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An Israeli documentary challenges a narrative of what happened in one Palestinian village in 1948

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The War of 1948 is understood in two different ways. For Israelis, it's the war of independence. For Palestinians, it's the beginning of Nakba, the catastrophe. "Tantura" is a new Israeli documentary challenging Israel's understanding of the war. It looks at what happened in a Palestinian village called Tantura. And it's prompted pushback from some Israelis and calls for justice from Palestinians. NPR's Linah Mohammad reports.

LINAH MOHAMMAD, BYLINE: It was the night of the 22 of May, 1948, when the Alexandroni Brigade's 33rd Battalion of what would become the Israeli military entered Tantura.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RASHIDA AL AMAR: (Non-English language spoken).

MOHAMMAD: Rashida Al Amar, who was 18 at the time, recalled what happened in a 2015 interview for a Jordanian TV channel. She was sleeping in her home when she awoke to heavy gunfire and people screaming. There was a short battle between the Israeli troops and villagers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL AMAR: (Non-English language spoken).

MOHAMMAD: Al-Ahmad says she witnessed the Israelis kill 13 men after the fighting ended. And it's the aftermath of the battle that's the subject of the film and the debate. Some survivor accounts collected by Israeli and Palestinian researchers over the years say the troops separated the men from the other villagers and killed them, burying them in a mass grave. And to this day, no one has an exact number of those killed, with accounts ranging from a few dozen to more than 200. Some Israeli soldiers who were there deny that any massacre took place or that there was a mass grave in Tantura. This story and the dispute over what happened to Palestinians at Israel's founding moment still fuels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. Here's "Tantura's" Israeli director, Alon Schwarz.

ALON SCHWARZ: I grew up in Israel in a Zionist leftist family. I was always active for peace. But I grew up within the story that we were all told - that in '48, the Arabs ran away by themselves, basically. And I never challenged that.

MOHAMMAD: Until one day, Schwarz was working on a completely different documentary when he came across the story of Tantura and a 20-year-old research paper by an Israeli grad student named Teddy Katz.

TEDDY KATZ: (Through interpreter) I started getting interested in the field. And somehow, the moment I arrived in Tantura, it became apparent to me very quickly, according to the answers of the people from Tantura, that something very different and very drastic happened relative to the other places.

MOHAMMAD: So Katz told NPR he decided to explore it further. He went house to house to every soldier from the Alexandroni Brigade who was still alive at the time and spoke to them.

KATZ: (Through interpreter) There was a very big killing of Palestinians. I can't give an exact figure. It hasn't really been established because at first, I got a figure that 20 people were killed. Afterward, it went up to something closer to 100, 110. Ultimately, it came to this - that the one who buried the people was someone from Zikhron Ya'akov. He was Jewish. And he's the one who told me 270 people.

MOHAMMAD: Katz's thesis was awarded an outstanding score, a 97 - that is, until the Israeli media got hold of it. Israeli veterans sued Katz for libel. And as the case went on, he faced pressure even from family, and he retracted his claims and then reasserted them later. Regardless, the university removed the thesis from its library and downgraded his master's degree. Schwarz went through all of Katz's findings about Tantura. He listened to dozens of hours of recorded interviews.

SCHWARZ: I focused on the Hebrew tapes of the soldiers that were there. I didn't know what I would find. You know, I didn't know if he was lying or telling the truth. But the more we listened, we realized that these veterans did tell him things about how - what happened. And some of them told him how they killed civilians after the battle ended.

MOHAMMAD: So Schwarz went back to the veterans who were still alive and interviewed them on tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TANTURA")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Some guys took flamethrowers and ran after people and incinerated them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) How many do you think you killed this way?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) I didn't count. I can't really know. I had a machine gun with 250 bullets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) People went wild in Tantura. It was awful.

MOHAMMAD: Now, most of the veterans interviewed in the documentary say it was a few rogue soldiers, that it wasn't the entire battalion. One historian in particular that Schwarz spoke to, Yoav Gelber, is a professor at the same university that Katz attended. And he says Katz's methodology was flawed from the beginning.

YOAV GELBER: Teddy's thesis was about 90% or so based on oral evidence, which is good for folklore but not for history.

MOHAMMAD: Another Israeli historian, Benny Morris, wrote an op-ed in Haaretz Newspaper, criticizing the film and its findings. He said some Israeli historians have concluded there were, quote, "small war crimes committed but not a massacre." However, the film shows Israeli military documents that vaguely refer to, quote, "acts of destruction." And while they don't mention the word massacre outright in any of the documents, one of them acknowledges that soldiers did dig a mass grave. NPR reached out to the Israeli military, which declined to comment on this event. According to Katz's research, the mass killing happened in two waves. Some were forced to dig graves for themselves before getting shot. Others were lined up against a wall and shot one after another. Sami El Ali is part of the film's research team. And he told NPR his uncle was one of those lined up to die. But he survived that day through what El Ali refers to as a miracle.

SAMI EL ALI: (Through interpreter) He said, when the soldier got to me in the line and tried to shoot, the bullet got stuck. He kept trying, and it wouldn't shoot.

MOHAMMAD: Survivors and witnesses know where the alleged mass grave is. They say it sits underneath the parking lot for a beach. And after reviewing aerial imagery from 1949, the film concludes that even if bodies were buried there after the takeover of Tantura, they're probably not there anymore. Still, the descendants of the victims and survivors are demanding answers. Motivated by the film, they formed an advocacy group called Tantura People's Committee. And they're currently campaigning for recognition of a massacre and asking the Israeli government to build a memorial for their relatives where the parking lot currently is. Jehan Sarhan is Rashida Al Amar's daughter and one of the members of the committee. She told NPR that one of her uncles dug the mass grave at the orders of the Israeli soldiers.

JEHAN SARHAN: (Through interpreter) It can't be that every time I go to Tantura, I see our graves under their feet in a parking lot. There even used to be a historical cemetery in the old village. They razed it and built a beach resort instead.

MOHAMMAD: El Ali is also a part of that committee, and he says while they don't need testimonies from soldiers or the Israeli establishment to confirm the credibility of their story, this is information Palestinians everywhere can leverage to get a recognition of the Nakba from the state of Israel.

EL ALI: It's so hard for Israelis to digest this story because it shakes our ground because we're taught that we're the most moral nation, the most moral army. And the darker parts are sugarcoated. And that's how this ridiculous story of, you know, all the Palestinians ran away by themselves then comes to life. It's propaganda. That is not the truth.

MOHAMMAD: Today, descendants of Tantura are scattered across what became Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. And without even a recognition of what took place, they say their Nakba has been an ongoing catastrophe since. Linah Mohammad, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "STREET KNOWLEDGE FEAT. TREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.