Brown Guest Editorial: From Suez to Baalbak
Kenneth Brown* writes:
SUEZ A HALF-CENTURY ON: THE CONTINUATION OF WAR BY WAR
As a visiting American student in Jerusalem in 1956, I became an inadvertent witness to some aspects of the ignominious tripartite invasion of Egypt and its aftermath in Israel. Fifty years later in unleashing its military power against Gaza and Lebanon, Israel once again demonstrates the constancy of its policy towards those neighbors it considers to be enemies. War, massive use of force, is still the preferred option of its strategists in or out of uniform.
In the Suez war, Israel in collusion with France and Britain attacked Egypt with the (unachieved) goal of overthrowing Abdel Nasser. They did in any case succeed in destroying the Egyptian army and crippling the country’s economy. As a result of the war, Israelis’ sense of their military might and their disdain for the fighting capacity of the ‘Arabs’ flourished.
Shortly after the end of hostilities, I recall attending a massive rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square where Prime Minister Ben Gurion, surrounded by his generals, boasted of the victory against Nasserism and promised that Israel would never retreat from the Sinai Peninsula it had conquered. He was joyously acclaimed by the crowd with the exception of a few intrepid individuals who yelled out their opposition to the war; and for this they were roundly beaten. There have always been such voices in Israel and they have usually paid dearly for resisting an ideology of ‘might is right’.
Soon afterwards, the United States government ordered the Israelis to retreat from Sinai and they obediently did so. In those days, and in the circumstances, the U.S. could impose its will on Israel. True, Israel did get a buffer zone of UN peacekeepers in Sinai. Their withdrawal by Nasser in 1967 was a key factor leading to the Six Day War.
Today’s war in Lebanon is the sixth fought by Israel against its Arab enemies in less than sixty years, not counting its military suppression of the two Palestinian intifadahs. All of these have been carried out in the name of ‘defense’ and ‘security’, with words like ‘inevitability’, ‘justice’ and ‘survival’ thrown in for good measure.
Israel invariably portrays itself as having no choice, as having been attacked and responding accordingly. Shimon Peres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is quoted on arriving in Southern Lebanon today as saying “It’s us or the Hizbollah”. The enemy, now Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank or the Hizbollah, has to be crippled or destroyed in order to keep Israel safe, invulnerable, invincible. In 1982 the bombing and invasion of Lebanon was intended to eradicate Palestinian ‘terrorism’ once and for all and to put in place a Lebanese government to finish the job. Israel’s political strategy towards its neighbors comes from the barrels of its guns: to maintain and even increase its own military superiority by all possible means, while undermining the state’s implacable enemies.
Ben Gurion long ago argued that Israel had to keep its enemies at bay by hitting them regularly. “Peace is not our principal interest”, he said. He never believed that Israel could live at peace with the Arabs. His successors have remained faithful to this view. “We are a European nation: we have no affinity with the Arabs”, was how Barak put it.
The military establishment that shaped Israeli policy ever since the foundation of the state never accepted the armistice lines of 1949 and waited for the chance to move Israel’s borders eastwards, which came in 1967. Sharon’s unilateralism in regard to some of the territories did not depart from the policy of occupation and containment, although it did acknowledge the military and economic costs of holding onto all of them.
The retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000 undermined the myth of the army’s invulnerability. The ferocity of the war now against the Hizbollah and Lebanese civilians in general may be considered the army’s revenge and an attempt to restore its image. So far, according to the press, the Hizbollah has continued to fight and has paralyzed half of Israel with its missile attacks. (Y. Marcus, Haaretz, 24.7.06).
Yet, Israelis for the most part seem to believe once again that this is a just war in which their powerful army will be victorious. According to surveys quoted by the IDF spokesman, they “believe officers more than politicians.” The U.S. government, and public opinion, has long ago ceased to try to curb Israeli fire. Many would argue that, at least for the Bush government, the ‘special relationship’ has become one of undiluted collusion.
The nub of this continual warfare is undoubtedly the unresolved conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. According to Tel Aviv and Washington, the Palestinians should have long ago submitted to the force of arms. Yet, despite numerous defeats and profound weaknesses, some of them self-imposed, they haven’t given up. They are like the hydra, a mythical beast with an endless capacity to grow new heads.
This stubbornness, what the Palestinians call ‘steadfastness’, seems unnatural to Israelis and their allies and thus escapes their comprehension. The late Ezer Weizman, president of Israel, general, war hero and sometime governor of the occupied West Bank, was reported to have said in exasperation that the Israelis could respect the Palestinians more, if only they would fight battles like normal nations, with the winner taking all and the loser accepting defeat. Instead, they got Hamas and, if Israel’s policies do not change, they will continue to have battles and blood on their hands.
For all its military strength, Israel hasn’t been able to make the Palestinians give up. The mutual recognition and historical reconciliation implied by the Oslo accords (on the separation of Palestine and Israel) perpetuated the occupation rather than ending it. Palestinian lives became worse off as a result and their aspirations for statehood were frustrated. War was continued by the usual means with scarcely a pause.
Where to go from here? There is nowhere to go — unless some hitherto unrevealed constellation of interests within civil society, inside and outside Israel, is able to displace the country’s warmongers from power.
*Kenneth Brown, originally from Los Angeles, is the founding editor of the Paris-based biannual review Mediterraneans/Méditerranéennes. A retired professor of Social Anthropology (University of Manchester, U.K.), he is the author with Jean Mohr of «Journey Through a Labyrinth : Israel/Palestine.A photographic essay» (in Visual Communication, University of Pennsylvania Press 1981). His latest edited book, L’ Irak de la crise au chaos. Chroniques d’une invasion, was published by IBIS Press, Paris 2004.