by John Wight / June 11th 2010
This projected idea of a particular nation embodying a higher culture and civilisation is of course nothing new. It has informed the forging of empires and colonialism throughout history. Think of Alexander and his Macedonians fighting their way across Asia, forging a legend that has endured for centuries since. Think of the Roman Empire and the Pax Romana, a prolonged period of peace and stability sustained by an army deemed invincible and galvanised by a sense of purpose in spreading a higher culture and civilisation throughout the barbarian world. Likewise, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched across Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century on a mission to internationalise the republican ideals of the French Revolution; while the British Empire was a crusade to civilise the world in the name of Christianity.
The obverse of this constructed mythology is the consequences of its collapse when it is no longer able to endure. It is a collapse which usually takes place in the face of resistance to its received truths on an intellectual level, but also to the oppression suffered by those peoples deemed inferior but whose cause in resistance to that oppression is far stronger than that of their oppressor.
History teaches us that all empires and colonial projects fall under the weight of their own contradictions, but do so over prolonged periods of determined resistance by the subject peoples. Meanwhile, the material privileges gained from the exploitation and expropriation of a colonised people acts as a slow-acting corrosive on society at home, poisoning it with racism and hatred for those it has colonised as it seeks to justify its material privileges resulting from that colonisation. This moral decay is reflected in the degeneration which takes place in the armed forces of an oppressor state, where the emphasis of the troops shifts from self sacrifice and heroism in support of a just and galvanising cause to personal survival as demoralisation sets in.
In other words, the objective daily reality of being responsible for oppression and injustice on a mass scale overcomes any amount of national propaganda in support of that oppression. In this the case of American troops during the Vietnam War is a prime example. The reality on the ground of killing and being killed in a country thousands of miles from home in an ignoble war eventually proved stronger than the propaganda the troops had been fed that they were fighting in the cause of freedom. Indeed, it could be argued that on a certain level atrocities like My Lai were informed by the projection of a self loathing being experienced by more and more American troops in the field as the reality of the injustice they were committing sunk in.
Another and contemporary example of this moral degeneration is the case of the Orwellian-named Israel Defense Forces. The recent massacre of civilians during an attempt to ferry humanitarian aid to Gaza in a flotilla of ships is a case in point. The attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, began with gunfire from assault craft alongside, followed by more gunfire from a helicopter overhead before it began to disgorge ‘elite’ Israeli commandos down ropes onto the deck below. These supposedly highly-trained troops, upon landing on the ship, immediately found themselves on the receiving end of a battering that none will soon forget. Unable to cope with the resistance put up the ship’s crew and passengers, the commandos opened up with live ammunition, leaving nine dead and the entire world outraged at what was a craven act of piracy in international waters.
Blatant and cold blooded acts of murder like this are the product of the constructed mythology which has sustained Israel since its creation in 1948. It is a mythology which combines both a biblical and political justification for its existence. On the one hand it constitutes the realisation of an ancient covenant with God, in which as a chosen people the Jews were promised the land of historic Palestine for eternity, while on the other hand it is the fulfilment of the Zionist trope that in a world which is irredeemably antisemitic the Jewish people, hitherto stateless, need a state of their own.
The second of the aforementioned postulates reflects a concrete historical reality in the shape of the wave of antisemitism which swept across Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, and which gave rise to the emergence of Zionism. And if anyone was still in any doubt as to the veracity of Zionism’s calls for a Jewish state, as the vast majority of Jews in the Diaspora were for decades, the inimitable horrors of the Holocaust during the Second World War instantly dispelled them. Indeed, the psychological impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people cannot be underestimated, proving fertile ground for the extreme nationalism which now emanates from a significant section of the population.
The founders of Israel in 1948 were able to win the affection of large swathes of people in the West largely as a consequence of the prevailing guilt over the extent of Jewish suffering under the Nazis. This intertwined with romantic images of young pioneers, many of them survivors of the Holocaust, struggling to forge a home in a barren land surrounded by hostile natives. They looked like us and spoke like us, while their leaders wore open-necked shirts and appeared at ease on the world stage. In contradistinction, the indigenous population represented an alien culture at odds with our own, one which seemed both primitive and retrograde. More importantly, in their opposition to the formation of the Jewish state it was as if the natives inhabitants of Palestine were trying to impede the forward march of progress, earning them in response the opprobrium of most of the civilised world in a state of affairs which continued over the first few decades of Israel’s existence.
The romantic ideals attached to this pioneering spirit of the founders of Israel, along with international sympathy for a people who’d suffered so much, imbued the nascent state with a sense of purpose and destiny which masked the atrocities being carried out in its name. A mythology of heroism and bravery was already being constructed when it came to Zionist militia organisations like the Haganah and Irgun. It was a mythology that continued on into the ranks of IDF when Israel was founded, embodied in the adoption of a ‘purity of arms’ ethos, one designed to give romantic flavour to the militarism which sits at the heart of Israeli society. However, the truth is that the ranks of the Haganah, Irgun, and other militia groups, and later of the IDF, were filled with racist killers massacring men, women and children in order to fulfil both the biblical and national destinies previously described.
Sixty years on, judging by the moral and physical degeneration of the IDF, this mythologised history and sense of destiny appears to be crumbling. In other words, whilst the brutality of the IDF has remained consistent the courage of its soldiers has not. In fact, any objective analysis of its operations over the past few years reveals that when faced with a determined adversary the average Israeli soldier demonstrates cowardice instead of belief in his or her cause.
Writing in the Asia Times a few months after the war, Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry offered the following analysis as to why the Israeli air assault failed in its primary objective of taking out Hezbollah bunkers and arsenals:
‘Despite being surprised by the Israeli response, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon were placed on full alert within minutes of the kidnappings and arsenal commanders were alerted by their superiors. Hezbollah’s robust and hardened defenses were the result of six years of diligent work, beginning with the Israeli withdrawal from the region in 2000. Many of the command bunkers designed and built by Hezbollah engineers were fortified, and a few were even air-conditioned.
The digging of the arsenals over the previous years had been accompanied by a program of deception, with some bunkers being constructed in the open and often under the eyes of Israeli drone vehicles or under the observation of Lebanese citizens with close ties to the Israelis. With few exceptions, these bunkers were decoys. The building of other bunkers went forward in areas kept hidden from the Lebanese population. The most important command bunkers and weapons-arsenal bunkers were dug deeply into Lebanon’s rocky hills - to a depth of 40 meters. Nearly 600 separate ammunition and weapons bunkers were strategically placed in the region south of the Litani.’
‘…Hezbollah’s ability to intercept and “read” Israeli actions had a decisive impact on the coming ground war. Hezbollah intelligence officials had perfected their signals-intelligence capability to such an extent that they could intercept Israeli ground communications between Israeli military commanders. Israel, which depended on a highly sophisticated set of “frequency hopping” techniques that would allow their commanders to communicate with one another, underestimated Hezbollah’s ability to master counter-signals technology. The result would have a crucial impact on Israel’s calculation that surprise alone would provide the margin of victory for its soldiers.’
‘After-battle reports of Hezbollah commanders now confirm that IDF troops never fully secured the border area and Maroun al-Ras was never fully taken. Nor did Hezbollah ever feel the need to call up its reserves, as Israel had done. “The entire war was fought by one Hezbollah brigade of 3,000 troops, and no more,” one military expert in the region said. “The Nasr Brigade fought the entire war. Hezbollah never felt the need to reinforce it.
Reports from Lebanon underscore this point. Much to their surprise, Hezbollah commanders found that Israeli troops were poorly organized and disciplined. The only Israeli unit that performed up to standards was the Golani Brigade, according to Lebanese observers. The IDF was “a motley assortment”, one official with a deep knowledge of US slang reported. “But that’s what happens when you have spent four decades firing rubber bullets at women and children in the West Bank and Gaza.”’
‘IDF commanders were also disturbed by the performance of their troops, noting a signal lack of discipline even among its best-trained regular soldiers. The reserves were worse, and IDF commanders hesitated to put them into battle.’
The assault was unleashed in response to rocket attacks against Israel from within Gaza after the ending of a six month ceasefire between Hamas and the Israelis. During this period the truce had been repeatedly broken by the Israelis, who’d continued their policy of targeted assassinations against Hamas and other resistance operatives within Gaza. In addition, throughout the ceasefire the blockade of the Gaza Strip had continued and after the ceasefire it was tightened further, thus increasing the hardship of the 1.5 million people crowded into this narrow strip of land.
As with the 2006 war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the military operation to destroy Hamas in Gaza began with an air assault. This was followed by a ground incursion into the Strip by Israeli ground forces. However, fearing a repeat of the military disaster in southern Lebanon, the Israelis only advanced a few miles, taking up positions on the outskirts of towns, villages and urban centres, which were then bombarded mercilessly by tanks and mortar units. Civilian targets such as hospitals, schools, and UN compounds were destroyed in an assault in which white phosphorous was deployed; this despite it being banned from use in highly populated areas by international law. Entire families were targeted and killed in their homes by Israeli troops at close quarters, leading to wide condemnation and allegations of war crimes by Richard Goldstone on behalf of the UN in a report on the Israeli operation months later. As to the asymmetric nature of the month long conflict, this is reflected in the casualties. An estimated 1400 Palestinians were killed, 1000 of those civilians, with a further 5000 wounded. In contrast, Israeli casualties were 13 dead, including 3 civilians.
On 15 July 2009 an NGO sponsored report was released, comprising the testimonies of 26 Israeli soldiers involved in Operation Cast Lead. Titled Breaking the Silence, the report carried allegations of systematic human rights abuses committed against Palestinian civilians by Israeli troops during the operation that were sanctioned by their commanders.
The ability of soldiers to target and massacre civilians during a military operation can only ever be rooted in a racist attitude which paints the targeted population as untermenschen. In the case of Israel, such racism towards the Palestinians combines with a victim mentality in which the destruction of the Jewish people is at hand unless they destroy those who wish to destroy them first. Abstracted completely from such a distorted worldview of course is any notion of justice for those who’ve suffered decades of oppression and occupation; any notion that the conflict is not fuled by antisemitism, but by an oppressed people struggling against their oppressor, a settler colonial state.
Be that as it may, this toxic mix of racism and exceptionalism has led to the existence of state which since its formation has viewed its repeated violations of international law and its crimes against humanity entirely justified. Indeed, so deeply ingrained is this biblical and historical justification for the actions of the state of Israel that when it comes to international condemnation of its crimes, rather than a cause for reflection and introspection within Israeli society, it only serves to reaffirm the Zionist trope that the whole world is essentially antisemitic, further entrenching it’s view of itself as a last bastion of Jewish defence against a hostile world.
The day to day reality of this perverse worldview involves young Israeli soldiers, mostly conscripts, either humiliating, intimidating and brutalising old men and women at checkpoints, or killing Palestinians in the knowledge they are able to do so with impunity.
On the other hand, however, when those same soldiers come up against a determined and dogged resistance on the ground, their resolve crumbles and they are defeated. Indeed, it is a key reason why Israel now relies on an advanced arsenal of missiles, aircraft, helicopter gunships, drones, and tanks, in its continuing conflict with a resistance comprised of half-starved men and women in Gaza. Such would be the demoralising effect not only on the troops but also and more importantly on Israeli society at large, Israel knows that it cannot afford to sustain heavy casualties.
To put it another way, while Israeli troops are more than willing to kill to maintain the material privileges attached to living in a settler colonial state, one in which their consumer lifestyles are subsidised by the West, increasingly they have demonstrated a reluctance to die for those privileges.
Ultimately, the brutal attack by Israeli commandos on unarmed civilians as they attempted to ferry aid to Gaza recently provides yet more evidence that the moral foundations upon which this apartheid state rests are starting to melt away.
More massacres, such as took place recently in international waters, will certainly follow as the unremitting struggle by the Palestinians and their supporters for justice continues. Regardless, the tide of history cannot be reversed. Moreover, it is a tide which points to one simple and incontrovertible truth.
Palestine will be free.