By Jeremy Salt
‘Violence is not the way.’ How often did we hear Tony Blair say it? We know that violence should not be the way but we know that it is often is. The ‘we’ definitely does not include Blair, an architect of extreme violence in the Middle East. We know from history that violent states can often leave the peaceful with nothing left but violence to stop them going any further. This is the paradoxical trap in human behavior: the violent can ultimately impose violence on the peaceful.
We would be deluding ourselves if we think that such a point has not been reached with Israel or has not been almost reached; we have to leave open the slim possibility that somehow it will come to its senses and do what it could have done decades ago, make peace with the Palestinians and through them with the Arab and Muslim worlds and, in fact, with the world in general, but this does not seem likely.
The Zionist leaders knew from the beginning that the only way they could take Palestine would be through war. Jabotinsky was blunt about it, Ben-Gurion honest only in his private correspondence: only by fire and sword could Israel be created out of Palestine and having stepped on this path Israel has never stepped off it.
Over seven decades it has waged war after war: against the Palestinians, against Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, against any state, organisation or individual that gets in its way. It has massacred, assassinated and bombed ambulances, hospitals, schools, UN compounds and apartment blocks. It has never shown concern for the human lives it takes: on the contrary, one of its pilots even joked when asked how he felt when firing a missile at an apartment building in Gaza. His reply was that he felt a ‘slight tremor’ in the wings of his plane.
Over the years Israel’s rabbis and generals have declared all Palestinians as the enemy or as cancers, snakes and cockroaches to be crushed or cut out. The Palestinian enemy even includes the children not yet born, giving Golda Meir nightmares when she went to bed, not knowing how many Palestinians might have been born by the time she woke up.
These frightful sentiments are reflected on the street and in the mainstream culture, in polls showing hatred of Palestinians, even amongst schoolchildren, and in the unending violence of West Bank settlers. The soldiers and border police who protect these settlers do what they like, knowing they will not be punished, or punished so lightly that the punishment only adds insult to injury to the victim and his/her family. The murder of Abd al Fatah al Sharif as he lay wounded in the streets of Hebron last year and the recent murder by a sniper of the wheelchair-bound Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, whose legs were severed by an Israeli missile strike on Gaza in 2008, are not brutal anomalies but entirely consistent with Israel’s violent history.
Destroying the enemy before he becomes too strong has been Israel’s guiding maxim since 1948. Egypt was kept off balance by repeated attacks across the armistice line before the tripartite aggression of 1956. That failed because of the intervention of the US once British treachery was revealed. Israel then reverted to more attacks across the armistice line before the attack of 1967 on Egypt and Syria. The myth of invincibility lasted only until the first week of the 1973 war, during which Israel’s forces were routed in Sinai. Had Sadat not betrayed Hafez al Assad they would have been driven off the Golan Heights as well, but that still would have left the probability of direct intervention by the US to save Israel from the consequences of its own folly.
This was the last war Israel fought against a regular army. Its ‘wars’ on Lebanon and Gaza were no more than military onslaughts on a mostly defenseless population and even then it could not win them. Gaza has managed to stand upright despite the carnage of Israel’s attacks and in Lebanon the uprooting of the PLO in 1982 only cleared the way for a Shia resistance taking political and military shape in the form of Hezbollah. By 2000 this guerrilla army had driven the Zionists out of southern Lebanon and in 2006 it heaped further humiliation on them when they returned, which brings us to considerations of the present situation.
The first is that Israel’s geopolitical situation is not what it was. The days when Israel could call on the sympathy of the world, as an allegedly beleaguered little state threatened with extinction, have long since gone. With the exception of the US and its hangers-on, the world knows what Israel is, a bully.
In the Middle East Israel’s geopolitical situation is not what it was either. The treaties it has signed with Egypt and Jordan are moribund. The popular antagonism to Israel in both countries is as strong now as the day these treaties were signed, and probably even stronger following Trump’s inflammatory statement, the killing of Ibrahim Abu Thuraya and the powerful stand taken by a Palestinian teenager, Ahad Tamimi, in slapping the face of a Zionist soldier.
Militarily, Israel’s decline could be charted on a graph. The slide since 1967 has been slow but continuous. Yes, Israel has nuclear weapons and intermittently sends out signals that it is prepared to use them, as it did in 1973. Yes, it has supreme air power but even this has not been sufficient to give it the victories it wants and as Israel’s intelligence and military chiefs know, Israel’s enemies are working all the time on the means of countering Israel’s technological superiority. The Zionist media might jeer at Hasan Nasrallah but Israel’s military commanders do not.
Israel has tried to destroy Hezbollah but has failed. It has tried to intimidate Iran through the assassination of its scientists and repeated threats of military attack but it has failed, even with the additional weapon of US sanctions. The law of unintended consequences has prevailed: the attempt to destroy Syria has also failed, ultimately, despite the massive destruction and loss of life, and so has the attempt to destroy Iraq, which is regaining its shattered unity under a Shia-dominant government close to Iran and sympathetic to Hezbollah. The collapse of Kurdish secessionism is another blow to Israel. The obverse of these failures is the growing military strength of Hezbollah and Iran, far greater now than a decade ago.
It is for these reasons that the Middle East is facing perhaps the most dangerous moment in its modern history. Psychologically, strategically, Israel cannot allow the present situation to continue unchecked, cannot allow Hezbollah and Iran to grow even stronger in the coming years. It must reassert its military dominance and all the signals pouring out of the political and military establishment indicate that after a year of intensive preparations it is ready to go. The target will be Lebanon, which Israel’s propagandists are portraying as no more than a Hezbollah enclave manipulated by Iran, which Israel will want to draw into the conflict. The war will be one of massive destruction, with Israel’s ministers differing only on whether Lebanon is to be bombed back to the Stone Age (Yisrael Katz) or the Middle Ages (Naftali Bennett).
Israel’s war preparations in the past year include the biggest land maneuvers for two decades. Held in northern occupied Palestine right on the armistice line with Lebanon the ‘Light on the Grain’ maneuvers in September, 2017, began with the evacuation of civilians in the region. An estimated 30,000-40,000 soldiers and reservists were involved, in 20 brigades, with jet fighters, helicopters, drones, submarines, gunboats and patrol boats providing backup and reconnaissance for troops on the ground. Electronic warfare, the use of robot fighters in tunnels and mock battles with soldiers wearing ‘enemy’ uniforms and carrying fake explosive belts were all on the agenda. The exercises were based on the assumption of a ten-day war with Hezbollah. According to Walid Sukkariya, a retired Lebanese general and member of parliament, the number of soldiers deployed indicated the deployment of 150,000 troops in a real war.
In November, 2017, the largest aerial exercise in Israel’s history was held in southern occupied Palestine. This multilateral two-week ‘Blue Flag’ exercise involved about 1000 pilots from nine countries, including, for the first time in the history of such maneuvers, Germany. Hundreds of jet fighters flew an estimated 1000 missions from the Uvda base as the ‘blue’ forces ‘attacked’ the ‘red alliance’, an unspecified enemy whose pilots, however, were all given an Arabic name. Helicopters, drones and UAVs were used: electronic warfare was central to the maneuvers, as was the assumption that the ‘enemy’ would be armed with SAMs and MANPAD missile launchers.
Offshore, Cyprus has been used by Israel as it prepares for its next war. In March, 2017, Israel and the government of southern Cyprus staged the three-day ‘Onsilos-Gedeon’ military maneuvers in and over a large area around Nicosia. In June an estimated 500 Israeli soldiers, many from the ‘elite’ Egoz unit, along with 100 soldiers from the Cypriot National Guard took part in a two- week war exercise in the Troodos mountains, where the terrain is similar to southern Lebanon. The combat involved ‘fighting’ above and below ground, fighting in dense bush in mountainous terrain and airborne maneuvers night and day. The aerial component included five Israeli squadrons, C130 transport planes, Blackhawk helicopters and Unit 669, whose core mission is to rescue pilots and soldiers trapped behind enemy lines.
In late October, 2017, Cypriot-Israeli military ‘cooperation’ moved to southern occupied Palestine, where soldiers from the Cypriot National Guard and the Egoz unit staged exercises held over two weeks at the Tzeelim military base. The focus was on urban warfare in the setting of a mock ‘Arab’ town.
These ongoing military maneuvers are part of a new strategic (military and commercial) axis developing in the eastern Mediterranean between Israel, Cyprus and Greece and drawing in other countries because of the lucrative profits that will eventually come from the deep sea natural gas deposits behind drilled by southern Cyprus in its Aphrodite field and Israel in its Leviathan and Tamar fields 140 kms from the coast of occupied Palestine. Haifa.
The military engagement with Israel and the holding of maneuvers on Cypriot soil which, for Israel, are clearly directed at an ‘Arab’ enemy, have caused consternation in the ranks of the Cypriot opposition. In June the Akel party noted that the Troodos mountains had been chosen for their similarity to the topography of southern Lebanon. It said the exercises had involved Cyprus in dangerous war games ‘with an army that has been an occupying power for 50 years in the Palestinian territories.’ The militarization of cooperation with Israel was dangerous to Cyprus and regional peace.
The scale of these exercises leave no room for doubt that Israel is not merely upgrading and monitoring its military preparedness but actively preparing for war. The alarm bells have been sounding continuously for the past year: according to Channel Two, given access to Israeli positions along the armistice line with Lebanon, Israel is preparing for ‘a very violent war.’ Already in 2008 the then head of the Zionist military’s northern command, now the chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, presented the ‘Dahiya doctrine’, focusing on the massive damage that would be done in areas associated with Hezbollah. According to Eisenkot: ‘In every village from which Israel is fired upon we will apply disproportionate force against it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. This is not a recommendation. It is a plan and it has been approved.’
Dahiya, of course, was the largely Shia suburb of Beirut pulverized from the air by Israel in 2006. Others think the ‘doctrine’ should be applied even more widely. In the words of education minister Naftali Bennett, uttered in March, 2017, ‘The Lebanese institutions, its infrastructure, airports, power stations, traffic junctions, Lebanese army bases, they should all be legitimate targets if a war breaks out. That’s what we should already be saying to them and they would know that if Hezbollah fires missiles at the Israeli home front this will mean sending Lebanon back to the Middle Ages.’ From Bennett this is not empty rhetoric. After all, in 1996 it was he who called in the artillery barrage that killed more than 100 people, half of them children, in the UN compound at Qana, southern Lebanon; ‘I am proud of how I functioned during operation Grapes of Wrath’, he remarked later. ‘Leave the warriors alone.’ After all, again, it was Bennett who once said ‘I have killed lots of Arabs in my life and there is no problem with that.
According to intelligence minister Yisrael Katz, speaking this December with a Saudi newspaper, ‘What happened in 2006 will be a picnic compared to what we can do now. I remember a Saudi minister saying they will send Hezbollah back to their caves in southern Lebanon. I am telling you that we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age … and bury Nasrallah under the rocks.’ These are genocidal threats, plain and simple, and both Iran and Hezbollah are preparing for the onslaught. Hezbollah has already said it has missiles that can reach any part of occupied Palestine and has hinted that ports and refineries would be among the targets in any coming war.
Nasrallah’s response to these threats, made in his address marking the 10th of Ashura in October this year, warrants attention because he is not a man to indulge in idle talk. This was a long speech in which he distinguished Judaism from Zionism, in which he said the Jews brought to Palestine from all over the world were cannon fodder in a British-western colonialist war against the Arabic and Muslim people of the region and were still serving as fuel for US policies.
Addressing ‘Jewish scholars, their eminent personalities, their thinkers’ he warned that Netanyahu is leading ‘your people’ in Palestine to annihilation and destruction. He was working with Trump to tear up the agreement with Iran and push the region into a new war but neither he nor his government and military officials had an accurate picture of what awaited them if they started another war. ‘That is why I call first of all on Jews except the Zionists to detach their considerations from Zionist calculations which will only lead them to their final destruction. I call on all those who came into occupied Palestine believing the promises that they would find the land of milk and honey, I call on them to leave Palestine and go back to the countries from which they came so they do not become mere fuel in any war to which the stupid Netanyahu will lead them. For if Netanyahu launches a war in this region there may be no more time for them to leave Palestine and there may be no safe place for them in occupied Palestine.’ Such a war could bring about ‘the end of all things for you and for the Zionist entity.’
This was possibly the strongest and most direct speech Nasrallah has ever made. The confidence in what he had to say suggests that Hezbollah has attained or developed weaponry that Israel may find it hard to counter. The speech indicates that after more than seven decades, Nasrallah fully understands that the conflict with Israel is rapidly moving towards the existential level of either/or: either Hezbollah will be destroyed and Iran crippled or Israel will suffer blows of such magnitude as to threaten its survival. Right now this may seem improbable but history is nothing if not a trickster, especially for those who make their calculations on the basis of power they will never lose. For either side defeat is not an option: Israel is preparing to fight a war of unprecedented savagery to finish off its enemies and they are ready to defend themselves and (as Nasrallah has warned) take the war into enemy territory. This seems close to the point at which we now stand, without anyone in the ‘international community’ putting on the brakes to stop the momentum towards war.
– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.