Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defence Forces Made A Nation (Verso: London, August 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Haim Bresheeth-Zabner (HBZ): There is a lacuna of knowledge and understanding about Israel, which took me a long time to gauge after first arriving in Britain in 1972. While people found the colonial apartheid regime in South Africa easy to comprehend and oppose, old clichés and lies still hold in most people’s minds about Israel, even now: it is small state which has fought against superior Arab armies to gain its freedom; it was a socialist society (Kibbutz…); it is a democracy where Arab citizens enjoy full rights; it seeks peace with its neighbors; a secular, modern polity—a country of all Jews…
If you start from there, you get nowhere. I started thinking about decoding the Israeli box for Western readers.
How does one speak about a settler-colonial apartheid society, with its ultra-modern army, its system of exporting death and destruction worldwide, its reliance on a Jewish version of the shari‘a system, its extensive racialization of the social structure, and the most advanced propaganda system in the twenty-first century? The use of hi-tech to control millions of Palestinians who have lacked any human rights for over five decades, its unique history of over seven decades of Emergency Regulations which have never lapsed for one moment of its existence? Its ability to use exceptionalism as if it was equal to the United States? It being the nation most supported financially and militarily by the US taxpayer, for reasons never fully disclosed? Its abuse of the Holocaust and of the history of anti-Semitism so as to make itself unassailable? Its success of turning the people of the book into the people of the tank, gun, and missile? Its use of biblical myths on which to construct an oppressive, ultra-modern military society? Its history of endless wars and armed conflict—more than any other modern nation? Its ability to gain the support of both western liberal democracies and the most oppressive dictatorships and neo-fascist states of the new millennium?
What socio-conceptual lens would be the right one to focus the debate on this extraordinary society—a twenty-first-century state operating with a mix of a nineteenth-century model of racialized military apartheid, and pre-historical mythology? And mainly—how does it get away with it all?
The first rule when analyzing such a complex phenomenon is not to limit oneself to describing the symptoms, but to concentrate on the underlying tenets, causes, and socio-political machinery used to implement them. I have chosen the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), because they are the most definitive, unique, and characteristic socio-political construction of Zionism. The IDF was not only the first important institution Zionism had perfected, but also the main institution shaping and defining the Israeli society and state. To understand Israel, one has to understand the IDF—an army unlike the American, British, French, Russian or Chinese, or any other national military force.
An Army Like No Other is an attempt to address this multi-headed Hydra, to describe analytically its complex and developing history. This is done through introducing the peculiarities of the Israeli social, political, racial, intellectual, cultural, and economic project of military settler colonialism—a colonial project which started at the exact point at which colonialism was withering away. It has been the scaffolding which has supported the building of a modern Jewish Sparta and justified its exclusivist Jewish apartheid. It is the only institution in which almost every Israeli Jew partakes and supports, while most are more divided on many other political topics.
The IDF is Israel, pure and simple.
What one does—Marx tells us—determines and shapes what one is, how one conceptualizes. By specializing in war, oppression, denial of human rights, development of armaments, tactics and strategy of military control, methods of legal oppression, and by exporting such knowhow across the globe, Israel has become what it now is. The Israeli Jew sees reality though a gunsight. Israel is an army which has built itself a state, forming the Israeli nation in its image, to serve its colonial aims.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HBZ: It is important to first state what the book is not—it is not a military history of Israeli battles and wars. That is of interest only to few military historians; instead, the book is a critical history of the Israeli society through the refracting prism of the IDF—the institution which created and formed the Israeli apartheid state.
The book deals with the socio-political, cultural history of a modern apartheid state using pre-modern modes and reference-grids, including the sophisticated employment of religion by a secular state, turning itself into a militarized tribal theocracy by offering and denying rights on a confessional basis. This work describes how all aspects of life—politics, economy, culture, research, art, technology, language, and even inter-gender relations are formed and dictated through the crucible of the IDF—from the latest smartphone app, to the latest joke, literary of musical hit, or the very structure of everyday language used by Israeli Jews. If Jews were once valued (or despised, by racists) for their many cultural contributions to many different societies, ranging from ancient Rome to al-Andaluz, from nineteenth-century Germany to the twentieth-century United States, Israel has distinguished itself by its military means and methods, its offensive hardware and software, its ability to spy on and spike modern societies, to control masses in cities like Gaza from remote technological control centers and by brutally destroying thousands of non-combatants with total impunity.
To do this, the book relies upon a wide-range of socio-historical research, ranging across various modes of historical analysis, socio-cultural work examining the Israeli society in action, histories of labor-relations, racial tensions, military history, and the history of cultural production of identity. Creating a modern nation out of a collection of individuals, a nation capable of operating one of the most efficient militaries around, is a complex task, which is here examined and analyzed. The fact that this army is mostly unsuccessful is making this arduous task even more crucial.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
HBZ: My previous written work dealt with Israeli and Palestinian cultural history, concentrating on the cinematic creation and forming of meanings in the nationalist context of Zionism and Palestine. I looked at the ways in which cinema is used in Israel and Palestine (and some other countries in the region) to define as well as question identity, and the functions such identities serve. While Israeli and Palestinian cinema are both important and indicative creations of the social strata, the IDF is certainly the most complex and successful creation of Israeli culture, so this book shifts my focus from the periphery of cinematic meanings, to the center-stage of the military state itself and the ways it shapes the society which created it. The book closely examines key Zionist texts which have shaped and modified the Israeli mindset, enabling the social-engineering project described, and the ways in which it continues to operate in a definitive mode.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HBZ: This is not a book for specialists or military aficionados of war and conflict. It offers a foundation of knowledge and understanding for the educated reader who would like to decode the Israeli enigma, the transmogrification of the European and Arab Jews from pacific, marginal communities suffering from racism, into a racial empire built around a military state and racial exclusivism.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HBZ: I am completing, together with my Iraqi film partner, the documentarist Maysoon Pachachi, a feature-length documentary about the Israel/Palestine colonial conflict. We have interviewed an equal number of Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and activists, attempting to map the progressive options of a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict. I hope to complete the film in early 2021.
I am also completing two other manuscripts: a formative history of Zionism before 1948, examining the various historical junctures which shaped Zionist theory and practices, and a novel centering on the early 1950s in Jaffa, based around the life of a young boy in (at the time) a mixed city, leading to the neo-colonial 1956 attack on Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France. I hope to complete both books in 2021.
A new undertaking is the preparation of a photographic exhibition and a print publication on the conceptual aftermath of historical Al Andalus, concentrating on current realities of the part of Spain which has brought us the notion of Convivencia, or peaceful coexistence, into being during the centuries of Muslim rule. The current implications—political and cultural—are immense.
J: In what ways is this book innovative?
HBZ: The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has justifiably attracted more written work than any other contemporary conflict. Ironically, the role of the military as a formative agent of Israeli society has hardly been covered methodically, and this book aims to help and address this lacuna.
Excerpt from the book
Note: This is the part of the book which deals with the process of ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, its justification and later denial.
The various diaries of politicians included those of Ben-Gurion and Sharett, written in coded language with some details redacted. It is with later publications, like Rabin’s diary Pinkas Sherut (Service Record), that this question resurfaces. Rabin’s first draft included a mention of Ben-Gurion’s famous hand wave, answering (Rabin’s and Allon’s) repeated inquiries “What shall we do with the Arabs?” raised during Operation Dani, concluding with the expulsion of some 60,000 from Lydda and Ramle. While not replying during the meeting, when the query was repeated afterward, Ben-Gurion gestured unmistakably: “Out.” They got his message and executed it brutally and efficiently.Thus, they had their expulsion order from the supreme leader of Zionism but managed to avoid a (written) record of it.
The cynical Zionism of Ben-Gurion and the IDF officers responsible for the ethnic cleansing is pointed out by Yitzhak Laor, interpreting Ben-Gurion’s gesture as avoidance of written orders.One may clearly infer the methodical nature, not only of the ethnic cleansing process, but of the systematic political denial from Ben-Gurion on down. During a debate in the Provisional State Council, in the middle of the fiercest battles, Zvi Lurie, a Mapam representative, asks Ben-Gurion pointedly:
Do you know that Arab communities which did not take part in military activities against the state of Israel and which did not shelter enemy gangs, and whose inhabitants are leaving the areas under our control—are being destroyed? Is it known to you that these include communities far from the front, and that it will be difficult to find a military-strategic justification for such destruction, and which government authority is deciding on it?
Ben-Gurion replied: “I do not know and there is no government authority given to this. Such activity is clearly prohibited outside actual fighting times.”
In this manner, Ben-Gurion was responsible for the ethnic cleansing, complemented by the systemic silencing of debate through lying, denial, censorship, bureaucratic prevarication, and conscious abjuration.
This cosy relationship has endured ever since; it is best to avoid written evidence where a wink and a nod will do. Israeli society has become used to this operational mode, and it still pertains. Only gradually was evidence released by official sources, memoirs, diaries, journalistic inquiries, and later, historians’ careful digging in the massive archives in which the documentation is buried. In fact, in 2018, Netanyahu has decided to close the archive to researchers for another two decades.
We are unlikely to have the full record of massacres committed in this period by the IDF, but disturbing evidence keeps emerging. Some has recently come to light in an article by Yair Auron in Haaretz on February 5, 2016, describing a series of massacres. Typically, it was not translated for the English edition, so it could not be accessed by non-Hebrew-speaking readers. An analysis of the issue is available on another website, quoting at length from the Hebrew article.The original article quotes a contemporary unpublished letter reporting on the al-Dawayima massacre in October 1948, written by a participating soldier and sent to a Mapam member, S. Kaplan. Shocked by the soldier’s testimony, he sent the letter to Eliezer Peri, the editor. The letter makes for disturbing reading.
A testimony provided to me by an officer which was in [Al] Dawayima the day after its conquering: The soldier is one of ours, intellectual, reliable, in all 100%. He had confided in me out of a need to unload the heaviness of his soul from the horror of the recognition that such level of barbarism can be reached by our educated and cultured people. He confided in me because not many are the hearts today who are able to listen.
There was no battle and no resistance (and no Egyptians). The first conquerors killed from eighty to a hundred Arabs [including] women and children. The children were killed by smashing of their skulls with sticks. Is it possible to shout about Deir Yassin and be silent about something much worse?
One soldier boasted that he raped an Arab woman and after- wards shot her. An Arab woman with a days-old infant was used for cleaning the back yard where the soldiers eat. She serviced them for a day or two, after which they shot her and the infant. The soldier tells that the commanders who are cultured and polite, considered good guys in society, have become vile murderers, and this occurs not in the storm of battle and heated response, but rather from a system of expulsion and destruction. The fewer Arabs remain— the better. This principle is the main political motive of [the] expulsions and acts of horror which no-one objects to, not in the field command nor amongst the highest military command. I myself was at the front for two weeks and heard boasting stories of soldiers and commanders, of how they excelled in the acts of hunting and “fucking” [sic]. To fuck an Arab, just like that, and in any circumstance, is considered an impressive mission and there is competition on winning this [trophy].
The letter supplied graphic evidence of war crimes. On its publication in Haaretz, seven decades after the events, the main public reaction was of disinterest—Israelis have become so inured to worse crimes by the IDF in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank that such early atrocities raise no eyebrows. Despite numerous denials, it is clear that the IDF has committed a series of massacres and other war crimes between December 1947 and February 1949 as well as later.These have been presented as “deviations” from the supposedly high moral code of the IDF, but they were in fact the necessary steps of wide-ranging, intentional ethnic cleansing.
Expelling two thirds of all Palestinian Arabs was not a simple operation and could not take place without planning and commit- ting wide-ranging atrocities. During the war but after 750,000 Palestinians had already become refugees, the UN recognized the atrocious blunder it had committed in November 1947, which ignited the war and sealed the fate of the Palestinians. By December 1948, Israel controlled most of Palestine and denied the refugees a return to their homes. Only then did the UN General Assembly try to redress this earlier mistake by passing Resolution 194 (III), which stated in part:
The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible.
But the expulsion and ethnic cleansing were a fait accompli; Resolution 194 became one of many UN resolutions totally ignored by Israel, establishing a pattern of exceptionalism that still holds true. This was not the first UN resolution Israel ignored with impunity. Resolution 181, passed in November 1947, recommended partition, but Israel by then controlled most of Palestine and refused to vacate areas allocated to the Arab state. The UN had not reacted to the thrashing of Resolution 181 by Israeli conquests and then avoided naming Israel in Resolution 194 (III) above; likewise, when Israel refused to allow the refugees to return, it did nothing to enforce its resolutions.
Thus, early in the history of both the UN and the Israeli state, a pattern emerged: while the UN may occasionally pass resolutions demanding action or censuring Israel, it remains oblivious to Israel’s habitual rejection of international law. In all such cases, Israel was buffered by the support of Western nations led by the United States, which afforded it immunity against punitive action. The UN was allowed no role in trying to resolve the conflict it had helped to esca- late; its refusal to act on Israeli rejection was proof of its culpability and feebleness.
After the signing of the armistice agreements in 1949, there were additional “adjustments,” one of which meant both an achievement and a problem for Israel. Israel had forced Jordan (earlier Transjordan) to cede the Wadi ‘Ara villages, in what was termed the Small Triangle; it comprised some sixteen villages and a section of main highway connecting Jerusalem to Haifa, later replaced by a costal road. Israel forced King Abdullah to cede the territory. “The British charge d’affaires in Amman, Pirie Gordon, compared Abdullah’s cession of territory under military threat to Czech President Hacha’s capitulation to Hitler in March 1939.” This large area of prime agricultural land was a boon, but it came with a “mortgage” of 15,000 Arab inhabitants within the ceded area. A specific provision in the agreement prohibited Israel from ethnically cleansing these Arab villagers.
This suspicion was justified: Israel turned several thousands of the remaining citizens of the town Majdal (later renamed Ashkelon) and the village Zakaria into refugees after signing the armistice agreements. Without the support of international law and the UN, Jordan had few options when Israel threatened it with military attacks if it refused to cede territory; its army had suffered badly in 1948. Nor was Egypt capable of stopping the continued ethnic cleansing into the Gaza Strip, which it nominally controlled. Thus, Ben-Gurion managed to establish not only UN irrelevance on Palestine, but an international climate of denial and collusion whenever Israel threatened or attacked its Arab neighbors. For seven decades since then, this pattern of collusion was maintained and reinforced, affording Israel total impunity from international jurisdiction, through its diplomatic and political Western tutelage.
While it is undeniable that this political impunity/legal immunity has its roots in the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry, such an explanation is inadequate when used today to explain Israel’s relationship with the United States. Unlike many nations in Europe that collaborated with the Nazis to a greater or lesser extent in the process of identifying, incarcerating, and deporting Jews to the death camps, the United States and the United Kingdom were hardly prone to guilt feelings over the Holocaust; yet both governments played a crucial role in defending Israel from international justice. It is time to come up with a better explanation for the continued support they and other Western states offer Israel today.