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The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of Settlement

Gorenberg, Gershom.  The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of Settlements(Times Books, 2006).

Excerpt from The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of Settlements


The Accidental Empire

Chapter 1: The Avalanche


One day in early May 1967, General Uzi Narkiss stood in the shade of pine trees on the breeze-stroked hilltop of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, at the edge of Israeli West Jerusalem, and looked out past the armistice line at Bethlehem and the Judean Desert in the Jordanian-held West Bank. With him stood journalist Haim Gouri and a young intelligence officer. It was a clear day in the brief Israeli spring, after the rains have stopped, before the dry heat scorches the last pale green from the hillsides and leaves them yellow-brown. Still, when Gouri wrote of his day with the general for his newspaper, his tone would be overcast, melancholy with nostalgia. He and Narkiss were looking at the territory of memory--as unreachable as one's youth.

Narkiss, forty-two years old and the head of the Israeli Defense Forces' Central Command, turned his binoculars to a flat-topped mountain to the southeast, site of a ruined fortress built by King Herod of Judea two millennia ago. Narkiss had hidden there for a day, he told the intelligence officer, back in 1946: His unit of the underground Haganah had attacked the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River, as part of an operation aimed at driving the British from Palestine. Afterward they escaped by boat across the Dead Sea and climbed the desert cliffs to the ancient fortress, took cover there through daylight, then hiked through the hills to Ramat Rachel.

The young officer looked at Narkiss and mapped the line between Israeli generations: "You've passed through those places," he said. "Our experiences are different." He added, in the vague wish of someone with many years ahead of him, "Still, we'd like to go one day--let's hope in a time of peace."
On maps, the armistice line between Israel and Jordan was drawn in green. The line wrapped around West Jerusalem as if it were a peninsula of Israel surrounded by a sea of Jordanian territory. Ramat Rachel was a tinier peninsula, a promontory pointed southward toward Bethlehem and, beyond that, Hebron. After curling around the kibbutz, the Green Line sliced through Jerusalem, cleaving neighborhoods. Splotches of land were designated as demilitarized zones by the armistice agreement signed in April 1949, at the end of Israel's war of independence. The agreement looked forward to a permanent peace settlement, but that never came, so the Green Line remained the border, temporary in perpetuity. Israel's parliament, the Knesset, stood just over a mile from the frontier; the prime minister's house, two-thirds of a mile. On the Jordanian side, the walled Old City nuzzled up against the border.

Gouri was accompanying Narkiss for a tour of the urban frontier. The two were friends, members of an aristocracy of old fighters. They had met in pre-state days as young recruits to the Palmah, the elite force of the Haganah. The Palmah had been closely tied to a pro-Soviet movement of farm communes, kibbutzim, known as Hakibbutz Hame'uhad, the United Kibbutz, whose original goal had been turning all of Jewish Palestine into a single collective. Some people had called the Palmah "the Red Army of the United Kibbutz." Now Gouri wrote for the daily newspaper of the party tied to that movement.
"It's so quiet here," Narkiss said, looking at the hills. "It seems like you're allowed to just get up and walk over there."


How long, Gouri asked, could the strange situation continue in Jerusalem? "We should be prepared to live like this for years and years," Narkiss answered. "It might last forever, and it could change any day. We know this is the border, and that's that."

READING NARKISS'S words from the standpoint of history, looking back through the smoke of burning Egyptian tanks in the Sinai sands, one might suspect he was being disingenuous, that behind blank words he hid plans of war and conquest. But history can mislead us: It tells how things turned out. That is precisely what people living not-yet-history, looking forward into uncertainty, cannot know. What appears inevitable, even intentional, in retrospect, is often a series of accidents in real life.

Narkiss was being forthright: The top brass of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) did not expect war. Earlier in 1967, Colonel Shlomo Gazit, the head of Military Intelligence's research department, had presented Armored Corps commander General Yisrael Tal with a report on the atrocious level of training of Egyptian tank crews. "If you are right," Tal replied, "they have no possibility of contending with us militarily." Tal's response only reinforced Military Intelligence's repeated evaluations that, even though the Arab countries aspired to destroy Israel, war was unlikely.4 In March 1967, at a briefing for top commanders, General Aharon Yariv, the head of Military Intelligence, declared there was no chance of war in the Middle East in the next eight years. Egypt, the most powerful Arab country, was tied down in a civil war in Yemen; other Arab countries would not fight Israel on their own.

That hardly meant that Israel was ready to convert tanks into tractors. Indeed, one reason for confidence was Israel's deterrent power. Through the mid-1960s, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and military Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin had worked to acquire new arms, especially for the air force and armored corps, to convince Arab leaders they should not attack.

Still, tensions had been growing since 1964 on the eastern border. To cripple the Jewish state, Syria had tried to divert the headwaters of its main water supply, the Jordan River; Israel foiled that plan by bombing the earthworks. Syria sponsored Palestinian groups, particularly the Fatah movement, that aimed at reclaiming Palestine from the "Zionist entity" via "armed struggle" and that launched terror attacks from both Syrian and Jordanian territory. The Israeli army responded with cross-border retaliation raids. A de facto peace between Israel and Jordan--including secret meetings between top Israeli officials and the young King Hussein--evaporated.

Along the 1949 armistice line with Syria--on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and along the deep, humid valley of the Jordan River--were demilitarized zones that Israel regarded as its territory, a claim Syria rejected. On the ground, each side held part of these zones. Each time Israel sent tractors to farm disputed land, Syria answered with gunfire, sometimes shelling kibbutzim in the valley from the Syrian heights that rose steeply to the east. Recent Israeli histories argue that the Israeli generals deliberately initiated some such incidents: Syrian fire provided a pretext for a stronger Israeli response, really intended as retaliation for Palestinian attacks. The clashes grew worse. On April 7, 1967, Syria answered a foray by two Israeli tractors with mortar and cannon fire, to which Israeli warplanes retorted by strafing and bombing Syrian positions. Israeli jets downed Syrian planes in dogfights over Damascus; Syrian shells leveled Kibbutz Gadot, inside a demilitarized zone on the Jordan River bank, north of the Sea of Galilee. Yet as Gazit has admitted, "Israeli intelligence erred in not drawing conclusions from the escalation, and did not warn that it could lead to a major conflagration."Rather than being a deliberate prelude to war, the sparring testified to Israel's confidence that it could punish Syria without risking all-out conflict.

Nor was conquest on the Israeli military agenda. The army's five-year development plan, put together under Eshkol and Rabin, presumed that Israel could "realize fully its national goals" within the armistice lines.

That reflected the position of Eshkol's ruling Mapai party. Mapai--the Workers Party of the Land of Israel--was established in 1930. Its founders were Jewish immigrants from places such as Minsk, Kiev, Warsaw, and Lvov, who had abandoned traditional Judaism as outmoded. Facing two shining secular ideas of utopia, they chose both: socialism along with Zionism, the belief that Jews must return to their homeland to build their own nation. In the Jewish community of British-ruled Palestine, where everything from unions to health clinics to sports teams belonged to parties, Mapai dominated.

In 1937, when a British government panel called the Peel Commission first proposed solving the ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs over Palestine by dividing the land into two states, Mapai leader David Ben-Gurion failed to win his party's unqualified support for the plan. The Arabs rejected the Peel plan completely, and the British abandoned it. But ten years later, when the United Nations voted to split Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Mapai endorsed partition, which promised immediate independence for a state with a Jewish 

The U.N., though, did nothing to enforce its own decision. First Palestine's Arabs took up arms against the Jews and partition. When the British pulled out and Ben-Gurion led the Jews to declare Israel's independence on May 14, 1948, the neighboring Arab countries invaded--so that the moment of statehood marked a graduation from ethnic conflict to a war between sovereign nations.

By the war's end, Israel's forces had pushed back the Arab armies and won land beyond the U.N. partition lines, and as many as 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled from their villages and cities in the new Jewish state or had been expelled by Jewish forces, becoming refugees. Six thousand Jews were killed, out of the 650,000 Jews in Palestine when the war began. No Palestinian Arab state arose. The kingdom of Transjordan annexed the piece of Palestine its army had seized, on the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the kingdom's name became Jordan. The Gaza Strip, a sliver of Palestine packed with refugees on the Mediterranean coast, remained under Egyptian military rule. Parts of Israel's borders matched the old internationally recognized boundary of British Palestine, but elsewhere the country's territory was defined only by the armistice lines, which meandered crazily through the countryside, defying topography.



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