By Mats Svensson
The book with the title Khirbet Khizeh begins with the words, “True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.” Already in 1949 Yizhar Smilansky wrote this masterpiece which was just recently translated into English.
An early winter morning Israeli soldiers from three companies lie in the outskirts of the small fictive village Khirbet Khizeh. In their binoculars they can from a distance observe what is happening in the village. They see the young and the old in the village preparing themselves for a day’s work. They look down at the village that they will soon take over, see the old woman that they will expel, the houses they will demolish, the plantations they will destroy and the well they will blow up.
When the author begins to write he has not yet decided what he wants to say or how he will say it. He knows that he can no longer hold back what he has experienced but is unsure of whether he is capable of being honest, if he will be able to tell the story. He knows that the most difficult in life is to be true. Does he have the ability to tell and will anyone subsequently have the ability to read what he has written?
Early on in the story, Smilansky shows that the story will be about an “us” and a “them”. We, we take over, we rule, the other does not really exist. If the other existed then s/he exists as Göran Rosenberg writes in Det förlorade landet “as shadows under the olive trees.” Smilansky clearly chisels out how we, we are superior and the others, they are cowards, they flee without striking back and thereby become inhuman, only the devil understands.
The village was surrounded. On the hilltops around the village lay the young soldiers and waited. They leaned against the thick olive trees, chatted with each other, searched for a way to kill time, gossiped about someone back home, observed the village through their binoculars. It involved a lot of waiting, waiting for something to happen, waiting to get to do what they have prepared themselves for.
First they began to shoot at the village’s lowest spot and at the high houses that were most visible, the ones that could not be missed. The machine guns emptied belt after belt. Heavy bullets against house walls. No one answered the fire.
The book is a description of how a village was emptied of people. How they were removed on truck beds. How the houses were all blown up. How the village was razed to the ground, making it impossible to return. It began in the morning. When the afternoon neared its end the mission was complete and one moved on to the next village.
The author describes in a wonderful prose how myths were created about an empty territory, a land without people. Since it is empty of people, the soldiers have a self-evident right to grab what they want. Already before the Arabs were expelled, the soldiers had a right to the village. It is a book about collectively creating an idea about the other. That the other, the one that does not exist, is evil, inhuman, cowardly, useless, unreliable, lazy and uncooperative. The other becomes worthless, not someone to be taken seriously. The author describes total repudiation. The other, the one in the village, the one that is observed through the binoculars – he does not exist.
In just 113 pages, Smilansky describes what happened in one of the 418 villages that disappeared in 1947-48. Since the village in the book is fictive, and therefore never existed, it becomes a story about all the villages that have disappeared. Not just all the villages in Palestine but all villages everywhere. Even the village of Song My in Vietnam exists between the lines. Every soldier who reads the book and who today is on his way to attack Gaza in the book gets an opportunity to put himself on the side and look at himself from the outside. If he wants, he can see his own role and the one that he has taken over from his parents and earlier generations. See his own choices in life.
Equally important is that Smilansky tells the whole world that you who have fled from your house in Palestine, Australia, Germany or from your tent in America, who no longer have a house or tent to which to return, you were once there and you exist today and your story is not forgotten and it will always be remembered.
Thereby the Palestinian catastrophe, the Nakba, is not forgotten and will never be forgotten. It is recorded and documented in the Hebrew literature. Now that this book has been translated, large parts of the world can read about all the 418 villages that disappeared 60 years ago.
But one did not learn anything. The mistakes are repeated with a creepy sense of precision. The Nakba came shortly after the peace agreement of the Second World War was signed. The ink had dried but all the crimes of the war seemed to be forgotten. Every Palestinian family was affected and many have since then lived in refugee camps. It is these refugees or their children who are being bombed today. Khirbet Khizeh was the beginning, today we are experiencing the continuation.
The only thing we soon understood was that the ones who rule the historical processes do not seem to have understood or learned anything during their history lessons. It has since continued until today. The Vietnam War changed the world and was traumatic for my generation. As Bush is on his way out it sounds deceitful when he says that Iraq was a victory for democracy. A victory that has been forced out of 700 000 graves. No one will be held responsible for that crime against humanity.
And right now the Israeli soldiers get to experience the Khirbet Khizeh of our time. There are many similarities. Young men and women. Advanced weapons against the unarmed. Messages to evacuate your house before it is blown up and becomes macadam. If you don’t run, you are killed. Uncertainty about what will happen tomorrow, when everything is over.
And perhaps most importantly, the occupation power goes free while the occupied is made responsible. Us in the West, we play along. We are an active part. We make ourselves responsible and become accomplices when the hospital is bombed.
The big difference is that the billions of the world today can see how the pilot calmly sits and starts his well armed toy, the F 16. The whole world, from South Africa to North Norway, from Australia to Alaska watches on TV how the plane almost before it has reached Gaza’s eastern border is over the Mediterranean. “Oh dear,” the soldier thinks, “that was quick, it’s so small.” He passes so quickly that he almost doesn’t have time to drop his bombs. But he does not miss, he hits both women and children, and he also hits hospitals, schools and UN buildings. His accuracy is better than in the computer games he usually plays. But in the same way that the pilot cannot be hurt by the computer game, he cannot be hurt by the great danger in green. For the soldier, he is harmless.
When the pilot returns to the military base, he and his friends bring out a new computer game. The TV is shut off, no BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera. Everyone shuts reality out. One does not want to hear any screams or see any blood.
More than 1300 dead, 5300 wounded. An incomprehensible number. The refugees that fled over 60 years ago have been shut behind high walls. They have nowhere to go. People run around like in a cage at the zoo. 60 years ago one could flee to Gaza, Bethlehem, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Sweden. Today one has been surrounded on all sides. Battleships from the Mediterranean, planes from the air and tanks from the north and the east and Egypt is keeping its door shut.
The pilot will also tomorrow crawl into the small cockpit. When I see the small and effective F-16 planes pass by I often wonder if the pilot isn’t still playing computer games. Does he understand that this is real. Does he understand that the human like shapes on the computer screen are real people and that he kills, kills, kills.
– Mats Svensson, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is presently following the ongoing occupation of Palestine. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.