The Butcher of Khuza’a*

The Butcher of Khuza’a*

By Richard Silverstein

People recovering the last body from the room where villagers say the mass execution has taken place. Photo by Lazar Simeonov for The Daily Beast

What goes around comes around. The circle of tragedy that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come full circle in the years between 1948 and 2014. In the 1948 War, a young soldier who was to become one of the finest Israeli writers of his generation, served in Gaza and witnessed the atrocities of war from there.

S. Yizhar

Afterward, S. Yizhar (ne Yizhar Smilansky) wrote some of the most searing accounts of the brutality and immorality of Palmach tactics against the native Palestinian population. One of these was the novella, Hirbet Hiza. At the heart of this disturbing story is the unjust expulsion of the inhabitants of this Palestinian village from their homes. For every reader of this story, the accounts of the expulsions and extermination of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust rung clearly in their minds as a historical precedent.

For those who served in the War and for all Israelis with a moral conscience, the story became a bell-weather. It was the equivalent of Hart Crane’s Red Badge of Courage in the context of the American Civil War.

In those days, when the Labor Party ruled Israel, a decorated hero and literary lion like Yizhar was welcomed into the political elite. He ran for Knesset and served several terms. He also taught at the prestigious Hebrew University. Today, of course, Yizhar would either have defanged his trenchant observations or he’d be persona non grata. There is no more tolerance of non-conformity within Israeli arts or society. You are either a cheerleader or you are in cherem. Israel has no more room for prophets, whether Biblical or literary.

Before bringing this story up to present day, I want to take a detour to 1982. In that year, Israel invaded Lebanon and there were many Lebanese villages treated by the IDF the way Hirbet Hiza had been treated. At the time, I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley enrolled in a PhD program in Comparative Literature. That was when I first read Yizhar’s powerful story. It was so riveting that I began translating it into English. I didn’t even know why I was doing it except that it struck me as a powerful moral indictment of Israeli hubris. I thought it was critical that this eyewitness testimony be read and known by English speaking readers.

I wrote to Yizhar and he expressed interest in seeing my work. After I sent it to him, I never heard a reply. No doubt, my Hebrew translation skills then (hopefully they’ve improved over the years) didn’t do justice to the majesty of his work. For this reason, I was both wistful and pleased to learn that a fine translation was finally published three decades later. This book deserves to be in the pantheon of great Hebrew literature and such a translation will help it get even more recognition than it already has.

In recent weeks, both Israelis and foreigners following the Gaza massacre have begun hearing of IDF massacres and mass executions in a Gaza neighborhood called Khuza’a. Here is Jesse Rosenfeld‘s account of one of those incidents, which provides a great deal of circumstantial proof that the IDF was the perpetrator of this mass murder.

Idan Landau, one of Israel’s finest moral and political bloggers writes about the village:

Khuza’a is a village in the southern portion of Gaza, east of Khan Younis, 500 meters from the border. On the opposite side of the fence is Kibbutz Nir Oz. In the village are 10,000 residents (some say 14,000) who earn their living primarily from agriculture.

It was. There was a village. There were residents. Now, everything is a shambles. Courtesy of the IDF. The State of Israel erased this place off the face of the earth. Tens, if not hundreds of the residents lie buried underneath the rubble. This happened less than a month ago, that is, ages ago. And all within spitting distance of the border. That is, beyond the mountains of darkness.

Now there is quiet in Khuza’a. The silence of death.

Here is how Jesse Rosenfeld described the scene based on his eyewitness reporting:

Suddenly journalists and local residents are shouting from a house on the edge of the front. The small family home is still intact but the stench of rotting flesh that comes from inside is overpowering.

A barefoot corpse in camouflaged khakis is being carried into the street, partially wrapped in rug, as I enter the house. His partly burned and partly decomposing face is unrecognizable as anyone who was ever alive and breathing. Witnesses say there were at least six bodies piled together inside this one tiled room where the air is poisonous with decay.

Blood and blackened remnants are caked on the bathroom floor. The walls have been drenched in blood and they are pocked with scores of bullet holes that look as if they were fired from an automatic weapon at waist level. Some of the bullet holes are in line, as if the gun were sweeping across its targets. There is also soot staining the tiles, suggesting the bodies were burned or there had been a small blast. Several tiles have fallen away from the wall. The house is filled with casings from the bullets used in assault rifles. They are marked on the bottom as “IMI” (Israel Military Industries).

What happened here? It is the kind of place and the kind of incident that may be studied for years. We may hear that…a lone Israeli soldier went mad and started murdering prisoners. It could be that members of an Israeli army unit at the center of the fighting decided to take out their rage on those they captured. There may be many theories. All I can tell you is what I saw and heard at the scene this day.

Twenty-one-year-old Naban Abu Shaar told me he was one of the first to find the bodies. He said they looked as if they were “melted” and piled on top of each other.

“When we entered the bathroom, I found the bodies of people slumped on top of each other in the corner,” he said, staring into the distance as if disconnected from his words.

Naban Abu Shaar told me he was one of the first to find the bodies. He said they looked as if they were “melted” and piled on top of each other.

The owner of the house, Mohammad Abu Al Sharif, said he couldn’t recognize the bodies but believed, because of their clothes, some of the dead may have been from his family. He did not say if any of them were fighters. The house had nine members living in it before Abu Al Sharif, his wife and four daughters escaped Khuzaa 20 days ago. He lost contact with those who stayed, he said.

Who was the overall commander who executed this abomination?

Who was the Butcher of Khuza’a?

His name will be familiar to anyone who’s been reading this blog lately. And now let it be immortalized forever in the pages of infamy: Col. Ofer Winter. The same who ordered his soldiers to fight a holy war against the Philistine/Palestinian defiler’s of the Israeli God. The same one who ordered one of his unit leaders to execute Lt. Hadar Goldin by throwing a hand grenade and firing indiscriminately into the tunnel into which he’d been dragged. The same one who ordered carpet bombing of Rafah that murdered 150 Palestinians in a matter of hours. The same one who refused to allow his troops to hear a female Israeli musical performer because Orthodox Jews believe a woman’s voice infatuates men.

Col. Ofer Winter (above), an Orthodox Zionist. He wrote a memo describing Operation Protective Edge as a holy war and in the same month he described this tactic for fighting Hamas in this metaphor: “I had the chance to tell the prime minister that there are two kinds of poisonous animals in Israel: snakes and scorpions. You grab a snake by the head, but if you grab a scorpion by the head, he’ll sting you. The trick is to know where to grab, and here I think we’ve grabbed them in the right place. If we go on, I think we’ll succeed in grabbing them in all sorts of other places, and we’ll wipe them out.”

Let this man (if he may be graced by that term) be forever known as the Butcher of Khuza’a. Let his name never be uttered again without it being associated with the word “butcher.”

Now, let’s close that circle we began with Hirbet Hiza in 1948, with the help again of Idan Landau:

Winter’s Khuza’a is S. Yizhar’s Hiza. 65 years separate the two, which are one. But even 1,000 years can’t close the ethical gap. Yizhar’s Hiza, which “only” suffered expulsion, rather than mass slaughter [like Khuza’a], stood for years as a remembrance of Israeli shame. In Winter’s Khuza’a, in which tens of innocent civilians were slaughtered in the full light of day, a true divine miracle occurred. No less than this: heavy clouds descended on the soldiers, clouds of His glory, which protected them. This is the new divine splendor of Israel, light years away from the forgotten shame [of Hiza of 1948].


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