Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Focus
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Galal Nassar

Armed and dangerous

Military might has been both the guiding principle and the practical policy of Zionist plans for the creation of Israel, writes Galal Nassar

Jewish attempts at "integration" into various European societies were undermined by both racial discrimination and the spread of nationalism throughout Europe. A more practical solution, some Jewish thinkers believed, was the creation of a Jewish state, which could be brought about by returning the Jewish people to the land of their forefathers.

Click to view caption
Moshe Dayan observing the Egyptian front; (from left) El-Gretli, Ismail, Sadat and El-Gamassi in the command centre

Theodore Herzl was not the first to call for the creation of a Jewish state; but, while he mentioned Palestine in passing as a possible homeland for the Jews, none of his predecessors thought to do so. They wrote of the importance of land and resources, and discussed possible modes of government.

Herzl believed it would be possible, and indeed desirable, to seize the land of Palestine and expel its original inhabitants. The use of force was considered imperative; the Jewish state would be created by fait accompli.

In this way, military thinking shaped the Zionist policies aimed at creating and developing a Zionist presence in Palestine. From the outset, the "Jewish state" was a military creation. Armed force was the principal means of carrying out any plan; the military had the final say in all matters.

This is why the Zionist military machine was set in motion even before the creation of Israel. To create a regular army, it was necessary simply to transform the Haganah, the terrorist organisation, into an official military force.

Between the end of the 18th century and the last quarter of the 19th century, societies such as the "Friends of Zion" proliferated. Piecemeal migration began, assisted by various more or less organised movements. Most of members of the Jewish community in Palestine until the very last years of the 19th century were indigenous Palestinians and Ottoman subjects, or had migrated there individually in the hope of worshipping and, eventually, dying in the Holy Land. The movement which began at the end of the century, however, was entirely different: it sought to colonise the land and set up an "independent Jewish society".

The Jews who had been born and raised in Palestine, and whose families had lived there for centuries, were concentrated in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad and Tabariya. As for the newly arrived Jews, who came to colonise and stay, they established agricultural settlements.

These early settlers were assisted by wealthy coreligionists such as the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who made large donations towards the creation of settlements in Palestine.

The Ottoman authorities were aware from the start that Zionist infiltration into Palestine was dangerous. In April 1882, they had put a stop to Jewish immigration and forbade the establishment of settlements, but the various associations encouraging migration resorted to illegal means to maintain the influx. In 1884, these groups formed a federal union. Leon Pensker was made its head the following year. In 1887, a general conference was held which led to the unification of the diverse associations. The new, unified movement initiated a large-scale programme to train leaders of the World Zionist Organisation. This movement provided Zionism with an intellectual and material basis for its drive to create a Jewish state.

The following phase started with the immigration of a group of "pioneers", as the Zionists chose to call them. This group was described as the Aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning ascent, which the Zionists used to refer to migration and the "return" to Israel. This generation described its migration to and settlement in Palestine with such phrases as "the plough and the sword" -- the colonisation and defence of the land.

For 30 years, these migrants settled in Palestine, teaching the original inhabitants the true meaning of such catchphrases. The sword was used liberally as Zionist political activity matured.

The "second Aliyah" turned to labour and defence: "labour" meant the agricultural colonisation of Arab land, while "defence" meant transferring Arab land to Zionist possession by force.

David Ben Gurion was one of the pioneers of the "labour and defence" school of occupation. During his first year in Palestine, he organised the first Jewish workers' conference, which resolved to form a "Federation of Jewish Workers" capable of unifying Zionist operations in Palestine. Jewish migrants were taught the importance of violence and supplied with weapons in the hope that they would undertake the "Jewish defence of Jewish lands".

The idea of creating an "Armed Zionist Guard" was nothing new. It had been put forth by the leaders of the Zionist labour movement in eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. This movement sought to organise Jewish "self-defence units" in the urban ghettoes of Russia and some eastern European countries. Isaac Ben Rafi initiated this idea in Russia, and took it with him when he migrated to Palestine. There he met Ben Gurion, and the two men began to work towards the creation of the armed Zionist guard, supplying the labourers on the settlements with weapons.

Ben Gurion summed up the principle behind this plan succinctly: "With blood and fire Judaism fell, by blood and fire it will be resurrected."

The settlements, therefore, were organised and armed like military corps. The settlers were to be warriors and builders capable of occupying Palestine through invasion and the construction of military and human fortifications. The settlements had to be located on strategic sites, and buttressed against the outside world by the conviction of Jewish superiority, translated practically into the expulsion of non-Jews from the settlements. Palestinian farmers were subjected to a systematic campaign of terror and violence.

The Zionist planners made it clear that the settlements were to serve as citadels, and strove to inculcate in the settlers themselves the belief that they were under siege. These early beliefs persisted, and led to the wholesale militarisation of Jewish society in Palestine.

During the summer of 1917, British policy underwent a sea change, especially towards the armed gangs of Zionists. That year, of course, was the year of the Balfour Declaration.

The change in British policy was triggered by many factors. Among these was the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917, at a time when Zionist efforts had succeeded in convincing US officials of the need to create a Jewish regiment.

In July 1917, Britain reached an agreement with Russia, thereby securing for itself the right to recruit the 25,000 Russian Jews eligible for the draft, at a time when the military situation in Europe did not permit the transfer of troops from the western to the Middle East front.

In the Middle East, Prince Faysal had taken Aqaba on 6 July 1917. Britain, fearing that the Arabs would make off with the spoils, decided that the time had come for the Zionists to join the battle.

The Zionists themselves seized an opportunity which would cast them in the role of "invading conquerors" and enable them to take over Palestine by the sword, as they had hoped. The "muscular Judaism" advocated by Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion was put into practice under the protection of British weapons.

Each of the five waves of migration after 1882 profoundly affected Jewish society in Palestine, and later in Israel. Zionism, in practical terms, was political migration, since migration was crucial to the invasion and occupation of the land.

The first wave (1882-1903) brought 20,000 Russian Jews to Palestine. The second (1904- 1914) was made up of 35,000-90,000 socialist- oriented Jews. This trend continued during the third wave (1919-1923). Half of the 35,000 migrants were members of socialist organisations, who later became leaders of the Histadrut, the Haganah and other similar organisations. The fourth wave of migrants (1924-1931) numbered approximately 80,000, while the fifth and largest wave (1932-1939) was made up of 225,000 Ashkenazim.

The first wave of Sephardic Jews were brought from Yemen in 1950-1951. A larger group of wealthier, more influential Iraqi Jews followed. The demographic make-up of the new state of Israel was tilted in favour of the Sephardim, who made up 53 per cent of the population until 1989, after which the arrival of Russian Jews reversed the balance in favour of the Ashkenazim.

In the wake of World War I, Zionist military thinking developed along two main lines. One group held that a professional army, not affiliated to any doctrine or political party, could function as the ally of the Mandate power, while the other envisaged a vanguard army linked politically to the Zionist system.

The turning point came in 1929, as a result of the Palestinian revolution and the British government's attempts to pacify the Palestinians by limiting Jewish migration and Zionist attempts to occupy more land. These two developments had wide-ranging effects on Zionist plans in general, and Zionist military thinking in particular.

Possible British reticence, therefore, combined with a nascent Arab nationalist movement and the Palestinian revolution, shaped the Jewish National Council's conviction that it was necessary to create an "independent Jewish army", separate from the mandatory power and able to combat the Arabs as it saw fit. On that basis, the Jewish Agency took a number of measures designed to reform the Haganah and make it more effective, then assumed direct supervision of the military organisation, which had been under the Histadrut's jurisdiction for ten years, while broadening its membership.

By 1937, the meaning of the "independent Jewish state" had become clear. The Zionists regarded the recommendations of the Royal Commission, approved by the British, as the beginning of a crucial phase, which would lead to the "reconstruction of the Jewish state". There was never any question of relinquishing the use of terrorist tactics in achieving this aim, however. The Arabs, on the other hand, faced with Zionist ambitions and imperialist policies, found no response but armed struggle. On the other hand the Arab saw that there was no path before them except armed struggle in the face of Zionist ambitions and against imperialist policies in Palestine.

The following year, the British appointed a committee to re-examine the partition plan. Headed by John Woodhead, the committee was active from March to early November 1938, when the British government published a report putting forth two new ideas for partition.

The first was the creation of a Jewish state on an area of approximately 3,300 square kilometres in the Galilee region and Marj Ibn Amer Valley. The second was the designation of a coastal strip of 1,250 square kilometres, extending from Ras Naqoura to Tel Aviv. Partition suggestions and projects continued to be put forth until the UN Partition Plan of 29 November 1947 was declared.

Between 1918 and 1939, the number of Jews in Palestine increased, with British assistance, from 55,000 to half a million: from 10 per cent to 32 per cent of the total population.

During the same period, the land controlled by the Zionists increased fourfold, while the number of settlements rose from 44 (housing 12,000 settlers) to 254 (housing 153,000 settlers).

On the Arab side, the revolution had ground to a halt without achieving any of its goals. The absence of a national policy with a militant leadership, and the lack of a political system with a wide intellectual and public base, contributed to this failure. When the Royal Commission arrived in Palestine, it found no unified Arab front with a clearly defined plan. Partisan clashes, which pitted individuals and families against each other, further weakened the national movement.

After the summer of 1940, when Ben Gurion failed to convince Britain of the need to create a Jewish army and a weapons factory in Palestine, he turned to the US for help in creating a Jewish military force. The shift of allegiance to the US was based in large part on Ben Gurion's belief that Britain would emerge from the war too weakened to play an effective role in furthering Zionist plans.

The Haganah, Irgun and Stern gangs launched a guerrilla war against the British in response to an Anglo-American committee's recommendation, in April 1946, that the country remain under British mandate.

World War II, at any rate, had brought about a more belligerent and aggressive turn in Zionist policy. The presence of German forces in Egypt caused the Zionist leaders to realise that Palestine, too, could be invaded.

When the "question of Palestine" was put to the UN early in 1947, Zionist military preparations had reached their peak. By the time the Arabs came to grips with the situation, the Zionists had drawn up a clear strategy, involving the creation of supply lines, the defence of settlements, guerrilla operations, and the use of far-flung settlements as outposts from which to launch new attacks. Irgun and Stern were responsible for massacring and terrorising the Arabs, causing them to flee en masse.

The final phase in the creation of Israel was one of expansionism. The state was declared in May 1948 and the military organisations were transformed into the Israeli Defence Force. In 1956, Israel attacked Egypt in cooperation with Britain and France. The following year, Israel's new leaders began to focus their efforts on the military, in preparation for a new attack. That phase was completed 10 years later.

Today, it is scarcely possible to say that the ideas which have constituted a driving force behind the creation of Israel have come to fruition. Israeli society is armed to the teeth, and the idea of relinquishing land has never been in the cards.

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