This year Nakba Day, the Palestinian commemoration of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of the 1948 war in which an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled, and hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed, has been particularly marked by violence, reflecting the current unrest in the Middle East.
During the Nakba, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, both those outside the 1949 armistice lines at the end of the war and those internally displaced, were barred by the newly declared state of Israel from returning to their homes or reclaiming their property. Today they number several million people, divided between Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with another at least quarter of million internally displaced Palestinians in Israel. It was this loss of Palestine and the dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian people that came to be known as al-Nakba.
All of this has been in my mind as well because I’ve just read Khirbet Khizeh, the novel of which Ian McEwan spoke in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech. Khirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh) was published in 1949 and tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence for Israelis, the nakba for Palestinians. The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an intelligence officer in the Israeli army in 1948. Yizhar was, as David Shulman writes in an afterword to the new Granta edition, ‘the first major writer to describe in credible, unforgettable detail one emblematic example of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their homes by Israeli soldiers’.
Yizhar was a Zionist: he believed in the right of the Jews to the land. But the greatness of his book is that in Khirbet, he is a man at war with himself. The young Israeli soldier who is his main protaganist attempts to reconcile the rights of his people with the rights of the Palestinian villagers. Troubling thoughts and moral dilemma is ever-present in the thoughts of Yizhar’s central character. Near the beginning of Khirbet Khizeh, he speaks of the risks for a soldier of thinking about the actions on which he is engaged: ‘we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking’.
In the story, a squad is detailed to clear a Palestinian village on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line and pack its residents off in trucks with only the clothes on their backs (emblematic of the 41 villages that were forcibly evacuated and at least 228 more where the residents fled under attack by Zionist forces). When the narrator, mindful of how Jews were exiled by their persecutors, blurts out a protest, one of his comrades retorts:
Are we killing them? We’re taking them to their side. Let them sit there and wait. It’s very decent of us. There’s no other place in the world where they’d have been treated as well as this.
Reading Khirbet Khizeh, I felt I was in the presence of a classic of 20th century humanist, anti-war literature – to be ranked alongside Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Barbusse’s Under Fire. It is a work of parallels, as Yizhar uses the language of exile to describe the fate of the Palestinian villagers. The narrator realises that his people, who had lived in exile for two thousand years, were now sending others into exile:
This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . .I have never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like . . . but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction, in books and newspapers, everywhere: exile. Our nation’s protest to the world: exile! It had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?
The narrator is filled with deep foreboding. Watching a mother and her boy in the procession of refugees being led to the lorries that will transport them from their land, he thinks:
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, the same thing that was now the weeping of a helpless child.”
When they reached their place of exile night would already have fallen. Their clothing would be their only bedding. Fine. What could be done? The third truck began to rumble. Had some astrologer already seen in the conjuncture of the stars in the sky over the village or in some horoscope how things would turn out here? And what indifference there was in us, as if we had never been anything but peddlers of exile, and our hearts had coarsened in the process. But this was not the point either.
And how does it end?
The valley was calm. Somebody started talking about supper. Far away on this dirt track, close to what appeared to be its end, a distant, darkening swaying truck, in the manner of heavy trucks laden with fruit or produce or something, was gradually being swallowed up. Tomorrow, both painful humiliation and helpless rage would turn into a kind of casual irritation, shameful, but fading fast. Everything was suddenly so open. So big, so very big. And we had all become so small and insignificant. Soon a time would arise in the world when it would be good to come home from work, to return exhausted, to meet someone, or walk alone, to walk saying nothing. All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon the last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond stillness – then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.
Yizhar Smilansky was born in Ottoman Palestine of Jewish settler parents, and was later a left-wing Zionist member of the Knesset. His writings under the pen name S. Yizhar contained some of the earliest and most powerful criticisms of Israel’s foundation from an Israeli Jewish perspective. The book was first published in Israel just after the end of the 1948-49 war, despite attempts by the military censor to ban it. Khirbet Khizeh remains an optional text on the Israeli school curriculum, the significance of which is debated by David Shulman in his afterword to the Granta edition.
In the aftermath of the 1967 war that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Yizhar wrote in an essay, ‘If there is indeed a ‘Jewish consciousness’, it must pause here to ponder our own selves …. What does victory by armed force actually bestow upon the victors? . . . Because you don’t get a country by means of weapons. Any such acquisition is unjust’.
In a lengthy review of Khirbet Khizeh in The Guardian, Jacqueline Rose wrote:
It is the abiding importance of Khirbet Khizeh … that it returns the issue of justice squarely to the heart of the nation, and then leaves it hovering – like the cry of the villages, or like the question that trails the narrator of the story as he wanders through the landscape: ‘some kind of question that posed itself of its own accord, or a kind of aside, that must be said’.