by Martin van Creveld
Almost from the beginning of modern Zionism, relations between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land have been marked by bloodshed on both sides. As of early 2003, the total number of Jews killed is around 20,000; Arab, including Palestinian Arab, casualties have been even higher. This paper will provide a brief outline of the armed conflict between the two peoples, and will suggest a path that might lead to a resolution.
One of the best-known early harbingers of modern Zionism was Rabbi Tsvi Kalisher. In 1862, having returned from a visit to the Holy Land, he published a book entitled Greetings from Zion. The book contained what its author claimed was a divinely inspired blueprint for the resettlement of the country by Jews. To realize the plan it would be necessary to have “battle worthy guards” to prevent the “tent dwelling sons of Ishmael” from “destroying the seed and uprooting the vineyard.”
As this formulation makes clear, violence was originally rooted in social and economic problems. It was directed not by Arabs against Jews - or vice versa - but by nomads and other desperately poor people against those who were settled and at least a little better off. Take the residents of Abu Gosh: since their village straddled the road to Jerusalem, they robbed travelers regardless of whether they were Arabs or Jews. Only after the end of World War I did the violence assume a pronounced national character, and even then socio-economic factors continued to play a prominent part.
The Zionists felt that their attempts to settle the country were constantly harassed by Arabs (nobody spoke of Palestinians, a term that only came into vogue after 1967) out to rob, destroy, kill and, occasionally, rape. The Arabs believed they were merely trying to hold on to land that was being taken away from them by foreigners who had purchased it and never hesitated to apply fraud or force to add to it.
The first country-wide outbreak of violence took place in 1929. Both sides accused each other of initiating it, and both committed atrocities. The Arab inhabitants of Hebron wiped out the entire Jewish community there and completely destroyed several other Jewish settlements. Jews in Haifa commandeered a bus, drove it into a crowded market and fired in all directions, a harbinger of many similar incidents during the next two decades. The difference was that the Jewish community had started developing a nationwide, para-military organization known as the Hagana (Defense). Over the coming two decades, that organization was to prove decisive in the struggle between the two peoples.
British, Jews and Palestinians
In 1936-1939, as in 1929, Arab Palestinian violence was directed as much against the British rulers as against the Jewish community. This gave the Jews another decisive advantage; whereas they were often able to operate in the shadow of the Imperial Power, the Palestinians were very much on their own. The activists among them were hunted down by the British and Jews alike; and Palestinian casualties exceeded Jewish ones many times over. During World War II, 30,000 members of the Jewish community even joined the British Armed Forces, enabling them to obtain training and experience. By contrast, Palestinian Arab military training was limited to a few thousand who had served with the British police.
Another very great advantage the Jews enjoyed over the Palestinians was their links with Jewish communities abroad. After 1945, this enabled the Hagana to purchase arms, including heavy ones. It also began developing a technological infrastructure capable of maintaining, repairing and producing arms. By contrast, the Palestinians were still mainly organized in local bands, whether urban based, as in Jaffa and Haifa, or rural. They had practically no logistic infrastructure and were limited almost entirely to light weapons. Once the British left the country, it quickly became clear that they were no match for the Hagana and its successor, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). By the summer of 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians had left the country.
Five Arab States Invade
While the Jewish war against the Palestinian Arab appeared to have been decided, the war against the Arab States had only just begun. To support the Palestinians, in the hope of gaining land and of preventing others from making such gains, five Arab states invaded the newly proclaimed State of Israel on May 16, 1948. At the height of the war, Trans-Jordanian Forces reached within 15 kilometers of Tel Aviv, while Iraqi forces almost succeeded to cut Israel in half. Egyptian forces were 40 kilometers from Tel Aviv and fighting over Ramat Rachel, just a few kilometers south of Jerusalem.
By dint of an all-out effort and heavy casualties - one percent of the entire population fell in the field - the Jewish State survived. Having done so, it found itself still surrounded by enemies who refused to accept the new status quo and loudly proclaimed their determination to destroy it at the earliest opportunity. Many of the Palestinians who had been turned into refugees in 1948 tried to return to their homes. Others, whether on their own initiative or that of the Arab armies, carried out sabotage missions inside Israel, leading to countless skirmishes that occasionally threatened to develop into full-scale war. In 1956 and 1967, the Jewish State, convinced that its existence was in danger, mobilized and lashed out at its enemies. Both wars resulted in smashing victories for Israel, and the second one also led to the occupation of large pieces of territory.
1973 Proved Decisive
It was the fourth (or, if one counts the “War of Attrition of 1969-70 separately, the fifth) Arab Israeli War of October 1973 that proved decisive. The Israeli forces, having suffered initial setbacks, still retained the upper hand, even though their advantage was no longer as decisive as previously. Politically, the war seems to have convinced most of the Arab states that their original goal, namely, destroying Israel as a state, was out of reach. First Egypt, then Jordan drew conclusions from this, ending the conflict and signing formal peace treaties with their neighbor. Syria could have had a similar arrangement long ago; however a dispute over a few hundred acres its army had captured from Israel in 1948, that Israel refused to give up, prevented such an outcome.
The Palestinians Emerge
While the conflict between Israel and its neighbors was winding down, the Palestinian problem continued to fester. As noted, before the establishment of Israel, Jews and Palestinians had often clashed in places where they lived near each other. After its establishment, Palestinians acted as triggers in the countless skirmishes that took place along Israel’s borders. However, their military role was rather minor. Both sides, the Israelis and the Arab countries, tended to look down on them. They were considered impotent, fit only to serve as second-rate cannon fodder. The 1948 War left over 100,000 Palestinians under Israeli rule, and its 1967 successor increased that number many times over. Resistance to the occupation started almost immediately. For twenty years, it consisted almost exclusively of pinpricks. Indeed the long time it took the Palestinian people before they finally broke into full-scale revolt is one of the great mysteries of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
While the Palestinians inside the territories were almost impotent, their brethren in Lebanon were not. Supported by Syria throughout the 1970s, they escalated their attacks against northern Israel where they grew into an important, though hardly existential, threat. Israel’s massive invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was meant to put an end to the attacks, as well as to detach Lebanon from Syria and force it to make peace with Israel; an objective that failed completely. The Palestinian forces in Lebanon were indeed smashed beyond repair. However, in their place soon appeared other guerrilla organizations that took over the struggle. Hizbollah proved particularly effective. After eighteen years of more or less continuous warfare, it drove the mighty Israeli army out of Lebanon.
The First Intifada
In 1987, the first Intifada, its advent perhaps hastened by the evident difficulties the Israeli army was having in Lebanon, broke out. It proved that the Palestinians had ceased being cannon fodder and were fighting with tremendous courage and determination against overwhelming odds rarely met by other peoples in similar situations. It became clear that although they stood no chance of defeating the Israeli army, that army was equally incapable of defeating them. Yitzhak Rabin, who at that time was acting as minister of defense in Yitzhak Shamir’s government, took a long time to understand these facts. For three years he talked of putting down the uprising and did what he could to achieve that noble aim. Only after he lost his post did he start rethinking the issue; and his election as prime minister in the summer of 1992 enabled him to put his thoughts into effect.
The Oslo Accords
The signing, in September 1993, of the Oslo Peace Accord was one of the best agreements in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I happened to be in a New York hotel when the news came. It was if as the sun had broken through the clouds. I was happy beyond words; with millions of other Israelis, I thought that perhaps my children might be spared the need to fight as my generation had. If that meant that the Palestinians were finally going to obtain their own state, so much the better. Along with many on the Israeli Left, I thought it was the decent thing to do.
I still think the Oslo Agreements had a fair chance of leading to a permanent peace. Who is to blame for the failure of the Agreements, and hence the outbreak of the second Intifada, is not at issue here. Probably people on both sides bear a considerable part of the responsibility; as, indeed, has been the case throughout the conflict when each side often claimed it was retaliating for past acts of war committed by the other. Even if the truth of the matter could be established in an “objective” manner, trading accusations will not bring us any closer to a solution. The question is - what may be learnt from the tragic story, and what may be done to bring it to an end?
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
Looking back over the history of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, one fact seems to stand out. From the beginning of the Zionist revival, indeed, even before it started, wherever Jews and Arabs were intermixed, difficulties arose. Wherever they were separated, life became, if not exactly idyllic, at least tolerable. It was the existence of a clear border line that, after decades of armed struggle and several major wars, permitted peace between Israelis and Egyptians and between Israelis and Jordanians to take hold. Even the fence that separates Israel from Lebanon seems to be holding up. The visible proof of this is the housing projects that are rising on both its sides. As the saying goes, fences do good neighbors make.
Fences, or walls, have also proved their worth at other times and places. The Great Wall of China kept out the barbarians for centuries, as did the Roman frontier or limes. The Berlin Wall worked magnificently, turning a city that almost sparked off World War III into one of the most peaceful places on earth, one that West Berliners still look back on with a certain nostalgia. In Cyprus, the wall that separates Turks from Greeks has functioned equally well during the last thirty years. Surely there are few peoples who have hated each other so much, and for so long, as Greeks and Turks.
A Wall - By Agreement or Unilaterally
A wall, meaning a more or less complete Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian State, may not be the preferred solution of either side. It will compel Israelis to give up territories, including important parts of Jerusalem, that many of them regard as their God-given birthright. It will compel Palestinians to give up the right of return, something Israel cannot and will not concede. It will greatly impede the ability of both peoples to move and trade. On the other hand, it will also permit each of them to live freely, without having to come into daily contact with the other and without the constant friction that such contact generates.
If an Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian State can be brought about by agreement, so much the better. If, as seems more likely at the moment, this cannot be achieved, Israel should do what has to be done unilaterally, to end a struggle that is proving unbearable. Militarily speaking, getting out will not involve intolerable cost. The history of the conflict until 1967 amply confirms that Israel can be defended from within its original borders. With some help from modern technology, such as sea-based precision-guided weapons and balloons to provide early warning against attack, this should be even more true today. If Iraqi military power is neutralized by the Americans, so much the better.
Finally, the wall need not necessarily be permanent. As also happened in other places, it is possible that, after several decades in which the last widows will have remarried or resigned themselves to their fate, and the last orphans on both sides have grown up and founded families, real peace will come. The wall may be torn down and normal relations established. Until that day arrives, almost anything is better than the continuation of the present situation in which men, women and children on both sides are killed every day. As President Bush once said, the future itself is being murdered. We know the past, and it is a sad tale. While there is no way to erase it, there is no reason why we have to live with it.