Palestine: An expulsion day, 1949
(AWTWNS 9 March 2015)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 9 March 2015 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Palestine: An expulsion day, 1949

9 March 2015. A World to Win News Service. The Israeli historical novel Khirbet Khizeh has just been printed for the first time by a high-powered publishing house and in an American edition, and thus has become more widely available and prominently reviewed. On this occasion we are reissuing the review of this book that originally appeared in the AWTWNS packet for 17 December 2012. For a brief description of the infamous mass execution and rape of Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin in 1948 and further discussion of the Israeli planning and carrying out of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, see AWTWNS080512.

S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh is about the expulsion of Palestinians from their village in the last months of the 1948-49 war. The novella (short novel) skilfully juxtaposes beautiful images of the landscape of Palestine with the brutality of Israeli soldiers. You feel their boredom, indifference, rage, their thrill at killing intermingled with the view that they have a right to own this already inhabited land, and their occasional pangs of conscience as they force the villagers into exile. What unfolds in Yizhar’s description is a single day in the implementation of “Plan D” adopted in March 1948 by the Zionist leader and first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (the ideological and political architect of various schemes to rid the land of its Palestinian inhabitants) and his group. An aggressive plan to dislodge the Palestinians, Plan D gave military commanders license to use any methods to achieve its goals.

This was one of the first novels written in Hebrew. Acknowledged as a literary masterpiece soon after it was first published in 1949, it has been compared to the writing of American novelist William Faulkner who wrote about the Deep South and the complex relationship between bigoted whites and the descendants of slaves.

The appearance of Khirbet Khizeh in the newly created state of Israel caused a swirl of controversy. Its literary quality only made the dispute more bitter. Some people praised it for its honesty, while others condemned it for throwing dirt on Zionism’s so-called rightful and noble aims. They hated it because, based on his own experience as an Israeli soldier, Yizar’s book gave the lie to the foundational Israeli narrative, that Palestinians left their lands willingly or did what the regional Arab heads of state told them. That “flight” narrative was largely undisputed in Israel for almost three decades until some of the ”New Historians” like Ilan Pappe and others challenged this thesis with new archival evidence that became available. Khirbet Khizeh was not translated into English until 2008, and not published outside of Israel until 2011, by Granta Books in London.

S. Yizar was a pseudonym for Yizar Silanksy. Despite his Zionist family background and political connections (he was a close friend of David Ben-Gurion), he was aware of the moral dilemma embodied in the Zionist vision of a state ”for Jews only”.

The narrator’s turmoil draws the reader in immediately: ”True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since. I sought to drown it out with the din of passing time, to diminish its value, to blunt its edge with the rush of daily life, and I even occasionally managed a sober shrug, managed to see that the whole thing had not been so bad after all, congratulating myself on my patience, which is, of course, the brother of true wisdom. But sometimes I would shake myself again, astonished at how easy it had been to be seduced, to be knowingly led astray and join the great general mass of liars – that mass compounded of crass ignorance, utilitarian indifference and shameless self-interest…”

Then the author recounts the day in question: ”the purpose of that entire day from the start, ‘operational order’ number such and such… the noteworthy clause entitled ‘information’ which immediately warned of the mounting danger of ‘infiltrators’, ‘terrorist cells’, and (in a wonderful turn of phrase) ‘operatives dispatched on hostile missions’, but also the subsequent and even more noteworthy clause, which explicitly stated, ‘assemble the inhabitants of the area extending from point X (see attached map) to point Y (see same map) – load them onto transports, and convey them across our lines; blow up the stone houses, and burn the huts; detain the youths and the suspects, and clear the area of ‘hostile forces.”’

“… Moishe, the company commander… briefed us about the situation, the lay of the land, and the objective. From which it transpired that the few houses on the lower slope of another hill were some Khirbet Khizeh or other, and all the surrounding crops and fields belonged to that village, whose abundant water, good soil, and celebrated husbandry had gained a reputation almost equal to that of its inhabitants, who were, they said, a band of ruffians, who gave succour to the enemy, and were ready for any mischief should the opportunity only arise; or, for example, should they happen to encounter any Jews you could be sure they would wipe them out, at once – such was their nature, and such were their ways. ”

Informed that the soldiers would have to wait, they sing songs, tell tales, nod off to sleep or discuss their mission and the ”Ayrabs”:

”The devil take them,” said Gaby, ” what beautiful places they have.”
”Had,” answered the operator. ”It’s already ours.”
”Our boys,” said Gaby, ”for a place like this, we would fight like I don’t know what, and   they’re running away, they don’t even put up a fight!”
”Forget these Arabs – they’re not even human,” answered the operator.

During the wait, the narrator starts thinking about how fighting the war was one thing, you fought to stay alive, never mind the goal of the war. But emptying the villages ”pestered the soul, and the best thing to do was to rid oneself of it, assume a furious glance and fix it upon that very village, what was its name, the one in front of us.” The narrator fails to connect the dots, that the systematic emptying of Palestinian villages he describes was a basic goal of the war from the start. ”Once villages were something you attacked and took by storm. Today they were nothing but gaping emptiness screaming out with a silence that was at once evil and sad. These bare villages, the day was coming when they would begin to cry out. As you went through them, all of a sudden, without knowing where from, you found yourself silently followed by invisible eyes of walls, courtyards, and alleyways. Desolate abandoned silence. Your guts clenched.”

When the order is given to attack and gunfire rattles all around there is great glee among the Israeli soldiers. They argue over who is the better shot and who should use the machine gun. Many villagers manage to escape with nothing but the clothes on their back. Frantic mothers desperately gather their children but they and others don’t succeed in leaving before the arrival of the soldiers.

Going through the village, the narrator is distressed by how similar it is to the countless others they had taken, and by the signs of life left by those who had just fled.

”The mattresses were still laid out, the fire among the cooking-stones was still smouldering, one moment the chickens were pecking in the rubbish as usual and the next they were running away screeching as though they were about to be slaughtered. Dogs were sniffing suspiciously, half approaching, half-barking. And the implements in the yard were still – it was clear – in active use. And silence had not yet settled except as a kind of wonderment and stupefaction, as though the outcome hadn’t yet been determined, and it was still possible that things would be straightened out and restored to the way they had been before. In one yard a donkey was standing, with mattresses and colourful blankets piled on its back, falling on their sides and collapsing on the ground, because while they were being hastily loaded, the throb of fear ‘They’re-here-already!’ had overcome the people, and they’d shouted: ‘To hell with it, just run!’ And in the next-door courtyard, which contained a kitchen garden, with a well-tended patch of potatoes, the fine tilth of its soil and the bright green of the leaves calling to you and telling you to go straight home and do nothing but cultivate beautiful potatoes.”

As the soldiers pushed through the village, leaving behind the first curls of smoke, they gathered the remaining villagers who had not managed to escape.

”When a stone house exploded with a deafening thunder and a tall column of dust – its roof visible from where we were, floating peacefully, all spread out, intact, and suddenly splitting and breaking up high in the air and falling in a mass of debris, dust, and a hail of stones – a woman whose house it apparently was, leapt up, burst into wild howling and started to run in that direction, holding a baby in her arms, while another wretched child who could already stand, clutched the hem of her dress, and she screamed, pointed, talked, and choked, and now her friend got up, and another, and an old man stood up too, and other people rose to their feet as she began to run, while the child attached to the hem of her dress was dragged for a moment and stumbled to the ground and bawled… She had suddenly understood, it seemed, that it wasn’t just about waiting under the sycamore tree to hear what the Jews wanted and then to go home, but that her home and her world had come to a full stop, and everything had turned dark and was collapsing; suddenly she had grasped something inconceivable, terrible, incredible, standing directly before her, real and cruel, body to body, and there was no going back.”

There is some questioning and back-and-forth banter among the Israeli soldiers. ”What will happen to them? What will they eat or drink?” asked one soldier. Another replies, ‘Stop thinking so much. And if that’s the way you feel, you can go with them. ‘

”Something struck me like lightning. All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely: exile. This was exile.”

The Palestinians are herded together and shipped off in trucks. When the narrator tells his commanding officer that this is a filthy war, he is told that Jewish immigrants will come and settle this land and it will be beautiful, a Hebrew Khizeh on the ruins of the former village.

Biblical references abound throughout the book, referring to the two thousand years of exile of the Jews. But the Jews here are now the masters who came, shot, burned, blew up and drove others into exile. In spite of this realization the narrator fails to overcome his moral paralysis and complicity.

Much greater crimes were committed during the expulsions than takes place in the book where no Palestinian is killed. While Khirbet Khizeh is a fictitious village, it is nonetheless emblematic of the actual expulsions that occurred with the establishment of the state of Israel and which are still going on today in areas near the ever increasing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The Israeli historian Pappe calls what the Zionist movement led by David Ben-Gurion and his closest advisors started in 1948 “ethnic cleansing”. More than 500 Palestinian villages were forcefully emptied of their inhabitants through terrorist attacks carried out by various Israeli militias like the Stern Gang, Haganah and Irgun as well as the Israeli Defence Force. Pappe references newly released military and political archives as well as the diaries of David Ben-Gurion. The directives of Plan Dalet included “bombarding villages… setting fire to homes, properties and goods, expulsion, demolition and planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning.” Pappe also documents how water supplies were poisoned, and that the atrocities committed included massacres and the rape of many women. All this has been erased from conventional Israeli history.

Approximately 800,000 Palestinians were exiled, more than half the population of Palestine at the time, according to Pappe’s figures. Palestinians call it the Nakba or catastrophe.

In the book the soldiers differ amongst themselves about what they are doing. ”As they argue they are impressed by a woman with a seven year old child. There was something special about her. She seemed stern, self-controlled, austere in her sorrow. Tears, which hardly seemed to be her own, rolled down her cheeks. And the child too was sobbing a kind of stiff-lipped ‘what have you done to us.’… I felt ashamed in her presence and lowered my eyes. It was as though there were an outcry in their gait, a kind of sullen accusation: Damn you… a determination to endure her suffering with courage, and how now, when her world had fallen into ruins, she did not want to break down before us. Exalted in their pain and sorrow above our – wicked – existence they went on their way and we could also see how something was happening in the heart of the boy, something that, when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him, that same thing that was now the weeping of a helpless child.”

The narrator is caught between the indifference of the other soldiers and his own revulsion at what he and they are doing. But in calling the boy’s righteous anger a “viper”, he reveals an attitude that still sees what he considers the interests of “his people” as higher than the interests of other human beings. He hates the methods being used to create Israel, but does not reject the goal of a Zionist state in Palestine. So he can’t resolve his moral dilemma. Revolted by what he and other Israeli soldiers are doing, he remains complicit with what he knows to be intolerable.

The author himself was less conflicted. He spent a good part of his life as an officer in the Israeli military.

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