Military Escalation Within Israeli Society

10 February 1972

in Articles, Israel in a Historical Perspective, The Other Israel

This chapter is based on an article written by Eli Lobel.

 

The dominant power in Israel can be described schematically as an alliance between the bourgeoisie and the labor bureaucracy. These groups confront each other in the most significant manner within the country’s two great mass organizations, the Histadrut and the Army.

The labor bureaucracy has come under increasing attack within its own bastion, the Histadrut, from both the Israeli working class and the bourgeoisie. There is now open discussion of the “crisis of confidence” in the trade-union leadership. This crisis is reflected in the facts that some 40 per cent of the federation’s members failed to vote at all in the 1969 union elections and that the slate supported by the Herut, the extreme right-wing party of the bourgeoisie, won 20 per cent of the vote in that same election. Moreover, since 1969 the overwhelming majority of strikes have been wildcats conducted in the face of the Histadrut leadership’s bitter opposition.

A more important political and ideological confrontation between the two dominant classes has, however, taken place within the Army. There was a time, and it extended at least until the establishment of the state of Israel, when the labor bureaucracy and the Jewish armed forces shared the same outlook. The Histadrut determined the line of action of Hagana, the “official” Zionist armed force in Mandate Palestine. The Palmach, shock troops established during World War II, was practically a creation of the Histadrut.

The kibbutzim and moshavim (collective farms and agricultural co-operatives) constituted the material base for the armed forces, and commanders were mostly members of agricultural collectives. Under these circumstances, consistent opposition to the labor bureaucracy became the same as opposition to the whole pre-state Zionist establishment, and the military organizations of that opposition – Lehi (Stern Gang) and Irgun – were called “dissident.”

The shift in the relationship of forces within the Army and the increasing ideological impact of the extremists can be traced to two primary sources. The first is the growing dependence on foreign financial aid, channeled mainly through the various organizations of the world Zionist movement, and the increasingly close collusion with Western, especially US, imperialism. The second is the logic of the confrontation with the Palestinian people, and it is this factor that we will deal with primarily.

The main result of the 1948 war, which followed Israel’s declaration of independence, was the dismemberment of Palestine and the reduction of part of its people to refugee status. Israeli sources estimate the number of “departees” at 550,000; a UN commission of inquiry put the number at 725,000; the UN’s relief agency UNRWA refers to some 925,000 Palestinians who received aid in 1950.

The Israeli Government had no specific policy toward these refugees. They were refused repatriation; beyond that, with the exception of an ephemeral proposal to allow the return of 100,000 refugees and some measures to reunite families that involved at most 10,000 people, they were simply ignored. The hope was that in time the refugees would forget their ties to Palestine and the problem would take care of itself. This, it seems, was also the view of John Foster Dulles, who thought he knew the Arabs.

In reality, events turned out differently. The Palestinian refugees, most of them peasants, lived in camps all around Israel. They saw their fields being worked by others, and they wanted to return to them.

At the time, the Israeli press spoke of the refugees as a “plague of infiltrators” and “marauders.” The Paratroopers’ Book describes the phenomenon this way:

“From 1949 on, a wave of infiltration began to flow over our frontiers. At first, the motives of this infiltration were emotional or economic. The Arab refugees who saw their land from the other side jumped the border at night and sneaked into their villages, their houses and the orchards they had planted. Some of them came to get valuables they had hidden on the eve of their departure. Later, they began to steal: horses, cows, goats, agricultural implements. They dragged pipes, pumps, spare parts with them to the other side … A little later, murders were added to the thefts.”1

It is certain, however, that the line between “emotional or economic motivations” and acts of violence would not have been crossed if not for simultaneous or prior brutal reactions from the Israeli side against those refugees who merely wanted to return to their homes. At the same time, it seems established that at first the Israeli retaliation was not the work of the regular armed forces. Most often, it was members of frontier villages who had stolen the Palestinians’ land and property, and frontier guards ‘who took on the responsibility for the Israelis’ indiscriminate firing on refugees crossing the border. Volleys were exchanged which claimed victims on both sides, the majority of whom were Palestinian.

The Israeli Army was divided about what attitude to assume. There were some reprisals, but they ended in failure. A step had to be taken which would affect the psychology and methods of warfare, and thus was the Israeli Army destined to become an army of repression. The transition to this new role involved an upheaval that could not be completed without internal struggle.

“During this period, Zahal [Israeli Army] was impotent in the face of the infiltration. The necessity of reacting to the waves of infiltration with reprisal actions was recognized in the Army, but it didn’t have appropriate tools and it was not animated by the land of spirit required for such initiatives. Zahal was in crisis … The Army attempted to engage in some reprisal actions, but they were failures. The defeat that most infuriated General Moshe Dayan-chief of operations at the time – was the scandalous defeat of the Givathi Regiment at the Jordanian village of Palma. An entire battalion, a shock battalion with a glorious name, set out to attack the village. There were only a dozen Jordanian frontier guards, armed with rifles, in the village. The Jordanians opened fire, the battalion halted at the village walls and retreated.”2

The Army was even more divided because a good part of its activity consisted in repressing the Arab population that had remained in Israel and in expelling another part of it. 3

The extremist tendency in the Army decided to present as faits accomplis actions of increased violence, not only to the Palestinians and the Arab countries but also, and especially, to the opposition inside Israel. The extremists proposed the establishment of a specialized reprisal unit.

“Dayan decided to support the establishment of this unit… But for several weeks the project remained stuck in the files of the general staff. It occasioned bitter arguments and intense opposition from the generals of Zahal who feared the establishment of a new corps which would neither act according to established codes nor be integrated into the regular military framework. Some maintained that Dayan was building a kind of secret ‘private army’ within Zahal.” 4

Nevertheless, these extremists decided to go ahead, and the famous Unit 101 was formed. Its commander was Ariel Sharon, who later became the commanding general of the Southern Sector of Israel.

In January 1954, Unit 101 and the Airborne were merged at the initiative of Dayan, who had become Chief of Staff. According to Sharon, who was appointed commander of the new Airborne, Dayan “was aware of the decisive influence the small unit would have on the Airborne and, later, on the whole Zahal … One might say that the ideology of reprisal operations was, in all respects, crystallized among the Airborne units.”5

The first major operation of Unit 101 and the paratroopers was directed against the village of Kibye on October 14, 1953. The pretext was the killing by a grenade of a mother and two children in the Jewish village of Yahoud.

“The operation at Kibye,” comments The Paratroopers’ Book, “was to be distinguished from other operations by its purposes and its effects. The dynamiting of dozens of houses in Kibye was an ambitious undertaking surpassing anything in the past Once and for all, it washed away the stain of the defeats that Zahal had suffered in its reprisal operations.” 6

Sixty-nine Arabs died under the ruins of their homes.

Today, Zahal officially assumes responsibility for the dynamiting. A legend of heroism has been created to surround the paratroopers and Unit 101. But at the time of the incident, a part of the Army, leading civilian circles and the majority of the population were not ready to accept such operations. It was also important to reassure world public opinion. David Ben-Gurion found himself compelled to deny categorically that any unit of the Israeli Army had been involved in the Kibye operation. 7 People protested, sometimes vehemently. But the new line of violent action, imposed by the “activists” within the Army, who increasingly identified themselves with the right wing, was quickly imposed on the entire Army. Although instructions were issued to spare the lives of civilians, it was obvious that there would be many victims in this kind of punitive operation.

On the political plane, Kibye was followed by Ben-Gurion’s temporary withdrawal. For a brief period, Moshe Sharett became Prime Minister and Pinhas Lavon his Minister of Defense. Dayan, however, remained Army Chief of Staff.

Military operations on the frontiers were intensified. But until Ben-Gurion’s return – first, in January 1955, as Minister

of Defense and later in the year as Premier – the quietest border was the Egyptian. One week after Ben-Gurion’s return, a Zahal attack on Egyptian military camps in Gaza caused thirty-eight deaths on the Egyptian side and eight on the Israeli. “This attack,” according to an evaluation made at the time by a group of British experts, “which took place in February, 1955, marks one of the most important dates in the history of the Middle East. Until then, Egypt had been less active than any other Arab country against Israel. There were fewer incidents between Israel and Egypt than between Israel and Syria or Jordan.” 8 Nasser affirmed several times that, as he put it in a Le Monde interview in 1970:

“In the years 1952, ‘53, and ‘54, it was I who defended the position that Egypt did not need very extensive armament because the differences with Israel could be resolved peacefully. But the murderous raid that Ben-Gurion launched against Gaza in February, 1955, dealt me a slashing refutation.” 9

And, in fact, with Ben-Gurion’s return, war against Egypt was put on the agenda.

“It is today frankly admitted,” according to The Paratroopers’ Book, “that if it had been up to David Ben-Gurion, the Sinai war would have taken place a year earlier.” 10

On October 22, 1955, Ben-Gurion ordered Dayan to begin preparations for the war against Egypt.

“At the beginning of December, Ben-Gurion submitted to the cabinet his proposal for an offensive to conquer the Straits [of Tiran and Sharm el Sheik]. The majority of the government, led by Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, opposed him, and the project was shelved.” 11

At this point, one important element necessary for launching the war was lacking – agreement of the Western powers. Moreover, this was the period during which some attempts at mediation were under way – apparently with the secret concurrence of Nasser and Sharett. But on June 18, 1956, following a long and bitter dispute, Sharett resigned from the foreign ministry at Ben-Gurion’s insistence and was replaced by Golda Meir. Thereupon, in the words of The Paratroopers’ Book, “Israeli foreign policy was adjusted to the hard and energetic line of the Minister of Defence.” 12 A month later, the event occurred that brought Western support for the war against Egypt:

“On July 27, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal before an enthusiastic crowd in Alexandria. Without knowing it, he thereby kicked off the Suez campaign.” 13

In a later passage, The Paratroopers’ Book describes even more clearly how the internal logic of armed confrontation implied war. Discussing an Israeli raid on a police station at Kalkylia, Jordan, just eighteen days before the opening of the Sinai campaign, in which the Israelis suffered heavy losses, the book comments:

“The nocturnal reprisal operations had reached their end. The Jordanians came to know their enemy… The battles became bigger, both in terms of the men and materiel committed and in terms of the number of casualties on both sides. With respect to relations between Israel and the Arabs, these confrontations went beyond the framework of border incidents and minor harassing actions to the level of a hidden war. The road to open war was short.” 14

Kibye played a part in the profound transformation of the Army and of the country’s entire political and psychological scene. It represented an escalation both internally and externally. Unit 101 was established as an anti-body to the Palmach, the elite troops of the Hagana before the creation of the state. I have no intention of glorifying the earlier period, but it is unquestionable that during 1940-48 there was a fundamental difference in ideology and battle methods between the Palmach, on the one hand, and the Lehi – and especially the Irgun – on the other. 15

Among the Palmach, most of whose leaders came from kibbutzim, there were frequent discussions of the “purity of arms” and there was some hesitation about performing certain kinds of acts. An example is of an individual who refused to participate in one of Unit 101’s bloody expeditions:

“As an ex-Palmach who believed in the purity of arms, he refused to participate in an expedition directed not against enemy soldiers but against the civilian population. Arik [A. Sharon, commander of Unit 101] did not force him to take part [101 was an all-volunteer unit from the beginning]. In a heated discussion, Shlomo Baum [Sharon’s adjutant] hurled a remark at him: ‘There are no pure or impure arms; there are only clean weapons that work when you need them and dirty weapons that jam the moment you fire.’” 16

The Israeli Army is today largely under the influence and command of men of Unit 101 and the Airborne. In general, these men either no longer belong to kibbutzim, or have never belonged. A fitting symbol here is Meir Har-Zion, one of the most formidable soldiers of Unit 101, who, after retiring from the Army because of his wounds, withdrew from his kibbutz and established a private cattle ranch on the peak of Mount Kaoukab, not far from his old kibbutz. Kaoukab and the ranch became the objects of a pilgrimage by soldiers of Unit 101, and Har-Zion himself has described it;

“A whole ceremony developed around Kaoukab. They arrived after a long march that lasted a day and a night. At the end of the march, the unit’s insignia were distributed to the soldiers. The goal of the march was the ranch. To ascend to it has become a tradition; it is a summit one must reach.” 17

In summary, the basic cause of.the confrontations were the Palestinian refugees who had become, overnight, peasants without land. The Israeli reaction – sporadic at first, but bloody nonetheless – later assumed the form of large-scale military operations directed against the civilian population and military installations of neighboring countries. At first the Army was seriously handicapped, indeed it was impotent, when confronted with the double task of becoming an internal police force and of avenging Israel beyond the frontier. Special units were formed to carry out the latter task, and these units finally transformed the whole Army. The spirit and methods of the Palmach were abandoned in favor of the spirit and methods of the Irgun – although the Palmach hardly lacked toughness. At the same time, the ideology of the Irgun-Herut people was strengthened within the Army, especially among its career officers.

As far as the military operations leading up to the war were concerned, Egypt was more or less deliberately provoked since for geopolitical reasons, every Israeli war must involve its southern neighbor. The Arab countries learned how to reply to the Israeli attacks. The Palestinians were often used by Israel’s neighbors, notably in the case of the Palestinian fedayeen during 1955-56, who, as far as can be determined, were organized and controlled by Egypt But these fedayeen began their operations after the Israeli raid on the Egyptian military camp in Gaza in February 1955. Efforts at conciliation were sabotaged, and the moderate wing of Israeli Zionism, which expressed the more traditional political line of the labor bureaucracy, was driven from power. Foreign support, without which the Israelis hesitated to attack, was provided as a result of the nationalization of the Suez Canal and Egyptian solidarity with the Algerian people. Franco-British assent to the tripartite aggression followed.

The similarity in all essential points to the situation preceding the June 1967 war is clear. But nothing in history is ever identical; the relative importance of the forces involved changes. The first big difference is that the Palestinian “marauders” of 1951 and 1952 became the commandos of El Fatah’s El Assifa, whose first armed operations began in 1965. From that time, the Palestinian people were present as a conscious, organized force with their own military expression. Secondly, the harsh political struggle inside the labor bureaucracy – so evident in the period preceding the Sinai campaign – was not repeated in 1967. Moreover, the Herut Party of the chauvinist and expansionist national bourgeoisie, which had been aligned with the extreme nationalist wing of the labor bureaucracy since the 1965 elections in Jerusalem, joined the June 1967 government of national unity.

As for the Army during this period, The reprisal actions of 1965-66 differed from those which preceded the Sinai campaign … The operations were no longer acts of vengeance, savage and nervous, of a small state fighting for its independence. Rather, they were blows struck by a state strong and sure of itself, and which did not fear the army it confronted.” 18 The soldier now wanted by the Army for training is a calm and determined man who can coldly execute the operations entrusted to him. This, at least, is the ideal held up to the youth: not hatred of the enemy, but contempt for him. The flyer, particularly the bombardier, took the place of the paratrooper or the infantryman. It is typical that the bedside reading of Zahal’s officers in the ’50s included books like Alexander Beck’s The Men of Panfilov, a Soviet work of World War n that recounts the training of an assault unit, while in the ’60s, their reading turned to the exploits of bombardiers “for whom war became a hobby, something secondary that one calmly accepted.” 19

The sentiment that motivates the military caste today in its relations to the Arabs is less one of hatred than of contempt, the contempt of the Westerner with his superior technology for the underdeveloped Levantine. But it is also the contempt of the Westerner who has not grasped the lesson of the Vietnam war. Air Force General Ezer Weitzmann, a member of Herut and Minister of Transport in the national unity government, expressed this contempt forcefully:

I believe it is a mistake to treat the Arabs with contempt. I believe that the Arabs have many excellent traits. I grew up among them, I speak their language, and I believe that we will one day find a common language. But their military ability is a different matter. I am certain that, given their kind of education, their way of life, and the mentality of their leaders, it is high time they realized that warfare is not their strong point … A modern war is not only a question of muscles and heart, it also puts heavy demands on the head. In this, we surpass the Arabs. I do not believe this superiority will disappear over the years. 20

The new attitude of the military caste is ideologically linked to the dominant political conception of the Israeli bourgeoisie. The task of the labor bureaucracy was not to dominate but to expel the Palestinian people. This conception, translated into deeds under the slogans of “Conquest of Labor,” “Conquest of the Land,” and “Build dunam by dunam,” was held by the majority of the Jewish population in Palestine before the creation of the state and even afterward. On the other hand, the Jewish bourgeoisie in Palestine and today in Israel anticipated the exploitation of the Arab masses. Not so long ago the liberal wing of the local Jewish bourgeoisie still dreamed of an alliance with the notables and bourgeois elements among the Palestinians; it was, in fact, frequently bi-nationalist The extremist bourgeois ideology anticipated from the outset a strong Jewish state in which the Arab population would consist of second-class citizens constituting a proletariat or sub-proletariat while maintaining subsistence agriculture. Since the bi-national conception is decidedly remote, the only ideology that remains among the Israeli bourgeoisie is that of the extremist wing. And despite some minor differences, this approximates the South African model.

The fusion in 1963 of the Herut with the other Israeli bourgeois party, the General Zionists, under Herut leader Menahem Begin, former commander in chief of the Irgun, was the organizational expression of the bankruptcy of the liberal wing of the Israeli bourgeoisie. At the same time, because of its actual position and its own psychological and ideological development, the military is continuously approaching the standpoint of the nationalist right This tendency of the new military caste is expressed both directly within the Herut and through the intermediary of the Labor Party faction led by Dayan and Shimon Peres.

The different class-determined conceptions held by the two partners in power today are clearly indicated by their methods for settling the territories occupied since the June war. Dayan and Begin have fought for the transfer of tens of thousands of Jews to Arab cities on the West Bank “in accordance with their general political vision of the future of the territories, which includes economic integration of the inhabitants and the introduction of Israeli legislation.” 21

It is not difficult to understand why this position is shared by the expansionist military caste, which combines confidence in its ability to subdue the occupied Palestinian people with contempt for that people’s military abilities and the almost natural desire of a military caste to hang on to conquered lands. At the same time, it is the traditional political line of the extreme Israeli right to dominate the Palestinian people while exploiting it economically.

The political line of the labor bureaucracy, which is linked to the labor-Zionist conceptions that were formerly predominant, tends to preserve the exclusively Jewish character of the state. The Allon plan, Labor’s characteristic response to the problem of the occupied territories, as well as a compromise among the various tendencies, anticipates only partial annexations. According to this plan, the Palestinians would be gathered on the West Bank and surrounded by Jewish agricultural communities. Thus, in the last analysis, the Palestinian areas would be controlled by Israel without actually being annexed.

None of the above plans can be carried through without engendering ever more violent acts of war or provoking intensified external pressure. The Palestinian Resistance is a reality in the occupied territories, on the frontiers and even beyond them. The Arab states surrounding Israel cannot accept a unilateral annexation of their territory. The big powers, whose interests are directly involved, have been led to intervene.

At each stage of increased external pressure, there is a reply from the Israeli side. Any political arrangement imposed from without would not only involve the liquidation or “voluntary” retreat of the Palestinian Resistance, but also Israel’s retreat from the occupied territories. This, the Israeli right wing and the military circles will vigorously oppose. But if the present situation should continue, with the succession of faits accomplis by the Israelis, the intensification of the struggle could reach the level of a real revolt of the occupied Palestinians. In either case, the immediate result would be repressive measures from the right and the dangerous possibility of the evolution of Israeli society toward a regime of the South African or fascist type. This evolution was inherent in Zionism from the beginning, notwithstanding the consciousness and illusions of the Zionist pioneers who established themselves in Palestine. The erosion of left Zionist positions is clearly revealed by a man of the right, Menahem Begin. At a conference at Ein Hahoresh, a Mapam kibbutz, he was asked about recognition of the existence of a Palestinian people. He replied:

“My friend, take care. When you recognize the concept of ‘Palestine,’ you demolish your right to live in Ein Hahoresh. If this is Palestine and not the Land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came. Only if it is the Land of Israel do you have a right to live in Ein Hahoresh and in Deganiyah B. If it is not your country, your fatherland, the country of your ancestors and of your sons, then what are you doing here? You came to another people’s homeland, as they claim, you expelled them and you have taken their land …” 22

When asked how Israel could impose its will on a million Arabs, Begin replied with the question:

“And why does Mapam, which demands that Gaza stay in our possession, want to impose its will on Gaza’s 350,000 inhabitants? Two hundred thousand Arabs have fled the Golan Heights – which Mapam would have us keep. How are you going to impose your will – that they stay in Syria – on them?”

According to Begin’s calculation, Mapam would impose its will on 900,000 Arabs, while according to his “Greater Israel” scheme, the number would be raised to 1,300,000. “So,” he said, “do you have the right to impose your will on 900,000 but then cry bloody murder over 400,000 more?”

It is the recognition of the basic nature of Zionist ideology and the total break with it which permits the affirmation of an internationalist position and which is thereby the basis for a common battle between Israeli and Palestinian revolutionaries. At a single stroke, the question of knowing by what right the Israelis find themselves where they are becomes superfluous. It is only when one envisages continuing the Zionist process that one feels obligated to justify one’s past.

For Israeli revolutionaries, the problem is precisely how to effect that break. The fact that the continuation of Zionist structures in Israel can only be effected in a pro-imperialist perspective and with a South African or fascist structure inside Israel opens the possibility of the development of a revolutionary consciousness among the masses of Israelis.

The dividing line between the alternatives has never before been as starkly drawn as it is today.

 

  1. The Paratroopers’ Book, Tel Aviv, 1969, p.60. This is a quasi-official history of the Israeli Airborne corps of the Army and is widely read by the general public in addition to the military.
  2. The Paratroopers’ Book, p.60.
  3. See The Emergency Regulations, Chapter 8, for some of the expulsion operations carried out by the Army.
  4. The Paratroopers’ Book, p.63.
  5. Ariel Sharon’s Introduction to Meir Har-Zion, Chapters from a Diary, Tel Aviv: 1969, p.16 (in Hebrew).
  6. Ibid., p.77.
  7. On Oct. 19, 1953, Ben-Gurion announced over Israeli radio:

    “The government of Israel emphatically denies the fake and fantastic tale according to which 600 Zahal soldiers participated in an operation against the village of Kibye. We have examined the facts in detail, and we can state without hesitation that not a single unit, not even the smallest, was absent from its barracks on the night of the attack on Kibye.”

  8. Cited in A. Israeli, Peace, Peace and There Is No Peace, Jerusalem: 1961 (in Hebrew).
  9. Le Monde, Feb. 19, 1970.
  10. Op. cit., p.114.
  11. Ibid., pp.114-15.
  12. Ibid., pp.122-23.
  13. Ibid., pp.122-23.
  14. Ibid., pp.129-30.
  15. Lehi was an anti-British, anti-Arab terrorist organization. The Irgun, a similar organization, was responsible for most of the attacks on Arab civilians, the most notorious of which was the massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948.
  16. The Paratroopers’ Book, p.71.
  17. Meir Har-Zion, Chapters from a Diary, p.240.
  18. The Paratroopers’ Book, pp.157-38.
  19. Ibid., p.164.
  20. Ma’ariv, July 14, 1967.
  21. Ha’aretz, July 4, 1969.
  22. Yediot Aharonot, Oct. 17, 1969.

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