What does Israel Want?

Abstract: The sixth war between Israel and the Arab world, like so many other cases in history, has a complex background: the long term history of the Zionist presence in Palestine is one way of explaining what occurred on Lebanon’s soil in July and August this year. A closer look at the specific Israeli policies in the last six years, is another. This long term history is discussed in the first part of this article and it is connected, in the second part to the more immediate background leading to the destruction of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2006.

The sixth war between Israel and the Arab world, like so many other cases in history, has a complex background: the long term history of the Zionist presence in Palestine is one way of explaining what occurred on Lebanon’s soil in July and August this year. A closer look at the specific Israeli policies in the last six years, is another. This long term history is discussed in the first part of this article and it is connected, in the second part to the more immediate background leading to the destruction of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2006.

Historical Roots

The present dismal reality unfolding in the Middle East has clear historical roots and although each detailed chapter in the ongoing conflict has its own particular and novel features, the patterns of continuity seem to be consistent. A journey into the past may help to illuminate what lies behind the destructive policies of Israel in both Palestine and Lebanon.

In the end of November 1947, the UN offered to divide Palestine into two states almost equal in their territorial space, despite the fact that the Jews were one third of the population by 1947 and most of them arrived in Palestine only few years earlier possessing less than 6% of the land.

The categorical Palestinian refusal to go along with this deal, backed by the Arab League, allowed the Zionist leadership to plan carefully the next step. In between February 1947 and March 1948, a final plan for ethnic cleansing was prepared. The Zionist leadership defined 80% of Palestine (Israel today without the West Bank) as the space for the future state; an area in which 1 million Palestinians lived next to 600,000 Jews. The idea was to uproot as many Palestinians as possible. From March 1948 until the end of that year the plan was implemented with an attempt of some Arab states to oppose it, which failed. 750,000 Palestinian were expelled, 531 villages were destroyed, 11 urban neighborhoods demolished. Half of Palestine’s population was uprooted and half of its villages gone.

The state of Israel was established over 80% of Palestine, turning Palestinian villages into Jewish settlements and recreation parks, but allowing a small number of Palestinian to remain citizens in it (only after they had to endure a harsh military regime in place until 1967).

The June 1967 war allowed Israel to takeover the remaining 20% of Palestine. This act defeated in a way the ethnic ideology of the Zionist movement. It did have 100% of Palestine, but it incorporated a large number of Palestinians, after it made such an effort to cleanse them in 1948.

The fact that Israel was let off easily in 1948 and not condemned for the ethnic cleansing it committed in 1948 – which is defined in the international law as a crime against humanity – encouraged it to ethnically cleanse a further 300,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza strip. But the June 1967 war was too short – six days – and the international community more aware and the Palestinian society more experienced – and hence Israel was left with a large number of Palestinians under its control and could not complete ‘the job’. The Palestinian national movement rose again in the form of the PLO and even though it did not liberate one square inch of Palestine, it did relocate the Palestinian issue and the 1948 nakbah (catastrophe) to the centre of world public attention.

The ethnic cleansing operations were also defeated by the persistence and resilience shown by the Palestinians that were allowed to stay in Israel. They became one quarter of the population and were referred to by the government as the ‘Israeli Arabs’, and by themselves as the Palestinian community in Israel.

Demography thus became the major issue in Israel’s national security agenda. It overshadowed any other concern, be it for social equality, democracy or human rights. The educational system, the media and the politicians all stressed the danger Palestinians constituted for the state’s existence and the Jewish citizens’ well being and this referred to the Palestinians wherever they were: in Israel, in the Occupied Territories and in the Diaspora. Downsizing the territory is what the so-called Israeli ‘Left’ was offering as a solution and downsizing the Palestinians was what the Right wing offered. But the moral and ideological distance between the two polars of the political system was very short indeed. Both camps dehumanized the Palestinians be they citizens of Israel, under occupation in the West Bank, in the huge prison of Gaza, or refugees.

After two uprisings in the Occupied Territories and a failed international diplomatic effort that totally ignored the root of the conflict as represented above, we are back to the very basics of the conflict in 2006. For the last six years, with the full backing of its Jewish electorate, successive Israeli governments have tried to impose by force what for them is the ideal solution. It consists of imprisoning large numbers of Palestinians in enclaves in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, controlling thorough an Apartheid system the Palestinian minority in Israel, and rejecting categorically any repatriation of the Palestinian refugees. In 2006, Israel was determined to crush the only remaining groups in the area that dare to oppose this plan, accepted by the West and many Arab regimes: the Hizbullah, the Hamas. On the face of it, eliminating non-state small organizations should have been easy for the strongest military power in the region.

The Israeli Army and the Second Lebanon War

The Israeli army has been a frustrated outfit ever since the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987. Its heads detested this kind of confrontation, called euphemistically by the gurus of the American discipline of International Relations, ‘low intensity conflict’. It was too low for their taste. They were faced with stones, molotov bottles and primitive arms which required a very limited use of the huge arsenal the army has amassed throughout the years and did not test at all their ability to perform in a battlefield or a war zone. Even when the army used tanks and F-16s, it was a far cry from the war games the officers played in the Israeli Matkal – headquarters – and for which they bought, with American tax payer money – the most sophisticated and updated weaponry existing in the market.

The first Intifada was crushed, but the Palestinians continued to seek ways of ending the occupation. They rose again in 2000, inspired this time by a more religious group of national leaders and activists. But it was still a ‘low intensity conflict’; no more than that. But this is not what the army expected; it was yearning for a ‘real’ war. As Raviv Druker and Offer Shelah, two Israeli journalists with close ties to the IDF, show in a recent book, Boomerang (p. 50) major military exercises before the second Intifada were based on a scenario that envisaged a full-scale war. It was predicted that in the case of another Palestinian uprising, there would be three days of ‘riots’ in the Occupied Territories that would turn into a head-on confrontation with neighboring Arab states, especially Syria. Such a confrontation, it was argued, was needed to maintain Israel’s power of deterrence and reinforce the generals’ confidence in their army’s ability to conduct a conventional war.

The frustration was unbearable as the three days in the exercise turned into six years. And yet, the Israeli army’s main vision for the battlefield is today still that of ‘shock and awe’ rather than chasing snipers, suicide bombers and political activists. The ‘low intensity’ war questions the invincibility of the army and erodes its capability to engage in a ‘real’ war. More important than anything else, it does not allow Israel to impose unilaterally its vision over the land of Palestine – a de-Arabized land mostly in Jewish hands. Most of the Arab regimes have been complacent and weak enough to allow the Israelis to pursue their policies, apart from Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon. The latter therefore had to be neutralized if Israeli unilateralism was to succeed.

After the outbreak of the second Intifada in October 2000, some of the frustration was allowed to evaporate with the use of 1,000 kilo bombs on a Gazan house or during Operation Defense Shield in 2002 when the army bulldozered the refugee camp in Jenin. But this too was a far cry from what the strongest army in the Middle East could do. And despite the demonization of the mode of resistance chosen by the Palestinians in the second Intifada – the suicide bomb – you needed only two or three F-16 and a small number of tanks to punish collectively the Palestinians by totally destroying their human, economic and social infrastructure.

When the soldiers were taken captive, the generals had a field day. No more random use of 1,000 kilo bombs, battleships, choppers and heavy artillery. The weak and insignificant new minister of defense, Amir Perez, accepted without hesitation the army demand for crushing the Gaza Strip and grinding Lebanon to dust. Their failure to defeat the Hizbullah, judging from the press in Israel, has not killed their appetite for more military action and there is still an acute danger that what begun in Lebanon would turn into a war with Iran, backed by a supreme American umbrella.

Even the most partial reports in the Israeli press of what was proposed by the army to Ehud Olmert’s government as possible operations in the first hours of the crisis, indicated clearly what enthuses the Israeli generals these days. Nothing less than a total destruction of Lebanon, Syria and Tehran.

The politicians at the top seem at the moment to be more tamed. They have only partially satisfied the army’s hunger for a ‘high intensity conflict’. But their politics of the day are already donned by military propaganda and rationale. This why Zipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, an otherwise intelligent person, could say genuinely on Israeli TV tonight (13 July 2006) that the best way to retrieve the two abducted soldiers ‘is to destroy totally the international airport of Beirut’. Kidnappers or armies that have two POWs of course immediately go and buy commercial tickets on the next flight from an international airport for the captors and the two soldiers. ‘But they can sneak them with a car’, insisted the interviewers. ‘Oh indeed’ said the Israeli Foreign Minister, ‘This is why we will also destroy all the roads in Lebanon leading outside the country’. This is good news for the army, to destroy airports, set fire to petrol tanks, blow up bridges, damage roads and inflict collateral damage on a civilian population. At least the airforce can show its ‘real’ might and compensate for the frustrating years of the ‘low intensity conflict’ that had sent Israel’s best and fiercest to run after boys and girls in the alleys of Nablus or Hebron. In Gaza the airforce has already dropped five such bombs, where in the last six years it dropped only one.

This may not be enough, though, for the army generals. They already say clearly on TV that ‘we here in Israel should not forget Damascus and Tehran’. Past experiences tell us what they mean by this appeal against our collective amnesia

The captive soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon were soon deleted from the public agenda in Israel. The purpose of the military campaign was to destroy the Hizbullah and Hamas once and for all, not about bringing home the soldiers. In a similar way in the summer of 1982, the Israeli public forgot very quickly the victim who provided the government of Menachem Begin with the excuse of invading Lebanon. He was Shlomo Aragov, Israel’s ambassador to London on whose life an attempt was made by a splinter Palestinian group. The attack on him served Ariel Sharon with the pretext of invading Lebanon and staying there for 18 years.

Needless to say, alternative routes for the conflict were not even raised in Israel, not even by the Zionist left. No one mentioned commonsensical ideas such as an exchange of prisoners or a commencement of a dialogue with the Hamas and other Palestinian groups at least over a long cease-fire to prepare the ground for more meaningful political negotiations in the future. This alternative way forward has already been backed by all the Arab countries. In Washington, Donald Rumsfeld may have lost some of his deputies in the Defense Department, but he is still the Secretary. For him the total destruction of the Hamas and Hizbullah – whatever the price and if it is without loss of American life – would ‘vindicate’ the Third World War Theory he propagated early on in 2001. The current crisis for him is a righteous battle against a small axis of evil – away from the quagmire of Iraq and a precursor for the so far unattained goals in the ‘war against terror’ – Syria and Iran. If indeed to a certain extent the Empire was serving the proxy in Iraq, the full fledged support President Bush gave to the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza and Lebanon, shows that maybe pay off time has come: now the proxy should salvage the entangled Empire.

The Hizbullah wants back the piece of southern Lebanon Israel still retains. It also wishes to play a major role in Lebanese politics and shows ideological solidarity with both Iran and the Palestinian struggle in general, and the Islamist one, in particular. The three goals do not always complement each other and have resulted in a very limited war effort against Israel in the last six years. The total resurrection of tourism on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon testifies that, unlike the Israeli generals, for its own reasons the Hizbullah is very happy with a very low intensity conflict. If and when a comprehensive solution for the Palestine question will be achieved, even that impulse would die out. Crossing 100 yards into Israel proper is such an action. Retaliating to such a low key operation with a total war and destruction indicates clearly that what matters is the grand design not the pretext.

There is nothing new in this. In 1948, the Palestinians opted for a very low intensity conflict when the UN imposed on them a deal which wrested from their hand half of their homeland and gave it to a community of newcomers and settlers, most of whom arrived after 1945. The Zionist leaders waited for long time for that opportunity and launched an ethnic cleansing operation that expelled half of the land’s native population, destroyed half of its villages, and dragged the Arab world into unnecessary conflict with the West, whose powers were already on the way out with the demise of colonialism. The two designs are interconnected: the wider Israel’s military might expands, the easier it is to complete the unfinished business of 1948: the total de-Arabization of Palestine.

It is not too late to stop the Israeli designs from creating a new and terrible reality on the ground. But the window of opportunity is very narrow and the world needs to take action before it is too late. In the meantime, the Israeli army vents its anger on the people of the Gaza Strip in a genocidal policy that has cost the lives of hundreds of Palestinians in the summer of 2006, many of them whole families and children.

Ilan Pappe

Ilan Pappe is a historian who teaches at Haifa University. He is one of the \"New Historians\" who have critically reexamined the history of Israel and Zionism.