Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood

Tasting the Sky is Ibtisam Barakat’s memoir of her experiences during and after the Six-Day War. It opens as a fleeing man warns Barakat’s Palestinian family, “After their [the Israelis’] planes attack, they will be combing the area house by house. The word is that they will butcher every living thing that they find” (p. 22).

But “butcher[ing] every living thing” was not the Israelis’ objective. This was a defensive war against four enemy nations whose leaders openly declared their genocidal intentions:

“Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel” (Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, May 26, 1967).

“In the event of a conflagration, no Jews whatsoever will survive” (Ahmed Shukeiri, future chairman, PLO).[1]

According to Michael Oren’s definitive history of the Six-Day War, “Few Israelis even came in contact with civilians, most of whom had fled with the Syrian command, well in advance of the attackers,” and in general, civilian casualties on both sides were “remarkably low” because most of the fighting “took place far from major population centers.”[2]

Barakat also accuses Israeli planes of shooting at her mother as the family hides in a trench at the outbreak of hostilities, ignoring what really occurred between Israel and Jordan, whom the Israelis had begged to stay out of a war they knew was coming. The Jordanian attack on Israel began at 10:00 a.m. on June 5 with a barrage “on all enemy [Israeli] positions,” which included civilian settlements in Israel’s interior. At 11:15, the Jordanians lobbed 6000 shells at Jewish Jerusalem, damaging over 900 buildings (including Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem). They wounded over a thousand civilians, 150 seriously, and caused 20 deaths.[3] None of this is reported by Barakat.

The panic on the part of Arab families like Barakat’s may have been triggered by Arab propaganda; we know, for example, that one Palestinian working for UNRWA in Jordan said that Arab politicians were spreading rumors that “all the young people would be killed. People heard on the radio,” the UNRWA administrator went on, “that this is not the end only the beginning so they think maybe it will be a long war and they want to be in Jordan.”[4]

Barely two decades after the Holocaust, Israel was defending itself against a second annihilation, not “butcher[ing] every living thing they can find,” as Barakat would have it.

Other accusations are belied by the facts. For example, if the goal of Israel had really been to dispossess the Palestinians, why was her family permitted to return to their home in Ramallah after an absence of only four months and thirteen days (p. 70)? Doesn’t that indicate that dispossession of the Arabs was not Israel’s primary goal in this war? True, the area was occupied, and Ibtisam’s mother was scared by some poorly-behaved young Israeli soldiers who made rude gestures at her. But they were not ethnically cleansed from their home.

Barakat’s memoir honestly reflects how the outbreak and consequences of the war appeared to her. But how it appeared is contradicted by documentary evidence and should not be transmitted uncritically to the uninformed young reader.

[1] Quoted in Daniel Gordis, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, p. 270

[2] Michael Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, p. 306.

[3] Oren, pp. 186-187.

[4] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/myths-and-facts-online-the-1967-six-day-war.

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