To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the left-liberal weekly Koteret Rashit asked the thirty-four-year-old novelist and radio journalist David Grossman to write an article about life in the West Bank. Although Grossman’s fiction has ventured beyond the Green Line (the boundary between pre- and post-1967 Israel), for his assignment he spent seven weeks traveling in this region largely unknown to his countrymen, interviewing both Arabs—many of them refugees from the 1948 war—and Jewish settlers. Grossman’s disturbing account of what he found extended well beyond the ten-thousand-word limit he had been given; his story filled the entire Israeli Independence Day issue. The magazine sold briskly, and fifty thousand copies of the book that followed, ha-Zeman ha-tsahov (literally, “the yellow time”) quickly found purchasers. Parts of the work first appeared in English in The New Yorker before Haim Watzman’s complete translation became available in early 1988.
By then, as so often happens with current history, the conditions that Grossman so vividly describes had changed dramatically, for he had assumed that the relative calm that had existed in the West Bank and Gaza for twenty years would continue. “Why is it so easy to control you?” he asks Raj’a Shehade, an Arab lawyer and writer. “How can you explain the fact that we rule more than a million and a half Arabs, almost without feeling it?” Shehade must have been as surprised as Grossman when riots and demonstrations erupted six months later, for the Arab had replied,It takes no effort to rule a society accustomed to paternalism to the point that people do not even ask who is giving the orders. We make use of and accept authority so naturally that we do not even see the humiliation and shame it engenders.
While the book thus in a sense captures a world that no longer exists, it reveals how the humiliation and shame became sufficiently evident to spark widespread violence. A kindergarten teacher in the refugee camp of Deheisha tells Grossman that when the military governor asked whether she taught anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish sentiments, she replied that while she did not, his soldiers did. She illustrates her point, asking a chubby Arab boy who the Jews are. To the child they are the people who took away his sister. At the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River a reservist repeats the teacher’s lesson:More than once I’ve seen a young, angry soldier use his position to humiliate an elderly and venerable man, making him run all over the place in his socks, jeer and degrade him in front of people from his village. You can only guess what that man feels about Israel after such treatment.
There is also the case of Mohammed Ali Al-Kal’ilah, whose son joined a group of terrorists that killed two Jewish couples. In June, 1985, Al-Kal’ilah was arrested. His house was repeatedly searched; later that year it was bulldozed. Subsequently he was again arrested and tortured, and he has been denied permission to rebuild his home. He tells Grossman:If my son murdered, kill him. . . . But why have you destroyed my entire life? . . . I could kill a million times the man who ordered my house destroyed. Did I ever do anything like that? Did I ever think like that before? I only wanted to live. Now they have made me like that, too. They have turned me into a murderer.
Allowing these people to speak for themselves, Grossman forces the reader to recognize that such episodes affect real people. By focusing on the plight of individuals he reveals what statistics might hide—the fact that Yeshayahu Leibowitz correctly predicted the consequence of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, which is the destruction of Israel’s integrity. No occupying power, he observed, can remain moral, however good its intentions.
Israel’s aims were certainly not malevolent. Consider the case of Barta’a, a village divided for almost twenty years, from 1949 to 1967. The section under Jordanian occupation—it is important to remember that before 1967 the West Bank had been occupied for centuries by Turkey, Great Britain, and Jordan—was far less prosperous and modern than Israeli Barta’a. As one young man from Jordanian Barta’a observed, “Their women study, ours don’t. Among us, a father has many children, so they all remain poor generation after generation. With them, every family has three children and stops.” Economically, educationally, and medically, Israeli rule had much to offer. Indeed, the uprising that began in late 1987 would not have occurred had Israel not brought a new vision to the area. Whereas before 1967 the holy places under Arab rule were closed to other religions, since 1967 Israel has allowed free access. It has kept the bridges open between the West Bank and Jordan, and only the best reservists serve there as...