Rona Sela on exposing hidden Palestinian history

A researcher of visual history, Sela uncovers records of Palestinian existence and culture hidden in Israeli archives.

Nakba Day
The Israeli army has looted numerous Palestinian photos and films and kept them hidden in their archives [File: The Associated Press]

Rona Sela, a researcher of visual history and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, first began studying the history and culture of Zionist and Israeli photography more than 20 years ago.

Her goal was to uncover photographs that preceded the establishment of the state of Israel. In her research, she found visual archives of propagandist Zionist photography that shaped a specific and deliberate history of Israel.


Through her work, she realised that Palestinian history was intentionally missing from the formal narrative of Israel. She began researching and collecting Palestinian imagery to outline Palestine’s history and culture.

Sela discovered that many records were looted by the Israeli army and hidden in Israeli archives. She published multiple books of Palestinian photographs in an effort to make all of her findings public.

In the past, activists and researchers have asserted that Israel purposely hides vital records in order to avoid exposing Israeli war crimes, including wide-scale massacres of Palestinians, forced expulsions and home demolitions.

Sela’s research uncovered a different kind of hidden history, one that tells of Palestinian existence long before the creation of Israel. Her new documentary Looted and Hidden: Palestinian Archives in Israel includes never-before-seen visual images of Palestinian history that the Israeli army looted from archives in Beirut.

Al Jazeera spoke to Sela about the motivations behind her research and her continued aim to make the hidden Palestinian archives available to the public.

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Al Jazeera: This was a long process that took many years of research. How did the project first start?

Rona Sela: Twenty years ago, as a young researcher, I looked for Zionist photographs in Israeli archives. The history of Zionist photography that prepared the ground for the establishment of the state of Israel had not yet been studied.

I researched Zionist photography that was part of larger Zionist propaganda departments in pre-state institutions and the visual sphere.

They were enlisted for national Zionist aims and were controlled by the establishment in a very deliberate and conscious way. One of their central features was showing the Jewish people arriving in an apparently barren and unpopulated land, waiting for the Jewish people to make it flourish. They constructed the image of the “New Jew” in the “New Land”, bringing modernisation to a seemingly “empty and undeveloped place”.

I sat four years in Zionist archives and charted the main characteristic of Zionist propagandist photography that served information and marketing systems. At the same time, I started researching Palestinian photography and looked for Palestinian archives – private and public, in Israel and outside Israel.

I wanted to expose Palestinian existence, culture and history to an Israeli audience. I was raised as a child in a Zionist education system, and my world view was shaped accordingly. Palestinian imagery was lacking from the official Israeli narrative, concealed or presented in a tendentious manner, and I decided to focus on this absent, erased narrative. I never imagined the journey I would have to go through.

Sela's research pinpointed records of Palestinians who desired repatriation to their homes after 1948  [Unknown photographers/From the book Made Public]
Sela’s research pinpointed records of Palestinians who desired repatriation to their homes after 1948  [Unknown photographers/From the book Made Public]

Al Jazeera: Why was it important for you to uncover Palestinian history?

Sela: First, as a researcher of visual history, I understand the importance of visual images and archives in constructing self and national consciousness and identity, and the importance of culture and history to its society.

I understand also the deliberate and intentional way many regimes all over the world, including Israel, in the past and today, made and make use of the visual sphere for their needs, and how they use it as a vehicle for constructing knowledge and consciousness.

So the question under discussion is how a state, the one in power, controls the other, the colonised – not only geographically, but also its knowledge, history, past and culture, as well as controlling the way the conflict is shaped visually. As I’ve said in previous interviews, in the same way Israel demands the return of treasures looted by the Nazis, understanding their significance, Israel has to return looted archives to the Palestinians. It’s their culture, their history, their heritage, and their property.

Israelis have to learn, know, and respect Palestinian history. Israeli society denies Palestinian historiography.


Second, as an Israeli, I believe that Israelis have to know about this regime of control of knowledge, history and culture. They have to understand this mechanism of silencing, which has two main aspects: first, the seizure of Palestinian archives and material; second, their concealment and control – censorship, access prohibition, limitations, etc – in Israeli archives.

Third, Israelis have to learn, know, and respect Palestinian history. Israeli society denies Palestinian historiography. How can we live together without knowing the history, culture, language and heritage of the other? How can the conflict be resolved without understanding the roots of the conflict, the way the image of the conflict was constructed and the power relations behind it?

Al Jazeera: What kind of obstacles have you faced that made you doubt the future of your research? Have you ever been denied access?

Sela: It is a long process that has continued over two decades and which I describe in depth in an essay discussing the genealogy of plunder and erasure.

In general, it can be said that the Palestinian material is subjugated to Israeli laws, as if it was Israeli military material, and therefore is suppressed – censorship, restricted study, access prohibition/limitation, control over what is declassified, when it’s declassified and to whom.

So, I had to overcome all these obstacles, sometimes with legal assistance, sometimes with no success. Sometimes I had discussions with the archive to declassify specific material for a period of more than 10 years.

In addition, the cataloguing and labelling of material was according to Israeli codes and terminology, which differ from the original Palestinian terminology, a system that I had to decipher.

A Palestinian event held in Batsa Stadium in Jaffa in the 1940s [Unknown photographer/From the book Made Public]
A Palestinian event held in Batsa Stadium in Jaffa in the 1940s [Unknown photographer/From the book Made Public]

Al Jazeera: Do you think these discoveries play a role in the narrative that shapes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In what ways do you think it will affect the historical canon in Israel?

Sela: I think this is the basis for any dialogue. Palestinians should be able to learn, have, see, experience their history and past, and Israelis must know and respect the Palestinian past.

As I stated before, without knowing the past there is no future. Moreover, without taking responsibility for the past, like in South Africa, there is no horizon. It’s time for change. 

Al Jazeera: What are your future goals in your research of Palestinian history?

Sela: To publish an expanded version of my book Made Public in English that will include material plundered before, during and after the Nakba, as well as information about the looting in Beirut, as reflected in my film Looted and Hidden – and by doing so, to return to the public sphere these concealed images.

This interview has been edited for length.

Source: Al Jazeera