Visual archives hold enormous power in shaping national identity and marketing it to the world. Zionism has produced no shortage of images seeking to imbue historic Palestine with a predominantly, if not exclusively, Jewish character, which was predicated on making the Palestinians invisible. Israel sought to bury prints and film reels that proved false the Zionist claim that Palestine was “a land without a people.”
Rona Sela’s film “Looted & Hidden” delves into the history of Palestinian photography and cinema archives that were looted by Israeli soldiers and civilians during the 1948-49 Nakba and the 1982 siege of Beirut. Constructed as a film-essay told through a series of narrated letters exchanged between Sela and Palestinians who share a connection with the stolen material, the film brings to life a rich visual archive Israel has sought to hide from public view. The documentary unfolds against a rolling backdrop of images unearthed through years of researching Israeli military archives and sheds light on a rarely scene dimension of Palestinian struggle against erasure.
The looting was spontaneous in some cases and premeditated in others. During Israel’s attack against the Palestinian neighborhoods of West Jerusalem in 1948 soldiers robbed numerous bookstores and photographic workshops. One belonged to the father of modern Palestinian photography Khalil Rassas. Many commanders issued direct orders to ransack Palestinian archives, which included half a million books in private collections. Photographs were also stolen from Palestinians captives who were captured during the war: One caption in the Israeli archives reads, “Photograph taken from the pocket of a dead Arab.” As if to add insult to injury, language erases the plunder: “taken” and “pilfered” rather than looted or stolen.
Collectively, the photographs highlighted in the documentary represent some of the most important Palestinian collections, including those that belonged to families like the prominent Nashashibis. Israeli archives have sealed many of them for five decades, and some remain off limits still. As the documentary reveals, when Sela requested access to the “PLO Archive,” she was told that they are “restricted material.” It is “history hidden deliberately…an official Israeli attempt to rewrite the past and control present achievements,” she said.
Among the salient features in “Looted and Hidden,” Khadijah Habashneh narrating the story of her work as director of the Palestinian Cinema Institute in Beirut (1969-1982), the first Palestinian visual archive. The Cinema Institute “created a record of what the world doesn’t want to see,” Habashneh recounts. Often, guerrilla fighters-in-training are the stock image produced by liberation movements, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, but the Cinema Institute artists focused their lens on Palestinian civilians in refugee camps striving in harsh conditions, and often premiered their films in refugee tents. Their exilic films documented central moments in contemporary Palestinian history: the Battle of Karameh (1968), the expulsion from Jordan to Lebanon (1970), the siege of Tel Al-Zaa’tar refugee camp (1976), and the invasion of Beirut (1982).
Israel deemed the visual narration and preservation of Palestinian history a threat to its exclusive narrative. In Israel, Palestinian citizens who expressed their people’s attachment to their identity in poetry and writing were persecuted and placed under house arrest. Abroad, they were assassinated from novelist Ghassan Kanafani to poet Kamal Nasser. For instance, Cameraman Hani Jawharieh, who also helped establish the photography and cinematography department of the PLO, was killed in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war. The Israeli invasion would be the coup de grâce: those who sought to put the camera “in the hands of the revolution,” Habashneh narrates, would have to flee Beirut only carrying a handful of films in their bags. Untold numbers of reels were left behind. When they returned, the old office they spent more than a decade curating was barren Fortunately few films were saved during the Israeli invasions, as they were in foreign labs being developed or were sent out to shops for distribution. But the collection as a whole was gone. What happened to the record of “women, children, fighters, intellectual and culture figures, places, [and] historical events” remains an “enigma,” Habashneh concludes. Without it, she wonders, are Palestinians “condemned to having a faceless past?”
Habashneh’s account reveals an Israeli pattern corroborated by other narrators in the documentary. Sabri Jiryis, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His filing of claims to recover expropriated Palestinian property led to forced exile in Lebanon. In 1976, he became Director of the PLO’s Palestine Research Center (PRC). In 1982, Jiryis knew that the PRC’s vast archive would be targeted by Israel. On the eve of the invasion, he retrieved the manuscripts of Palestinian testimony of tragedy and perseverance. As expected, Israel loaded up the archive into crates. Much of what they took would have been books and magazines already in circulation. The “real archive,” Jiryis knew, remained in his possession. “It’s part of our struggle,” Jiryis proclaimed, “another battle…with books.”
Given the Zionist narrative that has legitimized Israel’s founding in the Western views, it is no wonder that Israeli leaders have been overly zealous in tracking down and stealing Palestinian archives. By Surveying Palestinian visual history held captive by Israel, Sela seeks to demonstrate what she calls a “mosaic of dominance”: a vivid illustration of Zionism’s determination to deny Palestinians “permission to narrate,” in Edward Said’s famous words. The destruction and concealing of archives is meant to convey power over truth. But, it also betrays deep insecurity, Sela concludes, as Israel is “threatened by anything that cracks its worldview.” The Palestinian presence, however, inevitably “slips in,” appearing in the background even in Zionist propaganda films. The archives may remain in Israeli hands, Sela concludes, but the objective is “futile.” The truth is too salient to be entirely erased.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Rona Sela’s father participated in the looting of West Jerusalem in 1948. Sela’s father was not in Jerusalem at the time.