. We were then moved from one camp to another.
Then we were released after a long time. I did not believe I could come out alive."
2. The international Red Cross visited the labor camps. Their report on 06 February 1949 (No. G59/I/GC), now released 50 years later and I have just obtained a copy of it, gives the following list:
1. Camp No. 791 in Ijlil, near Herzlia, 1991 prisoners, Israeli Commander Mosedale.
2. Camp 792 in Atlit, near Haifa, 1640 prisoners, Israeli Commander Weissbach.
3. Camp 793 in Sarafand, near Ramle, 1360 prisoners, Israeli Commander Rappaport.
4. Camp 794 in Tel Litvinsky, near Tel Aviv, 1310 prisoners, Israeli Commander Kossovsky.
(Earlier reports indicate higher figures of prisoners).
These were the camps visited by ICRC. There are other concentration camps not visited. It should be noted that the prisoners were treated much worse before they were moved to places where ICRC were allowed to visit.
ICRC report of 11 November 1948 notes that the prisoners were treated just so "d'obtenir d'eux un travail extr?mement utile a' l'?conomie de l'Etat" - to obtain from them the most extreme hard work to enhance the economy of the State". When reading this, you should remember that ICRC tend to understate the conditions they observe as they believe in improving conditions rather than condemning them. This Israeli practice is a strong reminder of German practices in WW II. Incidentally, many of the Israeli commanders who were guarding the prisoners had just come from Germany. They should know what it was like to be in a concentration camp.
The prisoners remained in Israeli camps for 2 - 5 years. Most were released by 1955.
This treatment of prisoners, mostly civilians, is contrary to Geneva Convention, and contrary to Rome Statute of 1998 which led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court due to open 1 July 2002. War crimes have no statute of limitation. Perpetrators are liable to punishment individually and victims are entitled to compensation in the same way as Jewish victims are now paid compensation of billions of dollars for their suffering in Nazi slave labour camps. The Japanese also compensated the Allied soldiers for the same. The guilt about civilians is much greater.
Eitan, you may be able to contact one of the Israeli commanders of the camps and you may get some confessions from them - to relieve their conscience before they pass away.
Justice shall prevail, however long it takes.
Due to importance of your question, I have taken the liberty to circulate it to friends.
Salman Abu Sitta