A couple of weeks ago, I read an English translation of The Other Side of the Coin by the well–known Israeli journalist and political activist Uri Avnery. This memoir describes the experiences of the author during the Israeli War of Independence, which is known to Palestinians as the Nakba or Catastrophe. The book first appeared in Hebrew in 1950. An English translation was published in 2008 in a volume titled, 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, The Bloody Road to Jerusalem. Also included in this volume are dispatches from the front, which were initially published in the newspaper Ha’aretz, and then were subsequently collected and published in 1949 as a book titled In the Fields of the Philistines. This latter volume became a much- lauded overnight bestseller, and as a result, Avnery came to symbolize the Israeli warrior hero for much of the Israeli public.
In the preface to the English volume, Avnery states that he wrote The Other Side of the Coin because he was disappointed that most understood his first book to be a glorification of the 1948 War. He stated that he wanted to also show the “dark side of the war.” Avnery felt that “since the war was over [he] could [now] write the whole truth.”
Despite the enormous success of In the Fields of the Philistines and his new-found celebrity, Avnery had great difficulty finding a publisher for his second memoir. The book eventually had two small printings in the 50s. It was attacked by critics as deceitful and “full of lies.”
The Other Side of the Coin contains a surprisingly stark and shocking view of what happened when the Samson’s Foxes (the author’s unit) invaded a series of Arab villages in what is currently southern Israel. In this book, Avnery portrays the Jewish army’s looting, raping, and killing of prisoners and civilians as commonplace and widely accepted occurrences among the Jewish fighters.
The following segment is Avnery’s depiction of the execution of an 80-year-old woman who had remained in the village of Daba after everyone else had fled. This memoir may be the first published Israeli corroboration of what many euphemistically call the Palestinian narrative.
Suddenly we saw someone. We were astonished to see a living creature here. It was an old woman. At least eighty years old. Wrapped in rags she sat in front of her house. When they run away the Fellaheen often leave the old and the blind behind.
We in the first jeep stopped immediately. Looked at each other.
“Not worth it,” Sancho answered the unspoken question. We drove on.
At the next crossroads we noticed that the second jeep, with Nachshe, Tarzan and Jamus, was no longer following us. With difficulty we turned back. The second jeep was standing by the old woman’s house. Nachshe stood in front of her waving his pistol.
“Hat Masari! Hat Masari! Fi, Fi!” [trans. Hand over the money!] he shouted. Like all of us, he believed that every Arab must have a treasure buried somewhere.
“Ma feesh, y khawaja!” [I have nothing, sir.] moaned the old woman in a whiny voice.
“Fi! Fi!” Nachshe shouted angrily and fired four bullets into the old woman. The shots threw her body upwards, as if she was jumping, then she fell dead into the same position we had first seen her in—leaning against the door frame.
Now Nachshe felt ashamed and didn’t want to be reminded of what he had done. It’s always like that with him. He can’t simply kill for pleasure and then feel like a hero the way Kebab can. Whenever he has killed a Fellah or a prisoner, he tries to forget about it and gets annoyed if you remind him.
Kebab won’t leave him alone. Nachshe is a member of the “intelligentsia” and has a big office. Kebab finds this murder reassuring. Because if a person like Nachshe is allowed to kill Fellaheen, then he himself, who is just an unskilled worker, can also be counted as a respectable person.
Actually you can’t hold it against Nachshe. It is not his fault. Homicidal urges come on him like an illness. He can’t do anything about it. Besides that he is a nice fellow. He would never abandon a wounded comrade in the field. At Position 125, did he not get out of his jeep at the worst moment and right between the Egyptian positions, in order to recover Nino’s body? I am not so sure about Kebab. I wouldn’t be very keen to find myself on patrol behind enemy lines with him.
“What’s the matter?” Kebab asks. “Are you ashamed that you finished off this stinking Arab woman?”
“That’s enough! Don’t you spend your whole day dreaming of Arab women?” Tarzan says in support of Nachshe.
“What has it got to do with you?” Kebab turns on him. “You are not brave enough to finish off just one Arab!” The truth, of course, is that Tarzan cannot kill an Arab, except in battle. Despite his enormous physical power he has a gentle soul, which he finds very embarrassing.
Avnery, Uri, The Other Side of the Coin, in 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, The Bloody Road To Jerusalem, One World, Oxford, 2008, p. 322-323.