Khirbet Khizeh somehow manages to be beautiful and horrifying at the same time. The latter is essentially down to what it depicts; the clearance of an Arab village during the Arab-Israeli War, based on the author’s own experiences. The unnamed narrator is a member of an IDF unit sent to evict the occupiers of the titular village to make way for new immigrants.
The treatment of the villagers is horrific, as one would expect of wartime, and although the story is in essence about the realisation of the narrator that what he is participating in revolts him, this realisation does not come until the end of the novel, so we are treated to vivid descriptions of the mistreatment of the villagers and their lands by the soldiers.
It is the vividness of the description however, more than the theme, that makes this book such a pleasure to read. Even when what is being described is off putting, there is s much care and attention put into depictions of the landscape and the village, that it provides a balance to the less pleasing images that pervade the novella. Obviously, I’ve read it in translation, so my enjoyment of the prose is as much a product of the translators as it is of the original author, but according to the Afterword, S. Yizhar’s Hebrew is famed for it’s unique beauty.
The afterword is another thing that makes this book reading. For one thing, it is an Afterword, rather than an Introduction, thus avoiding any spoilers in the opening pages of the book. More importantly however, the commentator David Shulman links the book forward to the clearances of Palestinian villages that are still happening today, making the point that although this book has been part of the Israeli curriculum for over half a century, the acts that it is deploring did not end with the war. There is hope however, according to Shulman, as while the narrator is isolated in his rejection of the clearances, today, hundreds of young Israelis refuse the mandatory military service for precisely this reason.
Although it is interesting to read a war story that does not focus on either of the World Wars or Vietnam, Khirbet Khizeh is still a war story at its heart. Yes, it’s Anti-War, but that doesn’t make the outright racism and othering any more enjoyable to read. It’s possible to enjoy the novel in spite of that, but it is a bit of a shock until you get used to it. That said, I think it’s fair to say that reading it to the end makes it all worth while.