Sunday 29 October 2023

Israel-Palestine at War: Understanding Israel's enduring "Sacred Terrorism"

Israeli bombardment at the Gaza City seaport, October 11, 2023. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

The present crisis prompted by the raid by Palestinian guerrillas of Hamas on settlements and security installations in southern Israel has been condemned by the Israeli authorities as an act of wanton terrorism. This has been echoed by Western governments who have invoked the perennial mantra that Israel “has the right to defend itself”; a position which many point out provides the government of Israel with the justification for responding with disproportionate force that will necessarily involve the wholesale commission of war crimes against innocent Palestinians within the Gaza Strip, a piece of land which is often referred to as the world’s largest open air concentration camp. But the mainstream media’s compartmentalisation of events does a disservice to comprehending the overall picture of the Israel-Palestine conflict as one which is predicated on the decades long calibrated ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the expropriation of their land. Moreover, this narrative fails to address the issue of Israel’s enduring policy of provocation-and-retaliation, as well as an equally long-term military strategy of deliberately attacking civilian populations; a policy described by early Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett as Israel’s “sacred terrorism.” Israel’s terror strategy is explicitly acknowledged by contemporary political and military analysts. While Israel is often touted as a Middle Eastern nation which espouses “Western values,” this totally distorts the true picture of its relations with Palestinians which is informed by an exceptionalist morality consistently enunciated by the leaders of Political Zionism and practised by successive generations of Israeli military and political leaders. Further, it obscures the reconfiguration of Israeli society in terms of the rise in influence of extremist religious and ideological forces.

The raid conducted in southern Israel on October 7th, 2023, by members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, guerrillas of the Palestinian Islamist organisation known as Hamas, led to the killing of over 1400* Israelis and the taking into captivity of over 200. Hamas did not only attack settlements, its fighters overran border guard posts, military and police installations and in the process entered into firefights with Israeli security personnel. Several senior officers of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were killed. These included Colonel Yonatan Steinberg, Commander of the IDF’s 933rd "Nahal" Brigade, Colonel Roi Levy, Commander of the IDF's special forces "Ghost" Unit, and Lieutenant Colonel Eli Ginsberg, a former naval special forces officer of Shayetet 13 who commanded LOTAR, a special forces counter-terrorism unit of the IDF. In all, just over 300 Israeli military and over 50 Israeli police lost their lives. Apart from killing elite military personnel, the raiders destroyed communication installations and captured equipment.

The raid has left Israelis understandably enraged at the murder of civilians from infants to the elderly. Many are also outraged by the apparent grossly negligent lapse in state security and there are claims by survivors that a large number of deaths were of Israelis caught in the crossfire between security teams and the raiders. Yasmin Porat, an Israeli survivor from the attack on Kibbutz Be’eri near the Gaza boundary, claimed Israeli forces killed their own civilians when firing tank shells at houses in the kibbutz where Hamas gunmen were holding hostages. Israeli Apache attack helicopters were also scrambled into action. But with almost no intelligence on which to rely to make “fateful decisions,” one pilot later commented that “I find myself in a dilemma as to what to shoot at, because there are so many of them.”

It may take some time, perhaps until an inquiry along the lines of that undertaken by the Agranat Commission, before clarification is given about Israeli citizens whose lives were taken in the crossfire, as well as whether the Israeli military’s shelling of homes and use of hellfire missiles directed at hostage-taking Palestinian gunmen was an application of the “Hannibal Directive”, a secret field order issued in 1986 through which the IDF seeks to kill its own soldiers (and by extension Israeli civilians) to prevent them being taken hostage.

That lies in the future. Presently, Israel wants its revenge in the course of which it seeks to destroy Hamas, a pan-Islamist organisation, which Israeli intelligence services had ironically helped build up to serve as a counterweight to al-Fatah, the secular nationalist body headed by Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat.

But Israel’s subsequent actions of bombing Gaza and its threatened ground invasion are seen as a means by which it will exact a large-scale form of collective punishment. Certainly, Israel’s decision to cut off water, food, fuel, electricity, and the Internet is seen as part of a disproportionate series of acts which will affect innocent civilians, thus amounting to war crimes.

The Israeli authorities have sought to justify their actions by referring to heinous acts committed by Hamas during its invasion of Israeli territory, insisting that murder, rape, and the desecration of corpses accompanied what they proclaim as the largest amount of Jewish life taken since the anti-Jewish massacres of World War 2. Some high-ranking Israeli officials have declared Palestinians to be “animals” and the civilians in Gaza to be effectively complicit in the actions of Hamas.

Yet, this compartmentalization of Hamas’ deadly attack of October 7 does a great disservice in detracting from the wider basis of the conflict including the cycle of revenge undertaken over the years by both sides. The position of Gaza, a densely populated territory, which is constantly monitored and subjected to an Israeli blockade encompassing land, air, and sea, arguably nurtures the conditions in which pent up rage is cyclically unleashed against Israel.

Several of Israel’s leaders have made clear what the objective is of blockading Gaza. In 2018, Avigdor Lieberman, when serving as the defence minister under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, told readers of Makor Rishon that “We allow them to keep their heads above water, but not beyond that”. Speaking to Ma’ariv in 2021, his successor, Benny Gantz, a former IDF Chief of Staff, stated “We will not allow real and long-term development in the Gaza Strip”.

The instigators of the raid of October 7th, would doubtlessly have had on their minds the abuse and humiliations constantly heaped on Palestinian communities. In the West Bank, Palestinians are deprived of their land by encroaching Israeli settlers who seize their homes and destroy their farms. At the same time, their homes are regularly destroyed by Israel’s security forces as a means of exacting collective punishment for acts of resistance.

Palestinians also have limited rights of access to freshwater aquifers. The “Apartheid-like” impositions in the West Bank means that they are subjected to daily humiliations by the occupying Israeli army at checkpoints and they cannot use highways that are the preserve of the gun-wielding Israeli settlers.

Moreover, many Palestinians have been killed by both Israeli security forces and settler militias in incidents where they are not held accountable for their deeds. It should not be forgotten that many Palestinians, including minors, are regularly arrested, and detained by Israeli security services. Indeed, in July of this year, the Times of Israel ran an article stating that over 1,100 Palestinians were being held without trial, the highest figure since 2003. Thus, a key motivation for the taking of Israeli military and civilian hostages was based on securing the release of 1,117 Palestinian adults and up to 700 Palestinian minors.

The desperation and the long-standing grievances of the Palestinian people as relates to the dispossession of their land along with their long-term incarceration in Gaza and the emasculation of their leadership in the West Bank are thus key issues that need to be borne in mind when reviewing the events of October 7th. Also, an examination of Israel’s apparent willingness to commit genocide in Gaza and to oversee the removal of its population has to be seen in the context of the ideology of Political Zionism and the policies Israeli leaders have developed over the period in which it has existed as a state.

The ultimate goal on which Zionism is predicated is to effect the removal of Palestinian communities and to correspondingly expand territory on what is termed Eretz Yisrael or “The Land of Israel.” And in linking this to the present war with Gaza, it is important to understand the moral postulates on which Zionism’s early leaders operated and the policies they developed which encompass “provocation-and-revenge” and the targeting of civilians.

The morality of Political Zionism regardless of its designation as “accommodationist” or as “Revisionist Zionism” or “left” or “right” is consistent about finding the ways and means to remove Arabs from a Jewish state.

Zionism’s founding father Theodor Herzl wrote of the need to transfer the Arabs, and in private Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was adamant about the need to expel the Arabs preferably under the cover of war. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionism school of thought, was frank when stating in his tome The Iron Wall that the Arab population were a living, breathing people whose natural attachment to their land meant that they would not voluntarily cede their rights and therefore would have to be forcibly dispossessed by military means.

General Moshe Dayan also understood the pervading mindset with which the Zionist settlers would have to be inculcated in order to hold on to the land. His eulogy for Roi Rotberg, given in April 1956, after Rotberg, a settler, had been ambushed and killed by Arabs near Gaza, expounded the idea that Israelis should accept the hatred which dispossessed Palestinians directed at them and that they should therefore embrace the sword:

Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life's choice - to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.

Dayan’s words are seen as the defining speech of Zionism.

Moshe Sharett, an early Prime Minister of Israel, quoted Dayan as saying “Israel must see the sword as the main, if not the only instrument to keep morale high and keep the tension … we must invent dangers and adopt the method of provocation-and-revenge. Above all, let us hope for a new war with the Arab countries so we may finally get rid of our troubles and acquire our space.”

The Israeli modus operandi of acting provocatively before claiming victimhood as a prelude to retaliation and a land grab was articulated with clarity by Dayan in 1967:

The taking of the Golan Heights was for the farmland - not security. We would send a tractor in to plough to get the Syrians to shoot. If they didn’t, we would advance further and further until they did shoot. Then we would use artillery and air force.

In his private diary published posthumously in 1979, Sharett bemoaned what he described as “the long chain of false incidents and hostilities we have invented, and so many clashes we have provoked.”

The ongoing Israeli assault of Gaza and the inevitable destruction of innocent human life is a deliberate strategy aimed not only at physically eradicating Palestinians but is also a continuum of the impositions of the Gazan siege and harsh occupation of the West Bank which were designed to demoralise Palestinians to the point at which they will leave their ancestral land. Israel is fully aware that levelling Gaza from the air is not destroying the military assets of Hamas which are largely ensconced beneath the ground. Such action will inevitably cost civilian lives including those of Palestinian children.

Israel has targeted civilians as part of an enduring policy, which has been alluded to by successive Prime Ministers, high-ranking military officers, diplomats, foreign ministers and military analysts.

In 1948 Ben Gurion wrote in his Independence War Diary that Israel must “strike mercilessly, women and children included. Otherwise the action is inefficient. At the place of action there is no need to distinguish between guilty and innocent.” The massacre of Palestinian villagers, most of them women and children, in the West Bank village of Qibya in October 1953, exemplified this.

In 1978 during Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon, Lieutenant General Mordechai Gur, the IDF’s Chief of Staff, spoke frankly to Al HaMishmar about the war waged against Arab civilian populations living in cities and villages. A few days later in a review of Gur’s interview published in Ha’aretz Ze’ev Schiff, a military analyst, wrote the following:

In South Lebanon we struck the civilian population consciously because they deserved it, …the importance of Gur’s remarks is the admission that the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposefully and consciously… even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.

In 1981, Abba Eban, when a former UN Ambassador and Foreign Minister, wrote in the Jerusalem Post a response to a letter written by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin. According to Eban, “the picture that emerges (from Begin’s letter) is of an Israel wantonly inflicting every possible measure of death and anguish on civilian populations in a mood reminiscent of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor myself would dare mention by name.” But Eban supported the policy given that Israel’s monopoly of violence ensured that ultimately “there was a rational prospect for the cessation of hostilities.”

The bombing of civilian populations for political purposes was evident during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Most of the 20,000 people killed were civilians. Even Lieutenant General Yitzhak Rabin, the future hope for peace noted in the Jerusalem Post in 1988 that Israeli raids in remote Lebanese villages inflicted civilian casualties which “is precisely our aim”.

Today, the "Dahiya Doctrine", which was drawn up in 2006 by Gadi Eizenkot, a future chief of staff of the Israeli army, specifically promotes the annihilation of civilian populated areas in Lebanon when Israel takes military action against its northern neighbour. Its concomitant action against Gazans is known as “mowing-the-grass.” Here the idea is that Israel hits at Hamas, degrading its capabilities while inevitably inflicting collective punishment by physically destroying a sizeable proportion of Gaza’s civilian population during periodic outbursts of violence.

It should also be noted that the killing of civilians also has the sanction of certain rabbis. During the 2014 crisis, the Jerusalem Post reported a rabbi’s claim that Jewish law permits the destruction of Gaza in order to bring safety to Israel. It echoed an uncompromisingly brutal counsel from Rabbi Manis Friedman, a prominent figure in the Chabad movement who, in response to a question posed in a 2009 edition of Moment magazine’s “Ask the Rabbis” feature, stated that the “only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women, and children (and cattle).”

The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late chief rabbi for Israel’s Sephardic community and spiritual leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party called for the annihilation of Arabs during a Passover sermon delivered in 2001:

It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable … waste their seed and exterminate them and vanish them from this world.

It would be remiss not to add the religious background to the attack of October 7th. The choice of the codename “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” was a deliberate allusion by Hamas to the invasions of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in recent times by Israeli zealots and by Israeli security. The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is also the location of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. It is where two Jewish temples of antiquity were built and crucially where Jewish fundamentalists aim to build the Third Temple. The building of a Third Temple would, it is claimed, necessitate the destruction of the Muslim mosque.

Just two days before the October 7 raid, 832 intruders consisting of rabbis, settlers and far-right university lecturers forced their way into the Al-Aqsa compound to commemorate the ending of the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

The continual invasions of the mosque by Jewish extremists, as well as the raids conducted by Israeli police who also impose restrictions on the site are seen as provocations, not only by Palestinians, but also by the wider Muslim world. Indeed, when in September 2000 serving Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, accompanied by heavily armed Israeli soldiers, visited the mosque, it was seen as a provocation and led to the Second Intifada.

Pressures related to the building of the Third Temple may in part be due to the anxieties held by extremist Israelis about Israel’s long-term survival. Although not a fundamentalist, the former Prime Minister and IDF chief Ehud Barak summed up fears related to Israel’s future in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth in May 2022:

Throughout Jewish history, the Jews did not rule for more than eighty years, except in the two kingdoms of David and the Hasmonean dynasty, and in both periods, their disintegration began in the eighth decade.

The developments fixated on the Al-Aqsa Mosque are not necessarily a niche preoccupation of marginal Jewish zealots. They strike at the heart of the demographic evolution of Israeli society which has led to tensions among Israelis. Israel’s traditional dominant class of liberal secular Ashkenazi Jews are being superseded in population size and political influence by the previous underclass of Mizrahi Jews who in alliance with settlers and other fundamentalist Jews have tired of the presence of Arabs on Eretz Yisrael and feel that the time has come to establish Israel proper. In other words, for them, the time is now ripe to expel the Arabs, annex the remnants of Arab land and build the Third Temple.

It was with this constituency in mind that on May 21st, 2023, Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition cabinet, the most right-wing in Israeli history, which includes the ideological disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, met inside a tunnel underneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Much of the support for Netanyahu’s judicial reforms have come from Mizrahi communities while most of the demonstrations against the bid to limit the powers of the Ashkenazi-dominated judiciary were of Ashkenazi background.

Israel’s future as a right-wing authoritarian state was predicted 75 years ago by a group of American Jewish intellectuals including Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein who wrote to the New York Times to warn that the acceptance into mainstream politics of Menachem Begin’s Herut Party which evolved into Likud, would lead Israel down the path which would legitimise “ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority.”

The rise in influence of extremist parties such as Shas and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) who ally with Likud has created the conditions for this. And the programme aimed at limiting the power of the Supreme Court is arguably one manifestation by which such ultranationalism is becoming embedded in Israel. But it could be argued that the route to this state of affairs was an inevitable evolution of Political Zionism just as the goals of “accommodationist” or revisionist Zionist were ultimately the same.

For instance, the primary objective of Political Zionism was from the outset to found a Jewish state in Palestine to the exclusion of all other races and religions. Israel’s formal declaration of itself to be a racialist, ethno-state came to fruition in 2018 through the passage by the Knesset of the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

Further, the rumpus over the curtailment of the power of the Supreme Court has little bearing on the plight of Palestinians even if the complex aspects of what is motivating this could be reduced to a narrative positing the opposing sides as fundamentalist oriental Jews on the one hand, and liberal, Enlightenment-believing Ashkenazi Jews on the other.

The Palestinian view is that the Supreme Court has upheld the status quo as far as the occupation of Palestinian land and anti-Palestinian discrimination is concerned. For example, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the legality of the blockade imposed on Gaza and the right of the Israeli government to cut electricity and fuel flows into the enclave despite the implications related to its habitability.

In 2022, Ha’aretz described the Israeli judiciary as the “Occupation’s Rubber Stamp” because it permitted the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes to make way for an IDF training site. The Supreme Court has facilitated the expropriation of Palestinian land and the expansion of Jewish settlements, both of which have served to constrict Palestinian land into a series of enclaves on the West Bank and thus make a two-state solution a non-viable proposition.

Many applications have been made by Palestinians to the Supreme Court but only a few have been heard, among those dismissed include a petition related to the murder and maiming by IDF snipers of unarmed Palestinians during the Great March of Return in 2018.

This is a summary of the background to the present Israel-Gaza conflict. It is disingenuous in the extreme to proceed on the basis that the attack of October 7 happened in a vacuum. So too is the attempt to construct the conflict as being one between Israeli “Western democratic and civilisational values” on the one hand, and Palestinian “barbarism” engineered by “radical Islam” on the other.

On the contrary, the central issue from the time of Israel’s creation was and remains one of ethnic cleansing and land dispossession. And the present onslaught on Gaza, sanctioned by Israel’s political and military classes and approved by Western leaders, are a war crime of a  magnitude in excess of what Hamas is claimed to have committed on October 7th.

It is a continuum of Moshe Dayan’s “provocation-and-revenge” strategy, in other words, Israel’s “sacred terrorism” in application and it has the objective of completing the removal of Palestinians from the Palestinian homeland.

* The figure was later rounded down from 1400 to 1200.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2023).

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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