Jerusalem's National Library is housed in a surprisingly modest building considering its provenance. From pre-state beginnings in the 1920s, the library has grown to hold the largest collection of Hebraica and Judaica in the world. Its microfilm department is rumoured to have copies of 95 per cent of the known documents relating to the Jewish People.
When access to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut following the 1948 war, the National Library found a new home on the university's Givat Ram campus in West Jerusalem, just a stone's throw away from the Israeli parliament. The campus is tucked neatly into a soft bluff surrounded by gardens and jogging paths. It is a rare slice of tranquillity in an otherwise frantic city.
These days, the library is the regular hangout for a small coterie of academics and students. This even includes Ultra-Orthodox men, who have likely come to the library secretly to pursue study in topics considered unsavoury by their very strictly insular communities. The coffee is bad and the librarians don't go out of their way to help lost researchers. Yet, with a bit of skill and a little luck, you can essentially find any document in the world relating to the Jews. The unity that only a love of books can instil flows freely in the stuffy air of the reading room.
But there is a darker history to this space of intellectual pursuit. Hidden deep in the poorly lit and increasingly mouldy corridors of the library are thousands of books owned by Palestinians and looted in 1948 by Israeli soldiers. The story of these books, untold until now, is the latest piece of an increasingly complex and frank discussion about the events that created Israel and dispossessed the Palestinians in 1948.
Due to the exhaustive work of Israeli historians like Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, dubbed The New Historians for their groundbreaking research into the formation of Israel, we know that Israeli forces began creating the boundaries of the newly forming Israeli state well before 1948, the year in which the United Nations recognised Israel. Both Pappe and Morris have shown through Israeli state documents that a plan, known as Plan Dalet, was initiated to carve out borders by the Israeli high leadership and the nascent forces, which became the Israeli military.
Morris has gone so far to say that Plan Dalet gave regional commanders carte blanche to occupy or destroy Arab villages but he doesn't believe the plan was a blueprint for wholesale ethnic cleansing.
They believed that the UN would grant them statehood and therefore found it necessary to create defensible positions with the least amount of Palestinians as possible. This meant the removal of inhabitants of certain Palestinian villages, towns and cities. Deir Yassin, a small village near Jerusalem which is now home to an Israeli psychiatric facility, is a perfect example of this plan in action.
Israeli forces entered Deir Yassin informing Palestinian villagers in Arabic that they must leave the village for the eastern part of Jerusalem. Through a series of miscommunications, the historical merit of which remains debated, Israeli forces opened fire on the village killing between tens and hundreds. The official number is a matter of great controversy, like many facts about 1948.
Deir Yassin was an extremely violent example of the trend of Israeli removal of Palestinians from their historic homeland. The exact circumstances are still debated but the majority of historians believe that roughly 700,000 fled or were forcibly expelled in 1948. Palestine was lost along with untold amounts of personal wealth, property and books.