Explore Feuilletons

The Refugees

Item sets


In “The Refugees,” the writer Dahn Ben-Amotz, a central figure in the culture of the young State of Israel, describes a particular moment he witnessed in a Palestinian refugee camp in 1956. In his feuilleton, Ben-Amotz portrays the experience of refugees in the camp and their interactions with an Israeli soldier, raising controversial questions regarding Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip.

Title (English)

The Refugees

Title (original)


Title (transliterated)


Date Issued

November 16, 1956

Place issued



Content type



Roy Holler


Roy Holler

Copyright status

no known copyright



refugees, war, vernacular, ethics, nationalism, zionism

Original Text


Dahn Ben-Amotz, “The Refugees,” 1956. Translated by Roy Holler

Earlier this week I went down to Gaza (just two weeks ago, it was easier to get to New York or Australia than visit Gaza. You can read about the developments that changed this situation in the papers). I wanted to check out, among other things, one of the Arab refugee camps. I arrived at camp “Rimal” (from the word remal, which means “sand” in Arabic). The camp sits on the coast, not too far from Gaza’s old port. It was around noon, and what looked like the camp’s main street was packed with Arab men and women who gathered in groups, staring curiously at the unkempt, geriatric Israeli army reservists who wandered back and forth sloppily in their unkempt uniforms (the traditional dress code of the IDF reserves), their STEN guns hanging on their shoulders like corpses.

Read Full

The Gaza sea was stormy and murky, and the clouds gathering in the sky loomed over the refugee camp as great signs and wonders. Barefoot children wearing colorful shirts ran around in their underwear, and Arab women walked gracefully in black dresses adorned with red and purple stripes, carrying large flour sacks on their heads. The wind from the sea rippled the hems of the kaffiyahs on the men’s heads and waved the ones still hanging on the rooftops like flags of surrender. A mass of prostrated refugees (mostly Arab women and a few old men) sat cross-legged between the cabins, waiting for the food distribution by the UNRWA officials. The weekly distribution of food was delayed by twenty days because of recent events, and the people in line were angry and impatient. At the front of the line stood officers from the Gaza police, wearing blue uniforms and black berets, swearing and shouting, trying to control the crowd. The faces of the refugees were hard, and it was hard to ever imagine them smiling. Babies cried at their mothers’ bosoms, and those first in line looked at the officers pleadingly, ready to grab their baskets and break into a mad dash towards the next line, which stretched along a barbed wire, across a sandy field, and looped around the walls of the UNRWA’s warehouse. The women had no jewelry, except for the old ladies, who had worn-out silver bracelets on their arms. The men looked at the Israelis with empty, indifferent eyes, a gaze that had surpassed hatred. And in the midst of all this anxious waiting and the atmosphere of defeat, a bunch of colorful chickens ran around on the sand, as if no tragedy ever befell their owners.

Suddenly, a wave of life passed through the anxious crowd, and those at the front rose, took a step forward, only to sink back down at the sound of the officers’ shouting. A “senior” Israeli soldier in old battledress who had a reddish, unsympathetic face came running and yelled, “back! Back! Tell them move back or I break heads“ at the officers. The officers shouted again in coarse voices: “Irj’hu, kulu irj’hu, irj’hi ya bint, irj’hu al wara.” But the yelling and the pleading did not help. They sat quietly and looked at the officers with fearful eyes. The Israeli soldier (Hungarian by accent) rushed into the crowd, trampling over people, waving his arms left and right until the commotion intensified, the cries of the women and babies grew louder, and everyone finally backed a meter away. “I break heads with stick if one more time you let them move a meter,” the soldier shouted. “This is not humans,” he then said to me, “this is animals. If I don’t keep them with iron fist they attack warehouse and steal all food. They only understand force and nothing else.”

I backed away from the Israeli soldier who shifted so suddenly from being a grocer in the suburbs of Tel-Aviv to being in charge of the lives of 27,000 people. He seemed to be taking much pleasure in fulfilling his duties. Meanwhile, the men crowded the main street and the head of the Gaza police, an Arab man around 45 years of age who sported a respectable potbelly and a splendid mustache, charged the mob with his cane, dispersing them with great profanities. “Yil’an abuki,” he shouted at a young girl, “yalla, yalla ruhu ya’klab. Imshi iben sharmuta.” After each curse, the man turned his eyes towards me and the group of indifferent Israelis, evaluating the impression his aggression left on us.

The lucky ones who made it to the front of the line in the “Jaffa” group (the refugees were divided into groups according to their place of origin) entered one by one into the big UNRWA warehouse and shuffled along the wall to receive their food rations. (5 kilos of flour per person each month. 250 grams sugar, 275 grams fat, 250 grams rice and 900 grams lentils.) Outside, the women loaded the sacks of food on their heads and then rushed to their sheds, as far as they could go, away from the line, the soldiers, the police and the war.


Dahn Ben-Amotz, “The Refugees,” 1956. Commentary by Roy Holler

For over twenty years, the Israeli writer Dahn Ben-Amotz documented the birth pangs of the young Israeli nation in a weekly feuilleton titled “Ma Nishma” (“What’s Up,” literally: what is heard). Armed with a notepad and wide-eyed naïveté, Ben-Amotz toured the country trying to locate and document the diverse individual experiences lost in the Zionist melting pot.

As an immigrant from Poland who was desperate to get published, Ben-Amotz began writing feuilletons in the 1950s. He used the popular genre to pave his way into the Hebrew literary milieu. Ben-Amotz wrote the first feuilletons for Davar Ha-shavua, the uptight newspaper of Mapai (Zionist socialist party). “Ma Nishma” was located in a section under the national news, separate from the mainstream narratives about the hardships of a young state in the making. Ben-Amotz’s feuilletons were primarily urban sketches, travel accounts, and local reportage. They covered a wide range of topics, from glamorous opening nights at the theater to the minute details of a random conversation overheard at the post office. Ben-Amotz’s feuilletons were written in a natural, flowing, and localized Hebrew and introduced the somewhat archaic newspaper to a younger generation of readers.

Read Full

While the vast majority of his feuilletons were entertaining and lighthearted—writing in a socialist party’s newspaper had its limitations—Ben-Amotz was still able to make use of the medium’s advantages, flying under the radar of ideological editors and strict state censors. He often utilized his feuilletons to tackle underrepresented topics and deliver biting political commentary. This feuilleton, titled “The Refugees” and published in Maariv in 1956, is an excellent example of the leeway that was given to a feuilletonist.

It was mid-November, 1956. The Sinai War had just ended with the occupation of the Gaza Strip and Ben-Amotz decided to visit the new uncharted territories. He opens by announcing to the reader that the feuilleton is not reporting the news—one can learn about the topic by skimming last week’s papers. Instead, Ben-Amotz describes a particular moment he witnessed in a Palestinian refugee camp, raising keen and controversial questions regarding the new geographical constellation and the humanitarian crisis for which Israel is now responsible.

Ben-Amotz’s descriptions of the scene and his use of language lie between high literary Hebrew and very earthy urban slang. For example, he mixes Hungarian, the Hebrew vernacular and a healthy dose of Arabic curse words, such as “sharmuta” and “yil’an abuk”. The feuilleton is self-contained, like a short story, and although ironic and sadly tragic, the result is not satirical; Ben-Amotz is genuinely interested in portraying the existence in the occupied territories and the experiences of the refugees in the camps.

But most important are the ethical concerns that Ben-Amotz raises about the conquered territories, the Israeli control over the Palestinian population, and the moral corruption of the Jewish soldier. The author witnesses how a random Israeli soldier dehumanizes and mistreats the refugees, and comments that he “seemed to have been taking much pleasure in fulfilling his duties.” In doing so, Ben-Amotz’s feuilleton raises an explosive analogy between Israel and Germany in 1956, when such a comparison was unthinkable and could exist nowhere else but below the line.