One Hundred Thirty Nine Square Miles of Sand, Part II: The Road to Zion
Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa, 1946 (source: Life)
“If a path to the better there be, it begins with a look at the worst.” — Thomas Hardy
In the months leading up to the end of British rule, in a phase of the three-way civil war known as "The Battle of [the] Roads," the Arab Liberation Army fired at buses and blocked major roads in an effort to isolate the Jewish communities from each other.
Parenthetically, this is an actual definition of “terrorism,” not the bland and overbroad definition used by Homeland Security (“the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion or ransom”). The function of terror is to deprive civil society of life worth living. Terrorists can be those who shoot at buses, or those who attack children playing on beaches or funeral parties in cemeteries with missiles and drones.
By March 1948, the Tel Aviv road was cut off and Jerusalem was under siege. The British wanted nothing to do with it. Nary a soldier amongst them wanted to be the last to die in a lost cause.
On April 6, in an effort to secure strategic positions, the Haganah and its elite strike force, the Palmach, attacked al-Qastal, an Arab village overlooking the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
Radical Jewish gangs, or underground militias as they referred to themselves, put bombs on public buses and market plazas in Arab cities, causing horrific civilian casualties. Among these “irregulars” were splinter factions of the Stern Gang known as the Irgun and the Lehi gangs.
In the pre-dawn hours of April 9, 1948 these gangs cast a shadow that lingers still. Two kilometers south of al-Qastal was the quiet town of Deir Yassin.
Under the UN Mandate, Deir Yassin was to have become part of greater Jerusalem; neither Arab nor Jewish, just protected territory. Its 144 houses held from 400 to 1000 Arab residents and it was relatively prosperous because of a nearby quarry and the reputations of its residents for fine stonecutting.
Just across the valley lay a Jewish Orthodox community, Givat Shaul. At the start of 1948 the villagers of Deir Yassin met with the villagers of Givat Shaul and made a peace pact. Deir Yassin would inform Givat Shaul should Palestinian militiamen appear in the village by hanging laundry — two white pieces with a black piece in the middle. In return, Deir Yassin residents were guaranteed safe passage on the way to and from Jerusalem.
The leader of the Arab village, the mukhtar, was summoned to Jerusalem to explain to the Arab Higher Committee what the village's relationship was with the Jews. He told them they lived in peace. On February 13, an armed gang of Arabs arrived to attack Givat Shaul, but the Deir Yassin villagers came to their aid and drove them off. That night the gang returned and killed all the Deir Yassin sheep.
The success of the Haganah’s road-clearing campaign emboldened the Jewish thug element. They wanted to hit another village to show the Arabs that Jews intended to fight. Irgun and Lehi gangleaders approached David Shaltiel, the Haganah commander in Jerusalem, for permission to attack Deir Yassin.
Irgun had more credibility with Haganah than Lehi because it had been responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel on July 22, 1946, which is widely credited with causing the British to hand off Palestine to the UN.
Shaltiel was aware of the village’s peace treaty and suggested the gangs hit Ein Karem instead. The militias said that would be too dangerous for them. An officer with the Palmach, the Haganah's strike force, after watching Shaltiel reluctantly give his consent for the Deir Yassin raid, forwarded objections to the Chief of Intelligence in Jerusalem, who appealed to Shaltiel to reconsider. Shaltiel commanded the gangs to warn the villagers ahead of time and to allow them an escape route to safety. Any who remained could then be considered militants.
The raid did not go as planned. The gangs sent a truck with a loudspeaker to alert the village, but the loudspeaker didn't work and the truck mired in mud. The attackers were by all accounts ill-prepared, untrained, and inexperienced. Instead of arriving during the night, they arrived at 4:45am when it was getting light.
The residents failed to run even if they had the chance. They hid in their houses. The Irgun's commander issued orders to go house-to-house throwing hand grenades through doors and windows, a couple of grenades per house. The force of the explosions destroyed entire parts of houses, burying whole families.
A Palmach unit from the Haganah arrived with armored vehicles and mortars and lent a hand. The fighting was over by about 11:00 am. Estimates of civilian casualties range from 107 to over 1000. Eleven had confirmed weapons. An Irgun fighter testified years later that Irgun and Lehi men had killed 80 prisoners after the fighting was over.
Many of the eyewitness accounts come from Haganah officers. One, who arrived at the scene on April 10, said "I have seen a great deal of war, but I never saw a sight like Deir Yassin."
"The dissidents [Irgun and Lehi] were going about the village robbing and stealing everything: Chickens, radio sets, sugar, money, gold and more.... Each dissident walked about the village dirty with blood and proud of the number of persons he had killed. Their lack of education and intelligence as compared to our soldiers [i.e., the Haganah] was apparent.... In one of the houses at the centre of the village were assembled some 200 women and small children. The women sat quietly and didn't utter a word. When I arrived, the "commander" explained that they intended to kill all of them."
Another Haganah officer described beatings, looting, and the stripping of jewelry and money from prisoners. He wrote that the initial orders were to take the men prisoner and send the women and children away, but the order was changed to kill all the prisoners. The mukhtar's son was killed in front of his mother and sisters. The Haganah did not intervene on behalf of the Arabs but supported the gangs. When they ran out of ammunition, the gangs were resupplied by the Haganah.
The hundreds of women and small children huddling in the school were saved by their Jewish neighbors. A Palmach officer said,
“[A] crowd of people from Givat Shaul, with peyot (earlocks), most of them religious, came into the village and started yelling ‘gazlanim’ ‘rotzchim’ (thieves, murderers) — ‘we had an agreement with this village. It was quiet. Why are you murdering them?’ They were Chareidi (ultra-orthodox) Jews. gradually approached and entered the village, and the Lehi and Irgun people had no choice, they had to stop.”
Jacques de Reynier, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Palestine, wrote that he had encountered a "cleaning-up team" when he arrived the village the following day.
The gang [the Irgun detachment] was wearing country uniforms with helmets. All of them were young, some even adolescents, men and women, armed to the teeth: revolvers, machine-guns, hand grenades, and also cutlasses in their hands, most of them still blood-stained. A beautiful young girl, with criminal eyes, showed me a head still dripping with blood; she displayed it like a trophy. This was the "cleaning up" team that was obviously performing its task very conscientiously.
I tried to go into a house. A dozen soldiers surrounded me, their machine-guns aimed at my body, and their officer forbade me to move ... I then flew into one of the most towering rages of my life, telling these criminals what I thought of their conduct, threatening them with everything I could think of, and then pushed them aside and went into the house.
... I found some bodies, cold. Here the "cleaning up" had been done with machine-guns, then hand grenades. It had been finished off with knives, anyone could see that ... as I was about to leave, I heard something like a sigh. I looked everywhere, turned over all the bodies, and eventually found a little foot, still warm. It was a little girl of ten, mutilated by a hand grenade, but still alive....
After his inspection, the Irgun asked him to sign a document to say he had been received courteously and thanking them for their help. When he refused, they told him he would sign it if he valued his life. "The only course open to me was to convince them that I did not value my life in the least," he wrote.
The Arab emergency committee appealed to the British army to intervene, to no avail. The British were not keen to take on the Irgun and Lehi, who unlike the Haganah, would have fought back if attacked. In 1949 the town was cleared and its buildings torn down to make way for a new Jerusalem subdivision.
The attack on Deir Yassin in 1948 marked the start of what is called by Palestinians in present times, an Nakbah, “The Cataclysm.”
In 1947, foreseeing what was coming, 100,000 Arabs from the urban upper and middle classes in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, and also Jewish-dominated areas, had fled their homes. Some escaped abroad to Europe, many more to neighboring Arab countries. The refugee crisis caused the US to withdraw support for the UN plan, but Golda Meir raised millions in donations from sympathizers in the United States and Josef Stalin decided to support the Zionist cause, too. Haganah imported armament stockpiles left from the war in Europe and David Ben-Gurion directed advancement of the Jewish army's tactics and logistics.
Beginning in 1948, every Jewish man and woman in the country was required to receive military training. Objectors were imprisoned. In the Palestinian communities, people packed what they owned and took to the roads, seeking escape.
|Israel, 1948 (source: CIA)|
When Haganah opened its anti-British offensive, Tiberias, Haifa, Safed, Beisan, Jaffa and Acre fell, and more than 250,000 Palestinians tried to flee the war zone. The situation pushed the leaders of the neighboring Arab states to intervene, but the British weakened the will of King Abdullah I with promises to permit annexation of Palestine to Jordan, and the Arabs failed to assemble sufficient forces to protect the Palestinians who remained.
On May 14, 1948, as the last British forces departed, David Ben-Gurion read the Israeli Declaration of Independence, establishing a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel. Truman and Stalin both immediately endorsed. The new state gained UN recognition. Haganah became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
By July Israel had conquered some of the territory promised to Abdullah, wresting it from Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese forces. A ceasefire was declared in November. On December 1, King Abdullah announced the union of Transjordan with Arab Palestine west of the Jordan River, and a new state called the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Only Britain recognized the annexation. The new map looked like this:
By then 711,000 to 726,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled or were expelled from their homes — 80 percent of the estimated Arab population at that time. In the parts of Palestine reserved to Arabs by the UN Mandate, 50 percent were gone.
These numbers are important, because one of the perennial stumbling blocks of peace negotiations has been the Palestinian insistence on a “right of return.”
We could now launch into a voluminous study of Israel between 1948 and 2014. The highs, the lows — depending on which side you take: Suez campaign of 1956, Six Day War, Munich, Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, the First Intifada, Sabra and Shatila, the Second Intifada, Gaza. That is not the purpose of this essay.
Jews, tracing their historic experience through centuries of persecution, pogroms and eventually the Holocaust, in 1948 had their Zion and would do whatever it took to defend it. Palestinians — a hodge podge of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds, including some families that could trace their heritage there for thousands of years — were on the wrong side of history. Their choice was to get with the program or suffer the consequences. Or both.
After 1948, the population of Israel rose from 800,000 to 8 million. Periodic military attempts by Arab coalitions to oust Israel from Palestine failed. Given the firepower and intelligence prowess of modern Israel, these attempts at violent revolution from within or military intervention from without are merely pathetic.
Legal appeals to the UN, even for minimal humane treatment of Palestinians, have also come to naught, blocked by the one-state-veto of the US at the UN Security Council.
Palestinians — even the peaceful ones — are seen as a threat and regarded by Israeli police and courts as people to control and punish, not citizens to protect.
|Operation Protective Edge, 2014|
Since 1985, the United States has provided $3 billion in grants annually to Israel ($3.15 billion per year from 2013-2018), with another $1 billion coming from US private philanthropy. The U.S. also loans Israel cash and material not only interest free, but often with implicit waiver of repayment. Since 1976, Israel has been the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, and is the largest cumulative recipient since World War II, receiving nearly a third of all US foreign aid.
The US is not Israel’s largest donor, however. That would be Russia. The US supplies only 21% of Israel’s $15 billion defense budget annually. Israel plays all sides of the petrowars.
All this foreign aid, and no need to pay for its own defense, has provided Israelis the highest standard of living in the region, with an average life expectancy of 82.1 years. On our most recent trip there in 2012, we enjoyed a moonlit swim in the Mediterranean while listening to a jazz band playing on a patio of a nearby highrise hotel. We saw flashes in the sky out to sea and heard what sounded like distant thunder. Just down the beach, in Gaza, relatives combed through rubble looking for parts of family members shattered by Israeli rockets in the lead-up to Operation Pillar of Defense.
In the West Bank, we saw long lines at the barbed wire checkpoints for Palestinians commuting to work or trying to shop. City buses had two stops at each corner. The first was for Israelis. The second was for Palestinians. If the bus was full it did not stop at the second stop.
The “A” word Jimmy Carter used, drawing much huffing and puffing in Washington — apartheid — was a warning, and he was just repeating what Israeli political thinkers were saying could happen if these trends continue. But it has already happened. The map of Palestine is a map of Bantustans, designed to exploit distressed labor without the burden of infrastructural support. Work cards don’t matter. Innocence is irrelevant. None of the rules for humane treatment within occupied territories in times of war apply here.
Gaza is worse than Soweto. It is the Warsaw ghetto. As the largest and oldest contiguous Palestinian enclave, it has become a concentration camp — 139 square miles of sand — where 1.8 million Palestinians have been herded into a cul de sac to make way for Zion. It is now being slowly squeezed, used as a practice range for the latest modern weapons, constantly pounded into rubble, deprived of food, water, medicine, sanitation, employment, help, witness. Gazans have their back to the ocean, but even the fishermen are not allowed to pass out to sea. By land, they are walled in by Israel and barred from Egypt. Their tunnels to obtain urgent supplies are now being targeted by GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, 5,000-pound smart bombs that can blow through 20 feet of concrete.
In our next installment of this three-part series we will describe a pathway forward, out of the mire, that will likely occur whether anyone advocates for it or not.
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