In his “Fareed Takes” of May 24, recorded, that is, in the middle of the latest confrontation between the Palestinians, led by Hamas, and Israel, Fareed Zakaria argued that the Palestinians of Gaza and the occupied territories were wrong using force against Israel. The reasons he gives are familiar and, at first sight, reasonable: Israel’s economy (as measured by GDP and foreign reserves) is stronger than that of any Arab country; Israel has a very advanced technology sector; it is militarily strong and has a 100 atomic bombs in its arsenal; in 1967 it defeated a combined Arab force in six days; in past military confrontations with Gaza, the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli kids killed was 20 or 30 to one; and the administration of Mahmoud Abbas is widely considered as corrupt. Since the Palestinians cannot get their legitimate rights through the use of force, ends the Zakaria argument, the only way for them is to resort to the admittedly remote goal of “moral persuasion.” This position, it must be added, is held by many Western observers, particularly in the United States.
But to begin with, the facts, as presented, are eclectic and tend to obscure reality. For example, while it is true that in 1967 the Israeli army defeated a combined Arab force in six days, six years later, during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, that same army nearly collapsed against the coordinated assault from the armies of Egypt and Syria, were it not for the last minute strategic US airlift, the operation Nickel Grass, that delivered weapons and supplies to Israel ensuring its survival.
Furthermore, while it is also true that the Palestinian administration of Abbas, a rival of Hamas, is considered corrupt, the Israeli administrations have not always been known for their high ethical standards either. Ehud Olmert, who conducted the war against Lebanon in 2006, and ordered a ground invasion of Gaza in 2009, was later indicted on charges of corruption and bribery and was sentenced to prison in 2015. The present prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is under trial, accused of bribery and fraud, and widely expected to go to jail if he loses his immunity as prime minister.
Let’s go back to the main Zakaria proposition: Israel is economically and militarily so strong as to make military Palestinian resistance futile. The Palestinians should await a change of leadership in Israel that will realize that it is in Israel’s national interest to give the Palestinians their basic rights, a remote possibility as Zakaria admits.
This Israeli military superiority argument holds true, of course, if the war that is being waged by the Palestinians against Israel was a classic war of two regular armies in combat. But this is not the case. This is not a classical war but an asymmetric one. The latest confrontation has to be seen in this light, a link in a chain of the asymmetric warfare between the Palestinians and the Israelis. “Against a superior foe,” wrote naval historian Louis Arthur Norton in US Naval Institute’s Naval History Magazine in 2017, “modern History has shown [that] asymmetric warfare can be quite effective.”
The asymmetric war of liberation is known throughout history. Americans know it from their own experience in the wars of independence, and of 1812, when they defeated the British who had an overwhelming superiority on the economic, technological and military fronts. They also know it, in reverse if you will, from their war in Vietnam. The US GDP, at that time, was probably more than 1,000 times that of Vietnam, the US had thousands of atomic bombs and deployed, at one time, more than half a million soldiers equipped with the latest and most lethal weapons known. But America lost the war, nevertheless. The Arabs have also similar experiences in their recent history. The Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), for example, pitted a scantily financed and primitively equipped National Liberation Front (NFL) against France, an economically advanced country and a major colonial power that had colonized Algeria since 1830. The men and women of the NFL, after almost 8 years of untold sacrifices, succeeded in “morally persuading” the French administration, then under de Gaulle, to agree to Algerian independence.
Asymmetric warfare may be long and particularly costly to the weaker side. The wars of independence and of 1812 together lasted over 10 years and the number of dead among Americans was four to five times that among the British. The Vietnam War lasted 20 years and was incredibly devastating to the Vietnamese resistance and its supporters. The defeat of the Americans was humiliating and enduring.
The American death toll in the two wars was probably three times that of the British. The Vietnamese death toll in the Vietnam War was more than 20 times that of the Americans, however it is calculated. The Algerian death toll in their war of independence was 100 to 300 times that of the French. Nevertheless, Americans, Vietnamese and Algerians overwhelmingly agree that the results were well worth the sacrifice.
The life of Palestinians in the occupied territories (OPT) and Gaza is indescribably bad and has been documented by the international media and by visitors of all persuasions, including those who are political supporters of Israel. Demolition of Palestinian homes by Israeli authorities, about 850 last year alone, as well as arbitrary confiscation of Palestinian property, have been documented by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Movement in OPT area is extremely restricted. Amnesty International, in its 2020 report, counted 593 checkpoints in the occupied territories that “heavily restrict the movement of Palestinians” living there, including those going to hospitals, schools and work. The humiliation of Palestinians at these checkpoints is blatant, unconscionable and systemic.
One of the worst things facing Palestinians living in OPT, is the Israeli detention system. At the end of last year, according to Amnesty International, the number of Palestinian prisoners from the OTP was 4,300, including 157 children. Most were “administrative detainees” that, under Israeli law, can be held, without charges, indefinitely. Torture and ill treatment are commonly committed by the Israeli prison authorities, including beating, sleep deprivation and prolonged solitary confinement. The “knock at the door,” in the middle of the night, is not an uncommon feature of Palestinian life.
In Gaza, though not occupied territory, the situation is much worse. In addition to the four devastating Israeli bombardments in the past 15 years, Gaza is under complete sea, air and land blockades by Israel (land blockade also by Egypt) that restrict movement of persons and goods to and from the area. Shortages are a way of life, including building material, fuel and other essential commodities. Half of the labor force is unemployed, and more than half of the population lives under the poverty line. The blockade limited the spread of COVID-19 at first, but the disease has now spread to the point that lead the local health authorities to declare the entire area “red zone,” meaning that community transmission is high. Shortages of equipment (testing, respirators) and needed infrastructure (electricity, backup generators) due to the blockade is threatening a health disaster, according to the Lancet.
As for the Israeli Arabs, finally, many observers, as well as international human rights organizations (lately Human Rights Watch and the leading Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem ), have called the Israeli regime “Apartheid.” This was openly declared in a recent tweet by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” he tweeted. “According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.”
And this is only a snapshot of reality. To live under these conditions, whether in the occupied Palestinian Territories, Gaza or inside Israel, is not bearable. Fighting to change them and offering painful sacrifices in the process, is not surprising. And, as we learned from the Apartheid experience of South Africa and other asymmetric wars of liberation, changing them is not impossible.
Riad Tabbarah is a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States.