Revenge is a natural impulse with a rational purpose: to deter future violent actions by one’s opponents. But due to the complicated twists and turns of our thinking, revenge only brings pain. One clear lesson from the history of Israel is that revenge, however overwhelming, however clear the message it sends, does not work.
Through many incidents of tit for tat violence before Israel’s declaration of statehood, conflict between Jews and Arabs raged in British Mandate Palestine. The Jews gained the upper hand, and by the end of 1948, some 700,000 Arabs had been kicked out of their homeland. This event was known as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Though comparisons to the extermination of 6m Jews may seem unfair, this event was the Palestinian Holocaust. It served as the unifying event that created the Palestinians as a people, at the same time millions of Jews became Israelis.
For a few years after 1948, Israel felt the need to define and secure its unsteady borders. The newly-constituted Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were always on the lookout for the next invasion, but instead of coming in the form of a unified Arab assault, it tended to be Palestinians crossing the armistice lines. Though most of them simply wanted to visit relatives (150,000 Arabs had remained in Israel) or return to their homes, some attempted to exact revenge for the Nakba. They rarely did much damage, but because Israeli security forces adopted a policy of shoot first and ask questions later, somewhere between 2700 and 5000 people were killed crossing the border, most of them unarmed.
In addition to territorial integrity, massive retaliation was Israeli policy. In 1953, some people infiltrated Israel and murdered an Israeli mother and her two children near the Jordanian town of Qibya. The IDF responded with a devastating raid on Qibya, led by Ariel Sharon, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 civilians. Guerrilla attacks escalated and in 1954, the IDF attacked Egyptian military outposts in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian rule but inhabited by 300,000 Palestinian refugees) and killed 37 Egyptian soldiers. The message was clear: control the Palestinians or you will be sorry. It did not work out as Israelis hoped.
At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by Arab marauders in 1956, Moshe Dayan cogently summed up Arab feeling toward Israel.
Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.
He went on to say
We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house…. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach for our blood… The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.
Dayan recognised the injustice of the advent of Israel and believed, I think rightly, that it had come to mean there could be no accommodation with the Arabs. Strong reprisals, he believed, meant that Arabs would see Israel’s strength and be less inclined to fight back. Far from preventing further violence, however, reprisals increased resistance to Israel, the Palestinians organised and eventually, the Six Day War began.
The causes of the Six Day War are numerous and complicated, but the initiation of the war was Israel’s attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967. Egypt had sent a large number of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. A major reason for Israel’s preventive attack on Egypt, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence at the time, was to restore Israel’s deterrent capacity. If Israel had looked weak in the face of pressure from Arabs, it might have faced greater threats. Israel won the Six Day War, but the threats kept coming all the same.
In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorism went international. Of many attacks that brought international attention to the Palestinian cause, the most infamous was probably the Munich massacre. A group calling itself Black September entered the Israeli athletes’ compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics and took the team hostage. Black September called their operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Palestinian villages whose residents were killed or expelled in 1948. Clearly, it was itself an act of revenge. In the messy rescue attempts that ensued, Black September murdered 11 athletes and coaches. In response, Israel launched Operation Wrath of God, the assassination of those suspected of organising the murders at Munich (dramatised in the film Munich). Wrath of God was followed by plane hijackings and raids on Israeli territory, and the cycle of violence rolled on for decades.
When Gaza and the West Bank were sealed off to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, the weapon of choice for Gazan militants became the Qassam rocket. Thousands of rockets and mortars fell on southern Israel, and 22 Israelis were killed. In order to punish all of Gazas 1.5m residents for their tacit or active support of these attacks, on December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. Cast Lead killed 1400 people, including 300 children, and wreaked untold devastation on the perpetual humanitarian crisis known as the Gaza Strip. The massacre on Gaza did not, in fact, end the rocket attacks (though it reduced them), and reciprocal violence has characterised life in southern Israel and Gaza since then.
Recently, the violence has escalated. On March 23, 2011, a bomb attack at a bus station in Jerusalem killed a British national and wounded 39 other people and setting off the latest pointless cycle of vengeance. The Israeli Air Force responded to the bombing with strikes on Gaza that killed eight people, including children, even though they did not reveal (presumably because they did not know) who committed the bombing. Last Thursday, members of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus in a kibbutz in southern Israel, critically wounding a teenage boy. Israel again bombed the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, Israeli officials said that 120 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since the school bus attack, some 50 last Saturday alone. On the same day, while visiting the wounded teen in the hospital, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said there “is no immunity for anyone in Gaza.”
According to the International Crisis Group, the regional turmoil has raised Israeli anxiety that embattled Arab governments will seek to divert attention from domestic matters and provoke some kind of conflict between Israel and the terrorist groups that oppose it. It also says that Hamas has been emboldened by these developments “and is therefore less likely to back down from a challenge.” It may also need to prove itself in the face of challenges from more radical, rival Palestinian groups, who in turn may be the ones to bring on the next massacre of Palestinians. The blindness that righteous indignation induces is the root cause of all of these attacks.
The IDF has been warning since last year that something bigger than Cast Lead could result if the attacks on southern Israel do not stop. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF chief of staff, said on the second anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead last December that Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and warned that “the IDF is preparing for any scenario”. This week in Ashkelon, a town near Gaza that has been the target of many of the rockets, locals called on the IDF to do something. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that “many residents still believe an extensive ground operation against Hamas is the only way to bring peace to the south.” They are, of course, wrong, as the inevitable carnage would simply provoke further attempts to even the score.
Egypt has called a conference in Cairo that has a chance of reducing tensions. Serious efforts by outside parties can temporarily defuse the situation but without substantial changes in attitudes, revenge will remain the bloody reality in Israel and Gaza.
The history of Israel is a history of revenge. Israel has consistently retaliated with massive violence in the face of guerrilla attacks, terrorism and other threats. The idea seemed sound: show them we mean business and they will not mess with us again. But they do. And retaliation has not, and never will, bring either Israelis or Palestinians the peace they claim to believe in.
If you are angry, you see your attack as nothing but attempting to right a wrong. One’s own actions are never aggression: we are the victims, they are the terrorists. But the real wrong is any attack that is not based purely on self-defence. If there is no immediate threat, we are better off mastering our emotions so that the cycle of violence stops. As hard as it is, controlling one’s anger and turning the other cheek are the only way to prevent further bloodshed and misery.