Ariel Sharon and the Iron Wall Strategy
From the start, Zionist thought has been divided into two main schools. On the one hand we have the heavy-handed school, which favours military solutions to any conflict. The revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky was the founder of this school. In 1923 he published an article entitled ‘The Iron Wall’ in which he argued that Arabs would never accept a Jewish state and so the Jews must “erect an iron wall of Jewish military force”. Zionists must thus have an overwhelmingly superior base of power to deal with any Arabic tendency to resist.
The other school is the school of reconciliation adhered to by moderate Zionists like Moshe Sharet. It believes that all the regional regimes and political powers can accept the existence of a Jewish state and all available diplomatic efforts should be made to achieve reconciliation with the Arab World.
These two conflicting ideologies have been apparent since the early day so Zionism. After the declaration of the State of Israel, they lead to harsh political debate. In practise, Ben Gurion, the first Israeli PM adopted Jabotinsky’s ‘Iron Wall’ philosophy. This at first seems a bizarre move politically as Jabotinsky’s philosophy is in opposition to Ben Gurion’s own party’s policies. However Israeli manoeuvres and operations in the 1948 war give a clear picture of their endorsement of a military option together with a denial of any possible diplomatic solution.
Ben Gurion instructed the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) to follow an offensive military strategy, to show Israel’s military superiority. His instructions were as follows: 1. Any confrontation between Arab and Israeli must take place on Arab land–any Israeli offensive must bring the battle to the Arab territories before it even starts; 2. Because of limited Israeli funds, any battle must bring victory quickly–the Israeli army must inflict devastating damage on Arab enemies.
The Israeli military and political leaders soon defined the criterion by which to measure success–the IDF ‘force of deterrence’. It is a scale that determines the Arabic unwillingness to fight: the greater the unwillingness, the higher the ‘force of deterrence’.
For Ben Gurion and his followers it was crucial the Arab world clearly understood that Israel preferred a military solution. Any given battle should end with a clear-cut Israeli victory. More importantly still was that the Arabs should know that any confrontation would inevitably lead to their defeat. Success of the Israeli offensive strategy was measured by the extent to which the Arab willingness to fight decreased. This pattern was already evident in the early stages of the 1948 war, a war in which the Israelis violated the human rights of Palestinian civilians. The war created more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees and led to an armistice between Israel and its neighbours, an armistice that Arabs regarded as a clear defeat.
By the early Fifties Israel had managed further to refine this offensive doctrine. According to Ben Gurion, any loss of Jewish life must be compensated for in a disproportionate way. Arabs had to learn that Jewish blood was of far higher value than their own. To achieve the best possible results a young, assertive, aggressive and ambitious commander named Ariel Sharon was called upon. He was asked to form a small special commando unit whose role was to show the Arab enemy the extent of Israel’s determination to win under any circumstances.
In 1953, Palestinians crossed the Israeli border near the Jordanian village of Quibya and murdered a Jewish mother and her two children. Sharon and his commando unit, now called the ‘101’, were called to action. They were ordered to enter the village, to blow up the houses, and inflict as much damage on their inhabitants as possible. Sharon was very much the right man for the job. The raid was a complete success. Similar to the recent violence in the Jenin refugee camp where homes were destroyed with their inhabitants inside, Quibya was reduced to a pile of rubble. More than fifty houses were destroyed, and 61 civilians mostly women and children were killed. A UN observer visiting the site concluded that the villagers had been forced to stay in their houses, which were then blown up. The Quibya massacre was internationally condemned. In an Israeli parliamentary debate, Moshe Sharet, the moderate foreign minister, called for an official statement of regret for the action. Ben Gurion thought differently. During a radio broadcast the next day, he denied IDF involvement in the raid and blamed it on retaliating Israeli villagers pushed beyond endurance. As we know, Sharon’s military career did not suffer, quite the opposite. Sharon and the ‘101’ became the role model for the new Hebrew military man, a soldier who murders, attacks beyond enemy lines, who goes far beyond orders even if it means disregarding all concept of humanity. Not only did Sharon’s career not suffer, he was seen as the most promising young Israeli officer and he was swiftly promoted within army ranks, inspiring other young officers to follow in his footsteps. Historically the Quibya massacre was the first in a chain of retaliation raids carried out by the Israeli army. These raids shaped Israeli offensive strategy into a new form of murderous art. A way of thinking that not only led to endless confrontation with the Arab world but also created an ever growing ignorance within Israeli society. A society concerned solely with its own interests while denying anyone else’s.
Looking at it from an Israeli perspective, the offensive doctrine enjoys two major advantages. Firstly, it communicates with Arabs in the only language they understand–violence. Secondly, it provokes condemnation from the international community, something that Israelis translate into immediate political gain.
It is hard to believe but most Israelis believe that Arabs only understand violence. Throughout Israel’s history, there is very little evidence of diplomacy towards Arabs. Even the Oslo Accord is rooted in specific historical circumstances: the PLO was in political and financial ruin (following their support of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War). And then, from the very beginning of the supposed implementation of the Oslo Accord, Israel used military threats to pressurise the Palestinians. The vast majority of Israeli cabinet members past and present are ex-military men. Only a state that has decided to live by the sword and firmly believes in military solutions, would put so many generals in its government.
Israeli Prime Ministers actually love to be condemned by the international community. Any foreign criticism of Israel is interpreted as ‘the pathological anti-semitic behaviour of gentiles’. Israeli politician learn to use this tool early in their careers. Ben Gurion laid down the pattern: “It doesn’t matter what the gentile says, what matters is what the Jews do.” With this statement that legendary PM managed to instantly remind his voters of the history of Jewish persecution, pushing the Jewish people deeper into their safe-haven of segregation, to denial of the outside world. Since in Hebrew the world for gentile–‘goy’–is derogatory, Ben Gurion’s directive to ignore the gentile allows Israelis to celebrate their superiority to the rest of mankind. Ben Gurion’s statement is a call for Israelis to unite behind their leadership and reject any form of foreign criticism. In the Israeli case, the offensive doctrine leaves the international community powerless. On the one hand, lack of criticism is taken by the Israeli public as approval or as a sign of weakness. On the other, any international condemnation leads to increased public support for the political leadership. This may explain the continuous shift to the right in Israeli politics. It also explains the international community’s lack of means to deal with Israeli oppression and atrocities.
Sharon’s military and political career shows that he follows his mentor Ben Gurion religiously. Sharon adopted the offensive doctrine in political life and in military terms. He was the leading figure in the forming and shaping of Israeli retaliation raids and commando attacks. This strategy led the Israelis deep into the Sinai desert in the ‘Suez Operation’ (1956). Following Colonel Sharon’s orders Israeli paratroopers landed in the ‘Mitle Pass’ in the heart of the Sinai desert with the objective to cause heavy losses to the Egyptian army. In practice the battle cost too many Israeli lives and within a short space of time Israel had to pull its forces out of the Sinai. The operation was regarded as a waste of human life. In the ’73 war, General Sharon led his brigade across the Suez Canal. Again the battle costs too many Israeli lives. Sharon refused to let his higher command show restraint, he believed the sight of an Israeli soldier on the western bank of the Suez Canal would bring the Egyptians to their knees. Egypt brought in some heavy international pressure and Israel had to withdraw its forces. Furthermore, the cease-fire talks led to peace talks (1977) in which Israel ‘lost’ the Sinai forever.
In the Lebanon War (1982), Sharon, now Minister for Defence, led the cabinet to believe that the Palestinian issue could be silenced forever by a military assault against the PLO in Lebanon. He was determined to generate a light conflict, a mini war with Syria in order to wipe their forces out of southern Lebanon. The Israeli offensive doctrine does not dissociate between Arabs. From the perspective of the ‘Iron Wall’, all Arabs are the same. From the very early stages of the Lebanese campaign it was evident that Israel was being drawn into a vicious civil war between the different Lebanese ethnic and religious groups. As predicted by some Israeli intelligence experts, shortly after the invasion of Lebanon, the most terrible massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila took place. The Christian militias who carried out the massacres, received approval from Israeli high command to enter the camps. While Israeli forces were not directly involved in the massacres themselves, Israel was regarded as responsible for the atrocities taking place within its invaded territory. The massacres were condemned by the international community. In Israel, the leftwing movement ‘Peace Now’ managed to bring thousands of people into the streets to demonstrate against the government. In a speech to the Israeli parliament, reflecting on the left’s opposition to the Lebanese campaign, Menachem Begin, the then Prime Minister complained that “gentiles kill gentiles and the Jews are blaming each other”. This again follows the Israeli right-wing pattern, using the international outrage to de-legitimise the Israeli left. Begin blamed the Israeli left for collaborating with the gentile anti-semites against the Jewish Sharon. So again international outrage generated by an Israeli offensive was used within Israel as a political weapon against any opposition. Menachen Begin eventually agreed to a public inquiry into the massacre and the committee lead by supreme justice Achoen found Sharon unfit for ministerial duty. In the short term, Sharon’s conviction was regarded as a victory for sense. In the long term, the conviction was taken by the right wing as proof of Sharon’s devotion to the ‘Iron Wall’ philosophy. In other words it made him the ideal Israeli Prime Minister when the time came.
The result of the Lebanon war is not yet clear as the war is not completely over. What is clear is that it took Israeli forces almost twenty years to get out of Lebanon. While being in Lebanon the Israeli army has managed to lose its ‘power of deterrence’. The Israeli army–the best-equipped army in the Middle East–found itself totally defeated by the Hizbulah, a small, devoted group of guerilla fighters. In the shadow of the Israeli defeat in Lebanon, the Palestinian people within the occupied territories started to redevelop their nationalistic aspirations. In 1987 this aspiration matured into the first Palestinian uprising, the first Intifada.
Since the Lebanon war, the Israeli ‘power of deterrence’ has continued to deteriorate. The IDF has not managed to develop the fighting skills to overcome Lebanese civil resistance. On top of this, following the Oslo Accord, the Israeli civilian population has faced a growing threat of terror inside Israel. For the first time in Israeli history, the civil population found itself within a war zone. This is an important point. In the Israeli world-view it is Arabs who are supposed to die, not Israelis. There are two main reasons: 1. it calls to mind (and takes as its justification) the holocaust in which Jews were dying just because they were Jews; 2. it goes directly against the idea of ‘offensive doctrine’. Israelis had become used to the fact that any confrontation with the Arab world took place on Arab land. Suddenly the confrontation was starting to take place in the centre of Israeli cities–a catastrophe and totally unacceptable. In the light of Palestinian terror, a strong right wing slogan appeared: “Let the IDF win”, meaning: Let us once again erect the Iron Wall. Who is the right man for the job? Without doubt Ariel Sharon: the master of the offensive doctrine, and Israel’s most celebrated war criminal; the man who proved to know no mercy. And the Israelis were right. It took Sharon just one year in office to commit the massacre in Jenin.
The operation in the Jenin refugee camp was, more or less, the embodiment of what the offensive doctrine is all about. It was taking place, more or less, on enemy land. It was, more or less, fast, and it was, more or less, a ‘clear cut’ victory. The ‘more or less’ is crucial. Jenin is not really on enemy land, it is territory invaded by Israel. It looks as if the Israeli colonial forces are the first colonialists to destroy and demolish their own colonies. It took the Israelis a little too long to declare that the battle in Jenin was over, the might of the Israeli armed forces was not enough to break the spirit of the few determined Palestinian freedom fighters. Lastly, if it was a clear victory, it is not entirely clear who won. The Israelis? As T. Larson, the UN envoy to the Middle East, put it “in Jenin, Israel has lost its moral high-ground”. For this statement Mr Larson became persona non grata in the Jewish state. If anything is clear it is that, after Jenin, the Palestinians are determined to fight and do what ever it takes to achieve their freedom.
Analysing the Jenin battle and the Israeli decision making process in the light of the offensive doctrine gives us the following: on the morning of April 3, Israeli ground forces enter into the Jenin refugee camp. From the start they encounter some fierce Palestinian fighting. Naturally the Israeli High Command provides more support, and more tanks and helicopter gun-ships move in. It is unusual to use tanks and helicopter gun-ships in highly populated areas but within the IDF offensive doctrine, the end (victory) is far more important than the means (war crimes). In the mean time, Israeli commanders on the ground are coming under severe pressure to complete their mission. They use heavier weaponry, air-to-ground missiles as well as tanks, and they care less and less about who is getting killed as long as they are Arabs. As a result more civilians get hit: the scene on the ground starts to look wantonly destructive. The Israeli High Command decides to seal the area. Press and rescue forces are not allowed in. Now the forces on the ground are working against time. They must provide a clear-cut conclusion. So they decide to wipe out the centre of the camp suspected to be a ‘pocket of resistance’. In doing so they kill many civilians, mainly old and disabled people who could not run away. When the battle is over Jenin is a slaughterhouse; the streets show the most terrifying scenes imaginable. Civilian corpses all over the place, the many Palestinian wounded bleeding to death. Still the Israelis show no mercy, still the Red Cross and rescue forces are not allowed in. The Israelis must decide whether to show mercy, to save those who can be saved or whether to try to conceal the evidence of shocking crimes against humanity. Naturally, following Sharon’s history of crimes against humanity, the decision is fairly simple. The Israelis decide to bulldoze the centre of the Jenin refugee camp. They turn the Jenin camp into a ‘Palestinian Ground Zero’. Occupied houses are blown up with their inhabitants inside, like the Quibya massacre fifty years earlier.
But, although the similarities are obvious, there are important differences. In Quibya, Sharon was a platoon commander, in Jenin he is an elected Prime Minister. He commits his crime in the name of all the Israeli people. As expected, as soon as international criticism is voiced, Sharon defines the current battle as the ‘war for the existence of the Jewish nation’. So, according to Sharon, the massacre in Jenin was carried out not only in the name of all Israelis but in the name of all Jewish people. And if this was not enough, Sharon declares that, like George Bush, he is conducting a holy war on terror. This kind of talk is directed at the American people. Sharon becomes an American messenger or, at least, an American platoon commander. As we have seen both the Jewish world and American administrations have restrained from criticising Sharon publicly. We can conclude that Sharon is committing his war crimes both in the name of the Jewish people and the American nation unless proved differently. Unless some major Rabbis stand up and firmly denounce Sharon’s atrocities; unless the American administration decides to stop supporting the Jewish state; unless these two happen soon, Sharon will seem to be acting in the name both of the Jewish people and the American nation.
Clearly, seen through Israeli eyes, Sharon is the right man for the job. He is the embodiment of everything Israel is about. He is offensive, murderous and righteous. Sharon has proved once again that he acts as a self-sufficient Iron Wall. The only real question remaining is whether we want to live in a world in which Israel, a criminally offensive state, is accepted amongst nations.
Gilad Atzmon is an acclaimed jazz musician (saxophonist/clarinettist), the top selling jazz musician in the UK. His group is the Orient House Ensemble. He is also the author of a novel, Guide to the Perplexed, just published in Israel to great acclaim.