The first English translation of the classic novel of the Nakba, Khirbet Khizeh, has just been published by Granta. It is a powerful story of the real cost of the creation of the state of Israel.

S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (Granta 2011), trans. Nicholas de Lange and David Shulman, 128pp.

This important book was written by Yizhar Smilansky, born in Ottoman Palestine of Jewish settler parents, and 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. It is based upon the experiences of the author who served in the army during the Nakba and the establishment of the state of Israel. The year of the Nakba (the cataclysm), 1948, saw a million Palestinians dispossessed of their homes and land and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages.

The novella describes the eviction of the Palestinian inhabitants of a village and the destruction of their homes. The hauntingly lyrical language describes a beautiful land and portrays the feelings of hopelessness and torn loyalties of the narrator. The village of Khirbet Khazeh is fertile, well kept and farmed, which gives the lie to the idea that Israel ‘made the desert bloom’. The villagers await their fate with increasing despair and desperation as they realise they will never be allowed to return to their land and homes. Indeed, the narrator realises that as he watches a small boy, the seeds of hatred are being sown, ‘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.’

Yizhar describes the expulsion of the Palestinian villagers, using the term ‘exile’, as they are loaded onto trucks unable to take any belongings with them. Exile is a powerful and politically loaded term, bringing to mind both the Holocaust and the justification for the state of Israel, which is that the Jewish people had lived in exile for two thousand years. The narrator recognises the contradiction at the heart of the matter, ‘I had never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like …but people had spoken to me… they had played on my nerves. Our nation’s protest to the world: exile! …What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?’

The respect the soldiers feel for a beautiful horse is so much more than they feel for the villagers, as they leave the old and the blind to die by the road. The narrator tries to protest but realises ‘nothing would come of it’. He recognises that they cannot pretend this was an uninhabited land; ‘the people who would live in this village – wouldn’t the walls cry out in their ears?… would the new settlers not sense that the air here was heavy with shades, voices and stares?’

Khirbet Khizeh remains an optional text on the Israeli school curriculum. Some have argued that it shows the compassion of the Israeli army. That, I would argue, is to underestimate the book’s message and is an attempt to neutralise the questions it raises. Whilst the book powerfully illustrates the narrator’s torn loyalties and growing unease at army actions, it does much more than that. It brings home to the reader the real cost of the creation of the state of Israel. The human tragedy perpetuated lives with the reader long after the book is finished.

The political relevance of the book remains contemporary. The illegal settlements continue to be built, the bombs rain down over Gaza and the expelled Palestinians remain in refugee camps far from lands they farmed for generations. In 2004, 10,704 Palestinians were made homeless after the IDF destroyed 1,404 homes. In Operation Rainbow Israel destroyed 120 homes in one day in the Brazil camp in Rafah. In the war on Gaza in 2009 the homes of 350,000 people were damaged. As Gideon Levy wrote: ‘It was a war that was no war, in which Israel met virtually no resistance… It was just a wild onslaught upon the most helpless population in the world.’ Khirbet Khizeh is a beautiful and powerful book which repays the time spent reading it many times over.

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