Israel leveled mosques plus Imam Hussein head burial site
By: Ahmed Hammadi
TEL AVIV: An Israeli daily wrote in its Friday editions that Israel
destroyed more than 100 mosques in Palestinian villages incorporated
into the state, including the site where the head of Imam Hussein
(peace be upon him), the grandson of holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be
upon him and his holy progeny) was supposedly buried.
According to archives quoted by the Haaretz newspaper, Israel's
legendary general Moshe Dayan -- himself an avid amateur archaeologist
-- gave the order to blow up the mosque while he was a young
Haaretz said the Mashhad Nabi Hussein in Majdal, now Ashkelon, dated
back to the 11th century and was where tradition had it that the head
of Imam Hussein was interred.
The Mashhad Nabi Hussein mosque was blown up deliberately as part of a
broader operation that included at least two additional mosques, one
in Yavneh and the other in the nearby Mediterranean city of Ashdod,
Of the 160 mosques in Palestinian villages incorporated into Israel
under the armistice agreements, fewer than 40 are still standing, the
newspaper quoted a Tel Aviv University study as showing.
Various holy sites were levelled despite protests from the then head
of the Israeli antiquities department, Shmuel Yeivin, who believed
that ancient sites and holy places needed to be preserved whoever they
were sacred to.
Here is the full story published in haaretz newspaper
By Meron Rapoport
In July 1950, Majdal - today Ashkelon - was still a mixed town. About
3,000 Palestinians lived there in a closed, fenced-off ghetto, next to
the recently arrived Jewish residents. Before the 1948 war, Majdal had
been a commercial and administrative center with a population of
12,000. It also had religious importance: nearby, amid the ruins of
ancient Ashkelon, stood Mash'had Nabi Hussein, an 11th-century
structure where, according to tradition, the head of Hussein Bin Ali,
the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was interred. Muslim pilgrims,
both Shi'ite and Sunni, would visit the site. But after July 1950,
there was nothing left for them to visit: that's when the Israel
Defense Forces blew up Mash'had Nabi Hussein.
This was not the only Muslim holy place destroyed after Israel's War
of Independence. According to a book by Dr. Meron Benvenisti, of the
160 mosques in the Palestinian villages incorporated into Israel under
the armistice agreements, fewer than 40 are still standing. What is
unusual about the case of Mash'had Nabi Hussein is that the demolition
is documented, and direct responsibility was taken by none other than
the GOC Southern Command at the time, an officer named Moshe Dayan.
The documentation shows that the holy site was blown up deliberately,
as part of a broader operation that included at least two additional
mosques, one in Yavneh and the other in Ashdod.
A member of the establishment is responsible for the documentation:
Shmuel Yeivin, then the director of the Department of Antiquities, the
forerunner of the present-day Antiquities Authority. Yeivin, as noted
by Raz Kletter, an archaeologist who has studied the first two decades
of archaeology in Israel, was neither a political activist nor a
champion for Arab rights. As Kletter explains, he was simply a
scientist, a disciple of the British school and a member of the
Mandate government's Department of Antiquities who believed that
ancient sites and holy places needed to be preserved, whether they
were sacred to Jews, Christians or Muslims. In line with his
convictions, he fired off letters of protest and was considered a
nudnik by the IDF.
"I received a report that not long ago, the army blew up the big
building in the ruins of Ashkelon, which is known by the name of Maqam
al-Nabi Hussein and is a holy site for the Muslim community," Yeivin
wrote on July 24, 1950, to Lieutenant Colonel Yaakov Patt, the head of
the department for special missions in the Defense Ministry, and sent
a copy to chief of staff Yigael Yadin and other senior officers. "That
building was still standing during my last visit to the site, on June
10 - in other words, the army authorities found no reason to demolish
it from the conquest until the middle of 1950. I find it hard to
imagine the site was blown up due to infiltrators, as they have not
stopped infiltrating the area during this entire period."
The detonation, by the way, was extremely successful. Of the ancient
and holy site, not so much as a stone remained.
Yeivin's complaint was seemingly related to procedural matters, but
only seemingly. The army, he wrote, needed to understand that there
were "sanctified buildings," and if it wanted to touch them, "it is
proper, honest and courteous first to talk to the institutions that
supervise these areas and buildings, and to consult with them in order
to find ways to avoid destruction." But that is not happening, Yeivin
stated. "I was told that simultaneously, the mosque in the abandoned
village of Ashdod was blown up," Yeivin added. "This is not the first
case. I already have had many occasions to draw your attention to
similar cases elsewhere, and the chief of staff issued explicit
directives with regard to the preservation of such buildings and
places, but apparently none of this avails commanders of a certain
type ... I believe the commander responsible for this explosion should
be brought to trial and punished, because in this case there was no
justification for a swift, war-contingent operation."
A perusal of the IDF Archives shows that Lieutenant Colonel Patt
forwarded Yeivin's complaint to Yadin. However, Yadin, who would later
become Israel's preeminent archaeologist and whose father, Eliezer
Sukenik, was an archaeologist of repute in his own right and Yeivin's
colleague in the Mandate Department of Antiquities, was not unduly
upset. Below Patt's letter addressing Yeivin's complaint are
handwritten remarks: "1. Confirm receipt of letter and inform that the
matter is being dealt with; 2. Add to Dayan's material for my meeting
with B.-G." - referring to then prime minister and defense minister
It stands to reason that the handwriting is Yadin's, as it is unlikely
that anyone else could have met with Ben-Gurion concerning "Dayan's
material." And Yadin, as is clear from another note written on the
letter, did not attribute any great importance to the complaint. "Teven
la'afarayim," it says, roughly the equivalent of "coals to Newcastle"
- in short, there is nothing new in Yeivin's complaint.
Nor was Dayan unduly upset. In a response he sent to the chief of
staff's bureau, apparently on August 10 under the heading "Destruction
of a holy place," Dayan wrote: "The detonation was carried out by the
Coastal Plain District, at my instruction." The first words of the
sentence have been struck out, but a letter dated August 30 removes
all doubt. Dayan replied to a letter concerning "damage to antiquities
in the Ashkelon area": "The chief of staff approached me and I gave
him my explanations; the action was carried out at my instructions."
That reply was so embarrassing that Yaakov Prolov, the head of the
Operations Department in the General Staff, sent a letter to the chief
of staff's bureau asking for guidelines on how to reply to Yeivin. "A
mistake was made here and it can be assumed it will not happen again,"
someone instructed him in script that looks like that attributed to
Yadin in the previous letter. Whitewashing, it turns out, is not a new
Blots on the landscape
Not surprisingly, it did in fact happen again. At the end of October,
Yeivin sent another letter, this time directly to Yadin, to complain
about "the blowing-up of the ancient mosque at Yavneh," a
1,000-year-old structure whose minaret is still standing on a hill
south of Yavneh, close to the train station. Yeivin reminded Yadin
that he had been promised that those responsible would be punished
this time. But it turned out there was an unexplained disparity
between the explicit orders prohibiting damage to mosques and the
actual policy in the field.
"I have just received an official reply from your bureau chief
[Michael Avitzur], and after reading it I am totally at a loss,"
Yeivin wrote to Yadin. "On the one hand, I have in front of me your
explicit order, which speaks unequivocally about preserving places of
archaeological or historical value ... On the other hand, I read in
the letter of Lieutenant Colonel Michael Avitzur that the mosque at
Yavneh 'was exploded on July 9, 1950, before the date on which the
cessation of blowing up mosques was announced.' How can these two
things be reconciled?"
Yeivin's quotation from Avitzur's letter makes it clear that blowing
up mosques was widespread enough that it required a special order to
stop it. Yeivin himself wrote later in the letter, "I am extremely
concerned following my talks with a number of people involved in the
policy on this question." Yeivin did not specify whom he spoke to, but
noted, "I do not see myself as being able to write explicitly about
David Eyal (formerly Trotner), who was the military commander of
Majdal at the time, says "he does not want to return" to that period.
The historian Mordechai Bar-On, who was Dayan's bureau chief during
his term as chief of staff and remained close to him for years, says
he himself did not serve in Southern Command at the time and therefore
is not familiar with the destruction of mosques in Ashkelon, Yavneh
and Ashdod, and also never heard Dayan issue any such order.
"As a company commander in Central Command, we expelled the Arabs from
Zakariyya, but we did not destroy the mosque, and it is still there,"
Bar-On says. "I know that in the South, in the villages of Bureir and
Huj [near today's Kibbutz Bror Hayil], the villages were leveled and
the mosques disappeared with them, but I am not familiar with an order
to demolish only mosques. It doesn't sound reasonable to me."
The affair of the mosque demolitions does not appear in Kletter's book
"Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology," published in Britain
(Equinox Publishing) in 2005. Kletter, who has worked for the
Antiquities Authority for the past 20 years, does not consider himself
a "new historian" and has no accounts to settle with Zionism or the
State of Israel. Nevertheless, the story of archaeology comes across
in his book to no small degree as one of destruction: the utter
destruction of towns and villages, the destruction of an entire
culture - its present but also its past, from 3,000-year-old Hittite
reliefs to synagogues in razed Arab quarters, from a rare Roman
mausoleum (which was damaged but spared from destruction at the last
minute) to fortresses that were blown up one after the other. Had it
not been for a few fanatics like Yeivin, who pleaded to save these
historical monuments, they might all have been wiped off the face of
As the documents quoted in the book show, only a small part of this
devastation occurred in the heat of battle. The vast majority took
place later, because the remnants of the Arab past were considered
blots on the landscape and evoked facts everyone wanted to forget.
"The ruins from the Arab villages and Arab neighborhoods, or the blocs
of buildings that have stood empty since 1948, arouse harsh
associations that cause considerable political damage," wrote A. Dotan,
from the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry, in an August
1957 letter that is quoted in Kletter's book. A copy was sent to
Yeivin in the Department of Antiquities. "In the past nine years, many
ruins have been cleared ... However, those that remain now stand out
even more prominently in sharp contrast to the new landscape.
Accordingly, ruins that are irreparable or have no archaeological
value should be cleared away." The letter, Dotan noted, was written
"at the instruction of the foreign minister," Golda Meir.
Kletter reveals in his book that Yeivin and his staff occasionally
tried to stop the destruction - not always, not consistently, and not
for moral reasons or out of any special respect for the people (the
Arabs) who lived for centuries in these towns and quarters. Their
grounds were scientific, and Kletter believes this approach stemmed
from their background. Before 1948 they worked for the Department of
Antiquities of the Mandate government under British management,
alongside Arab employees. Kletter relates that in the department they
fought for the "Judaization" of the names of ancient sites, but
nevertheless remained loyal to the department - so much so that after
the United Nations passed the partition plan, in November 1947, Yeivin
proposed that the department remain unified even after the country's
division into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Eliezer Sukenik went
one step farther: "I do not believe the Jewish state will preserve its
antiquities," he said in a December 1947 discussion. "We must place
scientific sovereignty above political sovereignty. We are interested
in the archaeology of the whole land, and the only way [to ensure
this] is a unified department."
Perjury at Megiddo
"Yeivin was not the greatest archaeologist in the world, but he had
personal integrity, which is the most important trait of the British
heritage," Kletter says. "But that heritage did not suit the
nationalism of the 1950s, because Ben-Gurion wanted to erase
everything that had been, to erase the Islamic past."
Ben-Gurion saw everything that existed here before the revival of the
Jewish community as wasteland. "Foreign conquerors have turned our
land into a desert," he said at a meeting of the Society for Land of
Israel Studies in 1950. Thus the failure of Yeivin and his colleagues
was a foregone conclusion. In the 1950s, when archaeology was a fad
and archaeologists like Yadin were cultural heroes, people of science
were nudged out of management positions. Yeivin was forced to resign
and "technocrats" like Teddy Kollek were effectively put in charge of
managing Israel's major archaeological sites.
The Department of Antiquities was formally established in July 1948,
as a unit of the Public Works Department in the Ministry of Labor.
Even before this, the veterans of its Mandatory predecessor tried to
preserve antiquities, and in particular to prevent looting, but did
not always succeed. The museum in Caesarea was emptied out by thieves,
and the same fate befell the findings and documents at Tel Megiddo,
which were concentrated in the offices of the University of Chicago
archaeological expedition, which had been digging there since the
1920s. Rare collections, such as the one at Notre Dame Monastery in
Jerusalem, disappeared almost completely, and private collections and
antique shops in Jaffa and Jerusalem were also targeted by thieves.
"All the objects have disappeared from the government museum [more
than 100 fragments of inscriptions and parts of pillars]," reported
Emanuel Ben-Dor, who would later become Yeivin's deputy director,
after visiting Caesarea. "The collection in the office of the Greek
patriarch was destroyed." The Megiddo incident was particularly
embarrassing, as the dig was carried out by American archaeologists
and the U.S. consulate wanted to know who was responsible for the
devastation. An investigation was launched under Yeivin's supervision,
and the local commanders said that Arab units had wrecked the site.
Yeivin discovered that this was untrue, and that Israeli soldiers had
looted the site and then burned the archaeological expedition's
In a confidential report, Yeivin quoted from an internal letter of the
local unit: "In consultation with the battalion commander and with the
brigade's operations officer, we agreed that in the event of an
investigation by the U.S. consul general ... we will (shamefully) lie
and say the place was found in this condition when it was captured and
that the crime was committed by the Arabs before they fled."
But the theft of antiquities was only a small part of the problem. The
major problem was the destruction. In August 1948, the army started to
demolish ancient Tiberias, apparently in the wake of a local decision.
The attempts to salvage some of the town's archaeological gems were to
no avail. In September the site was visited by Jacob Pinkerfeld, from
the Department of Antiquities' monument conservation unit.
"In ancient Tiberias the army began to blow up a hefty strip of
buildings in the Old City," Pinkerfeld wrote in his report. "In talks
with all the responsible parties at the site, we emphasized the
special importance of the ancient stone with the relief of the lions
on it, which was built into one of the walls. We were promised that
this antiquity dating back 3,000 years would be specially guarded, but
in my last visit I found precisely this stone blown to bits." So
sweeping was the destruction of Tiberias that even Ben-Gurion was
taken aback when he visited the city in early 1949.
The list for destruction sometimes assumed ludicrous proportions.
During a visit to Haifa in August 1948, Yeivin discovered the army was
laying waste to large sections of the Arab city around Hamra Square
(now Paris Square) under the direction of the city engineer. In his
restrained language, Yeivin expressed his astonishment at the
destruction: "With our own eyes we saw the ruins of half of a building
that had served as a synagogue on the Street of the Jews ... According
to Jews who live there and wandered about among the ruins, another two
or three synagogues were also destroyed there ... It would appear that
with attentiveness, the damage inflicted to these holy buildings could
have been avoided."
The leveling of the villages began as soon as the fighting ended.
During his visit to the North, Yeivin saw the army blowing up villages
near Tiberias and Mount Tabor. He asked that before villages were
demolished, consultations be held with representatives of the
Department of Antiquities, because "in many villages, ancient building
stones are embedded in the houses." At Zir'in (now Kibbutz Yizrael) a
Crusader tower was blown up, and the fortress at Umm Khaled, near
Netanya, was reduced to rubble.
But there were successes, too. An order was issued to raze the
fortress at Shfaram, but Antiquities Department staff arrived at the
last minute and blocked the demolition. And at Al-Muzeirra, a village
south of Rosh Ha'ayin, a miracle occurred: the army used a handsome
building of pillars in the middle of the abandoned village for target
practice, apparently without knowing it was "the only mausoleum that
survived in our country from the Roman period," according to Yeivin.
When, nonetheless, the decision came to blow up the mausoleum in July
1949, an antiquities inspector arrived at the site and prevented the
blast. The site is now known as "Hirbat Manor" (the Manor Ruin) and is
recommended in all sightseeing guides for the area.
Kletter relates that in February 1950, at the initiative of Yeivin and
others, who grasped that without government intervention, the
country's urban past would simply disappear, Ben-Gurion agreed to
establish a government committee "for sacred and historic sites and
monuments." The committee was staffed by senior government and
military personnel. The report, which was submitted in October 1951,
stated that certain sites had to be preserved as "whole units" -
"Acre, a few quarters in Safed, small sections of Jaffa and Tiberias,
small sections of Ramle and Lod, a few sections of Tarshiha." The rest
of the towns, and hundreds of villages, were already lost.
However, the state institutions failed to honor even these
conclusions. According to Kletter, Yeivin was one of the first to
fight the August 1950 decision to demolish all of Jaffa. Afterward,
artists who had moved into the abandoned city joined the struggle, as
did Development Authority personnel, and thus a few sections were
spared total annihilation. Yeivin was less successful in Lod. In June
1954, he wrote a protest letter to the education minister, in the wake
of a decision on "the destruction of the ancient quarter in the city
of Lod." Israeli law, pursuant to British law, stipulated that only
what was built before 1700 was considered an "antiquity," but Yeivin
wrote that the other sites should also be preserved - both for tourism
and because they are "cultural and educational assets and living
historical testimonies that every enlightened state is obliged to
Kletter's book leaves the impression that the destruction was not
accidental and that its perpetrators were aware of its significance.
The ideological foundation of the devastation is set forth in the
August 1957 Foreign Ministry letter sent at the behest of Golda Meir.
After the author of the document, A. Dotan, requested the Ministry of
Labor to "clear the ruins," he specified "four types" of "ruins" and
the grounds for their destruction:
"First, it is necessary to get rid of the ruins in the heart of Jewish
communities, in important centers or on central transportation
arteries; rapid treatment must be given to the ruins of villages whose
residents are in the country, such as Birwe, north of Shfaram, and the
ruins of Zippori; in areas where there is no development, such as
along the rail line from Jerusalem to Bar Giora, one receives a
depressing impression of a once-living civilized land; attention must
also be directed to ruins in distinctly tourist areas, such as the
ruins of the Circassian village in Caesarea, which is intact but empty
... Accordingly, the Ministry of Labor should assume the mission of
clearing the ruins ... It should be taken into account that the
participation of nongovernmental elements requires caution, as
politically it is desirable for the operation to be executed without
anyone grasping its political meaning."
Kletter says he was surprised to discover the scale of the
destruction, but that to some extent he understands those who were
behind the operation. The decision not to allow the Palestinian
refugees to return was unavoidable, he believes, if the idea was to
establish a Jewish state here. Those were the rules of the game in
that period, he says, and if the Jewish community had lost in 1948,
the Arab victors would likely have treated the Jews in the same way.
And because it was impossible to preserve hundreds of abandoned
Palestinian towns and villages, there was no choice but to demolish
most of them, Kletter maintains.
He also has nothing against the archaeologists who in the early years
of the state were concerned almost exclusively with Jewish sites, or
in the best case with Christian or Roman sites, and ignored Muslim
sites almost completely. It is natural for researchers to be
interested first and foremost in their own culture, Kletter says; and
besides, relative to the political pressure exerted on them by people
like Ben-Gurion, who declaredly wanted to erase the Arab past of this
country, they behaved honorably. "Early Israeli archaeology has
something to be ashamed of and much to be proud of," Kletter writes.
Still, Kletter says, his book is "about loss, about what could have
been but was not. The loss of archaeology that began with a scientific
tradition and did not continue, the loss of vast historical
information, the loss of the village landscape. I don't think this
village landscape belongs to us - it belongs to the people who lived
here - but still, there is longing for that lost landscape. We cannot
bring it back, but at least we should be aware of the truth and not
lie to ourselves."
Kletter says this country's great good fortune lies in the fact that
it contains so many monuments that it was impossible to destroy all of
them. But even those that were destroyed somehow continue to live a
different life. Mash'had Nabi Hussein, the holy site in Ashkelon, was
leveled in 1950, but the Muslim believers did not forgo it. A few
years ago, the Shi'ite Ismaili sect, which is based in central India,
established a kind of small marble platform at the site, on the
grounds of Barzilai Hospital, and since then thousands of believers
have come there every year. In Yavneh, only the minaret remains of the
razed ancient mosque, standing alongside heaps of rubble and one fig
tree, but in a visit to the site a week ago I saw a group of elderly
Ethiopians there on the hill, praying ardently under the fig tree. It
was as if the place had remained holy even if its inhabitants had
better than wealth because it protects you while you have to
guard wealth. it decreases if you keep on spending it but the
more you make use of knowledge ,the more it increases . what you
get through wealth disappears as soon as wealth disappears but
what you achieve through knowledge will remain even after you."MORE