The Legacy of Lydda

Four Decades of Blood Vengeance

by Amos Kenan
The Nation
pp. 154 – 156
6 February 1989

George Habash is now head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but in 1948 he was just a young man who had recently completed his medical studies in Beirut. I was a platoon commander of the 82d Regiment of the Israeli Army brigade that conquered the Palestinian town of Lydda. Actually, we never really conquered Lydda. Lydda, to put it simply, fled.

I have no idea when or how, in the midst of that terrible war, George Habash managed to get through to visit his sister in Lydda. She was 30 years old, married and had six children. And she was ill. As a doctor, George – I allow myself to call him that – immediately diagnosed her disease and prescribed certain medicines. But Lydda was under curfew and there were no pharmacies, and it was not possible to leave the house and order an urgent delivery of medicine.

Dov Lifschitz, who today owns a clothing factory in Canada, was issued a Czech rifle back then that was stopped up with a cork and smeared with grease. He had arrived from Poland immediately after the world war and was then almost 18. Dov took apart the rifle and spent an entire afternoon cleaning the grease from the barrel, though there wasn't anyone around to tell him that this.was the thing to do. Others like him were killed that summer near Latrun without managing ever to get the cork out of the barrel. The Israeli Army suffered its worst defeat of the war at the battle for Latrun. Hundreds of soldiers were killed, including many new immigrants taken straight off the boat into battle.

Daniel Sverdlov, a former Red Army soldier who had an eagle with outstretched wings tattooed on his right arm, taught Dov Lifschitz how to handle his rifle. The next time I saw Daniel Sverdlov was less than two years ago. Of the splendor of his muscular body, of his candid and innocent face, not much was left. Only a withered tattooed eagle on a withered arm, glasses over his bright eyes, faded thinning hair in place of his blond mop.

Before we left camp, the company commander gave me a large jute bag filled with thirty hand grenades. Our entire platoon spread out in an orchard on the outskirts of Lydda, armed with our Czech rifles fles. My best friend, Yankele, and I, didn't trust or believe anyone. We took the bag of grenades and went up in the roof of a packing shed in the orchard. If we're going to die with the Philistines, we said to each other, this is how we'll die. Twenty-eight of the thirty grenades we spaced at equal distances beside the rim of the packing shed roof. Each of us kept one grenade for ourselves. This is how, we said, we'll die with the Philistines, if after we've thrown the twenty-eight grenades the Philistines come up to the roof to kill us.

The Philistines didn't attack us, and the next morning we returned to the base, which was then called Tel Litvinsky, a British Army barracks a ten-minute drive from Tel Aviv. After some time, Capt. Moshe Dayan, then the company commander of the Nahalal contingent in the 89th Regiment, led a convoy of jeeps through the streets of Lydda. From the jeeps, soldiers fired indiscriminately in all directions. Here they smashed a windowpane, there they killed a chicken. To this day, no one has counted how many chickens, cows, donkeys, camels, sheep and goats were killed in the war.

Lydda had yet to be conquered, for two reasons: There was still no organized force to conquer it, and there was really no city to conquer. The whole place, except for George Habash and his sister and a few others, was empty.

I don't remember the exact date of the official conquest of Lydda. I only remember myself and Yankele on the roof of another packing shed, a tall one, in a huge orchard just outside the town. The regiment commander stood tall against the horizon and looked through his binoculars. What did he see? Two tanks of the Cromwell type, the only serious tanks we had then, commanded by the head of our only tank company, Dan Samuel, grandson of the first High Commissioner to Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel. The tanks had been stolen for us by soldiers in the British Army. Behind these tanks, and at some distance, came some Hotchkisses, the seemingly tricycle-sized French tanks. Behind these, some halftracks.

Only when the two Cromwells reached the nearby airfield did the entire brigade begin to bear down on Lydda. We found there what we found throughout that terrible war. Warm pita bread and the leftovers of meals eaten by soldiers of the Arab Legion of Transjordan, and an empty city on which a curfew was immediately imposed. Caught in the curfew were George Habash and his ailing sister.

After three days, and before Habash's eyes, his sister died. It was not possible to bury her, also because of the curfew. And so, in the yard of her house the young George, Dr. Habash, dug a grave with his own hands. In the yard of her house and with his own hands, he buried his sister.

After some time, the curfew was lifted and those who remained alive were transferred to temporary prison compounds. After yet more time, the prison compounds were opened and those who had been inside them, among them George Habash and his sister's six children, went on foot from Lydda to Amman, in Jordan, and from there and from then the story I am telling here really begins.

Our regiment was moved from Tel Litvinsky to the Lydda airfield, which is today Ben-Gurion International Airport, where there was another British barracks. We had a great time. After morning parade and breakfast, we would chew the fat until lunchtime. We would assign a duty officer, train a bit, assign a platoon to guard duty, rest a little, then gather again, leaning on the walls of thin asbestos, to gossip and reminisce. So young, so many reminiscences.

In the afternoon, those of us who couldn't take it any more would steal off to Tel Aviv for a few hours, on one excuse or another. At night, those of us who couldn't restrain ourselves would go into the prison compounds to fuck Arab women. I want very much to assume, and perhaps even can, that those who couldn't restrain themselves did what they thought the Arabs would have done to them had they won the war.

Once, only once, did an Arab woman – perhaps a distant relative of George Habash – dare complain. There was a court-martial. The complainant didn't even get to testify. The accused, who was sitting behind the judges, ran the back of his hand across his throat, as a signal to the woman. She understood. The rapist was not acquitted, he simply was not accused, because there was no one who would dare accuse him. Two years later, he was killed while plowing the fields of an Arab village, one no longer on the map because its inhabitants scattered and left it empty.

There is not, there has not been, and there never will be an exact blood vengeance. We will never know what eye was torn out for what eye; we will never know how many eyes have been torn out for how many eyes. What I do know with certainty is that there have been many who have sought and taken revenge. And to my mind, after forty years, it seems that all the vengeances have already come. Only compensation has not come.

Both you and I, George, have already taken vengeance – before and during and after the fact. And both you and I have not taken pity on man or woman, boy or girl, young or old. I know that there is not much difference between pressing a button in a fighter plane and firing point-blank into the head of a hostage. As there is no difference between a great massacre that was not meant to be and one that was meant to be. There is no distinction between justice and justice or between injustice and injustice, as there is no difference at all in what people – weak, transient beings, assured of the justice of their ways and their deeds – are capable of doing to people who are in sum exactly like themselves.

Tears filled my eyes, George, when I read for the first time in these forty years how your sister died. How you dug her a pit with your own hands in the yard of her house in the city of Lydda. I reach out with an unclean hand to your hand, which also is not clean. You and I should die a miserable natural death, a death of sinners who have not come to their punishment, a death from old age, disease, a death weak and unheroic, a death meant for human beings who have lived a life of iniquity.

And to me it seems that if you and I achieve such a miserable and unheroic death, only so may we atone for a life led as if it were not miserable, as if it were heroic.

Amos Kenan is a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot and is working on a book based on this story. Translated from the Hebrew by Richard Flantz.