Tel es-Safi (with Gath underneath)
Tel es-Safi (with Gath underneath)

On 7 July 1948, Israeli Defense Forces commander Shimon Avidan ordered the 51st Battalion of the Giv’ati to ethnically cleanse the large Arab town of Tel es-Safi. Avidan told the 51st Battalion “to destroy, to kill and to expel [lehashmid, leharog, u´legaresh] refugees encamped in the area” (Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, 436). The 51st Battalion carried out Avidan’s orders on 9 July 1948. The town, with a population of 1500 people whose ancestors had lived there for many centuries, was completely destroyed.

But, on the positive side, this has allowed archaeologists to dig down to the 3000-year-old remains of the city of Gath, which is mentioned in the Bible, and is therefore clearly of much greater importance.

As Aren Maeir notes, the Philistine Giant Goliath and his hometown of Gath have made the news today. With the 2011 season just begun at Tel es-Safi, the media is running with the Goliath angle:

Close to three millennia ago, Gath was on the frontier between the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coastal plain, and the Israelites, who controlled the inland hills. The city’s most famous resident, according to the Book of Samuel, was Goliath — the giant warrior improbably felled by the young shepherd David and his sling.

The Philistines “are the ultimate other, almost, in the biblical story,” said Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

– Associated Press, “At site in Israel, archaeologists seek to sketch the lives of Goliath’s countrymen”, The Washington Post, 8 July 2011

Aren Maeir observes that this frontier zone between Philistines and Judeans was remembered in the biblical stories of battles fought between the two peoples:

The findings at the site support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, Maeir said — the often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re one day going to find a skull with a hole in its head from the stone that David slung at him, but it nevertheless tells that this reflects a cultural milieu that was actually there at the time,” Maeir said.

– Associated Press, “In Israel, diggers unearth the Bible’s bad guys”,, 8 July 2011

So the remembrance of the site of Gath as a point of conflict between Israelites and Philistines has been preserved in the Bible and The Washington Post, while the remembrance of the site of Tel-es Safi as a point of conflict between Israelis and Arabs doesn’t get even a passing mention. Memory can be selective like that.