Khirbet Khizeh is a brief, fictional, 1949 novella by Israeli writer S. Yizhar about the violent expulsion of Palestinian villagers by the Israeli army. Considered a high point in Hebrew literature, it was published just months the author fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The book provides a window into on the perspective of a Jewish soldier whose unit is tasked with expelling peaceful Palestinian families from their homes.
Many Israeli historians – notably Benny Morris – have documented the departure of Palestinians. In his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Morris lists Palestinian villages from which Palestinian people fled in military assault or were expelled by Israeli forces. Even Israel’s birth is a complex one, as Israel’s “Independence Day” coincides with the Palestinian observance of al-Nabka, (i.e., “The Catastrophe”). It is the events of that war that make up the plot of Khirbet Khizeh, a book that has been part of the Israeli high school curriculum since 1964.
Part of the Hebrew School Curriculum
“At my Hebrew school, we were taught that we Jews came to an empty land of deserts and swamps in Palestine and made them bloom. We were taught that Arabs were jealous of us and of our accomplishments. We were taught that Palestinians fled at the call of Arab leaders in order to further the killing of Jews.
Somehow, this didn’t seem congruous with a 1948 refugee population of over 700,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinian men, women, and children. Only later did I learn of Haganah Plan D, written war plans in the Israeli Defense Force archives calling for destruction of Palestinian villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), and the expulsion of their population. Israeli historian Benny Morris described massacres, rapes and expulsions perpetrated against Palestinians.
I could only guess at the details of what that was like. Then I read Khirbet Khizeh, a 1949 novella of a Jewish soldier, describing the day in 1948 in which his military unit attacks a Palestinian village and deports its inhabitants. The book is written by S. Yizhar, the pen name of Yizhar Smilanski, a Sabra born in Rehovot, Palestine, in 1916, longtime Labor party member of the Israeli Knesset, and winner of the 1959 Israel Prize.”
Lack of Rogue Haganah Elements
The book begins by dispelling any notion that the expulsions were by rogue Haganah elements. The soldiers were given “operational orders,” which explicitly stated to “assemble the inhabitants of the area extending from point X to point Y—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.’” The author notes the irony that those who would “burn, blow up, imprison, load, and convey” would do so with “such courtesy and with a restraint born of true culture… of decent upbringing, and perhaps, even of the Jewish soul.”
What could go through the minds of the good Jewish boys and men who carried out these orders, these expulsions of entire villages of Christian and Muslim Palestinian families?
Yizhar describes how the men of the unit—Gaby, Shmulik, and Aryeh—fire on fleeing village residents as though it were a game; disgusted by Palestinians who are running in fear even before a shot was fired; appalled the Palestinians don’t even try to defend themselves or their village. Yizhar also describes Moises, company commander, complaining about the expulsions and how he would do it differently:
“Look: if the village is over there and they can’t escape to it, where will they run to? First of all over there. Right. There we plant some jumping mines. One Ayrab flies up in the air and ten lie down. Immediately the others change course and come running this way, straight toward us, right into the range of this machine gun, and they’re totally done for.”
Yizhar describes the dehumanization of the Palestinians that makes it possible for the Jews in this unit to treat Palestinian civilians so horribly.
“What beautiful places they have,” said Gaby. “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 Ayrabs—they’re not even human,” answered the operator.
<H2> Jewish Immigrants and Palestinian Villagers
Feldman is left wondering if the dehumanization of “Ayrabs” that let good Jewish boys like Moises, Gaby, Shmulik and Aryeh act this way was at all similar to how Gerhard, Werner, Fritz, and Helmut thought of the Jewish people they rounded up and put on trains.
Moises tries to assuage the awful feelings of Yizhar’s protagonist saying that Jewish immigrants will come and replace these Palestinians in this village. The protagonist thinks:
“We’d open a cooperative store, establish a school, maybe even a synagogue. There would be political parties here. They’d debate all sorts of things. They would plow fields, and sow, and reap, and do great things. Long live Hebrew Khizeh. Who, then, would ever imagine that once there had been some Khirbet Khizeh that we emptied out and took for ourselves. We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile. What in God’s name were we doing in this place!”
What are we doing? We continue to kill and to expel. We do it in the name of security, as though the Palestinian Christians and Muslims are animals who we have to wall off. We now know that our treatment of them was no better in 1948 than it is today. The killing we do in the name of our own security is not done in the cause of justice but in the cause of creating a state run by and for Jews at the expense of other good people who were already living there.
Living Together in Peace
Additionally, Feldman is the author of Compartments: How the Brightest, Best Trained, and Most Caring People Can Make Judgments That Are Completely and Utterly Wrong. He is also author of A Jewish American’s Evolving View of Israel.
The moral complexities of Israel’s creation were clear from the beginning, and we can thank Khirbet Khizeh for reminding us of this. For those who are just hearing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is so much to learn. Perhaps we can reach a day when we can stop promoting violence and instead begin rebuilding the land that was affected in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the policies thereafter, and live together in peace.