Belts Gleaming

Charles Glass

  • 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, the Bloody Road to Jerusalem by Uri Avnery, translated by Christopher Costello
    Oneworld, 398 pp, £12.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 1 85168 629 2
  • Israel’s Vicious Circle by Uri Avnery, edited by Sara Powell
    Pluto, 230 pp, £15.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 7453 2823 2

Uri Avnery’s two wartime memoirs, now collected as 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, were published in Hebrew in 1949 and 1950. In the first of them, In the Fields of the Philistines, the 25-year-old Avnery is an infantryman desperate for action; in the second, The Other Side of the Coin, he criticises his own ‘silly, rotten country’ for its conduct in the 1948 war. Avnery, now 85, has continued to condemn Israel’s conduct in the wars it has been fighting ever since, and a selection of his polemics appears in Israel’s Vicious Circle.

In the Fields of the Philistines is a collection of the articles Avnery sent from the southern front to Yom Yom (‘Day by Day’), the evening edition of Haaretz. His reports, which were delivered to the office in Tel Aviv by truck drivers and fellow soldiers, contravened an order that prohibited soldiers from publishing without permission, yet his superiors ‘turned a blind eye’. Indeed his brigade commander congratulated him for writing frankly about the ‘role of the infantry soldier’. In the preface to the new volume, Avnery says wistfully: ‘That’s the kind of army we were then.’ Although the books were written during and straight after Israel’s first war, they already bask in nostalgia for an army and a state that might have been.

In the Fields of the Philistines was an immediate bestseller. But when Avnery overheard two boys on a bus citing his ‘great experiences’ as a reason to join the army, he realised he’d been misunderstood. He had intended to write an anti-war book, not to glorify combat. Yet he acknowledges the pride he took in it. As he drives into Tel Aviv in his jeep straight from the front in June 1948, ‘the people on the road stare at us. We are covered in dust, our faces radiant, the machineguns pointing upwards, our cartridge belts gleaming.’ The corrective was The Other Side of the Coin: it drew on the same experiences but provided a fictionalised, and more anguished, account of them. It begins with a flashback to Avnery at Camp Jonah: ‘I am lying on the bed in my dirty clothes, reading (for the thousandth time) All Quiet on the Western Front.’ Avnery, who was born Helmut Ostermann in Germany in September 1923 and lived there until his family emigrated to Palestine ten years later, bears less resemblance to Erich Maria Remarque than to Ernst Jünger. In Storm of Steel and Copse 125: A Chronicle from the Trench Warfare of 1918, Jünger wrote about courage, comradeship, cowardice and patriotism, as Avnery did thirty years later. Like Remarque, Avnery and Jünger portrayed war from the combat soldier’s point of view. Unlike Remarque, they are both attracted to violence.

Both Jünger and Avnery had military experience before they joined their country’s army. Jünger left Germany to join the French Foreign Legion in 1913. In 1938, at the age of 14, Avnery enlisted in the Irgun (National Military Organisation), the clandestine militia that Begin would head. Three years later, a rift over what he called the group’s anti-Arab racism led him to defect to the Haganah, the Jewish People’s Army led by Ben-Gurion. (He may also have been uneasy about being part of an organisation that was attacking British soldiers in Palestine when his brother Werner had died in 1941 as a British commando in Ethiopia.) Avnery’s teenage affiliation with the Irgun inoculated him against the subsequent worship of Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. He distrusted him and disliked the authoritarian way in which he set about transforming the Haganah into the Israel Defence Forces.

The UN had voted on 29 November 1947 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states (both of which would have had Arab majorities). The war itself began not long afterwards when a group of Arabs attacked a Jewish bus. Avnery ‘knew what my duty was: to report for service’. It was then, as he writes in In the Fields of the Philistines, that ‘I became a simple soldier of the infantry’ in an ‘army without a name, without insignia, ranks or uniform – the army of the young Israelis.’ Nothing symbolised this egalitarian fighting force more than the cap worn by all its soldiers: ‘The khaki bucket hat – kova tembel in Hebrew, meaning “idiot hat” because it makes you look particularly stupid – was the symbol of the pioneering days of Zionism . . . Its main characteristic is that it can be worn in a thousand different styles. You won’t find two soldiers who wear this headgear in the same way.’ The Haganah at first emulated the Republican forces that fought against the Fascists in Spain: soldiers were equal, comrades and brothers rather than officers and men. (The elite Palmach, or ‘striking force’, was based on the same model.) ‘Ben-Gurion killed that idea,’ Jon Kimche, a confidant of Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1950, ‘deliberately, firmly and consciously.’ There weren’t enough volunteers, and so the army conscripted Palestinian Jewish men between the ages of 17 and 25. This larger force required organisation, and organisation meant discipline and hierarchy.

‘The army . . . at this stage,’ according to Kimche,

was the nation. It was in the centre. It set the pace. It pointed the direction. And the army, thanks largely to Ben-Gurion, was built not on the Palmach model, but on the pattern of Montgomery’s Eighth Army in which so many of the Israeli officers and soldiers had served. Ranks were established; officers’ messes were opened.

This regimentation did not sit well with the anti-imperialist, anti-British Avnery, and when the ‘idiot hat’ was replaced by the steel helmet, Avnery saw it as a sign of a larger transformation: ‘Perhaps steel protects our heads better than wool. But steel is cold. One helmet is like the next.’ Jünger had shared this regret, writing of a soldier from Württemberg: ‘He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as a denizen of a new and far harsher world.’

The sudden order to shave off his beard infuriated Avnery as another instance of the high command demanding conformity rather than trying to meet the requirements of battle. It reminds him of the ‘elegant young major’ in Remarque’s novel ‘who has never been at the front but attaches great importance to the correct execution of a salute’. At first when he went on leave Avnery found his ‘friends in civilian clothes. At that time they had a strange look, as though they were embarrassed.’ Later, his friends were in uniform as he was, but were ‘better turned out and more “martial” in appearance than the front-line soldiers. A rear aristocracy has formed. And now when you come to the city on leave, you have to explain why you are out there on the front, instead of having organised a good and important job in the city.’

Avnery’s dispatches describe the progression from training to the front line, to his ‘baptism of fire’ and finally to disillusionment and regret. The Israeli army fought two wars in 1947 and 1948. The first was against the indigenous population, whom the settlers aimed to dislodge from areas designated for the Jewish state in order to create a Jewish majority. The second pitted the new state against the Arab armies which invaded Palestine at the end of the British Mandate. Avnery’s Givati infantry brigade participated in both wars. In the first phase, during Operation Nachshon, it was ordered to open the road to Jerusalem. It was Avnery’s first experience of battle:

We walk, or rather stumble, forwards. Our rifles no longer hang from our shoulders. Within the first few steps the row is jumbled up. It is not possible to maintain a regularly spaced formation in a freshly ploughed field when you are dog tired . . .

I have no idea how I fell. My body just hit the ground instinctively. On the way down I see a burst of fire. Ten yards away at the most. Bullets whistle past my ears.

Rat-tat-tat-tat rat-tat-tat-tat-tat . . .

  We remain on the ground. Absolute quiet all around us. The first shock is over and I can think again . . . Our platoon was OK, I say to myself. Yes really, the platoon was completely OK. I repeat this sentence over and over. It makes me calm.

One man died, but the platoon was OK. The Haganah captured many Arab villages in the south. It lost a six-day battle for the Arab village of Castel on the road to Jerusalem, but the local Arabs retreated when their military commander, Abdel Qader Husseini, was killed. By the time the British began to leave on 14 May 1948, the Haganah had won round one: many of the local inhabitants had been driven from their homes and forced into exile. After the British left, the Egyptians invaded the southern sector, where Avnery was based, advancing in two columns from Gaza, north towards Tel Aviv and east towards Jerusalem, but occupying only areas that had been assigned by the UN to the Arab state of Palestine. Rather than continue the offensive against Jerusalem with Glubb Pasha’s Arab Legion, the Egyptian army consolidated its control over the areas it had won. Avnery was now in a real war – army against army. He loved it, especially the commando operations in armoured jeeps to shoot the Egyptians behind their lines. His unit came to be called Samson’s Foxes, and he was proud of their exploits even fifty years later, when I interviewed him in Tel Aviv. ‘We used to mount two machineguns on jeeps in imitation of the Desert Rats,’ he remembered. ‘We didn’t have tanks then. You couldn’t do it now.’

In his dispatch of 28 July 1948 to Yom Yom, Avnery wrote: ‘Who opened the roads into Jerusalem and into the Negev? Who repelled the attacks of the enemy? It was not the quality of the weapons, nor was it their number or greater professionalism. It was the simple soldiers.’ He waited until the war was over before revealing, in The Other Side of the Coin, that many of these soldiers had looted Arab houses and raped Arab women. Wartime newspaper readers weren’t supposed to hear such things about their sons and it certainly didn’t fit the mythology that was growing around the Haganah. When, in the second book, some men in his unit steal supplies from their Irgun allies, Avnery admits: ‘We didn’t think twice about it, after spending months stealing the property of the Arabs.’ His unit loots a village near Ramleh, which had been emptied of its inhabitants. They steal two pianos from a doctor’s house and, after some reflection, decide to sell one and keep the other for the battalion to use. ‘Before each battle we dream about the spoils,’ Avnery writes. ‘Maybe the girls too, that we will find. That is a kind of primitive instinct within us.’ (According to Benny Morris, writing in 2003, about a dozen cases of rape were reported during the war, but ‘they are just the tip of the iceberg.’) One of Avnery’s fellow soldiers regrets that the appearance of a British patrol stopped him from raping an Arab girl. His comrades, though, are relieved. ‘In a war you have to kill. But to rape – that is disgusting.’ And one of them adds: ‘Especially with a stinking Arab woman!’

Moshe Dayan commanded the 89th Commando Battalion on the Faluja front, 30 kilometres north-east of Gaza City, where Avnery’s Givati Brigade was fighting. ‘I cannot claim that we and Givati were psychologically in tune with each other,’ Dayan wrote in his autobiography.

They appeared to us tired and worried, and we seemed to them to be light-hearted and cocky. They had named the operation ‘Death to the Invaders’, which I thought pompous, like the headline of a political tract . . . The general behaviour in the Givati units that would be fighting with us also seemed strange. The battalion commander stayed in the rear base and ‘directed’ the battle from there. When the Givati officers learned that I would be driving with the lead unit of my battalion, they said I would be unable to control the operation . . . a commander could lead a unit into battle only by fighting with them, not by remote control, and not by sitting safely in the rear and ordering one’s men to storm the enemy.

Avnery clearly believes that he has performed his patriotic duty in combat. Yet an incident during an assault on the Arab village of Nebi Musa early in the war troubles him:

I am running with the squad, my rifle in my hand. I feel that I have to shoot. A movement in front of me. A little Arab dog running away. I raise my rifle and shoot. The dog howls.

The howling wakes me up. What have I done? Have I become an animal? Shlomo, running behind me, raises his rifle and shoots. The howling stops.

  That incident makes me feel sick. I want to get away.

Ari Folman’s recent animated film Waltz with Bashir was an attempt by another Israeli combat veteran to make sense of his experience. Folman took part in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which culminated in the massacre by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies of Palestinian refugees in the Beirut camps of Sabra and Shatila. Twenty years after the invasion, Boaz Rein Buskila, who fought with Folman, told him about his nightmare in which 26 wild dogs were racing through the streets baying for his blood. It was only after he had had the nightmare many times that he remembered a night-time assault on a Lebanese village during which he shot 26 dogs to prevent them giving away his unit’s position. The story helped Folman recover his own memory of that summer-long invasion in which at least 20,000 Palestinians and Lebanese were killed. For Buskila, as for Avnery, the shooting of a dog forced him to reckon with what was really going on: the shooting of people, not all of whom could shoot back.

In his second book, Avnery addresses the young men who will follow him into the Israeli army in the belief that they must emulate his generation’s bravery. ‘Any idiot who happens to be appointed a squad leader can push you around any way he wants,’ he warns. The army depends on self-deception:

A sentence comes to me, that I read once, written by some general: ‘The soldier must die with dignity.’ It must have seemed pretty simple to the general at his desk. A bullet hits you in the chest, you raise your arms, shout, ‘It is good to die for the fatherland!’ – and you sink, as in the movies, gracefully to the ground. But if the bullet hits you in the face and not in the chest, then your dignified death doesn’t look quite so fine. In Ibdis there were two in a trench, arm in arm, but without heads. It was not easy to tell if they died with dignity.

The final pages of The Other Side of the Coin describe a memorial service for a fallen comrade called Sancho, whose ghost appears to Avnery to denounce his eulogy as mere ‘Zionism’ – defined by Avnery as a ‘term commonly used in Israel for empty political outpourings’. In Avnery’s head Sancho shouts to the soldiers at his graveside: ‘Motherland? What sort of motherland? I have no motherland. Only the living have a motherland . . . Don’t try and fool yourselves! You are not victorious, you are defeated. OK, you have held off the Egyptians. But what have you achieved? The state you dreamed of in the trenches is dead, even before it was born.’

Avnery left the army to write editorials for Haaretz, until he despaired of the paper ever running his condemnations of the state theft of Arab property. In 1950, with a friend and the support of two investors, he bought Haolam Hazeh, an ailing family magazine, which he transformed into a muckraking weekly that became famous for its exposés of government scandals, its irreverent coverage of high society and its brazen defiance of Israeli taboos around the treatment of Arabs, and the role of Jewish councils during the Holocaust. His pugnacious journalism, particularly his denunciation of Ariel Sharon’s 1953 raid on the Jordanian village of Qibya, in which 69 civilians were killed, earned him a beating and two broken hands: he was now Israel’s number-one enemy, according to the chief of the secret service, Issar Harel. Haolam Hazeh also exposed Israel’s 1954 bombings of American cultural institutions in Cairo – the aim of the operation was to sabotage the emerging relationship between Washington and Nasser. In 1965 Avnery created a new political party named for his paper, the Haolam Hazeh-New Force Movement and, to everyone’s astonishment, got himself elected to the Knesset. ‘I am ready to mount the barricades in order to get Avnery out of the Knesset!’ Golda Meir shouted; One against 119 was the title of Avnery’s 1969 book about his experience in the 120-seat parliament.

During this period, however, he also supported Israeli expansionism, though he did so in the eccentric conviction that it could lead to a ‘pax Semitica’ based on a confederation of Semitic peoples, satisfying Arab and Jewish national aspirations alike. In 1957, he had opposed Israel’s evacuation of the Gaza Strip, which it had conquered in the Suez war a year earlier. In 1967, a daily paper he founded ran the headline: ‘Forward to Damascus!’ As a member of the Knesset, he voted for the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem. Yet he maintained a belief in the right of Palestinians to self-determination and, as his hopes of a pax Semitica were dashed, this led him in the 1970s to seek allies in the PLO who favoured a two-state solution, notably its London representative, Said Hammami, and Issam Sartawi, an outspoken independent political leader. (Both men would be assassinated by Abu Nidal.) At the time, Israeli law prohibited meetings with PLO members – as it now bans contact with Hamas. During the Israeli army’s 1982 siege of West Beirut, Avnery crossed the lines to meet Yasir Arafat. Ten years later he founded Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), which has campaigned tirelessly against the expansion of settlements and Israel’s wars. The presence of Avnery and his wife, Rachel, is almost a prerequisite at peace and anti-occupation demonstrations in Israel. He continues to write on the conflict in Israeli journals, and in the LRB. ‘If someone had told us at the end of 1948 that the Israeli-Palestinian war would still be raging 60 years later, nobody would have believed it,’ he writes in his introduction to the memoirs. Believe it.