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The following article first appeared in print in Salvage #10: The Disorder of the Future, our Spring/Summer 2021 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
When, shortly after midnight on 16 October 1937, the recently completed airport at Lydd was attacked, British colonial authorities lacked the vocabulary to interpret what they saw. William Ormsby-Gore, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, reported the incident to Parliament on 3 November, announcing that Arab insurgents had ‘cut the wires, set on fire and completely burned out the buildings housing the customs offices and the wireless installation’. He dismissed the incursion as an instance of aimless destruction. The press even tried to obfuscate the deliberate nature of the attack, mentioning only a fire, which, they conceded with tacit embarrassment, ‘considerably delayed the airport’s final development’.
Partisans of the Great Palestinian Revolt (thawrat filastin al-kubra) had executed their plan just days before the airport’s scheduled inauguration as a port of call on the Imperial Airways route from Britain to India. Their objective, contrary to British assumptions, was quite clear. The airport was developed as a central node of a transportation network that spanned Mandate Palestine and the wider empire, initiating a process of segregation and displacement felt to this day by the Palestinian inhabitants of the adjacent city of Lydd. The town’s utility to the Zionist state-building project precipiated one of the most brutal campaigns of the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, which fell just short of wiping out its Palestinian population entirely. The persistence of this indigenous minority paired with the town’s strategic value to the state are conditions which have turned Lod – as it was subsequently Hebraicised – into an emblem of the judicially-sanctioned violence Israel inflicts on its native citizens.
In this sense, the rancour expressed by Lydd’s rioting youth in May 2021 was overdetermined. On the night of 10 May, they took to the streets not just in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah, or with those targeted by the Israeli police’s recurring raids at the Haram ash-Sharif; they also sought to recount their own experience of the ongoing Nakba, in unison with countless other Palestinians in cities and towns across Israel’s 1948 territories.
It was not long until the state and its deputies intervened. In Haifa, mobs roamed Palestinian neighbourhoods, destroying cars and marking Arab houses out for attack. In Yafa, petrol bombs were hurled into Palestinian homes, maiming children. But when Musa Hassouneh was murdered by armed settlers drafted in from the West Bank and welcomed by security forces as reserves for the town’s defence, Lydd was not intimidated, coming out in its thousands for his funeral procession the following day.
If the matter required clarification, the uprising of Palestinians of the interior in spring 2021 has shown definitively that – whilst urgently necessary – the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the West Bank and an end to the siege on Gaza is not the panacea for dispossession that liberals in Israel and beyond hope. For those who briefly reclaimed the streets of Lydd, ’Akka, Haifa and Yafa, occupation represents the sine qua non of colonial citizenship, rather than a deferral of national rights. It’s clear that as political horizons unify across historic Palestine and an international movement in solidarity with the Palestinians renews itself, any attempt to grasp Zionism’s inherent coloniality (rather than narrowly decrying its more recent settler-induced ‘perversions’) will necessarily proceed from the experience of the Palestinians that remained.
Lying on the coastal plain inland from Yafa, at the feet of the hills that climb up to Jerusalem, Lydd’s position relative to its surrounding region had drawn the interest of imperial administrators as a potential site for infrastructural development since the second half of the nineteenth century. When the British took control of Palestine in 1917, two of the previously existing Ottoman railways in the region – the North-South route from El Kantara in Egypt to Haifa and the Yafa-Jerusalem line – intersected at Lydd, at the time a town of under 10,000 inhabitants. The primary advantage Palestine presented to Britain’s colonial architects was a coastline on the Mediterranean which would facilitate the Westward transportation of Iraqi oil through the port at Haifa. The Colonial Office quickly began investing in development projects aimed at integrating Palestine further into the circuits of the imperial economy.
Lydd was thus a natural candidate for an airport to service the expanding operations of Imperial Airways, which had begun operating a route from London to Karachi in 1929, with stops in Cairo and Baghdad. Lydd’s more northerly location allowed planes to circumvent Egypt, offering a more efficient service to passengers flying East. When the London-to-Bombay service was established in 1937, Lydd was similarly sold as ‘the gateway to India’.
The decision to unify aviation networks around the empire dates to 1919, when Churchill, the first British Secretary of State for Air, received a report from the newly formed Advisory Committee on Civil Aviation. The report laid out preliminary recommendations and measures for what became known as Imperial Airways in 1924. Air power had proven its worth in battle during the First World War, and its military capabilities were confirmed again during the suppression of the Iraqi Revolt of 1920 (when ‘aerial policing’ – bombardment – was pioneered as a counterinsurgency measure). The British government saw the potential air transport presented for the efficient administration of its colonies.
In tandem with the airport, colonial authorities also upgraded the railway facilities at Lydd. No doubt thrilled by their acquisition of a former Roman province, the British built a new settlement outside the historic city walls, whose moniker combined the city’s Latin name with a good measure of colonial provincialism: Lydda Junction was a segregated enclave built for railway and airport staff near the station, and included a recreation centre and tennis courts, naturally only accessible to British residents. British concerns for the preservation of imperial transport networks bore a direct influence on the policies of partition that matured in the second half of the Mandate period. The earliest example of these were the recommendations of the Peel Commission published in July 1937, which suggested outlines for both a Jewish and an Arab state, along with a ‘corridor’ – stretching from Jerusalem to Yafa – earmarked for further British control. Speculation around the possible postwar importance of the airport at Lydd underpinned the proposal of this ‘Jerusalem State’, and reluctance to lose their newly developed transportation hub led the British to renew their aspirations to control the corridor up until at least 1944.
Zionist historiography has squabbled over the extent to which the Yishuv’s leadership was explicit about the expulsion of Palestinians from their towns and villages in 1948, as if the true determinant of ethnic cleansing is to be found in the minutiae of military memoranda. In 2014, historians Benny Morris and Martin Kramer engaged in a lengthy polemic over journalist Avi Shavit’s new book My Promised Land. It was the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine that made the massacre of Palestinians at Lydd ineluctable, according to Shavit. In his response, Morris sticks to his famed dispassion, rejecting the possibility that forced expulsions might be explained by anything other than the pragmatism of officials under the pressure of war – certainly not the product of settler-colonialism in its structural, impersonal dimension. ‘Methodologically’, as Walid Khalidi notes of Morris’ work, ‘to look at what happened in 1948 in isolation from its prodromal antecedents (for example trivialising the concept of [population] transfer in pre-1948 strategy) is like looking for the causes of World War I after Sarajevo, or those of World War II after Germany’s invasion of Poland’.
The UN’s Partition Plan of 1947 had assigned Lydd to an Arab State, but it would not take long for the Zionist hierarchy to focus its efforts on capturing the city: Lydd and Ramleh’s obstruction of the road to Jerusalem, and their attendant railway link and airport, became an increasingly intense object of Ben-Gurion’s obsession as the May campaign rolled into summer. The ‘two thorns’, as he would refer to them in a diary entry, were overrun by the Haganah in early July 1948. As Moshe Dayan entered the city, Zionist forces separated Muslims from Christians. The former were held en masse at the Omari Mosque in the city center, the latter were ordered to fill the neighbouring Church of St George. Out of fear of an impending massacre, remaining locals gathered at the Dahmash mosque to the north, and began organising the town’s resistance. Upon discovery, Zionist units fired anti-tank shells into the structure, killing hundreds. Bodies were burned in the adjoining square, which was subsequently given the name Palmach in honour of the special operations unit that committed the massacre.
On 12 July, the twenty-six-year-old deputy commander of Operation Danny (as the conquest of Lydd was officially called), a certain Yitzhak Rabin, signed an expulsion order that would send tens of thousands of Palestinians marching east for days on end, many of whom had been driven out of neighbouring Yafa in the preceding months. The case of Lydd typifies the dual process of exclusion decreed by the Nakba; a physical displacement from the land made possible by an ‘eviction from the category of the human’, as Sherene Seikaly’s turn of phrase reminds us. Even Rabin would admit in his memoirs that the Palestinians’ removal from the city was designed to divert an imminent offensive, obliged as the Arab Legion would have been to care for the refugees they would encounter on their way down the hills. George Habash, later founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), lost his sister in Lydd earlier that day; here he recalls the abuses that followed the Lyddawis’ forced transformation into artifices of their own dispossession:
One neighbor of ours, a young man in his late twenties named Amin Hanhan, had hidden some money in his shirt to care for his family on the journey. The soldier who searched him demanded that he surrender the money and he resisted. He was shot dead in front of us. One of his sisters, a young married woman, also a neighbor of our family, was present: she saw her brother shot dead before her eyes. She was so shocked that, as we made our way toward Birzeit, she died of shock, exposure, and lack of water.
In the immediate years following 1948, any extant structure in Lydd that hadn’t been settled by foreigners was promptly demolished to make way for modern blocks that could house the influx of immigrants needed to continue the city’s Judaification. Some 100,000 Jews – primarily Mizrahim from North Africa – had been encouraged to settle in Lydd; their task was to form a demographic shield around the newly acquired airport (later renamed ‘Ben-Gurion’), which was to play an ever more fundamental role in the realisation of the Zionist project. In fact, it was the airport itself which served as the point of arrival for many of the same immigrants that were to consolidate its position within the new state.
As soon as it was able to, the new State of Israel invested heavily in the development of its own national airline, El Al, headquartered at the old British airport at Lydd. El Al would provide crucial logistical assistance to both ground and air forces in Israel’s subsequent wars: during the Suez War in 1956 it ferried equipment from Paris on its planes and used its personnel to keep the runway at Lydd clear to accommodate military aircraft returning from the front. But its real strategic value lay in the role it played implementing the Zionist imperative of ‘re’-patriation. Between 1949 and 1950, some 50,000 Yemenite Jews were flown from the port of Aden (then still a British colony) to Lydd, in an operation known officially as Wings of Eagles; prophetic spectacle also surrounded Operation Ezra and Nehemiah in 1951, when Israel transported over 120,000 Iraqi Jews to the Promised Land. These missions were fundamental to the Jewish national project; they were the means by which Israel could realise its duty of territorialising a historically diasporic people, extending the nation beyond its territorial boundaries whilst simultaneously asserting its unity. As it turns out, Zionism’s mastery of the sky was fundamental to its project of reclaiming and redeeming land.
In exchange for their labour, Palestinian railway and construction workers had been permitted to stay in Lydd after its conquest, but their control and surveillance was paramount to the Israeli authorities, who combined curfews and searches with strategies of demographic engineering to discipline the minority they were suddenly tasked with administering. But despite the state’s best efforts, numerous Palestinian refugees, especially from the south, gravitated towards the city over the years. This, combined with sharply contrasting rates of growth between the city’s Palestinian and Jewish populations, has led to the municipality of Lod periodically renewing its policies of ethnic substitution.
Authorities justify more recent schemes with claims of endemic crime, purported to emanate disproportionately from the city’s ‘unruly’ Arab neighbourhoods. In reality, over half of crimes reported relate to building infractions from Palestinians forced to bypass local authorities’ routine denial of planning permission to build new homes. As for other forms of criminality, the role of state-sponsored policies of immiseration in fostering conditions of lawlessness is public knowledge. Unsurprisingly, these efforts intensify in the aftermath of prolonged contestation: following the First Intifada, security forces used Lydd as a dumping ground for individuals from the West Bank and Gaza considered threatening, forced to move there without documentation or work permits. After the Second, Lydd began to ‘flourish’ as a centre for Israel’s drug trade.
In the late 1980s, municipal authorities oversaw a project which turned the city into a new home for over 15,000 recent immigrants from the USSR, exempted from the usual requirements to obtain Israeli citizenship. A fresh reserve of skilled labour was deemed salutary for the city’s stagnating economy, but it was its ethnic rebalancing that the policy aimed to achieve. How else would Lydd retain its blissful aura of Muslim-Jewish ‘coexistence’? Present settlement initiatives have taken on a more religious tinge (in step with the trajectory of Israeli politics more broadly), but it’s clear these are consistent with the realist aims of the past: ‘they just saved a strategic city in Israel’, Lydd’s Likud mayor Yair Revivo declared in 2015, referring to the religious-settler organisation Garin HaTorani. Without his personal sponsorship of the group, Revivo added, ‘Lod would be an Arab city controlling [Israel’s] only airport, with all that this implies’.
The attack on Lydda airport in 1937 was not an isolated incident. It was, in fact, merely one instance of a wider, coordinated rebellion of Palestinians that lasted three years, from 1936-9 – one of the most significant anti-colonial uprisings of the interwar period. As Ghassan Kanafani notes in his study of the revolt, British colonial infrastructure was a primary target for the rebels, who repeatedly sabotaged stretches of the oil pipeline running from Iraq to the port of Haifa. These attacks naturally included the railway link with Lydd, which connected Palestine to the rest of the empire. These actions were not symbolic, nor were they a strategy to merely annoy the British; they aimed explicitly to disrupt the channels of extraction the British had imposed on the land’s indigenous population.
The recent general strike, held across historic Palestine in May 2021, was immediately likened to the nationwide strike of 1936, which had paved the way for the subsequent armed insurgency. How instructive is the comparison? The strike began in Nablus in mid-April 1936, adapting the tactics of the general strike that had all but won Syrian independence from the French just a few months prior. Before long, shopkeepers, labourers, and peasants all over the country refused to work, sustaining their dissent into October. As the strike intensified, the British felt enough pressure to convince their Arab allies to intercede with the Palestinian leadership, who called the strike off in an attempt to salvage relations with the colonial authorities. In a matter of months they would be forced once again by their base to endorse action against the British, this time in the form of an armed offensive.
It is well-documented that the training of an incipient Zionist army took place under the aegis of the British in their efforts to tame the revolt. It is also true, as Kanafani points out, that during the strike Jewish capital was ‘suddenly freed from the competition of cheap Palestinian Arab agricultural produce’, allowing it to ‘take action to promote its economic existence’. This, combined with the radicalisation of Zionism after the British decision to appease Palestinian demands and curb Jewish immigration in 1939, contributes to the revolt’s mixed legacy.
Reminiscent of the urban-rural alliance of 1936, the 18 May 2021 strike also bridged the gaps between the political arena of the interior, that of the occupied territories, and beyond, extending to refugee communities in Lebanese and Jordanian camps; a truly ‘national’ mobilisation. The uprising of the 1930s took place largely in defiance of the established Palestinian leadership, represented by the heads of prominent feudal-aristocratic clans and an ascendant bourgeoisie. But the Arab Higher Committee eventually supported both the strike and the revolt, in contrast with the diffidence – if not outright hostility – emanating from the Palestinian Authority in 2021.
Further, in Palestine today, two distinct national economies competing for colonial patronage no longer exist. In fact, one of the most tangible ways in which Palestinians separated by the ’48 borders are united is in their subordination to Israeli capital. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the construction industry (it would be hard to find a more emblematic example of the Palestinians’ exploitation). Out of an expected 100,000 across the West Bank and the interior, only 100 workers clocked in on the morning of 18 May, which led to an estimated $40 million in losses. The prospect – even if slim – of a sector so crucial to the project of settler-colonialism emerging as a meaningful front in the struggle for emancipation might well prove to be a critical development.
But in the absence of definitive answers, fervour is perhaps best tempered: as the dust from the war on Gaza settles, the Israeli state will intensify its attempts to stifle emergent and novel channels of Palestinian dissensus, especially in Jerusalem and within the Green Line. ‘Israel’, Razi Nabulse writes in his sober forecast for the city of Lydd,
will return to its practices of social engineering and low-intensity repression. The project of religious settlement in the city has come under the spotlight, which in a colonial society only leads to more support, especially from those engaged in similar crimes in the West Bank. In short: The attack on Lydd will intensify, it will become more violent and more systematic. It is a war over the remains of the Nakba.
May the Unity Intifada represent at the very least a crossroads – the possibility of a deviation – in Lydd’s history of recurring disaster.
Francesco Anselmetti is currently based in London, where he works as a teacher and translator. Later this year he will begin studying for a doctorate in Ottoman history at Harvard University.
* Main image: British flying boat “Satyrus” on Sea of Galilee, ca. 1935