[History, TAU] Yossi Schwartz / Tired but Satisfied: Israel's Strategies in the Demographic War Against the Palestinians from 1948 to the Present

Written by Yossi Schwartz for the Alternative Information Center (AIC)     

Tuesday, 07 October 2008  

The establishment of the Zionist enterprise in the territories of historical Palestine, from its beginnings to the founding of the state in 1948, was implemented by exploiting the entire array of means available for colonial settlement: the building of civil society, financial institutions, agricultural settlements, extensive diplomacy and of course the use of a wide array of power mechanisms, whilst relying on the protective umbrella of a superpower. The occupation of the territories added in 1967, in contrast, was a purely military act, an entirely Israeli product. The occupation of these territories since then has been defined legally and administratively first and foremost as a military mission.

Special Cyclical Logic

For one who ideologically aligns with the Zionist narrative, which describes the wars of Israel—from the beginning of the Zionist enterprise to its last attack against Lebanon—as a series of border incidents that began with the enemy attack against an always-surprised-and-defensive-military, it is simple to view the cyclical nature of Israel’s military actions as deriving from the relation between Arab hostility, their ongoing aspiration to destroy Israel and acquire the power necessary to open a new round at the appropriate place and time. In contrast, one who assumes that Israeli policies since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise until today were aggressive, active and full of initiative—and now there are such people amongst even relatively conservative historians—must still explain the special cyclical logic of Israel’s wars. This comparison of force can be thus explained: Zionist diplomacy contends that it suffers from a chronic shortage of “a partner for peace.” In contrast to this contention, it is the unwillingness of the Arab side to cooperate with the Israeli diplomatic effort to avoid discussion of an egalitarian division of resources and instead engage in endless talk about “peace,” as a utopian event belonging to the undefined future. So, the Israeli military has, in reality, always suffered from the absence of a partner for war, at least at the level of conventional warfare between political entities that can allow for a forced change of borders. Apart from the offensive flare-up in 1973 (which, in contrast to the obvious narrative of Israeli society, was not forced on Israel but was another assault in a series of battles beginning with the Israeli attack on Arab armies in 1967 and ending with the ceasefire agreements of 1974), throughout its years of existence, Israel primarily faced a diplomatic rejection of political recognition and sporadic guerilla fighting.

The building of the Israeli fighting force, together with the massive nuclear capacity that accompanies it, is not intended for implementation, but to preserve a diplomatic, economic and military balance of power founded on absolute supremacy, an arrangement that exists between every colonial power and the countries and communities in its area of influence. It is not coincidental that on the regional level, the forces possessing the capacity and motivation to reach a comparable level of influence stood up to Israel at every stage: Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. It is also not coincidental that all three of these states attempted, primarily (although unsuccessfully, to this day), to limit in various ways the nuclear gap, which predetermines the borders of the diplomatic and military game, the bottom line meaning of which is always: one-sided imposition of the Israeli dictate.

If indeed this picture accurately describes the reality in which the Israeli military acts, it is possible to examine the contention increasingly heard lately, primarily following the entanglement with Lebanon in the summer of 2006, that the Israeli forces did not succeed in attaining a military resolution or a clear victory in any war since 1967. Some added that this inability to achieve decisiveness is a result of a situation in which the political rank in Israel did not succeed in giving the military clear goals and imposed upon it an unfocused mission. On the contrary, I wish to contend here that the strategic goal was clear throughout, at least to those responsible for its implementation, and they have strived to implement it in a continuous and consistent manner, adjusting to a surrounding that has significantly changed in the past two decades.

The strategic goal to which I am referring derives from the principles that the true interest of the Zionist side from the beginning of the conflict to today is not territorial but demographic, or more precisely the ongoing aspiration to alter demographic relations over increasingly large territories. From this perspective, the true events did not occur (and are not occurring) during violent outbreaks—which naturally attract the most attention—but in an ongoing, systematic and daily manner, through both diplomacy and war, as tactical and complementary processes toward the goal.

Naked Control

The primary achievements of fighting in 1948-1949 were the destruction of village and urban centers and the deportation of Palestinians from extensive territories, and most of the efforts in the years after this were invested in protecting this achievement against the “infiltrators” and completing the dispossession of those who remained in their places. The demographic and economic developments were what permitted, 18 years later, the expansion of the process and the swallowing of additional territories along with another massive deportation which dispossessed the remaining population of the vast majority of their landholdings and a proletarization of the landless occupied population. This population served to build the economic capacities which are part of the overall colonial power of Israel. The change in the global situation at the end of the 1980’s and beginning of 1990’s resulted in a massive immigration of Jews (“new immigrants”) and non-Jews (“foreign workers”) in the 1990’s, and altered the mission concerning the occupied Palestinian population. No longer dispossession (which was completed) or exploitation (which became redundant), but the naked technology of power, whether through ethnic units of the Israeli military (border police) or sub-contractors (the Palestinian Authority).

The ability of the Jewish-Zionist colonial project to grab control over more and more land in the Middle East was connected throughout the years to a combination of internal and external factors, which can be grouped together in three major categories:

1.    External factors created an international constellation which permitted the massive employment of force. The constraint forced on Israel to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula  after it was occupied in 1956 resulted from an incorrect analysis of the international mood and balance of powers. Lessons from the 1956 crisis were learned and implemented, and eventually led Israel to take cover in the shadow of the American superpower in a manner that would protect it from similar errors. Beyond this episode, Israel generally knew to negotiate through a winning combination of international manipulations, which created around it an umbrella of extensive privileges and retrospective approval for almost every step it took.

2.    The regional consideration was related to Israeli military power and an evaluation of the balance of powers in relation to the Arab armies. In general, it is possible to state that the crushing balance of power in favor of the Israeli military was tested one time only: in 1973 it appeared as if the power balance demanded a price that Israeli society would refuse to pay over an extended period of time. Also here, lessons were learned immediately: the primary Arab military force, Egypt, was taken out of the circle of fighting while making the necessary concessions, and Israel could continue with even more force in the remaining fronts.

3.    The social factor is complex, hidden and to a great extent the determinant factor of them all: the complex of factors responsible for the ability of Israeli society to digest and police the results of its occupations without descending into an open totalitarian regime as defined by international standards. Here is the key to strategic decisions from the school of Ben Gurion concerning the extent of taking over Palestinian territories in 1949. Even in the situation created following the violent deportation of a large portion of the Palestinian population of the territories held by the state of Israel and the destruction of all the urban and a majority of the rural centers, a huge and ongoing effort was required to complete the dispossession of the minority that remained and to preserve the Jewish-Ashkenazi character of the state of the masters. Even today, almost 60 years afterwards, the dispossession has still not been completed with the Bedouin lands in the Negev, large areas of the Galilee and some of the urban centers (the “mixed” cities).

And still, after more than 40 years of occupation, it is important to try and focus the discussion on how, and to what extent, the Israeli military has changed in the wake of the massive occupation of territories in 1967 and the rule over them to this day. Here comes the question of continuity between Israeli policies prior to 1967 and afterwards, primarily in light of the dominant paradigm amongst the liberal Zionist Israeli Left, which views the occupation of 1967 as a watershed that altered the face of Israeli society and its relations with its surroundings. Beyond this, the discussion touches upon a series of generally held beliefs, from the assumption that the structural changes in the Israeli military reflect changes in the character of the society and regime in Israel, and to the assumption that the dominant part played by the military in the daily maintenance of the occupation also empowers its rule in any future development. To all of this is added the increasing questioning, from the beginning of the first Intifada, throughout the Oslo years and primarily during the second Intifada, the extent that the Israeli military is directly responsible for the escalation in the violent conflict.

Tripled Division

Since 1967, the political-public structures in Israel were transformed into a complex system that holds multifaceted discussions, possessing various functio'ns directed internally and externally. In a situation in which a lie becomes the truth and truth becomes a lie, it is extremely difficult to decide on everything concerning the policies and intentions of Israel, according to its statements and the convoluted political discussion that it creates. It is easier to attempt to determine intention by way of what is actually done. Here, it is possible to point to numerous systems that functi'on securely and with a clear purpose. This includes the settlement system, the economic system and the varied systems of security forces—the civil police force, border police, military, and secret services—implemented to control the range of oppressed populations in the various areas of Israel.

In order to understand the role of the military in the complex of processes to preserve the “occupation” following 1967, attention must be paid first of all to the key role assigned to it from the first years of the state in relation to the Arab population. The severance of the remaining Palestinian refugees from their material and political property after 1949 was implemented under a “military government.” The struggle for the most important resource, land, was conducted primarily through confiscation for military purposes, and primarily in the frontier regions. Intelligence personnel fulfilled a substantial portion of the daily tracking of the population, both in the territories under Israeli control and those over its borders. Also, as a primary symbolic resource, the military served as a main tool for political oppression, first and foremost from the decision not to enlist the Palestinians of 1948 to military service. More than an “enlightened” decision to refrain from forced conscription, there was here a conscious decision to force on the Palestinians no conscription, thereby permitting their continued marginalization and exclusion from political resources. The assumption was that military service would strengthen their demand for civil integration, a demand that Israel does not intend to allow for, as testified to by the treatment the Bedouins and Druze receive. Their enlistment into the security forces did not improve the situation of their communities, and filled a central role in the political division of the remaining Palestinian minority under Israeli rule into smaller groups.

The military government was officially cancelled in 1966, after it fulfilled a majority of its roles, and was not long after imposed on the Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1967. Here also it served as a primary means in the battle for the resource of land. The removal of the military regime from 1948 Palestinians and its imposition a short time later on the 1967 Palestinians continues even today to be the primary tool for implementing the internal and external policies of Israel—total formal separation between the occupied territories and those under Israeli sovereignty. This separation of course only relates to Palestinians, while Israeli security forces, settlers, other Israelis and those holding foreign passports can move freely within the territories. In the first stage, the military created two hostile groups through the system of selective military enlistment and the regime that it imposed, and since 1967 it has established a three way division: an enlisted group that is diverted more and more to missions of direct rule in the occupied territories; a group of subjects with more rights, i.e., Palestinian citizens of Israel; and finally those completely excluded from all participation in the political game and from all civil rights. The mental border today passing through “Arab Israelis” and the rest of their people—a border that is expressed in the civil proposals raised in the past few years by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and which defined them as a matter of fact and with no exception as a minority group within the Jewish state in the territories of 1967—this is the most important for Israeli interests. The elimination of this border would pull the rug out from under the conduct of Israeli politics.

In summary, it is possible to divide the military history of the occupation since 1967 into three central periods.

The first, which began in 1967, ended in the beginning of the 1990’s, between the outbreak of the first Intifada, the Gulf War and the imposition of a general closure on the territories, and lasted until the signing of the Oslo agreements. This period was characterized by the aspiration for a normalization of life in a manner that would promote the economic interest of the occupied, if not as a collective, at least as individuals. The Israeli military was also a partner to this approach. It filled the territories with bases for training and instruction and left the work of policing to small police forces accompanied by reserve duty soldiers with low level military training and to new recruits.

The second period concerned the management of the occupation under the wide umbrella of the political agreements. In this period the most systematic effort was conducted to implement the vision of control via sub-contractors, a vision whose inception was the failed attempt to establish “village associations”.

The third period commenced with the outbreak of the second Intifada, and resulted in heights of violence and killings and what is perceived today on the Israeli side as a unilateral resolution of the struggle and the imposition of the Israeli solution both on the international and local levels.

Engineering the Territory

It is possible to see how the role of the military changes in accordance with broader changes when we examine its functio'ning from the beginning of the second Intifada until today: in the first stage, the military received a clear order to generate conflict and to injure as many as possible from the armed forces on the other side. Those who suffered great losses in the first weeks attempted to move the fighting to the area of Israel in a wave of suicide attacks, but then the Israeli forces implemented an unprecedented array of collective punishments and demonstrated its capacity to paralyze all possibility of civilian life within its area of control. The heavy price paid by Israeli society during this stage was deemed as worthwhile: under the cover of fire, it was possible to redesign the territory in an unprecedented manner. The final stamp of this process was the building of the Separation Wall and implementing the unilateral steps in Gaza and the northern West Bank.

From here onwards, we are witness to two alternative processes that are being implemented at a varying pace and in accordance with changing conditions on the ground: on the one hand, a tendency to normalize as much as possible the current state of affairs. The military, which was requested to generate confrontation at any price, is now requested to create a daily routine that can prove to the world that not only Israelis benefit from the situation, but also the occupied population. In order to do this, it is important to create new statistics that present a low number of Palestinian casualties, to “civilize” the large passages in the Wall through transferring their management to civilian companies, and to permit Palestinian movement through bottle passages created by Israel and to rebuild the texture of Palestinian life in accordance with the needs of Israeli rule. All of these of course created extended periods of calm.

On the other hand, the complete illusion of the political process that Israel has waved since Madrid and Oslo is certainly liable to occasionally result in violent outbreaks, and these also serve the Israeli interest as under the cover of fire, it is possible to expand the unilateral moves and the engineering of the territory such that the vision of Zionist rule will transform into the sole reality with which the world will be forced to accept. Thus, for example, it should be expected that attacks that are directed toward the Jewish population in the occupied territories permit implementation of building plans for internal separation walls, and thus complete the construction of cages for Palestinian civilians.

The sole effective strategy against this terrifying vision, which is being realized before our very eyes, is a transition to widespread civil resistance. This, for as long as it will last, is liable to neutralize the effectiveness of the use of force by the Israeli military and to arouse increasing international pressure. The Israeli forces do everything in their power, as they did during the beginning of the first Intifada, to escalate Palestinian civil resistance into a military struggle which can be brutally put down. Single spots, such as Bil’in, present local models of the use of this mechanism. Only the expansion of this form of action to mass protest, together with the final collapse of the Palestinian Authority, is liable to deeply change the present dynamics.

If I must estimate when these processes will come to a head, I hope that perhaps in ten years, when we come together again to mark 50 years of occupation. This will then be the final party.


*         *            *

Yossi Schwartz is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and the Co-Chairperson of the Alternative Information Center. This article originally appeared in the AIC Hebrew language publication Mitsad Sheni and was translated to English by the AIC


Tel Aviv University