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'Khirbet Khizeh' is a haunting fictional take on the Arab-Israeli war

An Israeli novelist offers an unsettling look at the paradoxes of a conflict.

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 If history is written by the victor, then clearly the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors has not yet been won, since its history continues to be told in two very different versions. In the Israeli narrative, it is remembered as the triumphant War of Independence, in which a tiny Jewish population managed to fend off attacks from five Arab armies and secure a Jewish state for the first time in 2,000 years. In the Palestinian narrative, it was the Nakba, the catastrophe, in which Jewish armies dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Arabs, taking their land and sending them into an exile that has not yet ended.

Neither of these stories has canceled the other out, and peace in the region may not come until each side grants the other the legitimacy of its narrative. What is truly surprising, however, is to find an Israeli writer who substantiates the Palestinian version of the war – and not just any Israeli writer but a pioneering Zionist who served for many years in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Yizhar Smilansky, born in 1916, served in the nascent Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 war. In 1949, just after the fighting ended, he published – under the pen name S. Yizhar — a novella called Khirbet Khizeh, drawing on his experience as a soldier. The book was recognized as a classic of modern Hebrew prose and soon became a standard text for Israeli high school students. It is now published for the first time in an American edition, translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck; and it immediately becomes required reading for anyone interested in the history of Israel and Palestine.

Khirbet Khizeh is the name of the Arab village where the spare and poetic tale is set. Even before we know what is to happen there, in the first sentences of the book, Yizhar makes clear that it is a tale of haunting disgrace:

"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…. 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".

After such an opening, the reader proceeds with a kind of hypnotic dread, knowing that something terrible is going to happen and afraid to find out what it is. In fact, by the standards of 20th-century war crimes, the events in Khirbet Khizeh are tame. No one is killed, there are no massacres or rapes of civilians. Instead, a small group of Israeli soldiers round up the remaining inhabitants of the village – most of the able-bodied have already fled – and send them off in trucks. It is the kind of scene that could take place in just about any war: These could easily be American troops in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Yizhar’s accomplishment is to restore to this seemingly minor episode its true dimension of tragedy. Paradoxically, he does this by focusing not on the Arab civilians but on the Israeli soldiers, who are driven less by anger than by the exhausted, callous indifference typical of soldiers everywhere. When the squadron enters the village, Yizhar describes the abandoned houses and their contents poetically: “a great, very deep muteness had settled upon the love, the bustle, the bother, the hopes, the good and less-good times, so many unburied corpses.” Yet the next sentence punctures the spell: “But we were already tired of seeing things like this, we had no more interest in such things,” he writes dismissively.

The contrast between the soldiers’ indifference and Yizhar’s rapturous description of the land they are conquering becomes one of the book’s chief sources of tension. Ever since the Bible, the Land of Israel has been a subject of poetry and longing for Jewish literature, and Yizhar continues that tradition in a prose that is – as the afterword by David Shulman points out – full of untranslatable biblical echoes:

"A first glance and the great land stretched out before you, emphasizing all its sharp-hewn outlines, hunched and hollowed with drenched lushness, in a light that was growing whiter…. Everything took on a new dimension, areas were opened and closed, and it appeared there was something that had almost been forgotten but actually seemed solid, and you could lean on it – until the next moment, as its being became real, suddenly here was the checkerboard of fields, plowed and verdant".

At such moments, "Khirbet Khizeh" reads like an idyll. Yet the action of the tale punctures the serenity of the setting. The soldiers arrive in the village and begin machine-gunning the houses, hoping to drive out any hidden enemies. When civilians emerge and begin to run away, the soldiers compete to use them as target practice. (Only luck, or incompetence, prevents them from killing anyone.) When the soldiers enter the village and begin to round up the population, Yizhar contrasts the desperation of the Arabs – an old man who tries to intercede, another man who vomits with terror, a mother with a child, a group of blind people – with the callous indifference of the Israeli soldiers, who shout at them to hurry up.

Throughout, we see events through the eyes of the narrator, who is part of the squadron but also removed from it. He alone seems to recognize that what they are doing is wrong, and even as he goes along with the group, his heart rebels: “Because if it had to be done let others do it. If someone had to get filthy, let other soil their hands. I couldn’t. Absolutely not.” Yet no sooner has he lodged this inner objection than he is overcome by shame: “But immediately another voice started up inside me singing this song: bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding heart.” The other Israeli soldiers can’t understand his compunctions: Isn’t this a war? Haven’t the Arabs expelled and massacred Jewish civilians many times before? Doesn’t military necessity demand that the village be cleared of possible enemies?

But none of these reasons can finally overcome the narrator’s guilt. What is especially troubling, for this Israeli writer and his initial Hebrew-speaking audience, is the way the episode reverses the traditional equations of Jewish history. Exile had always been something the Jews suffered, in place after place over thousands of years; now, for the first time, it was something they inflicted. “All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely: exile. This was exile. This was what exile was like,” the narrator reflects. The consequences of what happened at places like Khirbet Khizeh are still headline news, which makes this short, powerful book less a work of history than a work of prophecy.

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