AFTERMATH OF THE SIX-DAY WAR
This text is Vladimir Tamari's contribution to a forthcoming book to honor Myrtle Winter who was in charge of the Audio-Visual Department of United Nations Work and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Beirut, when the 1967 war broke out.
This black-and-white UNRWA photograph was sent to me in Japan in the 1980’s by Munir Nasr, who might have photographed it himself. He was then in charge of the UNRWA Audio Visual Department, which had been moved from Beirut to Vienna to escape the civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut.
The photo is printed on glossy Agfa paper, and is stamped HISTORICAL on the back. There are faded traces of the original purple mimeographed caption from 1967. After digital scanning and enhancement using Photoshop, the caption could be read and the old print showed its credentials:
UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS
AGENCY FOR PALESTINIAN REFUGEES.
ARAB REFUGEES RETURN TO WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN:
An Arab refugee family crosses the Allenby Bridge to the West bank.
In July 1967, Israel announced plans for the return of displaced Arabs to the West bank. Half to three quarters of the 200,000 Arabs who fled to east Jordan following hostilities in June applied to return, but only a small fraction were permitted to do so.
Records show that daytime August temperatures in the region of Jericho at the time ranged between 29 and 39 degrees Celsius (84 and 102 F). This would explain why someone behind the woman in the photograph is carrying the pottery ibriq, the typical Palestinian water jug. Perhaps she refreshed her baby and herself with that water in the prevailing heat. She herself appears tired but excited to be crossing the bridge homeward, the intricate embroidery on her thob, typical of the native village to which she is returning. She wears her thob casually, but these days such dresses are more likely to be seen exhibited in museums far away from Palestine. Two months or so earlier she had joined the mass exodus following the Israeli invasion of the West Bank in the Six Day War which started in June 5, 1967. The broken bridge, its girders forming a symbolic diagonal cross, as if for the set of an Eisenstein movie, was the scene of more iconic images of hapless humanity in desperate flight. One famous photograph I remember, which might have been taken by my friend Hani Jawhariyyeh, showed a heavily burdened man desperately trying to prevent his child from falling off his back by gripping the child’s clothing in his teeth. A few years later Hani would die as a PLO cameraman while filming a battle.
Following 1967, the PLO and other groups led the Palestinian revolution spanning decades of bloodshed, sacrifice, tragic mistakes and waste, as well as heroic achievements. A closer reading of the above caption shows in retrospect one of those achievements: nobody today, not even our fiercest enemies would describe the people in the photograph merely as ‘Arab’ refugees. As a UN agency, UNRWA’s mandate was (and still is) strictly for humanitarian aid, and in those days even the word ‘Palestinian’ was considered too political and inflammatory to be used. Now the fact of Palestinian national -albeit unfulfilled- identity has become universally acknowledged.
This photograph and others like it from the Allenby Bridge are loaded with personal memories for me. I went to the area a month or so earlier, together with the UNRWA photo and film crew to record the mass exodus across the war-torn bridge. We visited the vast refugee camps of hastily erected tents in the Jordanian desert. One camp was called Wadi Dleel (Valley of the Lost) and a little drama was enacted before us there. A mother was in a fearful rage haranguing a child for losing the baby in her care in the teeming and desolate maze of thousands of featureless, crowded tents. Along the way we could see a farm where animals had been burned by napalm bombs dropped by Israeli jets to encourage the panicking refugees to flee even what remained of Palestine in Arab hands. We interviewed people sitting in the refugee camps that were set up hastily in the desert. One old lady said she was from Jericho, and I chatted with her about the tourists who visited that historical town with its palm trees and fertile fields. She laughed bitterly, saying:”Look, it is now we who have now become tourists!” Unlike the nameless woman in the photo, the vast majority of the refugees’ descendants are still in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and all over the world with few prospects of returning to their original homeland still occupied by Israel.
At one point, I was asked by the film team, led by Miss Myrtle Winter, to approach a Jordanian army encampment to ask for permission to photograph in the area. The officers, sitting in their shady tent among the grasses and rushes near the Jordan River bed heard me out in silence; but they were in a foul mood because of the very recent defeat of the Arab armies. I was angrily sent on my way without the necessary permission. Later at the bridge I tried to walk over to the West bank of the river. A sole Israeli soldier stopped me in the middle of the bridge. I said “Salaam”, and he answered “Shalom”, smiling and holding his weapon at the ready. Beyond the valley lay Jerusalem, my birthplace, and Ramallah where I grew up and where my parents lived.
I had joined UNRWA's Audio Visual Department in Beirut headed by Myrtle a few months earlier. She had advertised for a film technician, and I applied and was accepted, although I had no experience in the field. I worked in the department for about a year and have a host of fond memories of this strong woman and the many capable people of many nationalities whom she enrolled as cinema and still photographers and lab technicians, sound engineers, typists, graphic designers, archivists, and editors. She ran the department with energy and discipline, making the best of the resources she had, to tell the story of the Palestinian refugees from a humanitarian point of view, stressing the need for aid in the form of shelter, food, education, and medical services. In her place, an ordinary person would have been satisfied with handing out photos and pamphlets, and some film footage to journalists covering the conflict. Myrtle did that and much more, driven by a genuine love of the Arab countries she had lived in. She acted with confidence and skill, but sometimes dealing with the locals, somewhat in the spirit of the grand tradition of the Victorian explorers of the Orient. But this time it was an exploration of the refugee camps created by the 1948 Nakbeh.
Myrtle’s fortitude and reserve could not hide a warm personal interest in and compassion for the people she worked with and photographed. The result was a series of striking high-quality photographs and films that were put to excellent use in telling the world the story of the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian refugees. The photos and movies featured mostly women, children and the elderly. Strong young men were strangely absent from these images - they were probably too angry to use for what was essentially a begging campaign aimed at the international community. Myrtle transformed this mundane task into a poignant record of a proud people caught in a tragic moment of their history.
I loved the work and the people in the department, and we often toiled late into the night to cover the developing humanitarian crisis. At one point Myrtle kindly admired a brief 16 mm film sequence I learned to edit, and included it in her award-winning film Aftermath about the 1967 war. However, for me as a Palestinian, the war was a stunning blow that made it increasingly difficult to see my role as simply telling a story of needy refugees. One day I found myself storming angrily out of the projection booth, where new footage of yet more refugees was being shown repeatedly. I quit UNRWA, and for the next few years volunteered as an artist and designer in several projects related to the Palestinian revolution, trying to explain what the loss of Jerusalem and Palestine meant to us as a people. Myrtle kindly permitted me to copy film footage from the UNRWA archives which I edited into a short documentary about Jerusalem. Al-Quds told the story from the Palestinian nationalist point of view and was produced by the 5th of June Society. In 1976 these activities earned me three days in an Israeli prison when I tried to return to Ramallah with my wife and children from Tokyo. I was arrested after crossing the rebuilt bridge over the Jordan, hard by the one in this photograph. All this seems like faded history now, overwhelmed as it is by the news of the current wave of ever more horrendous Israeli invasions and streams of new refugees.
Tokyo, July 2006