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Here’s Professor Martin van Creveld, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel’s most prominent military historian, talking on Austraian TV with Jennifer Byrne.
Byrne: How has it come to this, Martin… how is it that the mighty Israeli army–one of the world’s most powerful — with its helicopter gunships, with its tanks, with it’s missiles, can be losing to this relatively small, relatively under-armed if fanatical group of Palestinians?
Van Creveld: The same thing has happened to the Israeli army as happened to all the rest that have tried over the last sixty years. Basically it’s always a question of the relationship of forces. If you are strong, and you are fighting the weak for any period of time, you are going to become weak yourself. If you behave like a coward then you are going to become cowardly–it’s only a question of time.
The same happened to the British when they were here… the same happened to the French in Algeria… the same happened to the Americans in Vietnam… the same happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan… the same happened to so many people that I can’t even count them
The problem is that you cannot prove yourself against someone who is much weaker than yourself. They are in a lose/lose situation. If you are strong and fighting the weak, then if you kill your opponent then you are a scoundrel… if you let him kill you, then you are an idiot. So here is a dilemma which others have suffered before us, and for which as far as I can see there is simply no escape.
Now the Israeli army has not by any means been the worst of the lot. It has not done what for instance the Americans did in Vietnam… it did not use napalm, it did not kill millions of people. So everything is relative, but by definition, to return to what I said earlier, if you are strong and you are fighting the weak, then anything you do is criminal.
Byrne: How could General Sharon–Prime Minister Sharon–be getting it so wrong, by your analysis?
Van Creveld: It’s not a question of personalities, it’s a question of the balance of forces. I’ll use a metaphor that I’ll take from Lao-tzu–the Chinese sage who lived about 2,400 years ago–‘a sword put into salt water will rust’–it is only a question of time. And this is happening to the Israeli army and to the Israeli society, almost regardless of who is leading it.
We have arrived at the point where, if you will, like Johnson in Vietnam, we are constantly asking the other side for a ceasefire, and the other side either will or will not respond as it pleases him–the reason being of course that they have so much less to lose.
Byrne: The reason being also, in a sense, that it’s what isn’t about, isn’t it? A ceasefire would provide security for the Israelis, which is what they want, but it would not providestatehood for the Palestinians, which is what they want.
Van Creveld: Exactly. The other side will definitely not have a ceasefire without some considerable political achievement. If I were Arafat and the Palestinians, I would not put an end to this intafada, because the way I see it, from the first day of the first intafada they have been winning.
Byrne: What options does the Israeli army have, do you think?
Van Creveld: Nothing will work.
Byrne: Nothing at all? Do you think there’s no change of strategy?
Van Creveld: No. There is one thing that can be done–and that is to put and end to the situation whereby we are the strong fighting the weak, because that is the most stupid situation in which anybody can be.
Byrne: And how do you do that?
Van Creveld: Exactly. How do you do that. You do that by A, waiting for a suitable opportunity… B, doing whatever it takes to restore the balance of power between us and the Palestinians… C, removing 90% of the causes of the conflict, by pulling out… and D, building a wall between us and the other side, so tall that even the birds cannot fly over it…. so as to avoid any kind of friction for a long long time in the future History proves that walls work. The Roman wall worked for hundreds of years… the Great Chinese Wall worked, not forever, but for hundreds of years… the wall in Korea has been working for fifty years… the wall between Turks and Greeks in Cyprus is working…. the Berlin Wall worked beautifully…. Unfortunately, the Israeli army insists against all military logic on being present on both sides of the wall. We could formally finish the problem at least in Gaza, in 48 hours, by getting out and building a proper wall. And then of course, if anybody tries to climb over the wall we kill him.
Byrne: What about the many thousands of extremely belligerent Israeli settlers that would be on the wrong side of the wall?
Van Creveld: If it were up to me, I would tell those people–and you’re quite right, many of them are quite belligerent–look, ladies and gentlemen, you have been magnificent, you have served us well, you have protected us all those years, but this is coming to an end. If you choose to stay, it’s your problem–you are on your own. My guess is that 95% of them will come home.
Byrne: What about another scenario, which has been much discussed in recent months–which is one of full military solution? Basically, the Israeli army just goes in… it doesn’t build a wall–it basically blows up the Palestinian home… razes the camps…stops, as it might say, pussyfooting around, and it’s “curtains”?
Van Creveld: Look… a home that has been demolished offers even better shelter than a home that stands intact. The Americans in Vietnam tried it. They killed between two-and-a-half and three million Vietnamese. I don’t see that it helped them much.
Byrne: Martin, just personally… can you bear the thought of living in Jerusalem behind a wall–as the only way to be safe?
Van Creveld: Quite to the contrary–I came to live in Jerusalem in 1964… three years before the 1967 war. There actually was a wall, and life was wonderful. Nothing ever happened. Jerusalem was the quietest, safest place on earth. More than that, between 1957 and 1967 the number of Israelis who lost their lives as a result of enemy action was just thirty-five. Now we pray for a week in which we shall not lose thirty-five people.