Malise Ruthven discusses the Beirut massacre

Malise Ruthven

In discussing the cruelty of the Inquisition, the great historian of rationalism, Lecky, noted the intimate connection between the Medieval Church’s constant contemplation of martyrdom and the willingness to inflict it upon others. The monks and friars who excelled in the persecution of heretics, he suggested, had been brutalised by constant exposure to agonising pictures which they associated with the truth of the Christian faith. Several modern writers have interpreted this paradoxical inversion, in which the persecutor sees himself as victim, as a collective version of paranoid projection: just as the paranoiac murderer can feel terrified of his harmless victims, so a dominant social group can perceive itself as threatened by the people whom it exploits and persecutes. As Norman Cohn has written in his masterly study of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Warrant for Genocide, ‘what these people see as the enemy is in fact the destructiveness and cruelty in their own psyches, externalised. And the greater the unconscious sense of guilt, the more fearsome the imaginary enemy.’

In Medieval Europe, Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, group paranoia was carefully fostered by official propaganda. Heretics, Trotskyists and Jews genuinely existed and many of them, for good reasons, were bitterly hosile to official doctrines or policies. But in each case the real hostility was magnified and endowed with preternatural capabilities. Since Israel’s foundation in 1948, some of these features have characterised the attitudes of Israel and its supporters towards the Palestinian victims of the Jewish state. Rather than seeing them simply as a people displaced – necessarily or otherwise – to make room for themselves, and therefore entitled at least to be generously compensated for the loss of their homes and territories, the extreme Zionists have projected onto the Palestinians their own repressed sense of guilt and aggressiveness. This reaction has been nurtured by two additional factors: the sense of insecurity felt by survivors of the Holocaust and the empty threatenings of Arab and Palestinian leaders who have tended to compensate for their impotence towards Israel by violent words and sometimes spectacular terrorist outrages. The memory of the Holocaust is enshrined in many Israeli public rituals and instilled into every Israeli school-child. The Arab preference for talk over action is liable to be misunderstood by people with experience of the Nazis. The Nazis meant what they said.

There is abundant evidence that since 1948 Zionist leaders have knowingly exploited and exacerbated feelings of paranoia among ordinary Israelis and their foreign supporters in order to increase Israel’s military power and the territory it holds. Zionist manipulation usually takes one of two forms: provocation against Arab governments, whose cosmetic and largely verbal responses can then be invoked to mobilise support for Israeli expansion on grounds of security, and the standard accusation that anyone hostile to Israel or critical of its policies must be motivated by anti-semitism. The most devastating evidence that Zionist leaders deliberately provoked Arab hostility in order to blackmail the West into supporting Israeli expansionism comes from the Diaries of the late Moshe Sharret, Foreign Minister under David Ben-Gurion and Prime Minister in 1954 and 1955. The Diaries, eight volumes covering the years 1953 to 1957, detail a number of incidents, including the slaughter of 60 Jordanian villagers by Ariel Sharon’s notorious Unit 101, and the Gaza raid of 1955, in which 39 Egyptians died, a direct cause of the escalation which led to the 1956 Suez War. Sharret’s diaries also give details of Israeli plans to take over Gaza and the West Bank in the early 1950s, and to establish a Maronite puppet-state in Lebanon at least fifteen years before the Palestinians became a political factor in that country. In May 1955 Sharret confided his feelings in these words: ‘I have been meditating on the long chain of false incidents and hostilities we have invented, on the many clashes we have provoked which cost us so much blood, and on the violations of the law by our men – all of which brought grave disasters and determined the whole course of events and contributed to the security crisis.’

The accusation that anti-semitism motivates any condemnation of Jewish or Israeli terrorism has been the stock-in-trade of Zionist leaders ever since Menahem Begin’s Irgun killers slaughtered the whole village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, in 1948. Though well-documented by independent witnesses and denounced by the official Zionist leadership, Begin continued to deny that the massacre ever took place, stating in his book The Revolt (1951) that the ‘ “Dir Yassin Massacre” lie is still propagated by Jew-haters all over the world’. Anti-semitism was also invoked during the so-called ‘Lavon Affair’ in 1954, when Israeli agents planted bombs in US and British installations in Egypt in order to sabotage negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the Canal Zone and possible US arms sales to Egypt. When Egypt arrested the agents after a bomb had exploded in the pocket of one of them, the Israeli Government, including Sharret, who knew the truth, publicly accused the Egyptians of having inflicted ‘medieval’ tortures upon them in order to extract bogus confessions. Accusations that Palestinian prisoners were systematically and routinely tortured by the Israeli authorities after the 1967 war were dismissed as hostile propaganda inspired by anti-semitic feelings.

The reflex that any accusation against Israel must ipso facto be inspired by anti-semitism is not just a defence mechanism: it is the logical outcome of an ideology which postulates anti-semitism as a permanent and ineradicable fact of human nature. Zionism, in the extremist versions represented by Begin and Sharon and their mentor Vladimir Jabotinsky, is the obverse of the anti-semitism which it may serve to perpetuate. As Hannah Arendt observed: ‘European Zionists ... have often thought and said that the evil of anti-semitism was necessary for the good of the Jewish people. In the words of a well-known Zionist in a letter to me discussing the original Zionist argumentation: “the anti-Semites want to get rid of the Jews, the Jewish state wants to receive them, a perfect match.” The notion that we can use our enemies for our own salvation has always been the “original sin” of Zionism.’

In this context, the international outrage provoked by the Beirut massacre seemed at first to suit the extreme Zionist book. In their initial statements, both the Cabinet in Jerusalem and Israel’s representative at the United Nations declared that anyone accusing Israel of complicity in the affair was guilty of ‘blood-libel’. Nothing would appear to make Begin happier than that the whole world should hate Israel, for this would serve to confirm his belief that Jews are destined to be eternal pariahs and therefore, in a sense, morally superior to other people. If those making the charges are seen to be motivated by anti-semitism, the substance of the charges need not be examined. The facts about the massacre that had already come to light, however, have forced the Begin Government to shift its ground. It could no longer be denied, in view of the presence of foreign journalists and television crews, that Israeli military commanders, with the full knowledge of Begin and Sharon, arranged for the Christian militias to enter the camps. When the Kahan Inquiry eventually reports, the area of dispute is likely to centre on the question of which militias were responsible. Survivors, interviewed by foreign reporters, were convinced that the leading part was played by Major Saad Haddad’s men, whom they recognised by their southern accents. Reports from Jerusalem tended to back Sharon’s claims that his Phalangist allies were primarily responsible. While the truth may never be fully known, even if there is an independent, UN-sponsored inquiry, it is clear that the Israelis have an interest in blaming the Phalangist militias nominally under the control of Amin Gemayel, who are allies, rather than Haddad’s southern militiamen who are no more than auxiliaries, having never had any existence beyond their role as an extra arm of the Israeli Defence Forces. The newly-elected Lebanese President has the backing of most of the Arab states: attributing responsibility to his men implicates them, however indirectly, in the massacre. Haddad, on the other hand, has long been a renegade in Arab eyes, ever since he was cashiered from the Lebanese Army. What is more, every Israeli knows that Ukrainian, Slovakian, Hungarian and Rumanian auxiliaries assisted the Nazis in the Final Solution.

Apart from the question of direct responsibility for the massacre (Israel’s overall moral responsibility is not in doubt), there remains the question of motive, and of how the massacre fits into Israeli strategic plans for the region. The argument that the militiamen ‘betrayed’ their Israeli allies, having promised to confine themselves to ‘cleaning up’ the camps of their remaining Muslim and Palestinian fighters, is unlikely to convince anyone who has studied the reports carefully and who is familiar with both Begin’s and Sharon’s records. In view of the well-known hatred felt by the Phalangists towards the Palestinians, manifested in previous Beirut atrocities at Karantina and Tel el Zatir, the Israeli commanders cannot have been ignorant of what would happen when the militias were let loose in the camps; moreover, it is clear that they actively assisted them by sealing off the access routes, putting up signs and sending up flares to illuminate their task after dark. As Mr Begin’s own account of the massacre of Deir Yassin makes plain, he understands that atrocities, ‘mythical’ or otherwise, have their uses. After dismissing accounts of the massacre as ‘Arab greuel propaganda’ which his political rivals seized upon for party advantage, he virtually gives the game away by adding: ‘Out of evil, however, good came. This Arab propaganda spread a legend of terror amongst Arabs and Arab troops, who were seized with panic at the mention of Irgun soldiers. The legend was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel.’

Was there a similar terrorist motive behind Israel’s ‘setting-up’ of the Beirut massacre? Arabs, including most Palestinians and Lebanese who consider that Israeli Intelligence was behind the murder of Bashir Gemayel, see the massacre as fitting into the same pattern of deliberate de-stabilisation. Bashir, according to this argument, was not playing the puppet role expected of him by the Israelis, but rather seemed set to achieve what the Americans wanted: a united, pro-Western Lebanese state on its way towards mending its fences with the Arab camp. Although some Israeli statements have paid lip-service to the idea of a ‘strong, united Lebanon’ at peace with its southern neighbour, such a possibility did not apparently suit the hard-liners in Jerusalem. According to this analysis, Begin and Sharon would prefer to have a much weaker Lebanese state, or even two or more separate Lebanese states, which would be obliged to remain dependent on Israeli protection. If there were to be two mini-states, one would be controlled by the Maronites based in Beirut, the other by Haddad or possibly the Shi’a militias in the south. By allowing the Christian militias to commit atrocities in the camps the Israelis hoped to sabotage any rapprochement between Amin Gemayel and the Arab states.

There have been several suggestions in the Israeli press recently that Begin and Sharon would like to see a return to something approaching the old Ottoman millet system in the region around Israel. The millet system was based on the autonomy of the various religious communities which made up the empire under their traditional religious and family leaderships. As well as the two mini-states he would like to see in Lebanon, it has been suggested that Begin would look favourably on an Alawite state in north-west Syria and a Druze state in the Golan region – even separate Muslim and Coptic states in Egypt. The idea is pure fantasy: the new national states established in the region after the First World War have generally managed, despite set-backs, to create new allegiances which transcend the old ones based on religious affiliation and kinship. However, no one would deny that the Arab-Muslim national state is still a fragile species. The absence of corporate institutions and functional loyalties of the kind which prevail in Western societies has made it vulnerable to manipulation by power-groups based on sectarian or family solidarities. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s war against the ‘Alawite clique’ around President Hafez el Assad has only been won by Assad, if it has been won, at enormous cost. Most competent observers place the number of those killed in the Hama rebellion last February at 10, 000. Sectarian resentments are thinly concealed throughout the region. Massacres such as Beirut and Hama are quite likely to increase communal tensions generally, a factor which could be manipulated to Israel’s advantage in the short term, since she is so much the strongest military power. But such a policy would be fraught with dangerous and unforseeable consequences. The national state, though no panacea, is the only kind of polity capable of guaranteeing equality of treatment to all its subjects. The destruction of Lebanon, the weakest national state in the region, is already far advanced. To allow a similar process to spread to Syria and beyond would simply add to the general instability without improving Israel’s prospects for survival. An increase in sectarian feeling must add to the wave of Islamic sentiment currently sweeping the region, a wave whose utopian aspirations are in constant conflict with the realities of the national state. Zionist provocation and ‘fundamentalist’ reaction could prove a combination devastating enough to undermine the existing national governments, with disastrous consequences for the area as a whole, including, ultimately, Israel.

The true irony emerging from the current turmoil is not so much that the Jews are appearing in the role of oppressors, but that the Jewish state has come to represent the communal, rather than the territorial, version of nationalism. In the emerging pattern of territorial national development in the Middle East Israel was always something of an anomaly. Although the Founding Fathers of Zionism believed passionately that the Jews must have a territory of their own in order to be like other peoples, the Ottoman background of Palestine and the inconvenient presence of the Arabs meant that, from the first, the state was built around people rather than territory. The principle is enshrined in Israel’s Law of Return, which allows any ‘Jew’ to settle in preference to any one of the area’s displaced inhabitants. From the time of Israel’s foundation in 1948, a substantial minority of Arabs could not be accorded full equality of citizenship, and was obliged to live under Emergency Decrees inherited from the British (and bitterly denounced by the Zionists during their campaign for independence). Israel’s anomalous character was further increased after the acquisition of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, and especially after 1978, when the Likud Government made it clear that these territories were non-negotiable. In Begin’s eyes, the Arabs of ‘Judea and Samaria’ are to be condemned to perpetual second-class citizenship. According to his interpretation of the Camp David agreements, such autonomy as they are to be allowed will apply to ‘people’ rather than ‘territory’.

Only a settlement for the region which guarantees the existing national states behind secure and recognised frontiers can be sure of avoiding the catastrophe of inter-communal violence and neo-tribalism. For Israel and Lebanon this must mean exemplary punishments for the murderers of Beirut and their accomplices, lest the victims’ communities take it upon themselves to seek collective revenge (and in the present circumstances, this would place Christians rather than Jews at risk). It must also mean the removal of the Likud Government, as a prelude to a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories. The Arab governments have already indicated that they will recognise Israel’s existence on these terms – if only because they, too, have a vested interest in the territorial principle. The alternatives are too grim to contemplate.