After a frightening moment with a billowing forest fire, we meet Umar in the village of Imwas in the middle of Canada-Ayalon Park, a major Jewish National Fund (JNF) nature reserve, popular for picnics and strolls in the woods amongst the “Roman ruins.” Arabs here date back to 638 AD, when they arrived along with the bubonic plague. Archeologists think the bathhouse dates back to the third century. The village was built hundreds of years ago and, along with Yallo and Deir Ayyoub, comprised a strategically important area called the Latrun. Israel forces tried and failed to seize the Latrun in 1948 because the local Arabs put up fierce opposition, and thus the Israelis lost a direct route from Jaffa to Jerusalem. The generals called their alternative route The Burma Road, evoking a fought over supply route between Burma and China, scene of a number of important struggles during World War II. By referencing the language of the Allies who fought the Germans, the framing about the struggle to supply Jerusalem easily shifted: the Arabs became the new Nazis. The capture of Latrun was one of the first goals of the 1967 War. Much to my amazement (and I am pretty hard to amaze at this point), the village was occupied in 1967 but never annexed like East Jerusalem, so the area is technically still in the West Bank as occupied territory. Nonetheless, Israelis frolic freely in the park, and inhabitants of the three old villages have to obtain permits to visit the sites of their former homes, schools, olive groves, desecrated cemeteries, etc. In 1967, the villagers, by the way, gave no resistance; the Israeli Defense Forces rounded them up in the central yard, reassured them they would return soon, and then forcibly marched the bewildered families toward Ramallah. “Yalla to Ramallah.” A few hid in their homes, a few fled to a Trappist monastery, but a total of seventy-five hundred villagers were ethnically cleansed. Umar shows us photos that look eerily like 1948, and dare I say, other catastrophes that have befallen people we all know and love.
Once the inhabitants were gone, the army bulldozed the houses, but the stones and protruding pipes and metal remain, as well as a sixth century Byzantine church, a crumbling Roman bathhouse, and three neglected cemeteries. After the Six Day War, the inhabitants were directed to walk back but were met by the IDF, who shot over their heads and turned the hungry, thirsty, frightened families away.
According to Umar, Israeli commanders explained to the nearby kibbutzniks, “There are some things you will never understand.
[I.e., this is about revenge for 1948]. How do you expect us to let Arabs stay close to the highway? We need the area clean.” Even using the word “clean” to mean “free of Arabs,” dare we say “Arabrein,” is shocking if you give it a moment’s thought.
In another mind-boggling tidbit of information, the area is administered by the civilian administration, which is part of the military administration for the West Bank, so somebody in power knows that this is the West Bank. Palestinians treated the baths (which were partly covered) as a holy shrine dating back to a sheikh who was a friend of the Prophet Mohammed. Except for one sign in Hebrew demanded by Zochrot (which has been now replaced three times, and blackened once), there is not a single acknowledgment that this lovely forest, with its JNF trees and graceful olive groves (olive groves here people!!!) and house foundations and olive presses, dates back to a recently destroyed Palestinian village. An Israeli soldier photographed the destruction and the forced march in 1967, and finally got the wherewithal to publish his pictures in the 1980s. No one cared.
Across the highway is the more polished version of the park.
Paths are neatly lined with square stones taken from the destroyed homes. Lovely walls enclose a playground, the stones again from destroyed homes. There are circles of panels made from the same stones celebrating the donors to the park: They include Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King and lists of wealthy Canadian Jews and congregations. The JNF sponsors olive festivals to encourage Israeli children (read Jews) to connect to the land and the olive trees (suggesting they are not historically connected, right?).
So how does a lie get created and sold as the truth? History as well as people can be disappeared, particularly when they are voiceless, colonized, Arab, Muslim. How do the survivors of the European catastrophe throw people out of their homes and set them off on forced marches, leaving them with nothing? How are false memories born and rebirthed until only the dispossessed and a few hardy souls who refuse to forget can demand to tell the whole story. It is a powerful reminder to touch the rugged stones of Imwas, to walk with the ghosts, hear their voices in the welcomed breeze, and feel the presence of people who refuse to disappear.
I come from a people that stands proudly and says, “We will never forget.” Every catastrophe is unique in its own right, but how can we expect others to feel any differently than we do? Palestinians too will never forget. The stones do not lie.