Links in the Chain: Masada, the ‘Samson Option,’ the ‘Hannibal Directive’ and Gaza

Israel continues to carry out massacres in Gaza. (Photo: via WAFA)

By Jeremy Salt

Zionism did not ‘succeed’ because of Jewish support but because of ‘western’ imperial backing.

Almost 2000 years ago a Hebrew assault force overthrew the Roman garrison established on the tabletop heights known as Masada. Besieged by the Romans, ultimately unable to push them back, the armed defenders and their families killed themselves. These are the basic bones of the story.

Much else is open to challenge or has been proven not to be true. The few human relics found at the site indicate that the account told by Josephus of 960 people committing collective auto da fe is fiction rather than history.

Moreover, the dead or at least some of them may well have Romans captured by the Hebrews but whatever the truth, Masada continues to serve in Israel as the joint symbol of Jewish victimhood and defiance against all odds.

Masada is not just an historical site or a tourist attraction but a propaganda setting where ‘never again’ is reiterated generation after generation in the night-time ceremonies marking the induction into the Israeli army of young recruits after their basic training.

“Masada shall not fall again” is the commitment they make, effectively, to the state as well as the army and to an ideology described in the 1950s by Moshe Menuhin as the “decadence of Judaism in our time.”

Horrified by the Gaza genocide, an increasing number of Jews are distancing themselves from Zionism and what is being done in their name. They are returning to the mainstream Jewish response to Zionism in the late 19th/early 20th century, that it was a fanatical secular ideology that violated the basic tenets of Judaism.

Zionism did not ‘succeed’ because of Jewish support but because of ‘western’ imperial backing, beginning with Britain and carried forward to the present day both by the UK and the US and their camp followers around the world. The Zionists cleverly slotted themselves into imperial designs, made themselves useful as tools Britain – in particular – could use in their redesigning of the Middle East. Otherwise, they would have had no future in Palestine or anywhere else.

Behind their mealy-mouthed statements about a humanitarian ceasefire and the chimera of a two-state solution, ‘western’ governments are now enabling genocide through their refusal to take any action to stop it and their deals with Israeli corporations whose weapons are murdering Palestinians every day.

Those aghast at their attitudes need to set them in the context of the genocidal white colonial settler history of all these ‘western’ countries. This is surely more than coincidence but rather identification at some subliminal level with a state that took root just as the US, Canada, Australia and other settler regimes did. To condemn Israel would be to open themselves up to justified accusations of hypocrisy.

In truth, Israel is no more ‘civilized’ than these ‘western’ governments have been over the centuries, behind the camouflage of civilization, democracy, international law, human rights and the ‘responsibility to protect.’ If there is a difference it is that we are in 2024, not 1824 or 1774, and we should have learnt by now that these heinous crimes cannot be committed if there is to be peace in the world.

The brutal reality can be measured in the millions of people these governments have killed in their wars over half a millennium and the 35,000 they have just watched being killed in Palestine.

Behind their hypocritical talk of humanitarian pauses, ceasefire and solutions they are allowing Israel to impose its own solution by removing Palestinians from their homeland through massacre, death from starvation or infectious diseases or terrorized flight into Sinai now that Israel has seized the Rafah gate.

Over more than a century the betrayal by the ‘west’ of the Palestinians and its own supposed values has never been so brutally, cruelly and ruthlessly exposed. Betrayal by governments, it should be said, playing their amoral games as usual, but not betrayal by the people. They can see very clearly what is going and are shocked to their core. They have no doubt where they stand.

One statement can be made with absolute certainty: Israel will never recover from this and neither will the ‘west’ unless it disentangles itself rather than be dragged into the depths by a mad state dooming itself with every man, woman and child it kills.

A modern declaration of suicidal intent after Masada is the ‘Samson option’, discussed by Noam Chomsky in his 1970s book The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Pluto Press, 1983) and by Seymour Hersh in The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb (Faber and Faber, 1991).

How Israel got the bomb is the first part of the story, told by Hersh in his book and the declassified US diplomatic documents of the time. The story is a long winding one, full of lies, deception and theft (of plutonium from the US) but culminating in Israel’s production of a nuclear weapon before the 1967 war.

As Israel wanted US planes and tanks, the US could have blocked Israel’s nuclear development and insisted that it sign up to the NPT. Instead, President Johnson told the Israelis privately in the White House not to worry about State Department pressure, because he would make sure Israel got the weapons it wanted without having to sign up to the NPT.

Johnson was betraying his own professional State Department staff just as Truman had done in 1948. Given the violence sweeping Palestine early in 1948 the US had decided that Palestine should be placed under international trusteeship for the time being. Its delegation at the UN had almost reached majority support for the proposal when in May Truman announced recognition of Israel.

It is an extraordinary story. Truman had kept his delegation in the dark and the truth was known only when the crumpled ticker tape announcement of recognition was found in the UN Secretary-General’s wastepaper basket.

‘Opacity’ on the question of Israel’s nuclear weapons was the policy followed after Lyndon Johnson’s chicanery: although the US knew Israel had nuclear weapons it pretended that it didn’t know whether it had them or not.

Israel now had the ultimate weapon to cow the Arab states and even its ‘western’ sponsors into submission just by the threat that it might use it. This ‘Samson option’ was based on calculated madness: “If the day comes when we are threatened with destruction we can take you down with us so don’t push us too hard.”

Israel is estimated to have 200-300 nuclear weapons. They include low yield neutron warheads that can kill masses of people without destroying property and warheads that can be fired thousands of kilometers.

Between feigned madness and real madness it is hard to tell the difference. In the possible consequences there is none. Israel went on nuclear alert in 1973 when it was on the brink of losing the war with Egypt and Syria. The US responded to this blackmail by air dropping massive supplies of weapons directly to the routed Israeli army in Sinai but the nuclear threat hangs in the air as a constant reminder to those who might intervene militarily to stop Israel’s long reign of terror.

Only a few days ago Netanyahu said that if left alone to face its enemies “we will fight even with our fingernails, but we have much more than that,” which can be read as an oblique reference to nuclear weapons. Given their centrality as the last line of defense it is probable that Israel will resort to nuclear weapons in a future war it cannot win or at least survive as a state without using them.

Masada, ‘never again’ and the ‘Samson option’ lead to the ‘Hannibal directive’. Israel now prefers its citizens to be killed rather than captured even if they have to be killed by their own military, as they were on October 7.

Israelis captured and taken to Gaza are being left to die in the missile strikes of their own air force or from wounds their captors cannot treat because of the destruction of hospitals and the blockage of medical supplies by their own government and military.

Israel has always gone too far but has now gone so far in Gaza as to be irredeemable in the eyes of the world. It must know that, yet like an out of control machine it cannot stop. Every day brings a new horror. In its cruelty and sadistic attention to death in detail It is committing the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity in modern history.

No one is exempt, not the young, not the old, not pregnant mothers and the elderly being pushed in wheelchairs to what they were told was safety but soon turned out not to be safety.

They are being bombed in their tents even as crowing Israeli ‘soldiers’ in Gaza boast of what they have done or intend to do to Gaza. In fact, they are doing very little except show off: all the killing is being done through missile strikes or tank fire. They proudly fly the Israeli flag amidst the ruins, apparently unaware that it has the same terrorizing effect on Israel’s victims as the swastika had on Hitler’s.

The Palestinians are now being herded from Rafah into a strip of sand where there is nothing at all to maintain life. Mass murder, mass graves, starvation, diseases deliberately spread by the occupier and the ongoing destruction of every standing edifice above ground is still not enough for ‘western’ governments to take action in defense of the values they are supposed to represent.

Hamas is the pretext for a war against civilians who have no means of defense against settlers who came to Palestine as the standard-bearers of ‘western’ civilization but have turned into its pallbearers.

Whatever happens now, Israel will never recover from this and unless it stands up to Israel, and does whatever is necessary to stop it, neither will the ‘west.’ They are locked into a death roll.

– 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 The Palestine Chronicle.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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