Palestinian photos and films seized by Israeli troops have been gathering dust in the army and Defense Ministry archives until Dr. Rona Sela, a curator and art historian, exposed them. The material presents an alternative to the Zionist history that denied the Palestinians’ existence here, she says.
The initial reaction is one of incredulity: Why is this material stored in the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry Archive? The first item is labeled, in Hebrew, “The History of Palestine from 1919,” the second, “Paintings by Children Who Go to School and Live in a Refugee Camp and Aspire to Return to Palestine.” The third is, “Depiction of the IDF’s Treatment and Harsh Handling of Palestinians in the Territories.”
Of all places, these three reels of 16-mm film are housed in the central archive that documents Israel’s military-security activities. It’s situated in Tel Hashomer, near the army’s National Induction Center, outside Tel Aviv.
IDF archive contains 2.7 million photos, 38,000 films
The three items are barely a drop in an ocean of some 38,000 films, 2.7 million photographs, 96,000 audio recordings and 46,000 maps and aerial photos that have been gathered into the IDF Archive since 1948, by order of Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion. However, a closer perusal shows that this particular “drop in the ocean” is subversive, exceptional and highly significant.
The footage in question is part of a collection – whose exact size and full details remain unknown – of “war booty films” seized by the IDF from Palestinian archives in raids over the years, though primarily in the 1982 Lebanon War.
Recently, however, following a persistent, protracted legal battle, the films confiscated in Lebanon, which had been gathering dust for decades – instead of being screened in cinematheques or other venues in Israel – have been rescued from oblivion, along with numerous still photos. The individual responsible for this development is Dr. Rona Sela, a curator and researcher of visual history at Tel Aviv University.
For nearly 20 years, Sela has been exploring Zionist and Palestinian visual memory. She has a number of important revelations and discoveries to her credit, which she has published in the form of books, catalogs and articles. Among the Hebrew-language titles are “Photography in Palestine/Eretz-Israel in the ‘30s and ‘40s” (2000) and “Made Public: Palestinian Photographs in Military Archives in Israel” (2009). In March, she published an article in the English-language periodical Social Semiotics on, “The Genealogy of Colonial Plunder and Erasure – Israel’s Control over Palestinian Archives.”
Now Sela has made her first film, “Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel,” an English-language documentary that surveys the fate of Palestinian photographs and films that were “captured” and deposited in Israeli archives. It includes heretofore unseen segments from films seized by the IDF from Palestinian archives in Beirut. These documentary records, Sela says, “were erased from consciousness and history” for decades.
Sela begins journey in 1998
Getting access to the films was not easy, Sela explains. Her archival journey began in 1998, when she was researching Zionist propaganda films and photos that sought to portray the “new Jew” – muscular, proudly tilling the soil – in contradistinction, according to the Zionist perception, to the supposedly degenerate and loutish Palestinian Arab.
“After spending a few years in the Central Zionist Archive in Jerusalem and in other Zionist archives, researching the history of Zionist photography and the construction of a visual propaganda apparatus supporting the Zionist idea, I started to look for Palestinian visual representation as well, in order to learn about the Palestinian narrative and trace its origins and influence,” she says.
That task was far more complicated than anyone could have imagined. In some of the Zionist films and photos, Sela was able to discern, often incidentally, episodes from Palestinian history that had “infiltrated” them, as she puts it. For example, in Carmel Newsreels (weekly news footage screened at local cinemas) from 1951, showing the settlement of Jews in Jaffa, demolished and abandoned Arab homes are clearly visible.
Subsequently, Sela spotted traces and remnants of a genuine Palestinian visual archive occasionally cropping up in Israeli archives. Those traces were not immediately apparent, more like an elusive treasure concealed here and there beneath layers of restrictions, erasures and revisions.
Khalil Rassass, father of Palestinian photojournalism
Thus, one day she noticed in the archive of the pre-state Haganah militia, stills bearing the stamp “Photo Rissas.” Digging deeper, she discovered the story of Chalil Rissas (Khalil Rassass, 1926-1974), one of the fathers of Palestinian photojournalism. He’s unknown to the general public, whether Palestinian or Israel, but according to Sela, he was a “daring, groundbreaking photographer” who, motivated by a sense of national consciousness, documented the pre-1948 Palestinian struggle.
Subsequently she found hundreds of his photographs, accompanied by captions written by soldiers or Israeli archive staff who had tried to foist a Zionist narrative on them and disconnect them from their original context. The source of the photographs was a Jewish youth who received them from his father, an IDF officer who brought them back with him from the War of Independence as booty.
The discovery was unprecedented. In contrast to the Zionist propaganda images that exalted the heroism of the Jewish troops and barely referred to the Palestinians, Rissas’ photographs were mainly of Palestinian fighters. Embodying a proud Palestinian stance, they focused on the national and military struggle and its outcome, including the Palestinians’ military training and deployment for battle.
“I realized that I’d come across something significant, that I’d found a huge cache of works by one of the fathers of Palestinian photography, who had been the first to give visual expression to the Palestinian struggle,” Sela recalls. “But when I tried to learn more about Chalil Rissas, I understood that he was a forgotten photographer, that no one knew the first thing about him, either in Israel or elsewhere.”
Sela thereupon decided to study the subject herself. In 1999, she tracked down Rissas’ brother, Wahib, who was working as a photographer of tourists on the Temple Mount / Haram a-Sharif in Jerusalem’s Old City. He told her the story of Chalil’s life. It turned out that he had accompanied Palestinian troops and leaders, visually documenting the battles fought by residents of the Jerusalem area during the 1948 War of Independence. “He was a young man who chose the camera as an instrument for changing people’s consciousness,” Sela says.
Ali Za’arur, forgotten Palestinian photographer
Around 2007, she discovered the archive of another forgotten Palestinian photographer, Ali Za’arur (1900-1972), from Azzariyeh, a village east of Jerusalem. About 400 of his photos were preserved in four albums. They also depicted scenes from the 1948 war, in which Za’arur accompanied the forces of Jordan’s Arab Legion and documented the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem. He photographed the dead, the ruins, the captives, the refugees and the events of the cease-fire.
In the Six-Day War of 1967, Za’arur fled from his home for a short time. When he returned, he discovered that the photo albums had disappeared. A relative, it emerged, had given them to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek as a gift. Afterward, the Jerusalem Foundation donated them to the IDF Archive. In 2008, in an unprecedented act, the archive returned the albums to Za’arur’s family. The reason, Sela surmises, is that the albums were captured by the army in battle. In any event, this was, as far as is known, a unique case.
Sela took heart from the discoveries she’d made, realizing that “with systematic work, it would be possible to uncover more Palestinian archives that ended up in Israeli hands.”
That work was three-pronged: doing archival research to locate Palestinian photographs and films that had been incorporated into Israeli archives; holding meetings with the Palestinian photographers themselves, or members of their families; and tracking down Israeli soldiers who had taken part in “seizing these visual spoils” and in bringing them to Israel.
In the course of her research Sela met some fascinating individuals, among them Khadijeh Habashneh, a Jordan-based Palestinian filmmaker who headed the archive and cinematheque of the Palestinian Cinema Institute. That institution, which existed from the end of the 1960s until the early ‘80s, initially in Jordan and afterward in Lebanon, was founded by three pioneering Palestinian filmmakers – Sulafa Jadallah, Hani Jawhariyyeh and Mustafa Abu Ali (Habashneh’s husband) – who sought to document their people’s way of life and national struggle. Following the events of Black September in 1970, when the Jordanian army and the Palestine Liberation Organization fought a bloody internecine war, the filmmakers moved to Lebanon and reestablished the PCI in Beirut.
Meeting with Habashneh in Amman in 2013, Sela heard the story of the Palestinian archives that disappeared, a story she included in her new documentary. “Where to begin, when so much material was destroyed, when a life project falls apart?” Habashneh said to Sela. “I can still see these young people, pioneers, bold, imbued with ideals, revolutionaries, who created pictures and films and documented the Palestinian revolution that the world doesn’t want to see. They refused to be faceless and to be without an identity.”
The archive established by Habashneh contained forgotten works that documented the Palestinians’ suffering in refugee camps, the resistance to Israel and battles against the IDF, as well as everyday life. The archive contained the films and the raw materials of the PCI filmmakers, but also collected other early Palestinian films, from both before and after 1948.
Spirit of liberation
This activity reflects “a spirit of liberation and revolt and the days of the revolution,” Habashneh says in Sela’s film, referring to the early years of the Palestinian national movement. That spirit was captured in underground photographs and with a minimal budget, on film that was developed in people’s kitchens, screened in tents in refugee camps and distributed abroad. Women, children, fighters, intellectuals and cultural figures, and events of historic importance were documented, Habashneh related. “As far as is known, this was the first official Palestinian visual archive,” Sela notes.
In her conversation with Sela, Habashneh nostalgically recalled other, better times, when the Palestinian films were screened in a Beirut cinematheque, alongside other works with a “revolutionary spirit,” from Cuba, Chile, Vietnam and elsewhere. “We were in contact with filmmakers from other countries, who saw the camera as an instrument in the hands of the revolution and the people’s struggle,” she recalled.
“Interesting cultural cooperation developed there, centering around revolutionary cinema,” Sela points out, adding, “Beirut was alive with an unprecedented, groundbreaking cultural flowering that was absolutely astonishing in terms of its visual significance.”
IDF confiscates film archive
But in 1982, after the IDF entered Beirut, that archive disappeared and was never seen again. The same fate befell two films made by Habashneh herself, one about children, the other about women. In Sela’s documentary, Habashneh wonders aloud about the circumstances in which the amazing collection disappeared. “Is our fate to live a life without a past? Without a visual history?” she asks. Since then, she has managed to reconstruct a small part of the archive. Some of the films turned up in the United States, where they had been sent to be developed. Copies of a few others remained in movie theaters in various countries where they were screened. Now in her seventies, Habashneh continues to pursue her mission, even though, as she told Sela during an early conversation, “the fate of the archive remains a puzzle.”
What Habashneh wasn’t able to accomplish beginning in 1982 as part of a worldwide quest, Sela managed to do over the course of a few years of research in Israel. She began by locating a former IDF soldier who told her about the day on which several trucks arrived at the building in Beirut that housed a number of Palestinian archives and began to empty it out. That testimony, supported by a photograph, was crucial for Sela, as it corroborated the rumors and stories about the Palestinian archives having been taken to Israel.
The same soldier added that he had been gripped by fear when he saw, among the photos that were confiscated from the archive, some that documented Israeli soldiers in the territories. He himself appeared in one of them. “They marked us,” he said to Sela.
Soldiers loot Nashashibi photos & possessions, take photo from corpse
Another former soldier told Sela about an unusual photo album that was taken (or looted, depending on one’s point of view) from the home of the prominent Nashashibi family in Jerusalem, in 1948. The soldier added that his father, who had served as an IDF officer in the War of Independence, entered a photography studio and made off with its archive, while other soldiers were busy looting pianos and other expensive objects from the Nashashibis. Another ex-soldier testified to having taken a photo from the corpse of an Arab. Over time, all these images found their way to archives in Israel, in particular the IDF Archive.
Sela discovers IDF archive
In 2000, Sela, buoyed by her early finds, requested permission from that archive to examine the visual materials that had been seized by the army in the 1980s. The initial response was denial: The material was not in Israel’s hands, she was told.
“But I knew what I was looking for, because I had soldiers’ testimonies,” she says now, adding that when she persisted in her request, she encountered “difficulties, various restrictions and the torpedoing of the possibility of perusing the material.”
The breakthrough came when she enlisted the aid of attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zacharia, in 2008. To begin with, they received word, confirmed by the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser, that various spoils taken in Beirut were now part of the IDF Archive. However, Sela was subsequently informed that “the PLO’s photography archive,” as the Defense Ministry referred in general to photographic materials taken from the Palestinians, is “archival material on matters of foreign affairs and security, and as such is ‘restricted material’ as defined in Par. 7(a) of the Archives Regulations.”
Then, one day in 2010, Sela received a fax informing her that Palestinian films had been found in the IDF Archive, without elaboration, and inviting her to view them. “There were a few dozen segments from films, and I was astonished by what I saw,” she says. “At first I was shown only a very limited amount of footage, but it was indicative of the whole. On the basis of my experience, I understood that there was more.”
A few more years of what Sela terms “endless nagging, conversations and correspondence” passed, which resulted in her being permitted to view dozens of segments of additional films, including some that apparently came from Habashneh’s archive. Sela also discovered another Palestinian archive that had been seized by the IDF. Established under the aegis of the PLO’s Cultural Arts Section, its director in the 1970s was the Lod-born painter and historian Ismail Shammout (1930-2006).
One of the works in that collection is Shammout’s own film “The Urgent Call,” whose theme song was written and performed by the Palestinian singer Zainab Shathat in English, accompanying herself on the guitar. “The film was thought to be lost until I found it in the IDF Archive,” says Sela, who describes “The Urgent Call” as “a cry about the condition of Palestine, its sons and its daughters.”
Viewing it takes one back in time to the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when the cinema of the Palestinian struggle briefly connected with other international revolutionary film movements.
Legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard
For example, in 1969 and 1970 Jean-Luc Godard, the legendary filmmaker of the French New Wave in cinema, visited Jordan and Lebanon several times with the Dziga Vertov Group of French filmmakers (named after the Soviet pioneer documentarian of the 1920s and ‘30s), who included filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, who worked with Godard in his “radical” period. They came to shoot footage in refugee camps and in fedayeen bases for Godard’s film “Until Victory.” Habashneh told Sela that she and others had met Godard, assisted him and were of course influenced by his work. [Ed. note: Godard’s work on Palestine caused him to be accused of antisemitism by the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen and others. “In Hollywood there is no greater sin,” the Guardian reported.]
Along with “The Urgent Call” – excerpts from which are included in her “Looted and Hidden” documentary – Sela also found another Shammout work in the IDF Archive. Titled “Memories and Fire,” it chronicles 20th-century Palestinian history, “from the days depicting the idyllic life in Palestine, via the documentation of refugeehood, to the documentation of the organizing and the resistance. To use the terms of the Palestinian cinema scholar and filmmaker George Khleifi, the aggressive fighter took the place of the ill-fated refugee,” she adds.
Sela also found footage by the Iraqi director Kais al-Zubaidi, who worked for a time in the PLO’s Cultural Arts Section. His films from that period include “Away from Home” (1969) and “The Visit” (1970); in 2006 he published an anthology, “Palestine in the Cinema,” a history of the subject, which mentions some 800 films that deal with Palestine or the Palestinian people. [Ed. note: unfortunately it appears this book has never been translated into English.]
IDF seals the archive for decades
Some of the Palestinian movies in the IDF Archive bear their original titles. However, in many other cases this archival material was re-cataloged to suit the Israeli perspective, so that Palestinian “fighters” became “gangs” or “terrorists,” for example. In one case, a film of Palestinians undergoing arms training is listed as “Terrorist camp in Kuwait: Distribution of uniforms, girls crawling with weapons, terrorists marching with weapons in the hills, instruction in laying mines and in arms.”
Sela: “These films and stills, though not made by Jewish/Israeli filmmakers or military units – which is the central criterion for depositing materials in the Israeli army archive – were transferred to the IDF Archive and subordinated to the rules of the State of Israel. The archive immediately sealed them for many decades and cataloged them according to its terminology – which is Zionist, Jewish and Israeli – and not according to the original Palestinian terminology. I saw places where the word ‘terrorists’ was written on photographs taken by Palestinians. But after all, they do not call themselves as such. It’s part of terminological camouflaging, which subordinated their creative work to the colonial process in which the occupier controls the material that’s captured.”
Hidden Palestinian history
Sela’s discoveries, which are of international importance, are not only a research, documentation and academic achievement: They also constitute a breakthrough in regard to the chronicling of Palestinian history. “Palestinian visual historiography lacks many chapters,” she observes. “Many photographs and archives were destroyed, were lost, taken as spoils or plundered in the various wars and in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
From her point of view, the systematic collecting of Palestinian visual materials in the IDF Archive “makes it possible to write an alternative history that counteracts the content created by the army and the military archive, which is impelled by ideological and political considerations.” In the material she found in the army archive, she sees “images that depict the history of the Palestinian people and its long-term ties to this soil and this place, which present an alternative to the Zionist history that denied the Palestinians’ existence here, as well as their culture and history and the protracted tragedy they endured and their national struggle of many years.”
The result is an intriguing paradox, such as one often finds by digging deep into an archive. The extensive information that Sela found in the IDF Archive makes it possible to reconstruct elements of the pre-1948 existence of the Palestinians and to help fill in the holes of the Palestinian narrative up until the 1980s. In other words, even if Israel’s intention was to hide these items and to control the Palestinians’ historical treasures, its actions actually abet the process of preservation, and will go on doing so in the future.
Earlier groundbreaking discovery – confiscated Palestinians books & libraries
Sela’s research on visual archival materials was preceded by another groundbreaking study – dealing with the written word – conducted by Dr. Gish Amit, an expert on the cultural aspects of Zionism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Amit chronicled the fate of Palestinian books and libraries that, like the photographs and films Sela found, ended up in Israeli archives – including in the National Library in Jerusalem.
In his 2014 book, “Ex-Libris: Chronicles of Theft, Preservation, and Appropriating at the Jewish National Library” (Hebrew), Amit trenchantly analyzes the foredoomed failure of any attempt to conceal and control the history of others. According to him, “an archive remembers its forgettings and erasures,” “documents injustice, and thus makes it possible to trace its paths” and “paves a way for forgotten histories which may, one day, convict the owners” of the documents.
However, Amit also sees the complexity of this story and presents another side of it. Describing the operation in which the Palestinian books were collected by Israeli soldiers and National Library personnel during the War of Independence, he raises the possibility that this was actually an act involving rescue, preservation and accessibility: “On the one hand, the books were collected and not burned or left in the abandoned houses in the Arab neighborhoods that had been emptied of their inhabitants. Had they not been collected their fate would have been sealed — not a trace of them would remain,” he writes, adding, that the National Library “protected the books from the war, the looting and the destruction, and from illegal trade in manuscripts.”
According to the National Library, it is holding about 6,500 Palestinian books and manuscripts, which were taken from private homes whose owners left in 1948. The entire collection is cataloged and accessible to the general public, but is held under the responsibility of the Custodian of Absentees’ Property in the Finance Ministry. Accordingly, there is no intention, in the near future, of trying to locate the owners and returning the items.
Israeli control over history
Sela views the existence of these spoils of war in Israel as a direct expression of the occupation, which she defines, beyond Israel’s physical presence in the territories, as “the control of history, the writing of culture and the shaping of identity.” In her view, “Israel’s rule over the Palestinians is not only geographic but extends also to culture and consciousness. Israel wants to erase this history from the public consciousness, but it is not being successful, because the force of the resistance is stronger. Furthermore, its attempts to erase Palestinian history adversely affect Israel itself in the end.”
At this point, Sela resorts to a charged comparison, to illustrate how visual materials contribute to the creation of personal and collective identity. “As the daughter of Holocaust survivors,” she says, “I grew up in a home without photographic historical memory. Nothing. My history starts only with the meeting of my parents, in 1953. It’s only from then that we have photos. Before that – nothing.
“I know what it feels like when you have no idea what your grandmother or grandfather looked like, or your father’s childhood,” she continues. “This is all the more true of the history of a whole people. The construction of identity by means of visual materials is very meaningful. Many researchers have addressed this topic. The fact is that Zionist bodies made and are continuing to make extensive and rational use of [such materials too] over a period that spans decades.”
Sela admits that there is still much to be done, but as far as she’s concerned, once a crack appeared in the wall, there was no turning back. “There is a great deal of material, including hundreds of films, that I haven’t yet got to,” she notes. “This is an amazing treasure, which contains information about the cultural, educational, rural and urban life of the Palestinian people throughout the 20th century – an erased narrative that needs to be restored to the history books,” she adds.
Asked what she thinks should be done with the material, she asserts, “Of course it has to be returned. Just as Israel is constantly fighting to retrieve what the Nazis looted from Jews in the Holocaust. The historical story is different, but by the same criterion, practice what you preach. These are cultural and historical materials of the Palestinian people.”
The fact that these items are being held by Israel “creates a large hole in Palestinian research and knowledge,” Sela avers. “It’s a hole for which Israel is responsible. This material does not belong to us. It has to be returned to its owners. Afterward, if we view it intelligently, we too can come to know and understand highly meaningful chapters in Palestinian history and in our own history. I think that the first and basic stage in the process of conciliation is to know the history of the Other and also your own history of controlling the Other.”
Defense Ministry response
A spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, which was asked to comment on the holdings in the IDF Archive, the archive contains 642 “war booty films,” most of which deal with refugees and were produced by the UNRWA (the United Nations refugee relief agency) in the 1960s and 1970s. The ministry also noted that 158 films that were seized by the IDF in the 1982 Lebanon War are listed in orderly fashion in the reading-room catalog and are available for perusal by the general public, including Arab citizens and Palestinians.
As for the Palestinian photographs that were confiscated, the Defense Ministry stated that there is no orderly record of them. There are 127 files of photographs and negatives in the archive, each of which contains dozens of photographs, probably taken between the 1960s and the 1980s, on a variety of subjects, including visits of foreign delegations to PLO personnel, tours of PLO delegations abroad, Palestinian art and heritage, art objects, traditional attire and Palestinian folklore, factories and workshops, demonstrations, mass parades and rallies held by the PLO, portraits of Arab personalities and PLO symbols.
The statement adds that a few months ago, crates were located that were stamped by their original owners, “PLO/Department of Information and National Guidance and Department of Information and Culture,” during the evacuation of the archive’s storerooms in the Tzrifin base.