One man’s terrorist…

Here’s a bit of modern Israel’s ancient history, excerpted from the August 13, 1949 issue of The New Yorker (thanks, Børre). This fascinating paragraph from “Letter from Tel Aviv” begins on page 59:

“The terrible thing about terror,” said my young intellectual German friend, “is that it works. We did not like the terrorists here, and we are still a little afraid of them, although they are quiet now. But there is no denying it — without them, the British would probably still be here. And when we are accused of the massacre of civilian Arabs at Deir Yasin, we can say it was done by the fanatics of the Irgun, which is true, an that the Haganah would never have done such a thing, which is also true. Furthermore, we can point to what the Russians have done for years to wipe out the opposition in their country, what the Germans did to us in Europe, what the R.A.F. and A.A.F. did to Berlin, what the Americans did to Hiroshima. Morally, this is no answer, but why should we be expected to be so much purer than the rest of the world? When we were dispossessed, nobody gave us back our homes. If we hadn’t armed secretly and fought, most of us would be dead now, United Nations or no United Nations. After all, we didn’t invade the Arab states. They invaded us. What sort of reward are we expected to give them for that?”

Another prescient paragraph, beginning on page 63:

The new state is having more trouble with its own synagogue than with either the Christian or Mohammedan faith. Because of the peculiarities of parliamentary government, the ruling liberal Mapai Party, to gain a majority, was forced to league itself with the Mizrachi, the Right Wing Orthodox party. As a result, some of the annoying circumstances that always accompany the union of church and state are evident in Israel. There is no civil marriage, for instance. The synagogue has put a large finger into the educational system. Because of the dietary laws, and to the dismay of the gourmets, precious Mediterranean langoustes and other shellfish are often tossed back into the sea when they come up in the nets. Buses do not run on Saturday, which creates a great deal of hardship for people who work all the rest of the time and have only that day on which to make excursions away from their homes. In Jerusalem, during the war, a group of fanatical students of the Talmud, wearing their long coats, their broad-brimmed black felt hats, and their ceremonial side curls, tried, under a white flag, to give themselves up to Abdullah, calling him King of the Jews because he controlled the Holy Wall of the Temple. Less mystical Israeli, in uniform, quickly turned the procession back and appropriated the flag. In peacetime, too, these holy students, lost in a medieval rapture of bookish ecstasy, oblivious of the needs and duties of the flesh, their eyes fixed on some inward point where man meets God, present a problem to a nation that is struggling with such prosaic questions as reclamation, sanitation, currency control, housing, and foreign policy. There is even a story that an Army convoy was stoned and halted while driving through the old ghetto section of Jerusalem on the Sabbath. What this sort of thing does to the temper of the military commanders responsible for the safety of the state can be imagined.

…hard to imagine this sort of reporting now, without howls of protest from the ADL or AIPAC, or any number of America’s wackadoodle, itching-for-Armageddon fundamentalists.

The photograph used for this post was discovered while searching online for an early photograph of Irgun, The New Yorker’s terrorists of 1949.  It’s an official UNRWA photograph, taken several days after the now largely-forgotten (for most) 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre.  My parents still have vivid recollections of seeing people running up the roads by our house in Mseitbe, clearly terrorized, fleeing from the camps about a mile south.  A few had managed to grab small possessions like radios.  They all had wild, unfocused looks of horror on their faces and refused to answer even simple questions like “shu?” (what?)…

The photograph and following gruesome details about the massacre are from the Lawrence of Cyberia blog post “Tainted By Terror” (September 16, 2004).  I trust you will find it informative, if not interesting, and a necessary reminder of how easily (eagerly?) and often we rush to repeat the worst impulses of those very people we castigate as our du jour evil-doers.  The final comments below, by two Israelis writing for Ha’olam Ha’ze, brings the conversation full circle, back to the grim acknowledgement that terrorism works.  But at what cost?

Thursday 16 September, 1982 – evening:

Phalangist [Christian] militiamen murder hundreds of people in the first hours after entry. They shoot everything that moves in the alleys, then break into homes and liquidate whole families at the dinner table, or asleep in bed. In many cases, the victims are dismembered. Infants are killed by having their heads smashed against the walls of their homes. Women and girls are raped before being killed. Most of the victims on the first evening are hacked to death with knives and hatchets (most of the second day’s victims will be shot at point-blank range). In some houses, the Phalangists spare the life of a single family member – killing the rest in front of him or her – so the survivor can recount what he lived through and spread terror among the Palestinians.

In the Horsh Tabet area, all 45 members of the Miqdad family are murdered. Some have their throats cut, others are disemboweled, among them a 29 year old woman named Zeinab, who is 8 months pregnant and whose foetus is placed in her arms. Her seven other children are also murdered. Another relative, Wafa Hammoud, 26 years old and in her seventh month of pregnancy, is also killed with her four children. A seven year old daughter of the Miqdad family is raped before being killed. In the same neighborhood, several other women are raped before being murdered, and their naked bodies arranged in the street in the form of a cross.

Sunday September 19, 1982 – throughout the day:

Kapeliouk [French-Israeli journalist] concludes that, bearing in mind all these factors, it is probable that “between 3,000-3,500 men, women and children were massacred within 48 hours between September 16 and 18, 1982”. About three-quarters of the dead were Palestinians, the remainder were Lebanese citizens. Nine of the dead were Jews, who had married Palestinians in the Mandate period, and had chosen to go into exile with them when they were expelled from their homes in Galilee in 1948.

Sunday September 19, 1982 – early evening:

Gen. Eitan [Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan] holds a press conference in Beirut, and denies any responsibility for the atrocities. He blames the Phalangists and, indirectly, the Lebanese Army and the Americans.

Sunday September 19, 1982 – 10:00pm:

In a special session of the Israeli Cabinet, PM Begin insists that suggestions of Israeli culpability are anti-Semitic, saying: “Goyim killing other goyim, and they accuse the Jews!” Begin refuses to hold a commission of inquiry, as this will be interpreted as “as an admission of guilt” in what is purely “an internal Lebanese affair.” The Cabinet adopts and releases a statement absolving Israel of any responsibility; it raises again the fiction that the PLO left behind in the camps “2,000 terrorists” [6], and maintains that accusations of Israeli responsibility are a slanderous “blood libel”.

Monday 20 September, 1982 – morning:

Writing in Ha’olam Ha’ze, Yeshayahu Leibovitz (professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) comments: The massacre was done by us. The Phalangists are our mercenaries, exactly as the Ukrainians and the Croatians and the Slovakians were the mercenaries of Hitler, who organised them as soldiers to do the work for him. Even so have we organized the assassins in Lebanon in order to murder the Palestinians.

In the same publication, Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua comments: What can one say? Even if I could believe that IDF soldiers who stood at a distance of 100 meters from the camps did not know what happened, then this would be the same lack of knowledge of the Germans who stood outside Buchenwald and Treblinka and did not know what was happening! We too did not want to know.

[6] The preposterous claim that 150 militiamen of the Christian Phalange (whose reputation as a fighting force was abysmal) would enter a camp housing 2,000 well-armed PLO “terrorists” becomes the subject of much ironic humor among Israeli military commentators. e.g. B. Michael in Ha’aretz: So Heroic As This Are The Christian Fighters!

PDF of “Letter from Tel Aviv,” The New Yorker, August 13, 1949:

Permanent link to this article:

1 comment

  1. Another paragraph, just before the first one here/above (“The terrible thing about terror…”), starting on page 58. Not much has changed since 1949, n’est pas?

    The exposed position of Ein Gev, a tiny Israeli enclave in Syrian territory, dramatizes a problem and a temptation that make peace a very unstable proposition in Palestine. Each side is more or less determined to hold on to every inch of land it had in its possession at the end of the fighting, and the resultant frontier is from a military point of view most unsatisfactory. Under the best of circumstances, Israel would be diminutive country with disproportionately long and irregular borders, but as things are now, the so-called Arab triangle cuts deeply into eastern Israel, leaving only a very narrow corridor joining the two halves of the country between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is easy to imagine how an Arab commander, looking at the map, must be tempted to launch a surprise armored attack across this slender neck of land — an operation that might successfully be concluded in five or six hours, dividing the new state in two. And to the military men in the Israeli Army, the exposed, fertile salient of Arab territory must seem ripe for the plucking. There are many officers who believe — and, indeed, hope — that the Arabs will make one more try at driving the Jews into the sea. These men, confident as they are in their strength, think that in one more round they could fix much more satisfactory boundaries for their country. The ethics of this kind of thinking are rarely discussed. The belligerent factions in Palestine feel that, having used the discarded arms of the great nations for their war (how often small nations wait to start their wars until the large nations have got through with theirs — a sort of servants’-hall feast on the leftovers of the princely banquet of weapons), they are also entitled to their big brothers’ morality. There is general pious damning of the use of terror, and many Israelis have touchy consciences about the large numbers of Arab refugees who fled their homes in Israel and are now suffering in camps in neighboring countries. But there is no disposition to take them back, except on a very limited quota (actually, from a security point of view, it would be impossible), and their homes and villages are occupied for the most part by Israeli immigrants, who cannot be moved.

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