1948 Palestine Refugees: Case Studies

In Search of the Abu Sitta Sword

Uri Davis

An Easter Tale or a Passover Haggadah
An Eclectic Journal of a Convoluted Journey
In Search of a Sword belonging to a 1948 Palestinian Refugee
Beginning with a Kibbutz Passover

A Story Anchored in Friendship and Solidarity and a Call for Help*


It all began with an invitation to a kibbutz Seder. In 2005 I was invited by the Nativ family to celebrate the Seder with them (on Saturday, 23rd of April), in their kibbutz – Nir Yitzhaq.
Havah Nativ extended the invitation to me through her daughter Shelly Nativ, a civil rights activist. It was many years since I had last been invited to a kibbutz family home and the first time in some forty years that I was to attend a kibbutz Seder. I accepted the invitation not only as a family friend but also as a critical anthropologist. Another motivation was a profound curiosity to revisit the region where, forty years earlier, I had performed the national service I did in lieu of military conscription (in kibbutz Erez, by the northern tip of the Gaza Strip).

Being a critical anthropologist I did some homework before embarking upon my trip assisted by expertise, the Google search engine and my friend Salman Abu Sitta – author of Atlas of Palestine 1948 and foremost authority on the Palestinian nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”).

From my friend Salman Abu Sitta I have learnt that kibbutz Nir Yitzhaq was built in 1946 but was then called Nirim in Hebrew and Dangur in Arabic (after the Iraqi or Egyptian Arab-Jewish family who first bought the land). The son of its mukhtar, who had since left the kibbutz, was an Arabic-speaking Intelligence Officer by the name of Benni Meitiv (Motilov). This person had orchestrated the ethnic cleansing by the PALMACH (pelugot mahatz, Hebrew acronym for “Storm Troops”, the pre-1948 Labour Zionist controlled militia integrated into the Israeli army after the establishment of the State in 1948) of the whole region from Rafah to Gaza.

During the nakba (in December 1948) the PALMACH conquered this area and ethnically cleansed it of its indigenous population. In the process one of its battalions (gedud, number 89) was responsible for the biggest massacre in the history of the 1948-49 war – al-Dawayma (See Atlas of Palestine 1948 – Nakba Register). At the end of the day all settlements around Nir Yitzhaq were established on the land of Arab Qilai, i.e. inhabitants of Khan Younis, and Arab Ksar (Najamat), the latter of which had been friendly to the Jews.

In the spring-summer of 1949 a group of Nir Yitzhaq (then still Nirim) settlers established a new kibbutz on the Abu Sitta land (Ma'in Abu Sitta) and gave it the original name – Nirim. It was then that the old site was called after the late Yitzhaq Sadeh, Commander of the PALMACH.

Yitzhaq Sadeh was born Issac Landoberg in Lublin in 1890 and died in kibbutz Giv’at Brenner in 1952. In 1945 he wrote: "I am strong. I am brave. I shall also be cruel." He was. Massacres committed by the PALMACH testify to that (besides the al-Dawayma massacre it was also responsible for the massacre in Shu'uth where, among many others, relatives of Nabil Sha’ath, currently Palestinian Authority Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information, lost their lives).

In 1971-1972 General Officer Commanding Southern Command Ariel Sharon instigated an ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip at the end of which all the area on the outskirts of Rafah (Palestinian and Egyptian) was cleansed of its Arab population. On the 28th of May 1971 He demolished houses and transferred 350 families to al-Arish. In March 1972 10,000 people from the Rafah area were dispossessed to make room for new Jewish settlements around Nir Yitzhaq. Officers responsible for these war crimes were Moshe Dayan, Yitzhaq Pundak (father of Ron Pundak, of The Oslo Accords) and of course Ariel Sharon.

On the 10th and the 12th of March 1972 Haaretz reported that ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) protested to Chief of Staff David El’azar demanding explanations. The Arabs complained to the UN. The BBC reported the event.

To their credit, Hashomer Hatzair (Hebrew for “Young Guard” and the name of the settlers’ movement of the then MAPAM, and currently MERETZ political party) kibbutzim (Hebrew plural of Kibbutz) in the area came together in kibbutz Nir 'Oz directly after, together with Mapam activists to protest. They described the confiscation of land and expulsion of the population as "morally repugnant and politically dangerous".

Using the Google search engine I was fortunate to find for this article a map of the State of Israel of suitable dimensions, i.e., small, which features of all places Nir Yitzhaq (see map below, courtesy of http://geography.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.m%2Dw.com/cgi%2Dbin/nytmaps.pl%3Fisrael).

Today Kibbutz Nir Yitzhaq is one of the 31 exclusively Jewish rural and suburban settlements under the jurisdiction of the Eshkol Regional Council, located by the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, near the Sufah Crossing between the Gaza Strip and so-called Israel proper. (It was Shelly Nativ who pointed out to me the message conveyed by the official logo of the Eshkol Regional Council (below) regarding the situation of Political Zionism in the region. The logo features a ploughed field encircled by an ear of wheat the stem of which mutates into a barbed wire fence. Rather telling).

The Kibbutz is situated rather close to the obnoxious perimeter fence constructed by the Israeli government ostensibly for security reasons but in fact in order to maintain a stanglehold over the Gaza Strip. The fence has reduced the Gaza Strip into the biggest concentration camp in the world, with some 1.5 million people herded into a space of some 360 square km (the highest population density worldwide). An electrified fence peppered by electronic sensors encircles the area, and the movement of the population is strictly monitored through a system of gates, controlled by the Israeli occupation army, of which the Sufah crossing is one.

The Gaza Strip, 2000

Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA)

The Gaza Strip perimeter fence at the Sufah Crossing
Courtesy of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Gaza

Gaza Perimeter fence
Courtesy of Alternative Information Center (AIC), Jerusalem

On May 4th 2005 Salman Abu Sitta wrote me a missive that has set me off on my search for his heirloom – a sword gone missing in the course of the Israeli invasion of the region in 1947-1948.

Dear Uri,

If you wish to pursue the matter with Benni Motilov you could ask him to return some of the items stolen from my father's house, namely his sword (ancient and valuable), his WWI medal, my brother's law degree, my brothers' Matriculation Certificates, correspondence with Arab leaders in Trans-Jordan and Egypt, family photographs, Arabic books, English books including Shakespeare's Othello and Hamlet.

The PALMACH officer who was with him was Aryeh Aharoni. He can be contacted at his office which is in Sifriat Poalim. The telephone number is 03-6163829. He wrote a book A Candidate for Treason, Sifriat Poalim Publishing House, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2000 (Hebrew). He admits taking our property, pp. 103-104 and poisoning Gaza wells, pp. 109-110.

Best regards, Salman

Kibbutz Seder

I divide my residence between the Arab town of Sakhnin in Central Galilee and a community settlement called Qatzir. On the festive day I departed from Qatzir, armed with a bouquet of flowers for my hostess, sometime around 14:30, with a view to arriving “at my earliest convenience” as requested by Mrs. Nativ. I mounted my red VW Beetle and taking the relatively new “Trans-Israel Highway”, otherwise known as “Cross Israel Highway” or “Toll Highway No. 6”, I traversed the 250 km to Nir Yitzhaq at a comfortable 80 km per hour in approximately three hours. The weather being rather hot in this part of the world at this time of year I decided to drive barefoot and clad in a vest and shorts, and to change into more respectable attire as I approached my destination.

Havah Nativ turned out to be a delightful and most welcoming hostess. My gift of flowers was well received and I was promptly made to feel very much at home. There was an hour or so to go before the kibbutz families and their guests were expected at the kibbutz dining hall for the Seder and we whiled away the time, Havah, her daughter Shelly, her son Nahshon and myself, chatting comfortably.

The kibbutz dining hall was packed with some 700 diners for the Seder – about 400 kibbutz members and 300 guests. Some of the food on the tables (traditional East European menu with the obligatory chicken soup and dumplings) was cooked in the kibbutz kitchen. Other dishes were bought from a catering company. A professional singer (Ophirah Gluska) was brought in, accompanied by two guitar players, to lead the festivities from the stage. Performances by kibbutz children punctuated the staged event. The Kibbutz Haggadah (very much leaner than the traditional version), published in Israel by Ha-Kibbutz ha-Artzi – ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir (15th edition, 1994) was read aloud from the stage by a string of kibbutz members, in prearranged succession.

The local version of the Haggadah that was read aloud on the occasion is the uniform text for all kibbutzim incorporated in the Ha-Kibbutz ha-Artzi – ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir kibbutz federation. It is an irreconcilable jumble of excerpts from Orthodox Tradition, Pagan adoration of nature in spring and political Zionist indoctrination (“This is the 57th Year of Our Liberation, the Freedom of Israel in the State of Israel”).

The readers and musicians performed their tasks dutifully. Gluska did her bit singing the prearranged repertoire (mostly secular Hebrew Zionist songs) but when at one time she departed from it and indulged in one or two songs with reference to God, subdued discontent rippled through the congregation. The highlight of the evening was her solo-performance of yet another string of songs – very Zionistic, glorifying romantic nature, idyllic meadows and pastoral shepherds. I found it rather surreal in such a middle class society, so deep into real estate calculations and so estranged from the rustic rural life of yore, as is the kibbutz society in kibbutzim adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

There was only one element in the kibbutz Seder in Nir Yitzhaq that night with any relevance to the context underpinning life in this kibbutz and the country as a whole, namely, the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was the beautiful rendering by a kibbutz member of Havah Alberstein’s song One Only Kid (“kid” in the sense of a young goat, not a child). Alberstein’s song alludes to various Passover traditions – the song of the same title that concludes the Seder; the opening question of the evening – “how is this night different from all other nights”; and the queries recited by the four sons whom we are to instruct on this occasion – the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who has not capacity to inquire. This was the only reference to the fact that a conflict between a settler colonial state, known as the “Jewish State” and the indigenous Palestinian Arab people exists.

Had Gadia / Hava Alberstein, an excerpt

And why are you suddenly singing
Of the one and only kid?
Spring has not yet arrived nor Passover come
And what has changed for you,
What has changed?
I have changed
This year.
Since on all other nights, on all other nights
I had only had four questions
On this night I want to ask another:
How long more will this vicious cycle turn?
Persecutor and persecuted
tormentor and tormented
When will this madness end?

Let us now revert to Salman’s suggestion or request that I “pursue the matter” with Benni Motilov with a view to locating some of the items stolen from his father's house during the 1948 invasion, including the treasured sword.

I wondered what the prospects could be. After all, among 50-year-old citizens of the State of Israel and over, my name may still register as an icon of anti-Zionist dissent. Not so among younger generations, who are often at a loss when asked who Moshe Sharett was, let alone Uri Davis, but the people I would have to interview were definitely in their sixties or over. To my delight, with one or two exceptions, it seemed that my name did not immediately ring a bell. The reference group of my interviewees consists of peers in the senior security establishment of the State of Israel in whose recollection of the history of the State Anti-Zionist dissent seems not to have figured. More often than not they did not associate Dr. Davis, the anthropologist, with Uri Davis, the anti-Zionist dissident activist. And when they did, often at my prompting, they turned out to be old and mellow enough to almost forgive and forget.

My first interview was to be with Lina Meitiv.


I interviewed Lina Meitiv at her home on 29th September 2005.

I had plenty of time, travelling the 200 odd km from Sakhnin to Ashqelon to consider a strategic narrative for this interview. After all, I, a Palestinian Hebrew citizen of the State of Israel, an academic and a human rights activist with a long record of anti-Zionist public advocacy, was about to interview the widow of a senior Israeli intelligence officer.

In the few rounds of telephone conversations with Lina Meitiv a few weeks back, to set the date and the time for the interview, she seemed not to recognize the name Dr. Davis, nor subsequently the name Uri Davis. However, she did want to know the purpose of the interview, and I said that I sought an opportunity to discuss her husband’s works Hazor’im ba-Midbar (“Those who Sow in the Desert”) and Sipuro shel Gevul (“The Story of a Frontier”). She expressed doubt regarding her ability to assist me and feared I would be wasting my time travelling all the way from Sakhnin to Ashqelon to interview her. I assured her I would not be wasting my time – and she was happy to have me come.

The strategy I had picked seemed to have worked. First, I asked for the interview on behalf of Salman Abu Sitta, son of Shaykh Hussein Abu Sitta of Ma’in Abu Sitta. And second, since Mrs. Meitiv could not be regarded as a friend, I owed her nothing more than my formal professional credentials as an academic and a peace activist committed to reconciliation. In my codex, when dealing with an apartheid state – international boycott, divestment and sanctions are to be regarded as educational measures necessary to effect reconciliation.

A spell of “small talk” and delicate prompting brought forth some interesting biographical details. Lina Meitiv, came to Israel in the early 1950s, a young French woman (presumably Jewish), with a Zionist aliyah group affiliated to MAPAM; got to meet Benni Meitiv; and married him. At some point late in their marriage he had suffered a stroke affecting the “small brain”. The stroke did not paralyze him but weakened his physical and mental faculties and towards his death he was so frustrated with his diminished capacities and his physical and speech disabilities that he became violent and rather difficult to handle. Meitiv had passed away a few months prior to our meeting.

I embarked upon the presentation of my case, informed by the two strategic decisions mentioned above. I did not know what to expect. I stuck my neck out. Lina Meitiv took my presentation at face value without batting an eyelid.

When I told her that I sought the interview on Salman Abu Sitta’s behalf to ask where his father’s ancient and valuable sword and library books were now deposited she stirred. She knew nothing of the sword, and she did not recall her husband ever mentioning any such item. “But”, she said, “Arnon, Avino’am Avni’s son in kibbutz Nirim, is a computer buff. He came across the Abu Sitta website, made printouts and brought them to Benni. Benni was overjoyed and made any number of copies of the website printouts for distribution”.

I asked to see the material. Lina Meitiv had extra copies and was happy to give me a set. She then went on to suggest that I should interview the veterans at kibbutz Nirim. “They are still very lucid”, she said. When I pointed out that I had some contacts in kibbutz Nir Yitzhaq – but none in Nirim she offered to introduce me to Amnon Dagieli there and then.

“Benni would know nothing of the sword or the library”, said Dagieli. “He arrived on the scene in 1948. Ma’in Abu Sitta was conquered in 1947. You should talk to Aryeh (Stinah) Aharoni, or even better to the commanding officer of the unit (yehidah) that captured Ma’in Abu Sitta, General Avraham (Bren) Adan. He is now retired and lives in Ramat ha-Sharon. Lina has his telephone number”.

The telephone rang. Lina was engaged in a friendly conversation, chatting about the forthcoming Jewish High Holidays and their respective families. “This was Nahman”, she said when she put the receiver down. “He and Benni were comrades and friends years back. They spent long nights by the border of the Gaza Strip waiting to interview informers” (she used the SHABAK derogatory term schtinkerim to refer to the Palestinian Arabs who crossed the border to inform on their people – meaning “those who stink”). “He (Nahman) rose to become deputy Director of the SHABAK (“General Security Service”)”, she added.

Before I took my leave Lina gave me Avraham Adan’s telephone number and once back in my study in Sakhnin I made an appointment to interview him on Wednesday, 5th October, 17:00, in Ramat ha-Sharon.


I arrived at retired General Avraham (Bren) Adan’s residence on time on the 5th of October 2005 – a few minutes before the appointed hour of 17:00. Avraham Adan was waiting on the pavement before his home, in shorts, to make sure I did not miss the house.

There was a vacant parking place right in front of his house. I parked my red VW Beetle; pulled my frame out of the seat; picked my AppleMacintosh iBook; locked the car and greeted the elderly man who waited to show me in, his body language bespeaking relaxation and a quizzically amused look in his eyes. He looked in jolly good health, a silver mane still adorning much of his scalp and only minor evidence of balding.

Avraham (Bren) Adan recognized the name Abu Sitta without difficulty. Erroneously referring to Salman’s father as Abdallah rather than Hussein Abu Sitta he acknowledged his leadership of the Arab resistance in the southern region. He actually had in his possession two photographs that were removed from Abu Sitta’s house and were given to him as “souvenirs” (though he could not recall by whom). On the bottom margin of one photograph was inscribed in Hebrew in Adan’s handwriting: “Abdallah and Ibrahim Abu Sitta commanders of the revolt in the Negev”. The other photograph had no annotation and was subsequently identified by Salman Abu Sitta as the photograph of his step-brother Abdallah.

Adan was the commander of the company (pelugah) which occupied Khirbat Ma’in on 14th May 1948 as part of the Baraq Operation. They arrived at Khirbat Ma’in after a week of continuous fighting in the area, in the course of which his troops conquered inter alia Brayr and Hulayqat, on the last day of the Baraq Operation, after which they returned to base. They were sent there to back-up an attempt to reinforce and supply the besieged Kefar Darom.

Upon arrival at Khirbat Ma’in Adan and his men encountered significant resistance. Fire was showered at them from close quarters – a range of some 80 meters, by snipers behind a thick row of sabr cacti. Adan’s unit overcame the resistance and took up positions on top of the hill. There they found a structure – a rather modest house made of mud bricks and a fairly large depo of weapons next to it. They blew up the house lock, stock and barrel.

“If the house was demolished with all its contents inside”, I asked, “how do you come to have in your possession photographs that where inside it before its demolition”?

Adan was unable to recall the sequence of events. He remembered that Aryeh (Stinah) Aharoni, the cultural commissar of the troops at that time, had given him the photographs but he was not sure how Aharoni came to have them. He was perplexed by the blind spot that seemed to emerge at this juncture in the interview, since he had always assumed Aharoni to have been stationed elsewhere in the Negev.

Apparently there were two structures involved – one was the mud house on the hilltop, behind the thicket of sabr cacti, which sheltered the snipers, and which they blew-up once they overcame the rather stiff resistance. But lower down there was another much more impressive structure – a large white house built of stone. It stood at what Adan referred to as a “star shaped” junction out of which roads fanned out in a number of directions. He thought it was this house that could have been Abdallah Abu Sitta’s residence. Adan and his soldiers never got to occupy the large “white house”. They stayed on the hilltop for the duration of the day, and then returned to base.

The hilltop occupied by Adan’s troops in 1948 is today the cemetery of kibbutz Nirim.

The story of their involvement in the area is detailed in Adan’s book Ad Degel ha-Deyo (The Ink Flag) – his squadron (kitah, pl. kitot) was the first to arrive in Umm Rashrash, and it was Adan who mounted the Israeli flag on the mast. Since they had no standard issue flags in their possession they improvised and painted the Star of David and the two stripes with ink on a white cloth, and that served the purpose.

A framed photograph of the occasion with himself climbing the mast to raise the flag, signifying Israel’s claim to the place, decorates the wall of Adan’s study.

Once they returned to base and until the area was reoccupied in December 1948 by the 8th division (ugdah) of Golani, in the course of the Asaf Operation, there was no presence of Israeli troops in the region of Khirbat Ma’in. After the December invasion a company (pelugah) was permanently stationed there.

The 8th division had three squadrons, two of which comprised three companies and one just two. Adan was the commander of one of these squadrons.

In April 1949 the company stationed in Ma’in Abu Sitta took over from Nirim (by then Nir Yitzhaq) the outpost in Dangur that it had occupied and now vacated by agreement and kibbutz Nirim moved to Ma’in Abu Sitta to the large white stone house, presumably the Abu Sitta home. The house no longer exists.

“I wonder”, I said, “Whether you could extend to me the kind of assistance Lina Meitive kindly proffered me?”

Adan shot me a quizzical look.

“It was only because Lina Meitive was good enough to contact Amnon Dagieli while I was with her that I managed to get in touch with you. Perhaps you could call Aryeh Aharoni before I leave to find out how he has come by the photograph?”

Adan had no problem with the request.

It was the second day of the Jewish New Year (and Adan’s 79th birthday) and Aharoni was more likely to be at home in Kibbutz Beit Alfa than in Tel Aviv, where he works with the Sifriyat Poalim (“Workers Library”; a publishing house affiliated with Labour Party) Publishers.

It was 17:30 when Adan picked up the telephone to contact a relative of his in Kibbutz Beit Alfa for Aharoni’s home number and in less than five minutes he was happily chatting with his veteran comrade in arms Aryeh Aharoni. In the course of the conversation the blind spot in our interview was cleared up – Aharoni was attached to Adan’s squadron at the time.

Adan introduced me to Aharoni and handed me the receiver. Aharoni expected to remain at home on vacation until the end of the month and so I arranged to interview him there, in Kibbutz Beit Alfa, sometime in the next two weeks.

I asked Adan to screen the Abu Sitta photographs before I took my leave so that I could forward the JPG files to Salman. He was happy to oblige and right away emailed the files to me. I forwarded the images to Salman upon returning to my study later the same evening.

The enclosed attachment represents the first modest results of my research. I wrote:

Abdallah (step brother) Hussein Abu Sitta [father] and Ibrahim [eldest son], identifying them as the commanders of the revolt in the Negev (the Hebrew notation erroneously says “Abdallah and Ibrahim Abu Sitta”)

“Wonderful, woooooonderful. I am thrilled. Thanks, thanks. I feel my soul rejuvenated. More please. Cannot wait [...]”, came the almost immediate response.

“La shukra ‘ala al-wajib” (no thanks are due for doing one’s duty), I wrote back, and meant it.

In response Salman sent the following information:

Dear Uri,

I sent the photos to my brothers. They were thrilled.

The photos were taken in the early forties either in Jerusalem (likely) or Cairo. The first is my father with his eldest son who was studying law. The second is of my step-brother and cousin who was brought up by my father as his son. He was a leader in the Palestinian National Movement since the Great Revolt of 1936-1939.

This is what Aharoni said of the attack on our Ma'in Abu Sitta:

"Khirbeit Main"- There was no one in the battalion who did not utter this name. This was the place in which Abdallah Abu Sitta, the organizer and commander of the gangs (sic) in the Negev resided; the man whose forceful name has spread fear all around; the name that every Bedouin had uttered in awe and reverence; the notable family who ruled the entire Negev, that had contact relations with the neighbouring countries. To conquer the home of Abu Sitta was indeed a temptation.

We went to the Abu Sitta home and were stunned: In the middle of the desert – unbelievable richness: luxurious furniture, many Oriental and European clothes, a radio, a truck, a beautiful Bedouin sword made of silver, a large important archive of photos and documents, letters from the Emir Abdalla [of Trans-Jordan] and Hassan Banna, the leader of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt; A lawyer’s certificate belonging to a member of the family, Shakespeare's "Othello" in English, by the side of a Kor'an. Our happiness reached its climax when we found the weapon store although there was not much there – a number of ammunition boxes, a few guns and two boxes full of Italian explosive material. We were so happy [..]

History has a long memory. It has a way of coming back.

Thanks again. Waiting for more. Warmest, Salman

P.S. What does it say in Hebrew at the bottom?
In subsequent email and telephone exchanges it transpired that whoever annotated the photograph with the two images had gotten it wrong. The name of Salman’s father, the person wearing the sword, was Hussein – not Abdallah.

As noted above I made arrangements to interview Aharoni later in the month. Now that I had photographic evidence of the sword, I was hoping to advance one or two steps further toward locating the object itself.

Towards the end of the interview with Adan I sought permission to ask a personal question. “It’s very personal”, I said, “You don’t have to answer if it makes you uncomfortable”.

“Go ahead”, he replied

“Was it all worth it?” I asked, thereby triggering an extended political discussion. The bottom line of Adan’s position seems to be that though the state of affairs obtaining in Israel is not that which he had hoped to see come into being, to establish a sovereign Jewish state and maintain its Jewish demographic majority was definitely a historical necessity. Moreover, preservation of a Jewish demographic majority justifies today and to eternity a comprehensive objection to the right of return of the 1948 Palestine refugees and to their title to property inside Israel.

When I suggested that the only way to ensure eternal Jewish demographic majority was by repeating the 1948 ethnic cleansing every so often – he disagreed. “There are other ways”, he said, “for instance, exchange of territories”.

Adan is trying to pull out of the Gaza Strip and into Israel a prime Palestinian collaborator Musa Muhsin Abu (or Ibn) Mu’ammar. Lina Meitive referred to this person as an embodiment of the potential for Arab-Jewish fraternity.

Stinah (1)

My Finnish family, Daniel and Iris Pajunen (twins, four years old) and their mother Sirkku joined me in Palestine on October 10th for a two week stay. The family residence was divided, as mine