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Al-Nakba Denial Case Silenced in the Tel-Aviv Court:

No Palestinian Witness Spoke, No Palestinian Testimony Was Heard

A report from the trial of Tedi Katz, sued for libel by Israeli soldiers who deny the massacre in Tantoura

Samera Esmair

22 Dec. 2000

I am sending the second and the first update together, after which there will be no updates about the trial simply because there will be no trial in the near future, no Palestinian witnesses, and no testimonies. Questions of law, history and memory that I flew with from New York to Tel-Aviv are irrelevant in a place where there is a constant effort to silence any word of opposition and to suppress any oppositional/ subversive account of history before even hearing it. The memories of violence against Palestinians from Tantoura that I was looking forward to their voicing in a public forum (courtroom) were not suppressed by the legal procedure, as I expected will happen, rather not allowed at all into the courtroom after their potential-danger as realised. Instead of writing about memories of Palestinians, I find myself writing about their absence. Maybe I should have expected that. And maybe the suppression of memory and the expulsion of memory have many things in common. I will be thinking about that in the coming few days. The story began when veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade had sued Mr. Tedi Katz, a politically confused and a physically weak historian from Haifa University, for libel, seeking NIS 1.1 million in damages after he had written a master's thesis revealing (I must say only to the Israelis) that soldiers of the brigade had massacred some 200residents of the coastal village of Tantoura during the 1948 war.

The trial opened a week ago. The first witness was Tedi Katz. His testimony lasted two days. Many veterans of the Alerxandroni were sitting in the courtroom. They're now in their70s or 80s. They were sitting one next to the other as if forming a new military unit - one which has a different character and which exercises a new form of violence. Yesterday I was very glad to see that there were no Palestinians from Tantoura sitting next to them, and that I was the only Palestinian in the courtroom. I just could not imagine the possibility of Palestinians who had survived the massacre sitting next to their Israeli murderers in an Israeli courtroom that clearly does not treat them in an equal manner. The subversive potential of the act was simply too difficult to be realised, and indeed it was not.

Katz' testimony was confused. He could not bring himself to say that there was a massacre in Tantoura as his research indeed shows. When the judge Drora Pilpel asked him whether it is possible that the story about massacring Palestinians, following the occupation of the village, in fact never happened, he replied "indeed this is possible. This is what I've said from the very beginning." (Note that while denying the massacre the judge acknowledges the fact of occupation.) Also, in his reply to another question he stated "I never said there was a massacre in Tantoura."

Five lawyers represented Katz. The first lawyer (Amatsia Atlas) was his cousin. Atlas' sole motivation was to help Katz and could not care less about the politics of the case. Two other lawyers were from Adalah: the legal centre for the Palestinian Minority in Israel (Hassan Jabareen and Orna Cohn). And the fourth and fifth lawyers (Avigdor Feldman and Ahinoam) were Israeli lawyers who shared the politics of Adalah and who wanted to prove Tedi Katz right by brining Palestinian witnesses to talk about the massacre. In order to win the case, Katz had to choose either one of the following defence-arguments: "I spoke the truth," or alternatively "innocence". The second means that he had no bad intentions and he did what he did thinking, subjectively, that he was doing the right thing. (The legal debate about the subjective/objective nature of the two arguments is fascinating, but I won't go into it.) While the cousin was pushing to adopt the second argument, the other four lawyers wanted to argue "I spoke the truth". This argument would have allowed them to turn this case into Al-Nakba denial case and to bring Palestinian witnesses to speak in the heart of the Israeli city, Tel-Aviv, about the massacre--a city that reflects the Israeli refusal to acknowledge the sins of the past, that is, the present (as I am writing this e-mail, I am also listening to the radio and at this moment they happen to talk about the case. The journalist is basically interviewing a few historians and asking them how is it that such a fabricated research was ever allowed in universities. Also, one article today mentioned that Katz' grade was 97).

When Katz gave his testimony, and despite the conversation that he had with the "I spoke the truth" legal team, he ended up, as the quotations elaborate, adopting the other defence-argument--an argument that does not challenge Zionism nor does it allocate a space for others to prove him right. It is a typical legal argument that constitutes a difference between the abstract legal discourse and the material reality of oppression, an argument that allows all the involved parties to escape history and that produces a law which does not contain any traces of violence. These traces, however, remain there, despite the desperate efforts, in the terminology of occupation.

Katz went home confused and sick. He could not handle it. People were threatening him. His body failed him completely, but also his ideological commitments proved to be too hard to undo. The third hearing was scheduled for the following week (yesterday, Thursday). A Palestinian witness who survived the 1948 massacre, currently a citizen of Germany, was to give a testimony, together with Ilan Papeh, a historian from Haifa University. Ilan Papeh was to speak about the question of objectivity in history and to support Katz' testimony by adopting a postmodern perspective on the question of writing history (the lawyers failed to notice that Papeh can't support the "I spoke the truth" argument, if the truth here means an objective truth. A new conception of truth, one that escapes the objective subjective dichotomy, had to be developed but I wonder whether the court would have ever understood it).

On Tuesday night at 23:30 (36 hours before the hearing on Thursday) Katz signed a compromise agreement under which 1948 war veterans dropped the suit against him in exchange for his retracting accusations that they had massacred Palestinians during the 1948 war. The cousin-lawyer was with him, while the other lawyers were not informed at all. As part of the agreement, Katz is to publish his apology in half-page ads in two daily newspapers. An announcement of the agreement, signed by both sides, was submitted on Wednesday to the court, following which the other four lawyers filed a motion in which they declared that they no longer wish to represent Katz, and that they were not consulted in the process of reaching the agreement.

Katz apparently feared that he would loose the case. The veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade feared the political shape the trial was taking. They did not expect the defence team to argue for "I spoke the truth," and they did not want to have Palestinian witnesses in the court. They knew that the most suitable time to push Katz is immediately following his testimony in which his academic integrity was questioned as well. It worked. He signed it and he apologised.

The judge approved the agreement and gave it the force of court ruling on Thursday morning before the parties entered the courtroom. Meanwhile Katz realised that he did a horrible mistake and caused damage to him personally (he actually acknowledged that his academic research is questioned), and to Palestinians who have supported him and Anti-Zionist Israelis who have been with him since the very beginning. He asked his other four lawyers to continue in the case and said that he will ask the court to allow him to rescind his agreement to the compromise and his vow to publish a public apology. As a result, the cousin-lawyer resigned. Adalah refused to continue in representing him and said that Adalah will reconsider its position only after the agreement is annulled.

One of Adalah's lawyers nevertheless attended the hearing the following day but refused to represent Katz. Avigdor Feldman, who had also resigned, agreed to represent Katz in the very specific question of the agreement. Katz said he had been under pressure from his family to reach a quick agreement because the legal proceedings were proving bad for his health. He added that he was so upset that he had signed the agreements, saying he had done so in a moment of weakness. The legal arguments employed were very interesting because they equated this agreement with other commercial agreements in which regret is not a sufficient reason to annul.

In rejecting his request, Pilpel said that when two mature sides reach a compromise and ask the court to give it the force of a court ruling, they are expected to understand the implications of what they are doing. Pilpel added that the court would not tolerate repeat performances when the facts of the case remained essentially the same as they were when Katz agreed to the compromise. She said Katz had apparently not fully internalised the implications of signing the agreement, and he was now bound to comply with its terms.

Katz now says that he won't publish an apology. But today he was interviewed in the radio and he was as confused: "I do not know if there was a massacre…maybe there was, maybe there was not." However he went on to defend his academic integrity because as I said the debate is whether Katz fabricated a research or not. The journalist even went further to argue that the Palestinians from Tantoura fabricated their testimonies because they had political interests, and he asked Katz how come he has not interviewed the soldiers, and by so asking, he was proposing that they have monopoly over the truth and that they have no interests. By the way, I called the radio station and asked to comment but they refused. They allowed only historians to speak.


Samera Esmair is Co-editor of Adalah's Review.