how the language of the past can help us read the present situation in Palestine

how the language of the past can help us read the present situation in Palestine

On August 12 1949, members of an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) unit at the Nirim outpost in the Negev desert were celebrating the successful establishment of their new camp, close to the recently agreed armistice line with Egypt. What happened at that party was long-hidden, until a 2003 investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz brought to light the horrific events.

Earlier in the day, the unit had captured a Bedouin girl who at that party was gang-raped, then later executed and buried in a shallow grave. Twenty soldiers, including the unit’s commander, were sent to prison for their actions. The investigation inspired the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s book Minor Detail (2020), which tells the story of this event alongside that of a fictional woman investigating the crime decades later in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

Minor Detail is a sparse but searing novel that shows how the horrors of the past continue to shape Palestinian life today. It has been widely critically acclaimed, including being nominated in the US for the National Book Award and for the International Booker Prize in the UK. It has also won Germany’s prestigious LiBeraturpreis, which Shibli was supposed to accept at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Instead, the award’s ceremony was cancelled – the organisers of the prize, LitProm, explained this was because of the situation in Israel and Palestine and plan to reschedule the event for a later date. Over 1,000 authors have signed a letter in protest at the decision and what they felt was the silencing of a Palestinian voice. The book, however, has also received mixed reviews in the German press, with some dubbing it antisemitic and anti-Israel.

The award’s cancellation, in my view, sends the wrong signal by shutting down opportunities for conversation. Shibli’s book offers insight into what’s happening in Gaza today, and the way language has been – and continues to be – used in shaping the conflict.

A history of dehumanisation

Part of Minor Detail follows the IDF unit who in 1949 were assigned to securing the new southern borderline between Israel and Egypt, by removing Palestinian “infiltrators”.

A year before the events covered by the book, in 1948, the newly independent state of Israel had expanded to control 77% of the Mandate for Palestine territory. Over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled and permanently displaced – tens of thousands of whom sought refuge in the Gaza Strip.

Israelis know this as the War of Independence. Palestinians call it the Nakba or “catastrophe”.

Adania Shibli
The Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s book was inspired by a 2003 investigation by the Israeli paper Haaretz.
Hartwig Klappert

In Minor Detail, the unit’s commander describes the Negev as “a barren desert, prey to neglect and misuse by Arabs and their animals … Under Israeli control,” he says, the desert will become “a flourishing, civilised region, and a thriving centre of learning, development and culture”. Here, Shibli echoes the words of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in his 1954 declaration: “For those who make the desert bloom there is room for hundreds, thousands and even millions.”

Shibli’s choice of words also draws on a tendency of Israel’s politicians and supporters to invoke a language of “progress” (technological and the like) when seeking western support. This is seen most commonly today in celebrations of Israel as a “start-up nation”.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking after Hamas’s recent attack and about Israel’s response, said the war was a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle”.

This sort of dehumanising language – widening out from the attack by Hamas to a broader comment on the Palestinian people – is used to justify violence, and is not new to this conflict. Minor Detail shows the longer history of such tactics in Israeli warfare.

Shibli records the commander’s thoughts through close third-person narration. When he sees the girl after the first rape, all he hears from her is “crying and babbling incomprehensible fragments that intertwined with the dog’s ceaseless barking”. The barking and Arabic are one and the same to him.

A connection between Palestinians and animals was made recently by Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who declared when enacting a “complete siege” of Gaza that has cut off water, food and fuel, that Israel “[is] fighting against human animals”.

In Minor Detail, dehumanising treatment and language is a precursor to the Palestinian girl’s murder. Following the Hamas attack on Israel, similar language has been used as a precursor to the mass killing of Palestinians.

Acts of memory

The second half of Minor Detail is set in the present. Shibli describes the efforts of a Palestinian woman in Ramallah, the West Bank’s de facto capital, to uncover the girl’s story.

Shibli’s protagonist (who is unnamed) is struck by the “minor detail” that the rape took place 25 years before her birth. This single atrocity may seem unremarkable amid the everyday violence of Israel’s occupation, but she believes that minor details are “the only way to arrive at the truth” of a bigger story.

She embarks with great difficulty, given the very real restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians, on a trip to Israeli archives in Tel Aviv and the north-west Negev and, finally, the outpost. She sees the result of Israel’s 1948 project of depopulation and replacement as her old maps direct her along roads that no longer exist, and show Palestinian villages that have been erased. She also sees the blooming desert – full of mangoes, avocados and bananas – that testifies to the success of the commander’s project.

The protagonist’s attempt to recover one life lost in the Nakba is ultimately impossible. But this act of memory reminds us of our responsibility to every person killed in Israel and Palestine this month.

By focusing on one story from 1948, Minor Detail shows how current events in Gaza are rooted in the longer history of violence in Israel and Palestine. We must reckon with this past to understand what is taking place now.

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