The recent massacre of Gazan Palestinians by Israeli security forces marks a new stage in the region’s history: the point at which the Israeli government has gone from being in the Likud/”revisionist” heritage, to being an Irgun government.
In the 1920s, the Zionist movement split, as the end of World War I failed to bring a Zionist state. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an Istanbul-based journalist and activist, scorned the original Zionist vision of a paternalist colonialism, in which native Arabs would be treated like children raised up by Europeans. They will never accept us, Jabotinsky said, so we need to take the land by force, on both sides of the Jordan River, expel or subdue an Arab minority and build an “iron wall”. Ataturk’s creation of modern Turkey out of the Ottoman collapse was one inspiration; Mussolini was another.
That came to pass, and has been the de facto rationale of the state of Israel for some time. But even Jabotinsky had stopped short of claiming Jerusalem, arguing that it should be a Free City, run internationally, given the multiple claims to its sanctity. By the 1930s, even Jabotinsky was being superseded in his militancy by the Irgun, a group of young bloods, who injected into clashes between Arabs and European Jews a new element: precise, targeted terror against random Arab civilians.
The Irgun method became a key feature of the 1948 Zionist uprising, which included dozens of precise and strategic massacres of Palestinian villages, as a way of terrorising the population into departure. Post-creation, the Irgun became part of the political system, first as Herut, then Likud, their terrorist leader Menachem Begin becoming prime minister in 1977. “Both sides of the Jordan” had been abandoned, but the process of absorbing the West Bank via “settlements” began.
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This process was transformed when the Soviet bloc collapsed, fundamentalism took off in the US, Israel went from being a social democracy to that of a neoliberal state, and the Israeli political class became riddled with financial corruption. The unity provided by some level of social equality disappeared as literalist Americans fleeing pogroms in Cleveland — and the anomie of US life — filled the settlements, cheek-by-jowl with ex-Soviet Republic Jews, some of whom were genuinely leaving anti-Semitic societies, others of whom were looking for land, and the cheap labour provided by an apartheid society.
As the secular socialist Zionist vision has come apart, national unity has had to be injected by concrete application — making Arabs take oaths describing Israel as a “Jewish state”, starving Arab Israeli villages of funds, demolitions and confiscations in Palestinian West Jerusalem, destroying Bedouin culture. The ultimate aim is to make Jerusalem a wholly Israeli city. As these policies raise Palestinian protest and resistance, repression becomes more violent, not as a last resort, but as a first option, a way of reproducing that threatened unity.
How much clearer could this be than having a cold-blooded massacre of 60 Palestinians, and the serious wounding of hundreds more, on the occasion of the US embassy being moved to Jerusalem? Israel is a world leader in crowd control, having spun a lucrative human containment industry out of its military control of Palestinian bodies. Had it wanted to control that protest with minimal injury it could have. Its response was an Irgun one: a precise massacre, snipers versus children. The revisionist movement was born in the period of fascism, and to that it has returned.
That is rough on the Palestinians, but of greater significance is what it says about Israel. No state that is really in control escalates its use of external violence unilaterally, without deforming its culture internally. The state terror against the Palestinians is obviously designed to achieve a total subduing of resistance, as are the periodic invasions of Gaza and Lebanon. What happens when it doesn’t, as it won’t? Fresh airstrikes? Carpet bombing? Israel’s supporters hate the apartheid government comparison, but which other government does it most resemble? What is this but Sharpeville redux?
The only difference? Apartheid South Africa was surrounded by sanctions, which ultimately persuaded business to pressure the government to make a transition. Israel is feted and celebrated across the world. For now. Zionism is a flash-frozen version of 19th-century European chauvinism; this is the century when its previous subjects take control of the planet’s future. Any state re-enacting imperialism one massacre at a time has many reasons for doing so, but rationality is not one of them.