The Unheard Voices of Palestinians

David Grossman did the interviews for his book, The Yellow Wind, in May 1987, six months before the first Intifada.  Not only did the book show that particular decade’s oppressive reality of Israel toward Palestine, it illustrated the causes of that Intifada, and sadly, the one that followed and those that will come because of Israel’s continuing oppression that is now wed with expanding settlements on Palestinian land in what is at the very least the closest, present parallel to the Bantustan states in apartheid South Africa.

Although somewhat confounding, Grossman did not himself define Israel as the oppressor and Palestine as the oppressed.  “Defining Israel’s position as wrong in principle and the Palestinian position as entirely righteous, is simplistic and false,” he said.  Grossman’s book is compelling, however, because he relies on the voices of “ordinary” Palestinians and Israelis, not politicians or officials, living in the West Bank at the time.  And the people that he spoke with clearly do signify – the oppressor and the oppressed.

The fact is that when I wrote the book I had no intention of suggesting a solution.  I am a writer not a politician, and the writer’s job, I believe, is to put a finger on the wound, to write anew, in a language that the reader has not yet learned to insulate himself against, about the intricacies of the existing situation, to shatter stereotypes that make it easy not to deal with the problems.  The writer’s job is to remind those who have forgotten that humanity and morality are still important questions and to warn of the future implied by the present. (Intro/NP)

Traveling for seven weeks in the West Bank, Grossman spoke to Palestinians and Israelis.  He met shopkeepers, soldiers, farmers, widows, children, oppressors, victims, and more.  For the purpose of this review, we will re-visit the words of some of the Palestinians whom Grossman portrays in the book.  The underlying question, of course, is why hasn’t Israel, the United States, the World, paid more attention to these voices.

The Yellow Wind first presents stories from Palestinian refugee camps – one of a thirty-year old man in Balata who had spent ten years in the Ashkelon and Nafha prisons.  He had been found guilty of belonging to the PLO but told Grossman:

I didn’t actually take part in operations.  They only taught me to shoot.  Before I went to jail, I didn’t even know I was a Palestinian.  There they taught me who I am.  Now I have opinions.  Don’t believe the ones who tell you that the Palestinians don’t really hate you.  Understand: The average Palestinian is not the fascist and hating type, but you and the life under your occupation push him into hatred.  Look at me, for example. You took ten years of my life from me.  You exiled my father in ’68.  He hadn’t done anything.  He wasn’t even a PLO supporter.  Maybe even the opposite.  Maybe at the beginning I didn’t hate and only feared.  Afterwards, I began to hate. (11)

The second chapter of the book is entitled, “I Want to Shoot Jews.”  Included are discussions with two teachers and children.  The first teacher thinks as little of Arafat as she does of the Israelis, “Arafat is bourgeois.  He drives a Mercedes.  He doesn’t feel the suffering of refugees.  All the Fatah commanders have houses in Syria and the Gulf states.  Arafat has no supporters here.  Only we can represent ourselves.” (22) She continues saying, “We are against Arafat, because Arafat wants peace.  We want a solution by force.  What was taken by force will be returned by force.” (23)

The second teacher speaks about the children:

The children know everything.  Some of the children here are the fourth generation in the camp.  On any night the army may enter their house, right into the house, conduct a search, shout, turn over the blankets and slash at them with their bayonets, strip their fathers… A little while ago the military governor visited the kindergarten and asked if I teach the children bad things, against Israel and the Jews.  I said that I don’t.  But that his soldiers do. (23, 24)

Grossman asked a four-year old girl about the soldiers.  She said only the words “search and beatings” and then told him that Jews equated to the army.  A young boy,one of her classmates, when asked about the Jews said, “They took my sister.”  yellowwindHis sisters, plural, were in jail.  “’They did not throw stones’, he says angrily.”  Dialogue followed;

Suddenly a little boy gets up, holding a short yellow plastic stick in his hand, and shoots me.

‘Why are you shooting me?’

He runs to the teacher, peeks at me from behind her arm and laughs.  He is two years old.

‘Who do you want to shoot?’ The teachers ask, smiling, like two mothers taking pride in a smart child.


Their lips make out the answer with him.

‘Now tell him why,’ they encourage the little one.

‘Because the Jews took my uncle,’ he says.  ‘At night they came in and stole him from the bed, so now I sleep with my mother all the time.’ (24, 25)

There are four further examples from David Grossman’s conversations with Palestinian people in 1987 that are important to revisit before turning to some of his talks with Jewish settlers.  He spent time in the Deheisha refugee camp, with a man he calls Taher in a village near Hebron, with a “terrorist’s” father, and finally with the lawyer Raj’a Shehade, the author of The Third Way.  In Deheisha, a fifty-year old woman said:

You are always with your head down, waiting for the next blow.  After a few years there you have nothing left but fear and poverty.  You become like a dead person: you do not want anything and you do not hope.  You wait for death.  Even the children there are old.  They are born with fear.  Here, children are like children they almost do not know what the army is.  Only the Mustawtanin, the settlers, are frightening. (67)

Also in Deheisha Grossman speaks with a woman named Wadha Ishmail and her daughter Hanan.  The mother’s story is terrifying but connects to many other memories of Palestinian people, historically and presently.

After they expelled us from the village, we would come back to work our land.  The Israeli Army pretended not to see us.  They would have maneuvers up on the mountain, and we would work the land in the valley.  We would come every day by donkey from Hebron in order to work our land.  One day I came here with my father.  I was young then, almost a girl.  We worked a few hours, and we started on our way back home.  Suddenly the Israeli soldiers surrounded us and separated me from my father.  I saw that they blindfolded him with a rag and pushed him into some bushes.  I remember that he still had a chance to turn to me once and call to me through the rag.  Immediately afterwards I heard shots.  Many shots.  I began to cry.  The soldiers who had stayed with me asked me: Who is that man to you?  I said: he is my father.  They said: Go to the garden down there, and you’ll see that he is harvesting lettuce and eggplant.  When I was some distance from them, I glanced back and I saw one of the soldiers aiming his rifle at me.  I was frightened and bent over.  His bullet hit my neck and came out on the other side.

I don’t know what to say to her, and she interprets my silence, apparently, as disbelief.  Look, she says, and her work-hardened fingers undo her kerchief, and she smiles a sort of apology about having to bother me with her wound.  I see an ugly scar in back, and another ugly scar in front.  Young Hanan cries.  It seems that Wadha is her mother.  Every time I hear that story, it is as if it were the first time, Hanan says.

Wadha lay among the bushes and played dead.  The soldiers distanced themselves from her and then left the area.  She rose, oozing blood and bound her wounds with a handkerchief.  Afterwards, she found her father on the ground, his hands tied behind his back, a large rock on his neck.  There were thirty bullets in his body, the village elder, Abu harb, told us later.  Wadha, who is for a moment a girl once more, describes with movements of her body how she walked and tripped through the valley, at night, s cared that the Israelis would shoot her from behind, or the Jordanians from in front.  She concluded her story as she began it, quietly, with no tone of accusation, and her daughter Hanan stood and cried for all of us. (69, 70)

Taher is described in the book as middle-aged and he was resigned to the fact, after the Six-Day War, that Israel would occupy the West Bank for many years – he was right!  He took it upon himself to study Hebrew in Jerusalem and his assertions were philosophical, political, and psychological.  First, he spoke of the need for what he called respect from the Israelis.  Translation might simply mean some sense of humanity.

Start thinking about us not as your Arabs, asses that anyone can ride, people without honor.  Start thinking about us as your future neighbors.  In the end we will be the people with whom you will have to live here and come to an agreement with and create ties with, and do business with, and everything, right?  … Even if there are five more wars here, the children of my grandchildren and the children of your grandchildren will finally get wise and make some sort of agreement with each other, right?  So I say: Change your attitude a little, make some effort in our direction.  Even try – and I know that it is probably hard for you, right? – try, God forbid, to respect us. (93)

He continued with exemplary directness on what Israeli actions say, psychologically, about Israelis.

You also have much to learn: not to get into our souls, for example.  Why do your soldiers need to stop me five times when I go to buy a sack of flour in the main street of Hebron?  Why do they need to humiliate me at a roadblock in front of my children, who can see how the soldiers laugh at their father and force him to get out of the car?  Of course, you have to behave like conquerors.  I don’t deny that.  That’s the way history is: you won the war and we lost.  I say, all right.  Be conquerors.  Push us, but with delicacy.  Because sometimes you push so hard that we see how scared you are… You should know that you’re in a bad position.  When I return from Amman, from visiting my brother, and one of your soldiers tells me to undress, and pokes his fingers down there, and checks my underwear, my hair, I look him in the eyes and think, My God, look how the entire Israeli government and the entire Israeli Army are scared of you, Taher. (95)

And an example of Israeli disrespect, and also terror, is portrayed in a chapter titled “The Terrorist’s Father.”  The IDF detained the father of what they referred to as a terrorist and questioned him for a week saying, “We’ll bring your wife here and we’ll fuck her in front of you.” (189) They then ordered him to bring his wife and daughter in law to the police station every day and eventually they bulldozed his house to the ground.  They eventually killed his son and put him in jail for four months after beating him.  He recalled the treatment.

Officers pass us the whole time and spit on us and say, Tfu! You are dogs and the sons of dogs, and every day they would leave us there until nine at night, and every day we had to take a taxi, and when we came home at night, the mukhabarat would come again, at four in the morning, and enter the house, and pull everything out of the closets, wake up the children, and they would bring big dogs with them and say, We want your children to see the dogs and go crazy from fear of them. (189)

The voices of both the adults and children quoted are all very much a part of the life experiences of Raj’a Shehade.  As already noted, Shehade wrote a book called The Third Way – or samud (endure).  He explained that the choice for Palestinians was to surrender, fight, or endure.  He chose the last option but his choice did not imply idleness.

I do not despair.  I only fear for the future.  The occupation is steadily destroying us.  It destroys the entire fabric of civil and traditional life.  We are caught in a totally false reality, and are beginning to think that it is the truth.  That is a great danger.  But I do not despair: there are so many things to fight for.  There are so many things to improve!  From looking after mental-health institutions to the effort to set up a law school.  There is not a single law school in the entire West Bank.  There are a million things that a person can devote himself to.  You can’t give up.  Independence, for me, is not only a piece of paper or a declaration.  You have to work hard to achieve it, and it is possible to do so much even now. (157)

On the settlements:

In my eyes they are criminals.  Criminals and lunatics.  Sometimes I have to meet htem.  They are racists.  Look, racism is hard to diagnose precisely.  There are many things that seem to be racism but are not.  Real racism is when you don’t see another person as human.  They ask – with deep inner conviction – why the Arabs don’t accept what they want to do here?  They don’t understand that, as human beings, the Arabs desire everything that any human desires.  They simply are not willing to understand that! (150)

On Israel as a colonial nation-state:

You should understand: the Israelis are not satisfied with having conquered us.  They want to turn us into a colony of theirs, in every sense of the word, culturally as well.  That means that they don’t want only to confiscate land, but also to impose themselves on the soul and thoughts of the conquered.  It is very important for Israelis – in a sometimes touching way – to impress us.  To convince us how much Israel is superior to us.  And by the way, there is a huge difference between the propaganda that Israel directs toward the West Bank, where it wants to appear omnipotent, and the propaganda it directs toward the West, in whose eyes it wants to appear as a victim, surrounded by powerful enemies. (154)

On the falsity of Israeli superiority:

It seems to me that the long term is more dangerous for Israel than for us.  The Arab world is now in a miserable state, there is no denying that.  It is a world that is bad to live in.  a world of oppression.  But Israel is founded on so many contradictions, and on so many opposing forces, that its existence is always in great danger.  For example, there is a huge gap between the self-image of Israelis and reality.  You think you are omnipotent, because of your success in controlling such a large Arab population.  But the truth is that foreign support is the decisive factor.  You remind me of the spoiled son of a rich man, who thinks he can do anything, until he has to face life on his own and discovers a few hard truths. (155)

The stories that Grossman tells of Palestinians are a pedagogy of the oppressed while those of the settlers he spoke with are the tales of proponents/apologists of oppression – politically, socially, culturally, and psychologically.  And they still exist today.  There is much less time spent with Jewish settlers than with Palestinians.  David Grossman’s meetings with other Jews, however, left him very troubled.  He quoted very little, but he did ponder his visit to the settlement of Ofra.  The chapter was titled “Don’t Pity Them too Much.”  Grossman commented on Gush Emunim.

Hooliganism echoes in everything the leaders of Gush Emunim say.  A smooth, sharp hooliganism, but hooliganism nonetheless.  With television cameras in the gymnasium, every speaker makes sure to give lip service to the need to work within the law, but they pronounce the words like someone spitting a rotten pice of apple from his mouth. (206)

His reflections on the people in Ofra are much more analytical and correspond to the arrogance he found during his time in the village.  He wrote his thoughts after a meeting with residents:

At the end of twenty years it seems to me that all the arguments, both rational and emotional, have already been made.  Only on extremely rare occasions do we hear a crushing new argument, one which requires you to reevaluate your opinions, and in Israel the reality is that it is easier for a man to change his religion, and maybe even his sex, than to change in any decisive way his political opinions.  Renounce your opinions – and it is as if you have announced the total replacement of the structure of your soul, and have taken it upon yourself to proclaim that, up to now, you lived a perfect lie.  So each bunker peers with its periscope at the bunker across the way, and sees there the reflection of the shining iron of its own immovability.  So much for debate. (36)

During his short stay in Ofra, Grossman understands that the settlers don’t even see the Palestinians.  “Were he to allow himself to pity, to identify, he would weaken and endanger himself,” (40) he realizes.  But it goes further:

Who are these people, I ask myself, who maintain an almost utopian bubble of a society of values, making great demands on individuals, atop a mountain of injustice, impenetrability, and ignorance of their fellow men?… They, after all, see the Bible as an operational order.  An operation that, even if its time is yet to come, will come and, if it does not come soon enough, will need to be brought.  I fear life among people who have an obligation to an absolute order.  Absolute orders require, in the end, absolute deeds, and I, nebbish, am a partial, relative, imperfect man who prefers to make correctible mistakes rather than attain supernatural achievements. (46,48)

Then real life magnification comes two weeks later when the leader of Jewish settlers in Hebron, Rav Levinger, says: “Fifty years ago our opponents argued about Jaffa; today they argue with us about Alfei Menashe; in another fifty years they will argue with us about Amman.  That’s the way it is.”

It appears that in 1987 – from the time David Grossman began researching his book, through the people he spoke with, his perspectives on Israel and Palestine changed.  He still presented caveats to blame in the introduction of The Yellow Wind, but he concluded with grave warnings that he addressed to Israeli Jews – not Palestinians.  Grossman warned that “the reader may decide to stand by his previous opinions, but he will have to take note of the price he pays, and what he has until now been prepared to ignore.” (213)

And then he concluded even more strongly – unfortunately it was a foreshadowing of the present.

I have a very bad feeling: I am afraid that the current situation will continue exactly as it is for another ten or twenty years.  There is one excellent guarantee of that – human idiocy and the desire not to see the approaching danger.  But I am also sure that the moment will come when we will be forced to do something, and it may well be that our position then will be much les favorable than it is now… I quickly understood that we all pay the price, but not all of us know it. (215)

ALAN WIEDER is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.