The iron wall failed

Originally published Oct. 11, 2023

There has been so much written and said about Hamas’ attack on Israel and the steadily escalating war on Gaza (some good, some really dumb) that it feels almost gratuitous to weigh in on the most recent events. So I’m going to step back for a second and start with some lesser-known history that might shed some light on both the ever-worsening situation in the Levant, and perhaps on politics elsewhere as well.

You can start the history of Israel and Palestine at almost any time, but this story starts in 1923. The British Empire had just been granted control over Palestine by the League of Nations, in the aftermath of World War I; His Majesty’s Government had promised to create a “national home for the Jewish people” somewhere in that expanse. It also pledged “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” There was a contradiction there, and that contradiction sparked violence, including a series of deadly riots by Arabs and Jews.

There were several factions among the Jews, some of whom felt as much enmity toward each other as they did toward the Arabs. The 1921 riots in Jaffa had started with a fight between the anti-Zionist Jewish Communist Party and the socialist Zionist Ahdut HaAvoda, whose leader was the future Israeli President David Ben-Gurion. (They became a general conflagration which left dozens of Arabs and Jews dead.) The next year, the British Secretary of the Colonies—a chap named Winston Churchill—issued a white paper he hoped, in a long line of such imperious efforts, would settle the conflict. Churchill reaffirmed the promise of a Jewish “national home,” while at the same time limiting Jewish immigration and insisting that Arabs would neither suffer “disappearance” nor “subordination” to the Jewish settlers.

No one liked this. (Or Churchill.) But the person who may have liked it the least was a 41-year-old Zionist named Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odesa—then part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine—Jabotinsky had worked as a journalist in the Ottoman Empire and served as a British soldier in World War I, in hopes of ending up in Palestine. After the war, he trained Jewish fighters; he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison by British authorities for instigating riots in 1920 but was released after a few months in a general amnesty to both Arab and Jewish prisoners. Every brush with violence seemed to radicalize him more.

In 1923, Jabotinsky wrote an editorial in the Russian-language newspaper Razsvet laying out what he saw as the only way forward, one that would force the issue of a Jewish state with both the British and the Palestinian Arabs. He titled it O zheleznoj stene. “The Iron Wall.” His argument was simple: Some Jews hoped to live with the Arabs. Others thought they could persuade Arab Muslims and Christians to tolerate a Jewish state in their midst. He thought all of them were fools.

“Each reader,” Jabotinsky wrote, “has some general understanding of the history of colonization of other countries. I invite him to remember all the known examples; and let him, having gone through the entire list, try to find at least one case where colonization took place with the consent of the natives. There was no such case. The natives, no matter whether they were cultured or uncultured, always stubbornly fought against the colonizers, no matter whether they were cultured or uncultured … Every native people, no matter whether civilized or savage, looks upon their country as their national home, where they want to be and forever remain complete masters. He will not voluntarily allow not only new masters, but also new partners or collaborators.”

Maybe you think this is a tendentious translation of “colonization” and “natives,” one I got from some Democratic Socialists of America campus chapter. But those are the words he used: kolonizacija and tuzemtsev. And if there was still any confusion, Jabotinsky then went on to compare himself and his fellow Zionists, favorably, to the conquistadors Cortés and Pizarro, as well as the “Pilgrim Fathers, the first real pioneers of North America.” As for the Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, he saw them as the analogs of the “Red Indians” or “Redskin[s],” who “feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico, and the Sioux for their rolling Prairies.” And just like the native peoples of the Americas, he was certain, they would fight “with the same ferocity against the good colonists as against the bad.”

That led Jabotinsky to the conclusion hinted at in the essay’s title:

“Zionist colonization either must stop or must continue against the will of the native population. Therefore, it can continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population—behind an iron wall, which the native population is unable to break through. That is our Arab policy.”

Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism did not win out immediately. His Revisionist Zionists, as they became known, were outvoted and outmanned by other tendencies, particularly Ben-Gurion’s socialist-inspired Labor Zionism, which called for the semi-organic creation of a state primarily through the immigration and development of a Jewish agricultural and industrial proletariat. But the hardest line had its fans and helped move the entire movement toward militarism.

Once the Jewish Yishuv won the 1947-48 civil war and declared the State of Israel, it embarked (under Labor Zionist leadership, it should be noted) on the violent expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Green Line Israel—a campaign of ethnic cleansing known to Palestinians as the Nakba. The neighboring Arab states declared war. As the new nation took its first steps toward becoming a garrison state, the Revisionists were still in the minority, but their iron-wall mentality started gaining even more influence.

In 1967, when Israel took the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza and Sinai from Egypt in the Six-Day War, the Revisionists began focusing on annexing the newly captured territories into the Jewish state. One of Jabotinsky’s followers, Menachem Begin—himself a survivor of the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, and a leader of the 1948 massacre of over 100 Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin—co-founded a new Revisionist political party, a coalition of Israeli right-wing parties called Likud.1

Begin became the first Likud prime minister in 1977, propelled by widespread anger at the Labor Party for having failed to detect an invasion by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur 1973. Though he’d win a Nobel Peace Prize for a 1979 peace deal with Egypt, in which he agreed to give back the Sinai Peninsula (which was of little use to either state) in exchange for diplomatic recognition, Begin and the Likudniks began agitating even more forcefully for the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. He also oversaw the massacre of Palestinians and Lebanese Shias in 1982, part of a war aimed at crippling the Palestinian Liberation Organization, whose leaders he had helped exile there.

In 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu—a Tel Aviv-born, U.S.-educated veteran of the Yom Kippur War, and self-described disciple of Jabotinsky—defeated Begin’s son for the leadership of the Likud Party. He would become prime minister four years later, in part thanks to his open desire to slow down the peace process with the Palestinian Liberation Authority under the Oslo Accords. He was defeated after just three years. But in 2000, a violent Palestinian uprising began against the increasingly brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A succession of terror—Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, Israeli army killings in the territories—elevated the hardliners and sidelined voices calling for peace and mutual coexistence on all sides.

Netanyahu returned to office in 2009. He has been prime minister for thirteen of the fourteen years since. As head of government, he has faced tremendous opposition from within Israel, for his anti-judicial authoritarianism, his ethnic chauvinism, his elevation of religious extremists to senior government roles, and his rampant corruption—the latter of which has resulted in criminal charges. Through it all, he has made his ability to protect Israeli lives at all costs his primary, and sometimes only, argument for remaining in power.

This past July, at a graveside ceremony honoring Jabotinsky on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, Netanyahu said:

One hundred years after the ‘iron wall’ was stamped in Jabotinsky’s writings we are continuing to successfully implement these principles. I say continuing because the need to stand as a powerful iron wall against our enemies has been adopted by every Government of Israel, from the right and the left. We are developing defensive and offensive tools against those who seek to harm us, and I can tell you with certainty that they do not distinguish between this or that camp among us.

Whoever tries to harm us on one front, or more than one front, needs to know that they will pay the price.

There is a subtle difference from Jabotinsky. Netanyahu’s “version of the iron wall did not see Jewish military power as a means to an end”—the foundation of a Jewish state—“but sometimes as a means to achieving security and sometimes as an end in itself,” the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has written. That means there can be no end to the “price” Israel exacts. And it is overwhelmingly exacted from the Palestinians.

In 2014, Netanyahu launched a war in Gaza over the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas-linked militants in the West Bank. Over 2,000 Palestinians were killed in that bombing campaign.

In 2018, as Palestinian protests ratcheted up in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence, Netanyahu ally and former Begin aide Zev Chafets gloated in a Bloomberg column titled: “Gaza Protests are Pointless Thanks to Israel’s Iron Wall.” There were by then, he noted, physical walls too: the border wall with the West Bank, a border fence with Lebanon, and most importantly the barrier that encloses the Gaza Strip—the one that imprisons 2.3 million people inside. “The iron wall is no longer just a metaphor,” Chafets wrote. “It is a description of the Jewish state itself.” Weeks later, Israeli soldiers would gun down thousands of demonstrators at the barrier that surrounds the strip, killing at least 58.

Two years ago, after Israeli security forces had just stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam, injuring hundreds of Palestinian worshipers on one of the most important nights of Ramadan, Hamas issued an ultimatum for Israeli police to leave the compound. When they did not, the Islamist group fired over four thousand rockets from Gaza, killing three Israeli civilians.

Netanyahu ordered a devastating series of airstrikes on the densely populated urban areas of the blockaded strip, killing at least 254 Palestinians and destroying over 2,000 homes, according to the Hamas-run government. As the bombing went on, Netanyahu celebrated the 2021 assault in a video:

“I have no doubt that we set [Hamas] back by many years,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue as necessary to restore peace to all Israeli citizens. And, additionally, I am confident that all our enemies around us have noticed the price we have exacted on the aggression against us, and that they will learn the lesson too.”

Since coming back to power for a sixth term last year, Netanyahu has tolerated settler pogroms against the Arab population, in part by recently elevating the anti-Palestinian extremist settlers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich to senior positions overseeing the West Bank—as national security minister and finance minister respectively. He has continued the blockade against Gaza, hoping to do an end run around the Palestinians by negotiating a separate peace with the Arabian Gulf monarchies and Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, he would keep himself and his country safe, by keeping the Palestinian Authority on a tight leash in the West Bank, and Hamas trapped safely behind the Gaza fence.

I don’t have to tell you how that worked out. On Saturday, over a thousand fighters from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad simply broke over and through the heavily monitored security barrier. The seemingly invincible Israeli security state, including the army outposts whose job is to watch the walls, was apparently taken completely by surprise. Before the IDF could even react, the militants advanced at least ten miles into Israeli territory, taking over entire towns. The fighters killed upwards of 1,200 Israelis at last count, including a massacres of at least 260 people at a music festival and one in every ten inhabitants of a thousand-resident kibbutz, including children. The fighters are believed to have also taken at least 150 Israeli hostages back to Gaza, where they are being held as collateral against the inevitable Israeli invasion.

The Hamas attack was, by any measure, a human rights tragedy. Nothing can justify the wanton slaughter of unarmed young people trying to flee a dance party in the desert, the murder of children, or taking elderly people hostage for use as human shields.2

But it also a searing indictment of Israeli policy. For decades, Israeli politicians including Netanyahu have insisted that critics of Israel’s legion human-rights abuses just don’t get it; that Israeli’s “unlawful or arbitrary killings; arbitrary detention, often extraterritorial detention of Palestinians from the occupied territories in Israel; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; substantial interference with the freedom of association; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; harassment of nongovernmental organizations; significant restrictions on freedom of movement within the country; violence against asylum seekers and irregular migrants; violence or threats of violence against national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labor rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinians from the West Bank” — as the U.S. State Department recently summarized — are necessary to protect Israeli lives.

They have insisted that it is OK to kill Palestinian civilians in bombing campaigns because they are fighting terrorists. And when fighting terrorists in a place “where the state does not have effective control of the vicinity”—such as Gaza—“it does not have to shoulder responsibility for the fact that persons who are involved in terror operate in the vicinity of persons who are not,” as Israeli military ethicists Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin wrote in 2005. (When it comes to proportionality, Kasher and Yadlin went on to say, the only question facing military planners is whether “the collateral damage is proportionate to the importance of the mission.”) The United Nations calls that collective punishment, and notes that it is a war crime. (As is, for the record, Hamas’ taking civilian hostages.)

And yet here we are. The iron wall kept nobody safe. If anything, it further brutalized and radicalized an already colonized population—and did not even do its one alleged job of staying unbreached.

The iron wall having failed, Netanyahu’s only idea is to reassert it—bigger and deadlier this time. Israeli forces have already killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in airstrikes and initial operations, and are preparing for a ground assault that will kill untold numbers more. “The scope of this is going to be bigger than before and more severe,” said Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. “We should all change the paradigm here … It’s not the regular, small, contained Gaza tit-for-tat.” (Again, this is in comparison to past assaults that killed thousands of people.)

And once again, it is not just Hamas in the crosshairs. The Israeli government has ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza—“no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel,” as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant put it. And senior Israeli officials are engaging in genocidal rhetoric: Gallant called their extensive list of targets in Gaza “human animals.” Even the Israeli hostages may be forfeit: Smotrich—who was himself arrested on suspicion of planning an act of terror to halt the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005—said during Saturday’s attack: “We have to be cruel now and not consider the captives overmuch.”

The question is, cruelty to what end? No amount of killing—whether “preventative” or in revenge—has stopped the Palestinian capacity to use violence in search of their own liberation. (And yes, Palestinians have also engaged in a century of nonviolent resistance as well, which has been suppressed, dismantled, and ignored.) An Israeli blockade that has lasted sixteen years, with airstrikes occurring every other year, has not caused the population of Gaza to give up, or try to flee en masse, or even try to overthrow their undemocratic leaders in Hamas. So what does a “more severe” paradigm look like? 5,000 dead? 10,000? Every man of fighting age in Gaza?

I’ll end with two figures to keep in mind: half of Gaza’s population is under 18, and nearly 40 percent is under 15. What happens now will shape the next decades of life in Gaza, Israel, and beyond; how many grow up in both places believing, as Netanyahu does, that the only path to survival and freedom is through violence, casting new iron walls of their own.

1  Likud means “consolidation” in Hebrew.

2  I’m aware of the allegation by an Israeli army reservist who survived the music festival massacre that the attackers raped some of their victims, but further evidence of that has not yet been made public.

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