Someone wasn’t there at dinner that evening at Yad David. Amnon, Tony’s eldest, arrived the next day, late and without apology and only just in time to join his brothers in holding aloft his sister Tal’s wedding canopy. Amnon, who lives in a corrugated iron shack down a dirt road a few kilometres from Yad David, is horribly estranged from friends and family. Of his life I have little, just a few snapshots.
First the toddler in his father’s arms. It’s actually my favourite photo of Tony. He’s home on leave from the army, holding the two year old Amnon in his arms. Oblivious to the camera, Tony has eyes only for his son. And Amnon too, as he reaches for the shiny IDF insignia on his father’s left shoulder.
Then again at seven on the trip with Steph and me. He’s a tanned and sturdy youngster now, good at school, and with quite a flair for soccer. But the fragility is beginning to show. Already there have been a couple of inexplicably tearful episodes. Seconds before this shot is taken he asks if he could take a picture with the rather expensive camera I’ve brought with me. We pose by a watermelon stall on the outskirts of Jericho, Steph, Tony, Yael, Tal and me. Just about to squeeze the shutter, Amnon drops the camera. There’s no harm done but Amnon collapses into tears. Minutes later all is well and the picture is taken.
Next, sixteen and the first time away from Israel. He’s come with his sister to stay with his Grandma in England. A good-looking boy, but already beginning to acquire that reputation for being a bit troubled. We see quite a bit of them and here and in this shot, brother and sister pose on their Grandma’s sofa, arms around each other.
Now nineteen, on weekend leave from the army. The M11 sits uncomfortably on his young shoulders, no Israeli swagger here, just a very homesick boy. Not a happy time for him, hating the army as he does, especially since his father is something of a local war hero. Still, he graciously poses with uniform and gun with my two kids for the obligatory Guardian of Israel photograph.
“Just like you!” Tony says shaking his head, “He’s so like you!” And they do say that about Amnon. “So like David!” they say. And it’s true. It’s in the build – slighter than the other Fisher men and in the forearms too, thin and dark, and the clumsiness and the handshake, damp and nervous. It’s in the temperament too – subdued, a bit melancholic, troubled.
We’re in a minibus on our way to visit Amnon at his army base. He’s in a tank unit some sixty kilometres south of Yad David. It’s Yael’s idea, this visit. How she begged Tony to agree. How she suffered all those homesick Friday night calls from Amnon and how Tony suffered watching her suffer.
“A simple soldier” is how Amnon puts it and that’s what he is. Just one more simple soldier, getting by as best he can. But Amnon is a Kibbutznik – white, educated, the Zionist bedrock. Great things were expected - Officer School, a crack unit, a combat unit certainly.
“Look”, Tony tells me over his shoulder as I sit behind him in the minibus “You know…. everyone knows I’d have loved him to be an officer or in a crack unit. And he could have done it you know. In the tests, the interviews, in his school record he could have done anything he wanted….but I never let him know that, I never would let him know that.…”
The truth is, that to be anything other than a simple soldier required four years instead of the prescribed three and for Amnon, for whom every single moment in the army is a living hell that was just too much.
So we sit together, camped outside the barbed wire and a furtive Amnon with his conscript haircut and green fatigues slips out for a brief picnic and some family love.
The day after the wedding and it’s coming on to evening. We’re by the pool but nearly everyone has gone in now. The air is cooler and there’s just the two of us, me and Amnon. Me on a chair facing a failing sun, Amnon on the grass, knees to chest, staring at the pool.
“This peace process. Abba doesn’t like it. He says they’re giving this country away.”
“So I just wanted you to know.”
“So I know”.
So you know. Do you want to know what I think?
“Sure, tell me.”
“I think that we should clear them all out and have done with it.”
“Well you’re not alone there. I understand there’re quite a few people in this country who feel that way.”
“Well why not? We’ve pretty well cleared them from most of the country why not just clear them from the rest?”
“Why not indeed”
Suddenly his head jerked up and he stared straight at me.
“Uncle, you’re a smart man. Have you heard of Deir Yassin?”
“Of course, Deir Yassin. Arab village attacked in 1948. A massacre took place there, right?”
“Right. In our great War of Independence. It was Irgun and Lehi. Terrorists you’d call them”.
“And what would you call them?”
“Oh Uncle I would call them freedom fighters. They killed over a hundred, raped the women, looted the village and loaded the survivors into open trucks and paraded them through the suburbs of West Jerusalem. Then they took them to a nearby quarry, put them against a wall and shot them. Did you know that as well?”
“Well more or less. Look, Amnon, what’s the problem? Everyone’s heard of Deir Yassin and anyway who cares?
“No, you don’t understand. Sure, everyone knows about Deir Yassin because Deir Yassin has gone into the history books, because Deir Yassin was the one we owned up to. We admitted it. At least, we admitted that extremists did it. And afterwards, everyone lined up to condemn what had happened.”
“Well a little bit of contrition doesn’t go amiss….”
“I don’t find it so funny….”
“Nor do I, I’m sorry.”
“Can’t you just hear them, the breast-beating. How could such a thing happen? How could Jews do such a thing? But you know what happened next? Those same people that condemned Begin and his Irgunists, those same people who threw up their hands in horror, who said that this was the work of extremists, of dissident elements, terrorists, who said this was a disgrace to the Jewish people, those same people in the Jewish Agency and Haganah, who at the time, incidentally were committing plenty of massacres of their own, those same people took loudspeaker vans round the surrounding villages and told the Arabs that if they didn’t get out, they’d get their own Deir Yassin. Did you know that? Did you know they even recorded the screams of the dying to play over the loudspeakers….the rest, as they say, is history …..”
“..So they ran and we got the lot, land, houses, property, money.
“And it gets worse. This wasn’t one incident. It wasn’t even an example of a lot of incidents, though God knows there were plenty of them…some really not so far way from this place….No, what happened at Deir Yassin is the way it was done, the way it is done. That’s the way it works here. Look, everybody made a big thing about Kahane. What a racist he was, how could a Jew say such things, why, he’s like a Nazi…and on and on. But Kahane only said what everyone else thinks, what this country’s about. Remember all that fuss when he got into the Knesset and they passed that law against incitement to discrimination. Did you know about that? Well as soon as they started talking about it the religious parties started kicking up because they could see that that law would have made Judaism illegal. It was a problem. So the government put in a clause exempting discriminatory measures if they were to preserve the character of a religion. So, when it comes to the vote Kahane, beaming, holds up both hands. After all, what’s he about if not to preserve the character of a religion?”
“So what are you saying? That Jews are racists. Who isn’t?”
“What I’m saying is that Kahane’s only saying what everyone in this country really wants – to get rid of the Arabs – the whole damn lot of them”
“Amnon, I’m not so sure they do want to get rid of them. After all, who’s going to pick the apples on your nice Kibbutz? Danish volunteers?”
“But you get the point. You want the Arabs out. Simple. Get some extremists to clear them out. Get someone else to do your dirty work. Begin, Shamir or perhaps the good Dr Goldstein…. But never never say what you mean….You know the old story about Ben-Gurion? Some high-up commanders in the Haganah go to see Ben-Gurion. They’ve captured some villages, and don’t know what to do with the people. So they go to Ben Gurion for orders. But they can’t get an answer. He just hums and haws, till just as they’re leaving, one of them asks him straight out. “Prime Minister, what are we to do with these people?” Ben Gurion looks up from his desk and sweeps the desk with his hands then carries on writing. Like he couldn’t even say it……Oh, the world loved Ben Gurion – a real messianic Jew. And Rabin. Good Jews. White Jews. Of course they’re not so crazy about Begin the little Jewish tailor and Shamir the crazed dwarf Jew. …Jews of course loved Begin. Didn’t you love Begin? Didn’t he look just like your grandpa? But this was a grandpa with a difference. This was a grandpa who took no shit. Fuck the Americans. Fuck the Goyim. Remember Begin? …Jews bow to no-one – only to God. The Israelis loved him. “Begin, Begin, King of Israel!” King of Israel ..this horrible little gown manufacturer,. marching around waving his arms, telling the whole world where to get off….. …..And of course….…While Begin got on with his work, Beautiful Israel got on with its work…”
“Which is … I don’t know… bringing light to the nations? Making the desert bloom? Getting rich? Who knows? I don’t know. Oh Uncle, so many lies. The truth is so simple really you’d think it was obvious. We… stole… this… land. But no! We didn’t steal this land. We bought this land! We earned this land! We were promised this land! God gave it to us! And if none of that works, we can always say there was nobody there! It was empty! Barren! Just lying there waiting for God’s own! We Jews can’t do what anyone else would do. What the rest – the Spanish, the Americans, the British - just kill them all. We can’t do that so we say they were never there! A land without a people for a people without a land. You want to explain why the Arabs ran away? Simple! Because they wanted to! And in 67 how could it be that a tiny, peace-loving nation simultaneously launches a blitzkrieg on its neighbours? We had to! Why? Because they were about to do it to us! And so it goes on.
“Amnon have you discussed any of this with your father?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he’s not an unreasonable man, he loves you…perhaps…..”
“Look he just thinks I’m a peacenik, a bleeding heart…you know, we should be nicer to the Arabs. .it’s the occupation…if we could just get out of the Lebanon….A state on the West Bank and Gaza, some kind of deal….I’m a kibbutznik. That’s what I’m supposed to believe”
“And do you…?”
“What are you going to do Amnon?”
“I don’t know”
“You know, this is not the best place in the world to feel the way you do. Why don’t you go away for a bit…Haifa…or Jerusalem maybe.”
Suddenly his head lifted and, he stared at me.
“You know Yad Vashem?”
“Sure you do. But do you know what “Yad Vashem” means?
“No, what does it mean?”.
“It means ‘a name and a place’. You see, we Jews are very clever. We know that for something to live it must have a name. So by giving each and every one of our dead a name, we make sure they live forever. Well, I have a name……………….”
- The village of Baysan
“……..I have the name of the village that this kibbutz is built on….Al Zawiyyeh.”
10 Nur ed Din Street
11th May 1996
Well you said it would make a good story – I only hope you say the same when you’ve heard it.
I took your advice and went to Jerusalem. I met some people. They’re a group of Israelis and Palestinians who run this research and information centre. They’re linked to Beir Zeit which as it happens Abba still refers to as “that hotbed of terrorism” Uncle, if you find my use of the new terminology “Palestinians” a little different to my customary “Arabushim,” well, times change and so have I.
Actually coming here was quite a thing. Do you remember that story you told me once about how you were at an airport when you saw a family you thought were Israelis. You remember? You said they had that healthy, glowing Israeli look. You edged closer just to hear their Hebrew. But it wasn’t Hebrew. It was a bit like Hebrew but it wasn’t Hebrew. It was Arabic. They were Palestinians but, with the good health, the decent clothes and the right setting, who could tell the difference? The truth is Uncle, we really are brothers. I don’t say that in an “all God’s children” sense of pseudo magnanimity, I mean it. We really are brothers, the same people from the same roots and the same land. Can there be any greater irony than the fact that those filthy looking Fateh I used to see from my parents car as we took a short cut through the West Bank to see Auntie Rivkah in Jerusalem, were probably more directly descended from those famous old Children Of Israel than I am.
Uncle, I went to Deir Yassin – you remember, we talked about it. Of course I had to find it first. Deir Yassin the name just doesn’t exist anymore. If you want to go there you have to go to Givat Shaul which then was the name of the Jewish settlement next to the Palestinian village. The village itself is now – wait for it – a mental hospital! There’s some kind of irony there though for the life of me I can’t say exactly what it is. The village itself is still standing. It’s funny, the Palestinians talk a lot about destroyed villages but they weren’t by any means all destroyed and Deir Yassin certainly wasn’t. And why should it be? This was a village of stone masons and the village itself is of fine stone houses all built of Jerusalem stone.
So it’s still standing. It seems that after the massacre the village was cleared and then used for Jewish immigrants. But if the buildings were left standing, the name Deir Yassin was wiped off the map as was any memory of what happened there.
The central part of the village is now used as a mental hospital. It’s mainly an industrial area now, the old Givat Shaul; but there’s a Jewish cemetery and also Har Nof, a new orthodox settlement. But nowhere, absolutely nowhere is there anything to tell anyone what happened there.
The village is surrounded by yeshivot and the whole place is crawling with frummers. When we went there a lot of their kids were hanging around and one or two lobbed a couple of stones our way. I really don’t know if it was intentional or if it had anything to do with where we were. Over the road (and it is a major highway) there’s some scrub land and we went over there. There are some old graves there and from the markings on them you could see that they are Muslim so I guess this was part of the old village graveyard. Uncle, you should see those graves – broken, overgrown with coke-cans and condoms lying all around. We’ve a lot to answer for.
Anyway, I think what you want to hear about is al Zawiyyeh, so here goes. The destruction of al Zawiyyeh was part of Operation Yiftach, the name given to the conquest and clearance of the Upper Galilee in October 1948. I’d love to tell you who Yiftach was, obviously its from the bible, and you know how good we Jews are at giving all we do that epic, biblical quality, but unfortunately, I can’t. My Bible doesn’t have an index and I didn’t have the time.
Anyway there are a couple of things you have to know about Operation Yiftach and both relate to the fact that it took place relatively late in the war. The first was, that by this time, the Jews, or Israelis as they were by now, were far more confident about their ability to achieve the conquest of the land. Secondly, the Arabs had learned their lesson. They now realised that when the Jews told them to leave and that they would be permitted to return later, they were lying. By October the villagers knew, that once they left, they had gone for good and would never return.
So, many of the villages in Upper Galilee put up some resistance. Not that it would have made any difference what they did. The myth put about that those villages that surrendered peacefully would be left alone was just that, a myth.
But now to Al Zawiyyeh. It’s not a particularly remarkable story, nor particularly horrifying compared to what happened in other villages but, I know you’ll agree, well worth telling.
On 29th October 1948 Jewish forces entered the village after an aerial bombardment the previous night. These were regular army, the direct descendant of Haganah. They were not Irgun and Lehi and, for this again, I suppose the villagers of Al Zawiyyeh should be grateful. Anyway, they ordered all the villagers to assemble in the main square and told them they had to leave. As I said, the Jews were pretty confident by now, so they didn’t even bother lying. The villagers had to go. To where? Who cares? Just go. The Mukhtar of the village begged that they be allowed to stay in their houses overnight to make preparations for their flight, but the young Palmachnik in command refused. Thirty minutes, then out.
And sure enough, in thirty minutes the soldiers began firing over the villagers’ heads. They ran. Men, women and children, pots, pans, animals whatever they could grab, they just ran. No one was hurt. No one lost their lives. All they lost were their homes. Beautiful Israel.
Well, it’s not that much of a story really, but there it is.
I’m not staying here much longer. At the end of the day I’m not much of a dissident really, I’ll leave all that to you.
Grid Reference: 206284. 23 km from Safed.
Population in 1944/5: 760. 41 houses
Al Zawiyyeh was situated on flat terrain in the western half of the Al-Hula plain. One of the villages occupied towards the end of May 12th 1948 when Israeli forces advanced into the Upper Galilee.
According to Israeli intelligence reports the village was emptied of its residents by 24th May as a result of a direct assault on the village as part of Operation Yiftach.
The Israeli settlement of Na’ot Mordecai was established in 1946 just one kilometre north of the village.
Today, nothing remains of the village, no rubble, no landmarks. The site is now covered by the cotton fields of Na’ot Mordecai.”
(All That Remains” by Walid Khalidi).