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The Road to Tantura

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

The village of Tantura is a Palestinian fishing village eight kilometers northwest of Zikhron Yaakov on the Mediterranean coast of Israel.  Immigrant Jews and Palestinian Arabs intermingled on a regular basis in this peaceful village, which had a total population of about 1,500 people. It was considered a model of development for the area.  But in May of 1948 Tantura became a focal point in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israeli forces.

Israeli commander David Ben Gurion gave the order to ethnically cleanse Tantura.  At 2:30 am on May 23rd, the Israelis struck under cover of darkness, with an attack that began with heavy machine gun fire followed by an infantry attack. The village was controlled within 3 hours.  Occupation and looting followed.

Although the villagers had surrendered, around 200 of the men in Tantura were put against a wall and shot execution style by Israeli forces. The survivors were taken captive by the Israelis and placed in prison camps where they would soon become part of a work brigade.  The International Red Cross took the surviving women and children to a nearby village and later bussed them off to refugee camps in Jordan and Syria.

Hala Gabriel, now a resident of the Los Angeles area, was born as a refugee – she had status as a refugee but not as a citizen..  Her family immigrated to Michigan when she was a young child.   She came to California for college and has called Los Angeles her home ever since.  Her youthful memories are those of a witness to the memories of loss as related by those around her: Loss of home, loss of loved ones, and the knowledge that they could not return to claim the property rightfully theirs.

Ms Gabriel attended the California Institute of Arts and began her career in the entertainment industry.  She was eventually hired by Paramount Pictures Studio as senior production accountant, and has worked freelance on many television series and features ever since.

In 2004 she produced and directed a short documentary called the Love Project, for which she won the Silver Award at the International Houston Film Festival.

Determined that Tantura would not be forgotten, Ms Gabriel has embarked on a documentary film project titled: Road to Tantura.  It is the Nakba writ small. It is history that comes to life and demands justice.

Ms Gabriel vowed to tell the story of Tantura in a documentary she is in the process of producing. If justice is to be achieved then truth is its predecessor.  The film, not yet complete, goes beyond the realism associated with documentaries. Road to Tantura is not simply realism – though it is certainly that, it is intimate. Ms Gabriel and her camera crew take the viewer on a tour of the village, which no longer exists except for the ruins of her family home, built by her great-grandfather in the 1800’s.  Not hesitating to show the close up of faces in the grip of remembering or of relating memories passed through generations, Ms Gabriel was able to interview survivors of the original massacre.

In her words, she states that she had “to fill in a part of my life that was missing”.

The real tragedy – the ultimate tragedy – of the Nakba is not simply that it happened, the real tragedy occurs when people forget so the justice cannot be attained and the truth remains buried. In recent decades Palestinians, most of them the descendants of the victims of Israel’s ethnic cleansing, have begun to speak out so that murder and property theft are not compounded by memory loss.
The work in progress clip of her documentary shows Ms Gabriel on the verge of tears throughout.  In one scene Hala is told that the family prepared a meal of freshly caught fish from the Mediterranean for the following day. It was to be served to her father and his sibling by her grandmother on the day of the attack. An uncle in Germany points out the exact location of their home from a picture in a newspaper.  In England, she interviews a former Israeli soldier who took part in the ethnic cleansing. He himself is a Holocaust survivor and bluntly compares the Holocaust with the ethnic cleansing of Tantura.

Ms Gabriel has consented to an interview by The Muslim Observer. Please join us as we travel the road to Tantura.

TMO: Could you tell us approximately at what age the experiences of the refugees from Tantura first began to impact on your consciousness?

MS GABRIEL:  Growing up my parent’s never really spoke about their experience or why they no longer lived in Palestine.  I knew I was Palestinian and I knew we were refugees, but I didn’t completely understand what that meant.  When I was 12 we became naturalized citizens.  It wasn’t until I was an adult when I finally understood that I was born “not belonging” as a “citizen” to any place.  That concept was and still is very troubling to me.  How can any person on this planet be born, and not belong or have complete rights as any human on this planet?

TMO: Can you remember any stories – even anecdotal ones – that remained with you through adulthood? Please be detailed.

MS GABRIEL: My parent’s never spoke about what they experienced.  When we immigrated my family very much wanted to detach from the pain they had experienced and the perceived failure and deep loss they endured.  They wanted to disassociate with their painful past and insisted we become “American”.  That meant we spoke mostly English in the home, we ate macaroni and cheese, and we decorated Christmas trees even though we were not Christian.  We did what Americans do.

TMO: Was there a moment that you can recall when you made an irrevocable decision to embark on your film project?

MS GABRIEL: After 9/11 I felt very compelled to express something about my family history and background.  I sat in front of my computer and decided to write a short story about my family village Tantura.  When I tried to write, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about my family history or village.  I had never even seen a picture!  I had done an Internet search several years earlier and found nothing, but the Internet was pretty new back then so I decided to try again.  This time I came across a news article about an Israeli scholar named Teddy Katz.  Apparently Katz had researched a master thesis project on the events that occurred in Tantura.  As a result of his research, Israel soldiers who he had interviewed, and who had participated in the attack on Tantura were suing Teddy for libel.  In the article it said that for part of his defense, Teddy was using a memoire written in 1950 by a Palestinian from Tantura named Marwan Yahya.  Marwan Yahya is my father.  I had no idea that my dad had written a memoire.  I found Teddy’s email address on the Internet and sent him an email introducing myself as Marwan Yahya’s daughter, and asked him if he could please send me a copy of my dad’s memoires.  This began a dialog between Teddy and me.  Eventually Teddy and I met when he came to Los Angeles to speak at some local universities.  At that point Teddy begged me to please go to Syria and interview the surviving villagers of Tantura who are still living in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp.  That request seemed absolutely daunting at the time.  But about 5 years later circumstances led me to that part of the world and I began doing this documentary.

TMO: Were there individuals and/or groups that cooperated with you?

MS GABRIEL:  With the exception of support from Teddy Katz, I’ve been for the most part alone in my journey to do this.  I will admit there have been some “miracles” along the way to help me. 

TMO: Were there individuals and/or groups that you feel put obstacles in your path?

MS GABRIEL:  I’m not sure how to answer this question.  The biggest obstacle has been financial.  I work, save money than spend it all on the project.  This is how I have financed this project so far.  I am hoping to save and raise more money so I may complete it soon.

TMO: While the entire trip to Tantura must have been fascinating, is there any one moment that stood out? 

MS GABRIEL:  The first time I tried to go to Tantura I was stopped at the Israeli/Jordanian border on the Israeli side and interrogated for 7 hours.  I was strip-searched and all of my belongings were literally ripped apart.  I was not permitted to enter Israel and was held until the last bus departed back to the Jordanian border.  It was horrible, exhausting experience.

Six years later I went back, this time I flew into the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv with a Jewish-American friend named Frederick.  He was allowed in within two hours.  I was again held and interrogated for 7 hours.  Finally Teddy Katz called one of his friends who is a member of Israeli’s Knesset.  His friend called the airport on my behalf and I was finally permitted to enter.  It felt, once again, like a miracle for me.

Seeing the ruins of Tantura was very haunting to me.  From the moment we stepped out of our car, onto the parking lot, which is the location of the mass grave, I felt a very sad feeling.  It clear that something is not right.  The ruin of my family home is one of the only structures that still stand in Tantura.  On the side wall of the ruins there still remains a worn out carved poem my great-grandfather had put on the side of the home when he built it.  It read: “What a blissful home, built by Mahmoud Yahya.  The glorious rich legacy fills its grounds with personal generosity, copious wealth and giving.  A start of history with people flocking towards it offering abundant greetings.” 

TMO: Could you compare in general terms the general public’s awareness of the Nakba today with its awareness a decade ago?

MS GABRIEL: I really think the advent of the Internet has had a huge impact on the general public awareness of the Palestinian plight.  Although many people still do not understand the factual history of the Nakba, they are certainly more and more aware of the daily atrocities occurring to Palestinians right now. 

TMO: We know that the Palestinian people are brave and resilient. Do you find their current assessment of their situation optimistic or pessimistic?

MS GABRIEL: Although the situation for Palestinians living under the occupation is horrific and indescribably criminal, I do believe that the Palestinians will return to their home.  I do believe that Israel in its current form will not sustain itself. 

TMO: Do you have a message for our readers about your work?

MS GABRIEL:  I’m doing my best to tell the story about my family’s village.  This documentary is very important to me because it is, what I consider, the proper burial for the hundreds of villagers (many of them my relatives) who perished the day of the attack.  I hope your readers will check out my website and the clip I have posted on Vimeo.  Perhaps with their help I can finally finish this project.

Please access Ms Gabriel’s web site at:www.roadtotantura.com for more information and to make a contribution so that she may complete this essential project.

The Muslim Observer extends its thanks to Ms Gabriel for her time.

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