Israel’s Dirty War

Avi Shlaim

  • Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-56: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation and the Countdown to the Suez War by Benny Morris
    Oxford, 451 pp, £40.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 19 827850 0

Benny Morris is one of the most original and prolific contributors to the new or revisionist Israeli historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What distinguishes the new historians most clearly from the traditionalists is that they are critical of the claims made by Israeli governments, claims which were turned into national myths and as such continue to influence popular attitudes to the Arabs even now.

So far the new historiography has focused mainly on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and on the ‘missed opportunity’ for peace in its immediate aftermath. In two earlier works, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-9 and 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians, Morris drove a coach and horses through the official version, which denied any Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus. Israel’s Border Wars is an impressive sequel bringing the story up to the 1956 Suez War. It is an account of Israel’s dirty war, directed largely against civilians, many of whom were refugees from the 1948 conflict.

Almost as soon as the guns fell silent and armistice agreements were concluded between Israel and her neighbours in 1949, voices began to be heard in the Arab world calling for a second round against the newly-born Jewish state. Faint echoes of these voices were also heard on the Israeli side of the divide. Some generals, notably Moshe Dayan, were dissatisfied with the outcome of the first round and they too advocated a second – to crush the Arab armies and ‘rectify’ Israel’s borders. After he became Chief of Staff in December 1953, Dayan actively, deliberately and deviously pushed for war. For nearly three years he was eager for another go at the Arabs. The long-awaited second round broke out in October 1956. It was initiated not by the Arabs but by Israel, in collusion with Britain and France, against Egypt, now the standard bearer of radical Arab nationalism.

The period 1949-56 may be seen simply as an interval between the first and second rounds. But it was a critical phase in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a period of increasing hostility leading to violence and then to full-scale war which set the pattern for decades to come. Israel’s Border Wars, as its subtitle indicates, is a study of Arab infiltration into Israel across the armistice lines, of Israeli military retaliation, and of the preamble to the Suez War. As in his previous books, Morris subjects the official versions of events, Arab as well as Israeli, to the most exacting historical scrutiny: important elements of the official versions, especially the Israeli one, do not survive. A fuller, more nuanced and more convincing picture emerges from this book than from any previous account of the endless chain of action and reaction which culminated in the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1956.

The conventional (Israeli) view is that Palestinian infiltration into Israel was aided and abetted by the Arab governments following the defeat of their regular armies on the battlefield; that it was a form of undeclared guerrilla warfare designed to weaken and even destroy the infant Jewish state; that Israel was thus the innocent victim of Arab provocation and Arab aggression; and that its military reprisals were legitimately undertaken in self-defence.

The evidence gleaned by Morris from Israeli, British, American and UN archives – Arab governments do not, as a rule, open their archives to research – suggests that infiltration into Israel was a direct consequence of the displacement and dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians in the course of the Palestine War and that the motives behind it were largely economic and social rather than political. Many of the infiltrators were Palestinian refugees whose reasons for crossing the border included looking for relatives, returning to their homes, recovering possessions, tending their fields, harvesting and, occasionally, exacting revenge. Some of the infiltrators were thieves and smugglers; some were involved in the hashish convoys; others were nomadic Bedouins, more accustomed to grazing rights than to state borders. There were acts of terror and politically-motivated raids, such as those organised by the ex-Mufti, Hajj Amin al Husayni, and financed by Saudi Arabia, but they did not amount to very much. In the period 1949-56 as a whole, 90 per cent or more of all infiltrations, in Morris’s estimate, were motivated by economic and social concerns.

As the years went by, a certain overlap developed between economic infiltration and political infiltration geared to killing and injuring Israelis. The ‘free fire policy’ adopted by the Israeli Army, border guard and police in dealing with suspects – a policy of shooting first and asking questions later – contributed to this overlap. Faced with trigger-happy Israeli soldiers, infiltrators started coming in organised bands and responding in kind. Altogether between two thousand seven hundred and five thousand infiltrators were killed in the period 1949-56, the great majority of them unarmed.

Morris also shows that the governments of the neighbouring Arab states were opposed to the cross-border forays into Israel for most of the period under discussion. Arab governments were caught on the horns of a dilemma: if they openly intervened to stop infiltration, they risked alienating their own passionately pro-Palestinian publics; if they were seen to condone it, they risked clashes with the Israeli army and the possible loss of more territory.

Each government dealt with this problem in its own way, with varying degrees of success. The Lebanese authorities transferred many of the Palestinian refugees northwards, to camps in Beirut, Tyre and Sidon, and effectively sealed the border with Israel. Consequently there were no large-scale Israeli raids into Lebanon in these years. The Syrian authorities also exercised strict control over their border with Israel and infiltration was rare. But the Syrian Army was allowed to cultivate the demilitarised zones along the border and this provoked recurrent clashes with the Israeli Army.

Jordan had the longest and most complicated border with Israel, with the largest number of civilians on both sides. The upshot was massive infiltration, Israeli reprisals, countless Jordanian proposals to improve the situation in the border areas, and a singular failure to stem the tide of infiltration. Until his dismissal in March 1956, the British officer Glubb Pasha commanded Jordan’s small army, the Arab Legion. Glubb did his utmost to persuade the Israelis that Jordan opposed infiltration and was trying hard to curb it. The Israelis did not doubt his sincerity but they piled the pressure on Jordan to do more. Glubb suspected that the Israeli authorities were crying wolf in order to persuade their own public to accept the rigours of Israeli life. He also believed that the Israelis had a psychological need to bully their weaker neighbours.

Whether or not from psychological need, they did play the bully in Jordan with a series of well-planned ground raids against villages in the West Bank, beginning in January 1951. The largest and most notorious of these was directed against the village of Qibya in October 1953. The raid was carried out by Unit 101, a commando force designed to sharpen the policy of reprisals. This unit was commanded by an unusually aggressive and devious young major named Ariel Sharon. Sharon and his men blew up 45 houses and killed 69 Jordanians, the majority of them women and children. Sharon was apparently well pleased with the operation, which in some quarters earned him the title ‘the murderer of Qibya’.

The Qibya raid triggered serious civilian unrest in Jordan and a storm of international protest against Israel. The Israeli claim that the infiltrators from Jordan who provoked the raid were sponsored and guided by the Arab Legion did not fool anybody. When Arye Eilan, an official in the Foreign Ministry, asked Yehoshafat Harkabi, the Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, for some clear documentary proof of the Arab Legion’s complicity, Harkabi answered that ‘no proof could be given because no proof existed.’ Harkabi added that having personally made a detailed study of infiltrations, he had arrived at the conclusion that ‘Jordanians and especially the Legion were doing their best to prevent infiltration, which was a natural, decentralised and sporadic movement.’ To this clear-cut message Eilan reacted by insisting that, whatever the truth of the matter, as Israel’s leaders had repeatedly gone on record asserting Jordan’s official complicity, Israeli spokesmen must continue to support them: ‘If Jordanian complicity is a lie, we have to keep on lying. If there are no proofs, we have to fabricate them.’

The charge of instigating and encouraging Palestinian infiltration from the Gaza Strip and Sinai was also pressed by Israel against the Egyptian authorities, again as part of the propaganda war and without any documentary evidence. The documents of the Egyptian military and civilian authorities in Gaza, captured by Israel during the 1956 and 1967 wars, tell a very different story. In 1975 Ehud Ya’ari, who was given access to these documents, published a short but highly important pamphlet in Hebrew entitled Egypt and the Fedayeen, 1953-6. Ya’ari found that the Egyptian authorities had a clear and consistent policy of curbing private incursions into Israel until February 1955, when Ben Gurion ordered the famous raid on the Egyptian army camp in Gaza City, in which 38 Egyptian soldiers were killed and many others wounded.

Morris agrees with Ya’ari that the Gaza raid marked a watershed in Egypt’s relations with the Palestinian fedayeen or ‘self-sacrificers’. Before the raid Egyptian policy, with some minor exceptions, had been to oppose and restrict infiltration: after the raid, while continuing to oppose private initiatives, the Egyptian authorities organised fedayeen units within the regular army and employed them as an official instrument of warfare against Israel. Morris is more critical than Ya’ari of the Egyptian authorities, especially for sending fedayeen squads into Israel in 1954 to gather military intelligence or commit acts of sabotage, but both men recognise that Israel’s policy of reprisals played a major part in escalating the border war with Egypt.

To absolve the Arab governments of responsibility for sponsoring infiltration into Israel in the pre-1955 period is not to deny that infiltration posed a very serious problem for Israel in general and the border settlements in particular. Many of the border settlers were new immigrants from Muslim countries. Infiltration from across the border placed their lives at risk, exacted a heavy economic toll, and raised the possibility of mass desertion. There was also the threat that the infiltrators would try to re-establish themselves in their former homes inside Israel. Infiltration, in short, posed a danger not only to the country’s day-to-day security but also to its territorial integrity.

To cope with this threat Israel established new settlements along the borders and razed abandoned Arab villages. Israeli units began patrolling the borders, laying ambushes, sowing mines and setting booby-traps. The ‘free-fire’ policy towards infiltrators was adopted. Periodic search operations were also mounted in Arab villages inside Israel to weed out infiltrators. Intermittently, the soldiers who carried out these operations committed acts of brutality, among them gang rape, the murder of civilians, and the dumping of 120 suspected infiltrators in the Arava desert without water.

Until the Qibya raid, military retaliation was directed mainly against civilian targets, and thereafter mainly against military targets. Throughout the Fifties, Israeli governments came under pressure from the public to respond forcefully to Arab provocations. The political climate was thus generally conducive to the use of force. David Ben-Gurion, a peppery and combative little fellow, personified this militant national mood. His instinct was to let the military have their head and to sidestep the slow-moving machinery of the United Nations. In Hebrew the UN is called Oom, and Ben-Gurion showed his contempt for it by calling it Oom-shmoom.

Military retaliation was a controversial policy inside Israel, however. E.L.M. Burns, the Chief of Staff of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation, divided the Israeli leaders into the school of retaliation and the school of negotiation. Benny Morris divides them into activists and moderates. The activist school was led by Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister and Defence Minister until his ‘temporary’ retirement to the settlement of Sdeh Boqer in the Negev at the end of 1953. It included Moshe Dayan and Pinhas Lavon, who were appointed Chief of Staff of the IDF and Defence Minister respectively just before Ben-Gurion’s retirement, and the great majority of Israel’s powerful defence establishment. The moderate school was led by Moshe Sharett, Foreign Minister from 1948 until his forced resignation in June 1956 and Prime Minister from December 1953 until November 1955. It included most of the officials in Israel’s largely powerless Foreign Ministry.

Military retaliation was the central issue in the debate between the activists and the moderates. The activists believed that the Arabs were interested only in Israel’s destruction; that they understood only the language of force; that Israel could not rely on the UN or Great Power guarantees for her security; and that in order to survive, the state of Israel had to give repeated demonstrations of its military power. The moderates were more sensitive to Arab feelings and to world opinion; they wanted to create a climate that would favour the possibilities of peaceful co-existence in the Middle East; they feared that frequent and excessive use of force would further inflame Arab hatred of Israel and set back the prospects of peace. Put starkly, ‘it was a struggle between hardliners and softliners, security-centredness and diplomacy, intractability and conciliation, the certainty of war and the chance for peace.’

Once in the saddle, Sharett tried to put his moderate views into practice. He rejected the policy of automatic, massive retaliation but reluctantly authorised certain limited reprisals when pressure from the public and the Army proved too powerful to contain. Sharett also initiated a secret dialogue with President Nasser through personal emissaries who met in Paris. Nasser apparently respected Sharett, for he referred to him as ‘an honest and moderate man’. Morris mentions these secret contacts only in passing and grossly underestimates their importance. About the content of the talks he says next to nothing, ignoring the material that is available in the files of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and in the detailed and revealing diary which Sharett wrote from 1953 to 1957, published in eight volumes in 1978. Nor does Morris shed any light on the part played by the activists in sabotaging Sharett’s peace efforts.

As Prime Minister Sharett experienced the greatest difficulty controlling the activists. Ben-Gurion had handed him a stacked deck before taking to his desert retreat. His Chief of Staff was an expansionist and a hawk, with nothing but contempt for what he called ‘Mr Sharett’s policy of appealing here and complaining there’. Pinhas Lavon, as Defence Minister, pushed the activist line to such extremes that even the army officers came to regard him as a dangerous man. The one thing that the minister and army officers did agree on, was the need to reverse the Prime Minister’s policy of moderation.

In July 1954, without informing Sharett, the defence establishment activated a Jewish spy ring in Cairo in an attempt to make bad blood between Egypt and the Western Powers. The attempt backfired, with disastrous consequences for Israeli-Egyptian relations. Towards the end of February 1955, in the wake of ‘the mishap’, Ben-Gurion re-emerged from his desert retreat to assume the defence portfolio in the Cabinet, which was still headed by the hapless Sharett. A week later he authorised the Gaza raid.

The raid sent a signal that the activists were back in charge and served to boost Israeli morale. But it also put an end to the covert Israeli-Egyptian peace contacts and launched the two countries on the road to war. Badly shaken by the raid, Nasser retaliated with fedayeen attacks and by negotiating a major arms deal with the Soviet Union to offset Israel’s military superiority.

Ben-Gurion failed to understand the impact of the Gaza raid on Egypt and on Nasser. At a caucus meeting of Mapai ministers held on 17 May, with a general election in the offing, the diminutive Ben-Gurion, raising his voice, said that Nasser had to be taught a lesson or be overthrown: ‘It is certainly possible to overthrow him and it is a blessed obligation [mitzva] to do so’. Who did this Nasser Shmasser think he was?

After the Gaza raid it was downhill all the way. Israel resorted to force along her borders ever more frequently and on an ever-increasing scale. All it achieved was an escalation of the border war on the Egyptian, the Jordanian and the Syrian fronts. In September 1955, Nasser obtained the Soviet arms he had been asking for through the so-called Czech arms deal, which threatened to tip the military balance against Israel. The activists resolved to confront and defeat the Egyptian Army before it had a chance to absorb the Soviet weapons. By gradually escalating the level of violence along the borders, Ben-Gurion and Dayan hoped to provoke an Egyptian counterattack which would provide the excuse for an all-out war. This was the thinking behind the major retaliatory strikes between October and December 1955, Kuntilla, al-Sabha and Kinneret.

The Kinneret raid was directed with devastating force against Syria, which had recently signed a defence pact with Egypt, in order to draw Nasser into war. It was launched on 11 December 1955 while Sharett, by now only Foreign Minister, was in Washington, waiting for a reply to his request for American arms, which was promised for the following day. The reply he got, after the Kinneret raid, was emphatically negative. Sharett was dumbfounded. To his colleagues on Mapai’s Political Committee on 27 December, Sharett remarked that the devil himself could not have thought up a better way to harm Israel. He also came down firmly against the option of a pre-emptive war, which was rapidly gathering momentum within the defence establishment.

To clear the decks for what was always referred to as ‘pre-emptive war’ against Egypt – never simply as ‘war’ – Ben-Gurion ousted Sharett from his post as Foreign Minister in June 1956. Sharett’s successor was Golda Meir – the only man in the cabinet, as Ben-Gurion liked to point out. With the help of his new Foreign Minister, Ben-Gurion overcame the remaining obstacles along the road and in October 1956 the Sinai campaign against Egypt was launched, in cahoots with France and Britain.

The Sinai campaign was the biggest reprisal raid of them all. Its declared aims were to destroy the fedayeen bases and to open the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Its undeclared – and unachieved – aims were territorial expansion and the overthrow of Nasser Shmasser. Israel’s dirty little war thus culminated in a very big war which involved two big colonial powers who had their own reasons for wanting to knock Nasser off his perch. Nasser not only survived the tripartite aggression but snatched a resounding political victory from the jaws of military defeat. Israel, on the other hand, only succeeded in stoking the fires of Arab hatred. Force turned out, in the final analysis, to be the only language that the activists knew how to use in dealing with the Arabs. But it was a language which the Arabs did not seem to understand.