Militarism in Israel
by Uri Avnery
June 17, 2003
A week after the ship of peace was solemnly launched on its perilous voyage from Aqaba harbor, it was hit by a torpedo. It is not yet clear whether it is wrecked or can continue on its way in spite of the damage.
The story of its voyage so far: An Israeli helicopter gunship tried to kill Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantisi, one of the leaders of the political wing of Hamas. He miraculously survived. Immediately afterwards the gunships killed other Hamas leaders. Clearly, this was the beginning of a campaign to kill the leaders of all the wings of Hamas--military, political, social, educational and religious.
Such a campaign is, of course, the outcome of long preparations, which take weeks and months. It was evidently planned even before the Aqaba summit conference convened, but postponed by Sharon in order to afford President Bush his moments of photographic glory on the shore of the Red Sea. Immediately after the President and his entourage went home, radiant with success, the machinery of death went into action.
In establishing intent, all courts around the world act upon a simple principle: a person who carries out an action with predictable results is held to have intended that result. That is true for this campaign, too.
The killing of the Hamas leaders (together with their wives, children and casual bystanders) is intended to attain the following results: (a) acts of revenge by Hamas, i.e. suicide bombings, (b) the failure of the Palestinian Authority's efforts to secure the agreement of Hamas to a cease-fire, (c) the destruction of Abu Mazen's political standing right from the start, (d) the demolition of the Road Map, (e) compensation for the settlers after the removal of some sham "outposts".
All five objectives have been achieved. Blood and fire cover the country, the media on both sides are busy with funerals and mutual incitement, the efforts to establish a hudnah (truce) have stopped, Sharon called Abu Mazen a chicken without feathers, the Road Map is toterring , Bush has mildly reproached Sharon while directing his wrath at Hamas.
The "dismantling" of the phony settlement-outposts, a joke to start with, has been stopped. Construction activity in the settlements is in full swing, and so is the building of the "fence" that is establishing a new border deep inside the West Bank. (Both Bush and Blair have demanded that it be stopped, a boost to the campaign we started months ago). The closures and blockades have been tightened. The situation in the occupied Palestinian territories is back to what it was before, as if the entire performance in Aqaba had never taken place.
The decision to kill Rantisi was, therefore, a decisive point in the history of Israel. And the first question must be: who was it that took this decision?
It is easy to say who did not take it.
Not the government, which has become a choir of flatterers and yes-men. Sharon treats them with contempt. He would not dream of consulting them.
Not the Knesset, which has reached an unprecedented low. It now openly includes representatives of the underworld, a murderer who has asked for (and received) a pardon, and some small politicians who look as if they had been picked at random from the street. The Speaker is known as an entertaining character.
And not the public at large, of course. All public opinion polls show that the public wanted the road Map to succeed. All believed that Sharon was serious about seeking peace. On the left, too, there were many simpletons who lauded Sharon for changing his spots. Nobody asked the public if it wants to start a new round of violence. Indeed, the latest poll indicates that 67% of the public did not support the attempt on Rantisi's life after it happened. But Sharon knew that the public would accept his decisions and follow him like the sheep on his ranch.
If so, who took the decision?
That is no secret. The decision was taken by five generals:
- The Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, a retired two-star general.
- The Minister of Defense, Sha'ul Mofaz, a retired three-star general.
- The Chief-of-Staff, Moshe Ya'alon, a serving three-star general.
- The Mossad chief, Me'ir Dagan, a former one-star general.
- The Security Service chief, Avi Dichter, with a rank equivalent to a three-star general.
This military quintet is now making decisions about the fate of Israel, perhaps for generations, perhaps forever. In Latin America they would be called a Junta (military committee).
We have spoken more than once about the special status of generals--in and out of uniform--in our state. It has no equivalent in the Western world. In no democratic country does a general now serve as prime minister. In no democratic country does a professional soldier serve as minister of defense, certainly not one who was wearing a general's uniform right on the eve of his ministerial appointment. In no democratic country does the Chief-of-Staff attend all cabinet meetings, where he serves as the highest authority in all "security" matters--which, in Israel, include practically all matters of national policy.
The rule of the generals is based on an extensive infrastructure. An Israeli general leaves the army, as a rule, in his early 40s. If he does not join the top leadership of a political party (Likud, Labor and the National Religious Party are at present led by generals, and Meretz is practically led by a colonel), or manage to get elected as a mayor, his comrades help him to settle down as the director of a large government corporation, university or public utility.
The hundreds of ex-generals who man most of the key posts in government and society are not only a group of veterans sharing common memories. The partnership goes much deeper. Dozens of years of service in the regular army form a certain outlook on life, a political world-view, ways of thinking and even language. In all the years of Israel, there have been no more than three or four exceptions to this rule.
On the face of it, there are right-wing and left-wing generals, but that is an optical illusion. This week it was particularly obvious: after the assassination attempt on Rantisi and the Hamas revenge-attack, dozens of generals appeared in the media. (An Israeli general, however stupid he may be, automatically becomes a sought-after commentator in the media.) For the sake of "balance", generals-of-the-right and generals-of-the-left were brought on screen, and lo and behold, they all said the same thing, more or less, even using the same terminology.
More than in the "commentaries" themselves, this found expression in two Hebrew words: Ben Mavet ("Son of death", meaning a person who must be killed).
As if by order, this week these two detestable words entered the public discourse. There was hardly a general, politician or correspondent who did not roll them on his tongue with obvious relish. They had never been heard before in the media. Now, suddenly, everybody has started to use them. Rantisi was a "son of death". Sheikh Yassin was a "son of death". The other Hamas leaders were "children of death". Perhaps even Yasser Arafat himself.
The expression appears in the Bible, II Samuel, XII. King David has committed a heinous crime, deliberately arranging for his most loyal officer, Uriah the Hittite, to be killed in battle, so he can have his wife, Bath-sheba, for himself. The prophet Nathan denounces him for this deed, telling him the story of the rich man who slaughtered the only sheep of a poor man. David gets very angry and tells the prophet: "As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing is a son of death!" To which Nathan replies: "Thou art the man!"
Ironically, the Bible applied the term to the greatest leader of the people of Israel, who has committed an abominable crime. Now it is used by the leaders of the state of Israel against Palestinians.
But this is not the most important point. It is more significant that the Prime Minister and his small group of generals introduce these two words, and all the people repeat them like a giant flock of parrots, without thinking, without protesting. This is rather frightening in itself, but when these words reflect a disastrous national decision and the public accepts it without question, that is even more frightening.
It is not yet clear whether Sharon has succeeded in scuttling the boat of the peace initiative. Perhaps President Bush will after all show some resolution and save the initiative, in which he has invested his personal prestige. But in the meantime the dance of death continues, and the blood flows--quite literally--in the streets of Israel and Palestine.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and activist. He is the founder of Gush Shalom, a leading Israeli peace group. He is a contributing writer to a collection of essays by Israeli peace activists, The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He can be reached at: email@example.com.