Ashkelon Speaks

PICT1821The modern Israeli city of Ashkelon, 20 kilometers north of the Gaza border, presents a picturesque setting along the Mediterranean coast. Sparkling white beaches matched by white-faced apartment buildings, green lawns and several wide boulevards depict a tranquil and content city. Ashkelon, the city with the biblical name, is not peaceful. Grad rockets from Gaza have struck the city on several occasions. By arguments of war, the damage has not been extensive, but no damage can be ignored; one fatality and dozens wounded. With the damage repaired, nothing out of the ordinary mars the senses in the Ashkelon of June 2009.

More noticeable is that Ashkelon has an important story, a narrative that describes the Middle East conflict. The story begins with the Canaanites of 1800 B.C.

Ashkelon’s archaeological park has a treasure; a Canaanite gate from the walled city that gave the modern city its name. The Canaanites constructed a port on the Mediterranean Sea and used the sea together with city walls to provide a unique defense against invaders. The archaeological park contains artifacts from the Canaanite and succeeding civilizations; Philistines, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Crusader, all of whom eventually ruled the area until the Mamluks destroyed Ashkelon in the year 1270 A.D..
Missing from the list of conquerors of Ashkelon are the Israelites. No substantiated history or archaeological finds indicate Israelite administration of the coastal areas. This lack of coastal identification is surprising because, if the biblical claims of the extent of David and Solomon’s realms are true, wouldn’t these empires include seaports and fortifications close to the defendable Mediterranean Sea? A Canaanite gate from 1800 B.C. is still extant, but not a single identifiable structure from the reported eras of David and Solomon has been uncovered along the coast.

Which brings us to the year 1596 A.D.. In that year, the Arab village of al-Majdal in the Ottoman Empire, located close to the ruins of ancient Ashkelon, had a population of 559 inhabitants. An industrious village, known for a weaving industry that produced silk for festival dresses, Al-Majdal’s population grew to 11,000 by 1948. The poetic naming of their fabrics: ji’nneh u nar (heaven and hell), nasheq rohoh (breath of the soul), and abu mitayn (father of two hundred) signified the pride and originality of the Al-Majdal weavers.

Al-Majdal and its citizens suffered the fate of many Palestinian villages that hoped to escape the hostilities, but became engulfed in the 1948-1949 war in the Levant. Its residents sustained more than the usual injustices that were committed after the passage of United Nations (UN) General Assembly Resolution 181, the Partition Plan for Palestine.

Not well recognized is that the territory awarded to the Palestinians in Resolution 181 extended along the coast to present day Ashdod, 38 kilometers above Gaza. Al-Majdal had been awarded to the new Palestinian state. Also, not sufficiently explored is the reason that the Egyptian army, after its entrance into the war, refrained from entering deeply into territory awarded to the Jewish state. Egypt’s army captured the Yad Mordechai kibbutz, which was eight kilometers south of Al- Majdal, and stopped at Ashdod. Its army crossed the Negev (awarded to Israel), and attacked Jewish settlements in the advance. The Egyptian military proceeded to defend Beer Sheeva, which had also been awarded to a Palestinian state, and continued through Palestinian territory to safeguard Hebron and other parts of the new Palestine state. Egyptian military attacked Tel Aviv by air and sea, but the Egyptian army did not capture territory awarded to Ben Gurion’s government. Reasons given for the Egyptian failure to seize territory awarded to Israel include: damage done to the Egyptian army in a battle at Ashdod halted its advance, four Messerschmitt aircraft delivered by Czechoslovakia to Israel alarmed Egyptian soldiers, and battles with Negev kibbutzim deterred the Egyptian army. All of these reasons are conjectural and are not convincing.

Despite the over expressed statement that the Egyptians, together with other Arab armies, intended to “throw the Israelis into the sea,” the Egyptians did not have the military strength to accomplish the task, and the path taken by Egyptian troops indicate more of a defense of the new Palestinian state rather than occupation of the new Jewish state. The inescapable reality is that the Israelis figuratively threw the Palestinians “into the sea,” or at least into refugee camps, by being complicit in the leaving and expulsion of 750,000 of the 900,000 Arabs who inhabited the British Mandate and by barring their return to the lands and homes they had possessed for centuries. History needs a more in depth analysis of Egypt’s intentions in entering the war.

With war raging in their midst, the citizens of Al-Majdal retreated 15 kilometers to a haven in Gaza. On November 4, 1948, Israeli forces captured the city. In August 1950, by a combination of inducements and threats, Al-Majdal’s 1000-2000 remaining inhabitants were expelled and trucked to Gaza. According to Eyal Kafkafi(1998), ((“Segregation or integration of the Israeli Arabs – two concepts in Mapai”. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 30: 347-367, as reported in Wikipedia.)) David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan promoted the expulsion while Pinhas Lavon, secretary-general of the Histadrut, “wished to turn the town into a productive example of equal opportunity to the Arabs.” Despite a ruling by the Egyptian-Israel Mixed Armistice Commission that the Arabs transferred from Majdal should be returned to Israel, this never happened. I was told that only two Arab families live in Ashkelon today.

The nightmare for the expelled residents of Al-Majdal did not end with their arduous trip to Gaza. Without going into detail, the years from 1950 until the present have been years of internment in refugee camps, brutal occupation, constant strife, military raids in their neighborhoods, destruction of facilities, denial of everyday life, denial of livelihood, denial of access to the sea, denial of access to the outside world. In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo accords, Israel constructed a 60-kilometer fence around the Gaza Strip and from December 2000 to June 2001 reinforced and rebuilt parts of the fence. Israel might be correct in presenting the fence as a necessary deterrence to infiltration, especially for terrorist acts. Personal terrorist bombings on southern Israel have declined dramatically but have been replaced by terrorist rocket bombings. Infiltration by Israeli forces into Gaza did not decline and bombings of Gaza homes and citizens continued. Whatever the reason, the lives of the surviving Al-Majdal refugees and their descendants evolved from being wards of the United Nations to virtual imprisonment in an overly crowded environment.

The 2008 Gaza war became a coda to the horrific drama that plagued the Al-Majdal and other Palestinian refugees. The massive destruction inflicted upon the Gaza people is well documented and can be reviewed by searching the Internet. The accusation by Amnesty International and other agencies of war crimes committed by Israel is incomplete. Eye witnesses verify intentional destruction of small industrial businesses, educational institutions, animal husbandry and withholding of irrigation that resulted in extensive strawberry crop losses; evidence that Israel also targeted the Gaza economy.

PICT1815No discussion of Ashkelon is complete without reference to its neighboring Erez Crossing. For those entering northern Gaza, the crossing’s concrete walls and huge terminals, the traces of the 60-kilometer fence around the Gaza Strip in the distance, and an overhead balloon, hanging in the sky like a full moon, evidently surveying the entire area, shock the senses. A description by someone who exited Gaza through the checkpoint was complicated and difficult to be absorbed. ((A definitive description appears in a BBC report by Paul Wood, BBC Middle East correspondent in Gaza City, “Middle East diary: At the Erez Crossing,” May 14, 2002.))

The Soviet Union previously set the bar for tyrannical control. Those who passed through a Soviet checkpoint between East Germany and Berlin during the Cold war know the fear and uncomfortable feeling of this control. Enter a barren room and look around in puzzlement. Finally, after several minutes, a slit in the wall opens and a voice announces: “Die papieren bitte.” Place the papers in the slit and wait in the room without knowing the time length of the wait. Realize that the room is wired and all words are being heard while hidden eyes observe all movements. It’s a sweating and terrifying experience. The exit from Gaza through Erez seems magnitudes more terrifying. Israel has raised the bar.

But what happens when a Palestinian attempts to enter Israel from Gaza? A story related from a person whose credentials are impeccable and words can be trusted, went like this.

A Palestinian who had moved to Canada and had a Canadian passport, returned temporarily to Gaza. A friend in Ashkelon (who told me the story) invited the Palestinian with the Canadian passport for a visit. It took several weeks to prepare documentation, submit the necessary papers and obtain approval from the Israeli military for the visit. With everything certified the Palestinian proceeded to the Erez Crossing for exit to Israel. His friend waited at the checkpoint, and waited and waited. The Palestinian did not arrive. Six weeks later, the drama unfolded.

Israel security stopped the Palestinian, not because Israel suspected he had compromised its security – just the opposite – Israel compromised his security. If the man agreed to inform on his associates in Gaza, Israel would make life easy for him, allow him to travel and receive conveniences. He was finally released after six weeks of being held incommunicado. Other Palestinians, when crossing the border, have complained of similar insidious activities.

The creation of modern Ashkelon and its consequences contain elements that have been subdued in public discourse but have been a major contributor to the Middle East conflict and a guide for one side of the struggle. We have Israel seizing control of an ancient area, which had for millennia been controlled by others. UN Resolution 181, which awarded the area to the Palestinian state, has been violated in the seizure. The original inhabitants are expelled without cause. The Arab town of Al-Majdal is mostly destroyed and memories of an Arab presence are erased. The town’s name is slowly changed, evolving from Al-Majdal to Migdal-Gad, Migdal-Ashkelon and finally to Ashkelon; as if the city descended directly from the original bronze era seaport.

The victims are consistently oppressed and reduced to impoverishment. Foreigners occupy the properties of the dispossessed. Sorrow, pain and feelings of helplessness burst into violence against the injustice and oppression. Although the violence is minimal the retaliation is major. Al-Majdal has no escape from suffering.

Ashkelon has a story. It is the story of the Middle East conflict.

Dan Lieberman publishes commentaries on foreign policy, economics, and politics at  He is author of the non-fiction books A Third Party Can Succeed in America, Not until They Were Gone, Think Tanks of DC, The Artistry of a Dog, and a novel: The Victory (under a pen name, David L. McWellan). Read other articles by Dan.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. B99 said on July 13th, 2009 at 11:21am #

    While I would differ on a few details on how to describe the Palestinian resistance, the article is a perfect depiction of how thoroughly systematized the occupation is – from pre-state and early Israeli acts of terror, to insideous manipulation of individual travelers – from violent eviction of Palestinian inhabitants to mere nomenclature – the erasure of the name on the map and replacing it with a non-Arab name – a process repeated throughout Israel where ever there were Palestinian towns. When the Jews overtook Palestine, a team was formed to rename all the many thousands of places – villages, springs, hills, plains, caves – that were all named in Arabic because that’s who inhabited that dear country. The Bible was scoured for Hebrew place names – and the bible came up well short by a very large factor. And that is why in many places, Arabic names were merely Hebraicized – as from Majdal to Migdal.

    The central argument regarding the Egyptians holds true. With a few notable exceptions neither the Egyptian army nor the other Arab forces conducted major incursions into territory set aside by the UN for the Jewish state. The same cannot be said to be true of the forces of the Yishuv – they defending ‘Jewish’ territory, they then began over running Arab territory, all the while evicting more than 700,000 native inhabitants. As Chaim Weizmann called it: – “The miraculous cleaning (cleansing) of the land.” Maybe the first time the ethnic cleansing phrase has ever been used – and used as a positive.

  2. Dan L. said on July 13th, 2009 at 12:01pm #

    B99’s response is a model comment; not because of any agreement with the article, but because it examines the content and adds to the dialogue. New information that is eloquently expressed gives value to the already written word and encourages further discussion. Thanks B99 for giving us more worthwhile thought and additional clarification to this difficult situation.

  3. rashi said on July 13th, 2009 at 1:39pm #

    The point is that the Jewish side accepted the UN partition plan while the Arab side rejected it and tried to prevent it’s implementation,by force. Had the Arabs accepted partition there wouldn’t have been a war, and no Palestinian would have become a refugee.

  4. opeluboy said on July 13th, 2009 at 2:37pm #

    I second Dan L’s response.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 13th, 2009 at 6:06pm #

    rashi’s comment is pure bullshit, as anyone with the merest acquaintance with the facts knows. I recommend Ilan Pappe’s ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ for any who do not know the truth. The arrogance of the lying in the service of brutal, sadistic and continuing racist oppression, is the Zionasty ‘Gold Standard’. Apparently being the Supreme Creatures of the Universe (take that you Daleks) lets you say anything you like, no matter how far from the facts, and it miraculously becomes the Truth, by Divine intercession.

  6. Dan L. said on July 13th, 2009 at 6:31pm #

    I am deleting all comments that don’t add to the discussion, that use profane language, insult, are just derogatory, combative, angry and don’t directly respond to arguments. I don’t expect everyone to agree with the article content and will accept contrary opinions that are honestly expressed and rebuttals that are also honestly expressed.
    I welcome all facts. I don’t welcome personal attacks and use of the article as a springboard for personal vituperation between commentators.
    So, if your comment is deleted, please don’t feel there is an ulterior motive. Think of the reason and try to rephrase the comment.

  7. B99 said on July 13th, 2009 at 8:59pm #

    rashi and opel – The UN General Assembly resolution partitioning Palestine was a recommendation. As such, if either side rejects the recommendation, then it is mooted. That’s how the UN operates. And that’s essentially what happened. It was understood that Palestinians were in their rights to reject the resolution – and they did so. To make a long story short, Jewish forces subsequently ignored the rejection and when the Brits pulled out, they began their conquest of what amounted to 78% of Palestine. Confirming that this partition agreement was unworkable in the face of Palestinian rejection, the United States also subsequently reversed its endorsement of it.

    And it should be noted that the plan to evict the Palestinians from the country was long in the works. It is known as Plan D (Dalet) and was drawn up over a period of time by a host of soon-to-be Israeli notables in a house in Tel Aviv.

  8. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 14th, 2009 at 7:09am #

    balfour declaration ’17, league of nations ’22 [which excluded ab. half the world pop from participation in it] largely composed of evil empires and christian lands, said one thing and meant s’mthing else.
    even the word “partition” is misleading: if one tries to achieve a partition in canada or US, one quickly sees its false symbolic value.

    however, i am not saying that egyptians, palestinians, and arab speaking divergent peoples were duped by balfour’s or League’s words.
    they saw the writing on the wall.

    canaanitic-shemitic peoples were never stupid and are not stupid now.
    it may be that at one time that 95% of people in christian lands thought of arabs as stupid, primitive, etc.

    they acquired these beliefs because media only published pieces and letters that demeaned arabs and told lies ab. them.
    i have written hundreds of letters to n. amer media as well to US, UK, french, and german, and canadian gov’ts; refuting these lies.
    only one of my letters had been published: in vcr province a decade ago.
    the province now is owned by strongly zionistic asper family. I no loger reead it nor any privately-owned publication.

    but they cld not even resist euros with cult let alone disobey those evil empires and other christian lands.

  9. B99 said on July 18th, 2009 at 12:16pm #

    Bozh – The 1800s saw the rise of ultranationalism in Europe (not that it had not been nascent anyway). A principle of this is the notion of capital ‘P’ Peoples – the important People – People who have Nations – not tribes, nor clans who are merely small *p* people in the most generic sense. Germany and Italy belatedly joined Britain and France as full sized centralized nation-states. Also by this time, some Jews in western Europe had given up on assimilation into their respective countries and so came to the conclusion that the ‘wandering Jew’ too, should have a state so that Jews could take their place among the civilized nations of the world. At this time, the New World had long been divvied up, much of Asia was either colonized or under a ‘realm of influence,’ and in 1884, the European powers divided up all of Sub-Saharan Africa amongst themselves. This is the age of nationalism, colonialism and imperialism. Zionists Jews wanted their piece of the action.

    Europeans had two streams of thought about the other peoples of the world. One was that they were a lesser people who could and should be exploited for the benefit of the master people – Europeans. The second stream was that other peoples had full potential to be as civilized as Europeans, but it would take a massive civilizing effort to bring them up to par. It was not so much that they were inferior so much as they had flawed cultures. With some effort, one could make an Algerian or Senegalese as French as a native Parisian. In the meantime, the colonizers will relieve them of their resource burden.

    Yes, the UN was morally bankrupt then – and it is still very deeply flawed. But though almost all the nations of the world routinely vote to end the occupation, no one offers up the resolution that Israel be dissolved.

  10. bozh said on July 18th, 2009 at 2:22pm #

    i’d ask you what’s the difference bwtn nat’sm and ultranat’sm? And which land, with a more or less homogeneous pop, became ultranat’c?

    for only thus can we gain an understanding of how/why/when or if a homogeneous people became indepedent or ultranat’c.

    regarding norway, slovakia, latvia, estonia, ukraine, lithuania, ‘stans, et al, i think we need not dwell upon them much; except to say, it was a good thing.

    i have left croatia, slovenia out, not because croats, slovenes, et al did not deserve independence as much as all the lands i listed above, but because both left and the right opposed splitup of yugoslavia, but not on any panhuman principle but on expediency, rationalization, etc.

    rationalization post ’35 went on like this: serbs and croats are one people; they speak the same langauge; they are in tribal stage at that time, etc.
    meanwhile the facts of much import was always omitted: Croats had in tenth century the oldest kingdom in europe. Serbs have established own kingdom a century later.
    serbs were orthodox, croats catholics.
    the two kingdoms never ever waged war against each either. They had their first war in ’91; serbs were aggressors, mainly because of serb pop strewn all over croatia; most came to croatia in 17th century at behest of austrian empire.
    leftists still lament break up of yugolsavia and feel sorry for serbia even tho she may be most responsible for break up of that empire; in the main, beacause serbia was after greater serbia.
    it lost kosovo only because of her pursuit for greater serbia and because it abrogated kosovo independence that tito had given kosovars.
    unilateral dissolution of kosovo in ’87 passed on without a whimper from other republics. It signified break up which all republics wanted.
    what the role of US had been in this break up, i cannot tell.

    now a bit ab. wandering ‘jew’ who later came to the notion that he too has a right to a country.
    the word “wandering” contains some assumptions or even propaganda. I do not know that ‘jews’ wandered. It contains a hidden assumption that ‘jews’ had no place or country to reside in.

    i’d like to hear more ab. this from historians. It may be noted, that it is actually the sense of ‘jewishness’ in e. europe which alienated and annoyed all people who had to endure such cultishness.
    can one imagine a person in US who wld say or imply, I am no longer an american; i am from now on only a Koreshi, levite, buddhist?
    how wld people feel in the presence of people who followed jones cult?
    isn’t that why some 700 followers of his cult went to guainna and en masse comitted suicide rather that return to US?
    persecutors are persecuted. As soon as ‘jews’ stop persecuting pals the sooner we will stop abhoring ‘jews’.
    there is no other way. tnx

  11. B99 said on July 18th, 2009 at 7:56pm #

    Bozh – I’d say nationalism becomes ultranationalism when it involves thoughts of superiority of blood lines. I’d say nationalism becomes ultranationalism when it means the expansion of one people at the expense of another.

    ‘Wandering Jew’ is an expression. It refers to Jews in the diaspora which until Israel was established meant all but a handful of Jews living in Palestine. It is the existential condition of Jews over the last 2000 years or so and extremely important to their outlook on history. The Jewish status in Europe is in some measure a result of how they saw themselves and how others saw them. As non-Christians, they did not meld into the almost entirely Christian population. As being the ‘killers of Christ’ they were persecuted. With a very well-developed sense of intellectual pursuit (and an almost total abandonment of physical labor) they were mistrusted. The more different Jews were from others the more they were isolated from the native population, and the more the natives regarded them as a different people the more the isolated themselves – it was mutually reinforcing. This can be annoying, but should not result in genocide.

    The sooner Jews stop persecuting Palestinians the better and safer we will all be. But it seems from your tone that this will not end your abhorrence of Jews.

  12. bozh said on July 19th, 2009 at 5:57am #

    no, nazis had no right to kill even one ‘jew’.
    if ‘jews’ wld see selves as people first and then whatever, one can be rightfully annoyed with their cult and their jewishness.
    however, abhorence of mosheic misteachings is still valid.

    as i have stated numerous times, one cannot or shld not hate a ‘jew’ or even his/her ‘jewishness’- one can and shld hate some of what they do and say.
    i did say that we will stop abhoring ‘jews’ when they stop persecuting pals. I shldn’t included self in the hate of ‘jews’. I do not hate ‘jews’ as bipeds, but only their misdeeds.
    but then again, it may be a myth that one can like a criminal and at the same time hate his/her crimes.

    re ultranat’sm, the words theft or imperialism wld have clarified the problem.
    you’re right, your ‘explanation’ of wandering ‘jew’ [a pole, russian with the cult] does not end abhorence of the quality called “jewishness” nor of much of what is in mosheism or judaism [christianity]