The celebrated 19th century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz described attacks on the enemyâ€™s territory, property and citizens as total war. With the horrors of World War II, total war became associated with war crimes.
The Israeli attacks on the Palestinian people and on Lebanon contained all elements of total wars
This is in keeping with the Zionist strategy against the people of Palestine, the elimination of whom as competing contenders for Palestine was judged essential for the success of Zionism.
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Israeli strategy against the Arab states was one of preemptive attacks seeking territorial expansion. Thus, Israel colluded with England and France and attacked Egypt in 1956, partly to discredit Egyptian president Nasser, who had emerged as the voice of Arab nationalism.
In 1967, with support from the Johnson administration, Israel attacked Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and occupied the Egyptian Sinai, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
In October 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked the Israeli forces of occupation and managed to shake the aura of invincibility of the Israeli army.
Despite their growing degree of lethality, and the massacring of innocent Palestinians in Kafre Qasem in 1956 prior to the launching of the Israeli offensive against Egypt, these wars were largely conventional wars, not total wars.
But against the Palestinian people, the strategy has always been one of total war. In January, 1948, months before the Arab armies intervened to save what was left of Palestine, Ben-Gurion’s objective of destruction and expulsion followed a well-laid out total war strategy. As he noted in his diary:
“The strategic objective [of the Jewish forces] was to destroy the urban communities, which were the most organized and politically conscious sections of the Palestinian people. This was not done by house-to-house fighting inside the cities and towns, but by the conquest and destruction of the rural areas surrounding most of the towns. This technique led to the collapse and surrender of Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, Safed, Acre, Beit-Shan, Lydda, Ramleh, Majdal, and Beersheba.”
In 1982, Israeli Prime Minister Menahim Begin sent his army into Lebanon as part of his total war against the Palestinians. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed. The Israeli army expelled the PLO from Lebanon, but did not defeat Palestinian nationalism.
The Oslo Agreement in 1993 presented Zionist leaders with a traditional dilemma: negotiate peace with the Palestinians now and formally end the Zionist project of expulsion and territorial expansion; or continue the Zionist project and forcibly impose Israeli peace.
With some exceptions, the Israeli leaders opted for the latter, as quickly became evident from the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu. When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak half heartedly embarked on negotiations with PLO Chairman Yassser Arafat in 2000, the prospect of a negotiated settlement threatened the expansionist doctrine.
Sharonâ€™s provocative visit to the El Aqsa Mosque in September of that year, triggered the second Palestinian Intifada, and gave Israeli leaders the excuse they needed to resume their strategy of total war against the Palestinians.
Sharonâ€™s total war strategy excluded any negotiated settlement. As Israeli writer Uzi Benziman pointed out, â€œSharonâ€™s strategy was to violently provoke Palestinian retaliations and use them as an excuse to justify his rejection of a negotiated political settlement.â€ (Haaretz. January 18, 2002)
Amnesty International investigated the Israeli armyâ€™s assaults against Palestinian refugee camps in Jenine in March and April 2002. Its report, published on November 4, 2002, concluded that â€œthere is clear evidence that some of the acts committed by the IDF during Operation Defensive Shield were war crimes.â€
As part of his total war strategy, Sharon intensified attacks on the Palestinian people, destroying their properties, confiscating their land, and building new settlements. The Israeli Peace Now reported that 12,000 new residents moved into Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 2005.
Following Hamasâ€™ victory in Palestinian legislative elections in January, the Americans and Israelis secretly prepared plans to undermine the Hamas government and bring about its collapse. (NYT, February 14, 06)
The Hamas government seemed to be surviving the campaign of economic strangulation, and agreement with the PLO suggested Palestinian readiness to reach a neogtiated settlement with Israeli leaders.
The Israelis responded, on June 9, with sustained strikes, killing seven Palestinian including three children on a Gaza beach, even though Hamas had been â€œobserving a self-imposed cease-fire for more than a yearâ€ (BBC, June 9).
On June 13, nine Palestinians, including two children, were killed. On June 24, the Israeli army kidnapped two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from Gaza.
When Palestinian fighters responded by capturing an Israeli soldier, the Olmert government launched its total war plan: a war against land, properties, and civilians as well as against economic and political infrastructures, including the kidnapping of elected officials and Palestinian cabinet members.
In the war against Lebanon, the Israeli strategy of total war was also associated with war crimes. In its 50-page report released on August 3, 2006, and entitled: Fatal Strikes: Israelâ€™s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch (HRW) analysed two dozen Israeli air and artillery attacks against civilian homes and vehicles.
HRW executive director, said, â€œThe pattern of attacks shows the Israeli militaryâ€™s disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians. Our research shows that Israelâ€™s claim that Hezbollah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israelâ€™s indiscriminate warfare.â€ â€œHuman Rights Watch researchers found that… In many cases, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians.â€
Israelâ€™s total war against Lebanon was an extension of its total war against the Palestinians. The latest Israeli strategic plan worked out by Ariel Sharon and bequeathed to his successor consisted in freezing the moribund roadmap for peace in the Middle East while pursuing an accelerated plan to expropriate more Palestinian lands and unilaterally set expanded borders of the Jewish state.
The Sharon plan was supported by the Bush administration. After stating its opposition to unilateral actions, the Bush administration, in what the New York Times described as â€œa major shift of policy on the Middle East,â€ agreed to undermine the roadmap and to support instead the Sharon plan. The Bush administration also agreed to support Israeli construction of new settlements, in violation of its own prohibition on construction of settlements. (NYT August 21, 04)
The real intent of the Sharon plan was boastfully confirmed by Sharonâ€™s own advisor, Dov Weissglass. Weissglas described the goal of the withdrawal from Gaza as â€œthe freezing of the political process. And when you freeze that process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.â€ This whole package of the roadmap â€œhas been removed from our agenda indefinitely.â€ (Haaretz, Oct 8, 2004)
Continued Palestinian resistance to the Sharon Plan, the failure of the campaign to isolate and undermine the Hamas government, and the emerging willingness of that government to reach a negotiated settlement, were creating pressure on the new Israeli government to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians.
Total war against Lebanon aimed, in part, at diverting the worldâ€™s attention from the Palestinian conflict, and focusing it instead on Hizbollah, Iran and Syria, conveniently presented as the real cause of violence in the Middle East.
Secondly, at a time when a debate is raging in the United States about the strategic value of Israel to American foreign policy, a total war in Lebanon could facilitate the Bush administrationâ€™s war plans against Iran, and silence Israelâ€™s critics in America.
US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported that the Bush administration was in fact closely involved in the planning of the Israeli war, months before Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in July.
“A successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign,â€ Hersh wrote, â€œcould ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American pre-emptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations,” (The New Yorker, August 14, 06)
Thirdly, the elimination of Hizbollah as a military threat to Israel could weaken it politically and strengthen its opponents in the region, while delivering a fearsome warning to its backers in Damascus and Teheran. Crushing Hizbollah would also illustrate to other resistance groups in the region the futility of military resistance to Israelâ€™s awesome power.
The Israelis won the propaganda battle and managed to get much the corporate American media, and the US public to define the conflict within the analytical frame provided by the Israelis.
Failure of Total War
But, Washington and Tel Aviv lost the strategic war. Prussian General Karl von Clausewitzâ€™s total war doctrine was not supposed to be an aim in itself. For Clausewitz, war was merely the continuation of policies by other means. The destruction of the enemyâ€™s forces, resources, infrastructures and properties and the killing of civilians were supposed to break the enemyâ€™s will to resist.
A total war that destroyed everything but left the enemyâ€™s will to resist unaffected or, worse still, strengthened, is clearly a failure.
The Israelis have been forthright in admitting failures, notwithstanding Bushâ€™s claims to the contrary. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert admitted â€œshortcomings.â€ On August 8th, the editors of the leading Israeli paper Haarezt unambigously used the word defeat:â€œLet there be no doubtâ€¦the war as it approaches its end is seen by the region and the world – and even by the Israeli public – as a stinging defeat with possibly fateful implications.â€
The surprising resistance by Hizbollah against total war waged by one of the mightest armies in he world, led the Bush administration to change course and agree to a ceasfire resolution after blocking it for weeks. A senior official of the Bush administration admitted that it was the realization that â€œIsrael would not be able to achieve a military victoryâ€¦ that led the Americans to get behind a ceasefireâ€. (NYT, August 11, 06)
The failure of total war against Palestine and Lebanon is likely to have significant repercussions.
First, instead of emerging weakened and irrelevant, Hizbollah is emerging as a legendary resistance movement that managed the extraordinary feat of resisting Israelâ€™s devastating total war and neutralizing its historic military deterrence. Hisbollahâ€™s credibility is confirmed as the standard bearer of Arab resistance.
Secondly, the political and psychological balance of power in the region is being reshaped. The Arab regimes that acquiesced in the Israeli American project are diminished. Those regimes, the Islamic movements, and the professional and intellectual associations that preached resistance to Israeli occupation and to American hegemony in the region are vindicated. Resistance against overwhelming odds is possible after all.
Thirdly, instead of democratized and pro-American Middle East, the Bush administration has succeeded in creating a radicalized, resentful, and deeply anti-American Middle East. Far from being deterred, the insurgency in Iraq is feeling emboldened. A classified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency confirms the growing difficulties facing the American occupation forces in Iraq. (NY Times, August 17).
Fourthly, the neo-conservativesâ€™ plans for a strategic air war against Iranian nuclear facilities, the boastful Israeli claims that if Washington did not strike Iran, Israel would, are likely to be opposed as more wishful thinking than reasoned analysis.
Regrettably, however, the debate in Israel about the failures of the war reflects shortsighted claims that withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 did not bring peace; therefore there should be no withdrawal from the West Bank.
A more reasoned analysis should recommend itself to Israeli and American leaders. Total war against Palestine and Lebanon has failed to resolve the perennial contradiction of Israeli policy: proclaiming a desire for peace and yet, pursuing a policy of dispossession, occupation, expansionism, regional hegemony, and lawless forcible imposition of its will. Israel must choose: either peace of equality or Paxa Hebraica.
Prof. Safty is author of From Camp David to the Gulf, Leadership and Democracy, and the forthcoming book, The Modern Machiavellians.