Growing up in Jerusalem in the 1980s, I was taken on many tours by my school and youth group to Lifta, the partly ruined, empty Palestinian village near the main entrance to the city. The visits left me with the vague impression that Lifta was an ancient place, a ruin that had always been as I had encountered it—desolate, beautiful, slightly mysterious, and, in some way, intimidating, with its eerie silence and narrow paths winding among the imposing houses and walls.
When I was 16 I moved with my family from our apartment in North Jerusalem - built after 1967 right on the green line - to the neighborhood of Baq'a in West Jerusalem. Strolling in the afternoons in the streets of what used to be a Palestinian neighborhood till 1948, staring at the beautiful stone houses with their impressive architecture, I felt I finally discover the "real" Jerusalem.
Of course I knew these are "Arab houses". It's common knowledge, surely in Jerusalem, where the title "Arab house" reflects the house' higher value and prestige as a real estate property. Perhaps I even had, and some point, a vague idea that Lifta was an Arab village; an "Arab deserted village", as they use to call such places in Israel. But these were almost mere titles to me, beyond which I didn't have a profound knowledge and understanding of what this really mean.
Though we weren't taught anything about it at school, I did know that Arabs were living in our country before we established our state. At 20, I remember myself repeating (while having dinner in my father's "Arab house" in Baq'a) the common narrative, saying it's a pity they lost their houses, but we had no choice.
Years later, I spent several years working at B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, documenting violations of human rights of Palestinians in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. This work exposed me to knowledge about the conflict and its history that had never gotten through to me before. I understood that many of the residents of the territories, who suffer today the restrictions imposed by Israel’s military rule, lost their entire world in 1948; that the Palestinians in Lebanon are not just another ethnic group in that divided northern country, but refugees who had lived here, where I live, until the Israeli triumph in the War of 1948; that Lifta is not just a picturesque ruin from a bygone age, or a "deserted Arab village", but a home recently taken from people, from families, from children.
In the many walks and journeys I undertook across Israel over the years, all the while gaining growing awareness of the history of the land and its two peoples, I came across these ruins time after time: in an anemone-sprinkled hill near Jerusalem, on a mountain ridge in the Galilee, by a steep path down to the Tabor stream. These places became an integral part of the Israeli landscape: piles of stones, ruins, collapsing walls and structures overgrown with uncultivated almond and fig trees, rolling terraces crumbling with disuse, and long hedges of prickly cactuses.
By then, I was already able to try to imagine how lively the place must have been but a few decades ago: the bustling daily life, full of voices and colors, children, housework, livestock, water drawn from the well—all replaced today by emptiness and silence. And there is no commemoration or even reference to the world that has been lost and the circumstances of its disappearance.
This troubling contrast led me to conduct a comprehensive research on how Israel deals with its preceding layer, a layer which it had erased and built itself upon. I focused on the hundreds of Palestinian depopulated villages within Israel's territory, exploring everyday encounters of Israelis with the memory of the villages, their representations and their physical remains: the practice of the naming and mapping of the village sites, the ways they are presented (if at all) to visitors of tourist sites that contain village remains, and the way Jewish communities established on village sites relate to them. I found a consistent pattern of marginalization of the depopulated Palestinian villages in every aspect of Israeli discourse I examined, conducted systematically through various official mechanisms: the erasure or Hebraization of the villages’ names; the elimination of many villages from the map and the blurring of the identity of others; the disregard for the majority of the villages within tourist sites and the suppression of the identity, history, and circumstances of depopulation of those that were mentioned to visitors; and the acceptance of Palestinian dispossession by Jewish communities established on depopulated Palestinian village sites, while minimizing the interaction with the villages’ history, the circumstances of their depopulation, and the moral dilemmas arising from the use of refugee homes and properties.
Eivind Natvig's book and exhibition reflects, from a unique artistic angle, what had remained today from dozens of the Palestinian villages existed till 1948. The photos capture the scant remains, scattered as scars throughout the country, after the villages were depopulated, demolished and neglected by Israel, as a mute reminder of the tremendous loss of Palestinians. We can only hope that this important work will contribute towards recognition and redress of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe), which is being ignored and perpetuated for generations.