Does Israel want to start a War?


BLAIR FRASER December 1 1954

Does Israel want to start a War?


BLAIR FRASER December 1 1954

Does Israel want to start a War?




TEL-AVIV—In the propaganda war between Israel and the Arab world the advantages of skill and address lie with Israel. Nowhere else in the world is a visiting reporter so well treated. As soon as his presence is known, the Israeli government press division gives him every kind of help. It makes appointments with anyone he wants to meet, takes him anywhere he wants to go, shows him anything he wants to see. His guide is a charming young man who speaks the reporter’s language, usually with the same accent, and who is accepted instantly as a friend.

No one rams propaganda down the visitor’s throat. He merely spends a few days with a congenial companion who believes with obvious sincerity that Israel has been right on the fundamental issues. Random conversations put Israel’s case in the most effective way imaginable.

While Israel does the best public-relations job in the world, Arab countries do the worst. It is hardly an exaggeration to say they do everything wrong.

Who’s really to blame in the hot-cold war of the Middle East? Is the world’s newest state ripe for disaster? Here’s a surprising report on the situation from a Maclean’s editor on the ground

To begin with, they do all they can to exclude a reporter who wants to hear both sides of the question. Their consuls are under orders to refuse entry visas to anyone who admits an intention to visit Israel. (Israeli envoys, on the contrary, will explain just what must be done to get around this silly obstruction.)

Once into the Arab world, the reporter finds himself talking mostly to people who apply to propaganda the techniques of an oriental bazaar. They seem to think the way to sell a case is to overstate it.

Of the half-dozen Arab countries only Jordan, the poorest, has a genuine major grievance against Israel. All except Lebanon are backward countries, with a social system which was obsolete before the Middle Ages and now is threatened with a downfall long overdue. Most of them are obviously using Israel as an external scapegoat to divert attention from ills at home.

But the most glaring contrast in Israel’s favor is the typical answer to the questions, “What’s to be the end of this conflict? What do you people really want?”

Any Israeli, from taxi driver to cabinet minister, will answer without hesitation, “We want peace. We want the Arabs to sit down with us and work out a treaty.”

Ask Arabs the same question and nine of ten will reply “We’re going to drive the Jews into the sea.” They’ve said it so often in the past thirty years that by now it’s automatic.

So it comes as a shock to learn from neutral observers who have been on the spot for several years that Israel and not Jordan has been keeping the border tense by repeated acts of aggression.

Israeli spokesmen don’t admit this, of course; 1 doubt whether Israeli civilians have the slightest suspicion that it’s true. Dr. Gideon Rafael, director of the Arab affairs section of the Israeli Foreign Office, said in answer to a question:

“There have been no attacks from the Israeli side except in direct retaliation for attacks from Jordan.”

By now so many raids have occurred in both directions that almost all can be described as retaliation for some previous assault, but here is how the series worked out on the border last summer:

In June, five Jordan Arabs went on a raid into Israel. Like all male adults in Jordan they were members of the National Guard, but the rifles they carried that night were their own. They killed two people and wounded two more; two of the Arabs themselves were killed. The three who returned to Jordan, wounded, were immediately put in jail by Jordan authorities; as I write they are still there.

A few nights later, an Israeli Army unit of about company strength attacked a camp of the Arab Legion, the army of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, at Azzun, five miles inside the border. They ran down between the Arab Legion tents, spraying machinegun fire on either side at about the height of a camp cot. Since Arab Legionnaires sleep on the ground, only three were killed and three wounded when they jumped up to see what was going on. An Arab farmer was also killed in this operation.

Eye for eye and tooth for tooth, the score was more than even—for two Israelis killed in the first raid, six Arabs were dead, two of them the actual culprits. However, in the raid on Azzun the Israeli Army had had one man wounded and captured; he was held in Arab Legion custody.

A month later another group of armed Israeli made a raid into Jordan. They killed one Arab, wounded another, and took a Jordan policeman prisoner.

Whether or not these raiders were Israeli regulars, United Nations observers aren’t sure. They’re in no doubt though about the next attack from Israel because they were present—the fighting lasted long enough for a team of UN military observers, summoned on Jordan’s complaint, to arrive while the operation was still going on. An Israeli Army unit had attacked an Arab Legion position four hundred yards inside the border, with machine guns and two-inch mortars. They killed an Arab Legionnaire and captured another.

After a fortnight came a fourth raid, carried out by two platoons against Jordan villages. They killed an Arab Legionnaire who had come up with his unit when the village gave the alarm, and they wounded three villagers of the Jordan National Guard but they didn’t manage to get any prisoners.

The fifth Israeli Army raid was more successful. This time a battalion was in action, according to UN estimates. Two Israeli forces mined and ambushed the only two roads leading to a Jordan

village while another force attacked the village itself. Of the Arab Legionnaires who came down the ambushed roads to help defend the village, two were killed, three wounded and three taken prisoner.

That made five Arab prisoners all told for the one Israeli captured in the Azzun raid two months before. Israeli Army spokesmen now made a bald proposition, unofficially, through United Nations authorities:

Would Jordan exchange its one Israeli prisoner for the five Arabs?

Jordan authorities didn’t like the idea much. The Israeli prisoner, after all, had been captured five miles inside Jordan territory and was thus unquestionably guilty of an offense both countries recognize—infiltration. The five Arabs, on the other hand, had been forcibly abducted from their own country by Israeli raiding parties. However, the Jordanians didn’t want to be legalistic at the expense of their captured men; they finally indicated that if Israel would release the five Arabs “unconditionally,” Jordan a little later would “unconditionally” release the Israeli soldier.

There were of course other incidents in the course of the summer. Cattle


Daughter matched mother’s

Dimensions this year,

Resulting in mom’s being Thrown out of gear.


thefts, orchard looting and at least three murders have been committed by Arabs in Israeli territory since the raid on Azzun. Jordan admits there is more individual infiltration from Jordan to Israel than vice versa because, as they point out, it was Arabs and not Israeli who were driven from their homes by the war of 1948-49. When Jordan authorities catch an Arab infiltrator, though, they put him in jail. I didn’t hear of any Israeli being jailed for the same offense, though individual attacks from the Israel side are committed too.

The day before I arrived in Israel ten Arab boys were swimming in the irrigation pool at Wadi Fukin, an Arab village about a quarter of a mile inside the Jordan border. Four were youths of sixteen or so, the rest little children. All were not only unarmed; they were naked.

It was a Saturday, the Sabbath in Israel. A little after noon, four men with rifles came over the top of a high hill just on Jordan’s side of the border. They fired a half-dozen shots into the swimming party and hit two twelveyear-olds. One was drilled through the upper chest but since his lung was not pierced he recovered quickly. The other got a bullet in the abdomen; he was taken to a hospital twelve miles away with his intestines hanging out, and when I saw him a week later he was still a very sick little boy.

UN observers couldn’t make any investigation on the Israel side of the border—they haven’t been able to do so since Israel walked out of the Mixed Armistice Commission, which conducts these enquiries into truce violations, last March. However, they believe the four riflemen came from a nearby kibbutz (collective farm) where the members all belong to the Herut Party. The

4tThey ran down between the Arab tents, spraying machine-gun fire at the cots”

Herut was founded by the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist group which before the war used to boast of its atrocities against British soldiers and Arab civilians. Herut’s leader in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, is the ex-Pole Minahim Begin, who founded the terrorist Irgun movement.

In the 1951 elections in Israel the Herut Party got little more than six percent of the vote and elected only eight of a hundred and twenty members to the Knesset. Some neutral observers believe though that the terrorist Herut may be more influential with the Israeli Army than it is with the electorate as a whole.

In any case, for whatever reason, they say the Israeli Army is following a more “activist” policy than the Israeli Government would be expected to sanction. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett is well known as a moderate man and so are most of his ministers. What worries neutral observers I spoke with is the fact that the Israeli Government seems unwilling or unable to do anything effective to stop these wellplanned, well-executed military operations. Instead, Israeli policy has sometimes appeared to be designed to condone or conceal them.

For instance, the ostensible reason Israel quit the Mixed Armistice Commission last March was that the chairman, Commander Elmo Hutchison of the United States Navy, who has since been recalled, wouldn’t vote for an Israeli resolution. Eleven people had been murdered when a bus was ambushed at Scorpion Pass in the Negeb desert in southern Israel. The Israeli wanted Jordan condemned for this outrage, just as Israel had been condemned when half a battalion of Israeli soldiers killed fifty-three men, women and children in Qibye a year ago.

Hutchison had no doubt that Arabs had ambushed the bus but he wasn’t sure they came from Jordan. Their tracks petered out eight miles from the border; he thought they might have come from the strip of land near Gaza held by Egypt, or perhaps from among the fifteen thousand Bedouins who roam the Negeb desert within Israel. So he abstained from voting and Israel withdrew from the armistice commission.

One UN observer, who served for months on the staff of the Israel-Jordan commission, thinks the Hutchison incident was merely an excuse to get out.

“Israel didn’t want to stay,” he said. “Israel was becoming embarrassed. Her men couldn’t find enough verifiable complaints against Jordan to justify the ‘retaliations’ by the Israeli Army. In all the time I worked with that commission, and most of it was before the Israeli pulled out, they never proved anything that matched the reprisals.”

Since then Israel has learned the drawbacks of being absent from a tribunal which continues to function. All the complaints of the past half year have come from Jordan; all have been unchallenged and all have been upheld by the UN commission—a record that looks bad for Israel. Israel has taken advantage of Hutchison’s recall to return to the Mixed Armistice Commission.

Meanwhile, though, the summer series of “retaliations” went forward with no UN enquiries on the Israeli side. The same applied to Israel’s own complaints—instead of being laid before the Mixed Armistice Commission for investigation, they were simply announced to the Press by spokesmen for the Israeli Army. There was no way 'of checking them. If the “activists” wanted a clear field for unimpeded activity, they got it.

But why? Why should a peace-loving, law-abiding nation embark upon, or even permit, a policy of deliberate violence?

It’s no answer to say the Israeli Army wanted to rescue the prisoner taken at Azzun. Few people would argue that five men should have been killed, seven wounded and five abducted as hostages, all as a proper way

of releasing one man from imprisonment for an act both countries declare to be a crime.

Equally unconvincing is the reason suggested by a British officer on the Jordan side.

“Best battle training in the world, these night patrols,” he said. “The Israeli Army has been having manoeuvres all summer, and you couldn’t find a better way to train troops. Here’s an exercise not merely with live ammunition but with a live enemy. Even if the enemy’s only a peasant he’s likely to be armed, and often he turns out to

be a trained soldier in small-scale war.

“These Israeli raids are very well executed,” he added with professional appreciation. “The attack on Azzun, for instance, was technically perfect— thoroughly planned, and carried out with courage and efficiency.”

There’s no way of finding out what the true answer is, because Israeli spokesmen do not admit the facts that give rise to the question. As Dr. Rafael at the Foreign Office put it, “Israel has never admitted that regular troops were involved.” He was talking about the attack on Qibye last year, but his

words apply equally to all the 1954 operations.

It’s a safe speculation, though, that one reason for the “activist” policy -and the chief reason for the total lack of public protest against it in Israel—is an opinion held by many Israeli, and especially by those who have lived a long time in the country:

“The best way to treat an Arab is to hit him hard, make him good and scared; then he won’t bother you for a while.”

Some UN observers think this is the whole answer to Israel’s record of belligerence. Others doubt it; they point out that if that were the case, there would be a direct ratio between the number of individual infiltrations from Jordan and the periodic reprisals from Israel. They say the figures don’t indicate any such relation.

One point that comes up on both sides of the argument is the present state of Israel’s economy.

It’s a commonplace that the Israeli have done wonders with their harsh and barren land. Deserts have blossomed like the rose; cities and towns stand where mud huts or sand dunes stood before. Israel can fairly claim to be the only country of the Middle East with a twentieth-century economy and culture; it’s a modern democracy in the midst of feudalism, with modern industry in the midst of handicraft.

Before I went to Israel I had the notion, partly from reading literature of the Israeli bond drive in Canada, that Israel was in bad economic trouble that was growing worse. I found this to be quite untrue—if anything, the opposite is true. Israel appears to be in fine shape.

They Learned to Tie Shoes

People who have lived there for several years say the improvement since 1950 or 1952 is astounding. Then, they say, there was nothing in the shops at all; people got their rations and that was it. Now the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are full of bustle, the shops are full of goods at reasonable prices, currency inflation has been checked so that people are saving their money again and everybody feels proud and happy about it.

Not that living is easy. Wages are low by Canadian standards—about $2.50 a day is the basic labor rate, and one of the features of Israeli life is that the spread between top salaries and bottom salaries is not wide. But things are so much better than they were before that few complain.

Moreover, this improvement has been wrought at the very time when the young state was wrestling with a colossal problem—seven hundred thousand immigrants, about half of them from backward Middle Eastern countries with no knowledge of modern skills. (Some from Yemen didn’t know enough to unlace their shoes before t.rving, for the first time in their lives, t put them on.) Many of these people have learned industrial jobs and are working in new factories; others are working new irrigated farms in the Negeb desert or old farms abandoned by Arabs who fled during the 1948 war. The immense task of settling more than one immigrant for every Israeli already in the country seems to have been done.

“Look at what we’ve worked to build up; can you imagine anyone in his right mind wanting a war that would destroy it again?” said young David Solomon, the Government press-division man who was my guide and companion during most of my stay in Israel. We were driving back from the Negeb, where we had toured a new factory, lunched at a new co-operative farm, had tea at a new residential development. The question obviously didn’t require an answer.

Yet there is another side to the Israeli economy which is less cheerful, and it too happened to be well illustrated during that tour of southern Israel.

We visited the new model suburb at Ashkalon, the ancient city of the Philistines which has been Israeli territory since the armistice of 1949. About three hundred and fifty houses have been built for two thousand people; two hundred more are planned in the immediate future and eventually this residential area is to house about ten thousand.

But wbat, I enquired, did they live on? What does Ashkalon do?

That was a hard question. There was a new cement-pipe factory nearby, supplying the Government’s irrigation pipeline to the Negeb; none of its seven hundred workers lived in the suburb but it was a local industry which would last several years. A small plywood plant was operating, too. As for the people living in the suburb, some had government jobs and others were building the two hundred new houses planned for the suburb itself. (They’d already built their own.)

But what did the town live on? What supported it?

That was an easy one. It got $50,000 a year from a group of South African Jews who’d conceived the project (it’s called “Afredar” for that reason) and $100,000 a year from the United Jewish Appeal. Total subsidy, $430 a year for each family.

To some extent all Israel is in the same position as Afredar.

Even now, after great strides in building up exports, Israel earns only one quarter of the foreign exchange she needs. This year she will spend twice her total earnings on direct consumption alone—food, fuel, clothing and the like. For investment, debt service, imports for re-export and so on she will spend as much again. Altogether she will need $257 millions more than she can earn by selling goods and services.

For about half that amount Israel relies on reparations from Germany ($60 millions) and grants-in-aid from the United States Government ($74 millions). The remaining $123 millions will have to be collected among the Jews of the world, two thirds of it in the U. S. and Canada.

This represents a considerable increase in Israel’s requirements from world Jewry. In 1952-53, the last period for which twelve-month figures are available, these contributions were only $106 millions. The current budget counts on sixteen percent more than that.

It’s still an open question whether this much can be collected. There have been some signs that the North American donors to the Zionist cause are becoming a little weary in the well-doing that’s expected of them.

Last winter, at an economic conference in Jerusalem attended by leading contributors and fund-raisers from North America, a project was launched to consolidate Israel’s short-term debts and reduce the needless burden of high interest rates. Jewish communities undertook to use their own credit to raise long-term loans to replace the short-term loans which were costing Israel a lot of money. The quota accepted for this “consolidation loan fund” was $75 millions. Only $60 millions have been collected.

In this situation there are obvious advantages in an atmosphere of tension and emergency. Israel’s long-term interests unquestionably lie on the side of peace—fuel oil alone costs millions more than it should do each year, because it must be shipped all the way from the Gulf of Mexico; belligerent

Egypt won’t allow Israel-bound tankers through the Suez Canal. But since this blockade exists anyway and would not be removed merely by a conciliatory attitude on Israel’s part, there is some short-term gain in keeping the heat on along the border. The fear of war makes people readier to make donations abroad, and to accept privation at home.

Another short-term economic consideration is the problem of the Arab refugees, about eight hundred thousand of whom left their homes and fled to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria

during the 1948 war with the Israelis.

Israel won’t allow these people to return, on various more or less plausible grounds— Israelis say they can’t risk having a fifth column half the size of their present population. Meanwhile, though, the Arab refugees’ farms and homes have been occupied by immigrant Israelis.

No compensation of any sort has been paid to the Arab owners. I met a Christian family in Old Jerusalem whose properties in Haifa and Galilee had been worth half a million dollars; they are now eking out a living on a

very small job in one of the Protestar establishments and think themselve lucky that they are not among tht 460,000 in the refugee camps of Jordar. alone. The vast majority of refugees have lived for six years in tents or tin shacks on a subsistence ration supplied by the United Nations.

Even assuming that these refugees could be persuaded to accept anything less than a return to their own homes (which they say they will never do), it’s obvious that any reasonable treaty would have to provide for payment to them for the property Israelis have appreprinted. Israel has no spare money for such a costly settlement.

These things may have some bearing on the “activist” policy of the Israeli Army along the Jordan border. But there is another possible explanation, equally plausible and much more sinister, which Jordan spokesmen contend to be the true one.

They say the Israeli Army is trying to provoke the Arab Legion into starting a war.

Israel would have no chance against the Arab countries in a war that Israel herself initiated, because Britain is bound by treaty to come to the aid of j Jordan in the event of any aggression. But if Jordan were to attack Israel Britain would have no obligation to assist her, either in the invasion or in any counter-invasion that might follow.

On paper, Israel is so heavily outnumbered by the Arab countries that a provocative policy seems insane. There are only 1.6 million people in Israel, and 180,000 of those are Arabs, mostly in Galilee. The Arab League—Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen—includes a grand total of 43.5 million people and at least four fair-sized atmies within striking distance of Israel.

In fact, though, the Arab League is not a military unit. The armies of Egypt, Lebanon and Syria invaded Israel in 1948, and demonstrated their inability to do much in the way of fighting. The only effective enemy which Israel would have to fight would be Jordan—the Arab Legion.

A Frontier on the Jordan

Founded and commanded by General John B. Glubb (Glubb Pasha) and still including about fifty Britons among its officers, the Arab Legion is a good, tough, well-disciplined fighting force. However, it is only about one division in strength; it has no aircraft, no heavy artillery and not much armor. Israel, according to Jordan’s intelligence, has about two hundred military aircraft and could probably mobilize four or five divisions. Without massive help from outside, the Arab Legion would be in a bad spot.

It could hardly hope to prevent an Israeli counterattack from sweeping eastward all the way to the Jordan River and perhaps beyond. The Jordan provides a natural, sensible frontier for Israel and any Israeli would be more than human if he did not think wistfully of a united, integrated land stretching from the Jordan to the sea. The Herut Party, the terrorist Irgun group, goes even farther; its platform calls for “the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) in its historic boundaries on both sides of the Jordan.”

Such an addition of territory would also help to solve the long-term economic problem. Even at the end of her present seven-year plan, Israel’s Ministry of Finance has estimated only that “the net deficit in foreign currency for consumer goods is expected to drop from $145 millions in 1953 to $75 millions in 1960.”

If any such notion of provoking an attack from Jordan has guided the “activists” in Israel, they seem to have made a bad mistake. So far as one can tell from talking to foreign officials in the area, the “activist” policy has been worse than a failure, it has been a boomerang.

“Israel would stand no chance starting a war . . . with Britain aiding the Arabs”

For one thing, the Arab Legion won’t bite. Glubb Pasha and his British officers, however strongly they may sympathize with their Arab comrades, will not allow their force to be goaded into the trap of reprisal in kind. Individual reprisals do occur—in September, for example, an Arab Legion corporal sneaked across the line, ambushed and killed two Israeli national guardsmen on their way to sentry duty, then came back to Jordan and gave himself up. He said he had murdered the two men in revenge for the death of some relatives in a previous Israeli raid.

Jordan authorities put the corporal in jail; when I left he was still there. It is unlikely that he will be tried and hanged for murder, considering the state of public opinion in Jordan, but at least he is in prison.

Glubb Pasha believes this sort of thing could be stopped by co-operation at the local-police level. In some places, local commanders’ meetings are held and, since neither side enjoys being routed out of bed by gunfire, the policemen each keep an eye on their own bad eggs and trouble is avoided. Glubb Pasha says Jordan would like to have this kind of local working agreement all along the border, but that Israel doesn’t want it.

Be that as it may, the attacks from the Jordan side are likely to remain at this relatively petty level, which no amount of clamor could magnify into an invasion.

Meanwhile the “retaliations” from Israel, though they’ve had little publicity in the w >rld Press, have been giving Israel a bad name with Western governments. The United Nations observers who investigate these attacks, Canadians and Americans and Europeans, are all reporting unofficially to their own foreign services as well as officially to the United Nations. Commander Hutchison, for example, the American who is persona non grata with the Israeli Government, is regarded by U. S. officials as a fair-minded man; they believe what he says, and tirades against him in Israel not only fail to convince but merely annoy Americans in the Middle East.

It would be frivolous to suggest that this annoyance had anything to do with the recent U. S. decision to extend military aid to the Arab states and ignore the protests of Israel. Undoubtedly the decision was based on considerations of high policy—the power vacuum that threatens the whole of Asia Minor, and the danger that Soviet Russia may move in to take advantage of it. Washington knows that when the chips are down, Israel has no choice but to be on our side. The Arab states are a much more doubtful quantity, and need both cultivation and protection.

It’s equally true that the Western world has no choice but to support the state of Israel. All Western governments know that Israel is the only functioning democracy between Turkey and the Indian Ocean, the only state whose government has the unquestioned loyalty of its people, the only fully reliable ally.

These considerations would certainly prevent the Western alliance from ever letting Israel go down to defeat either military or economic. But in the meantime, Israel would probably get a better hearing in the capitals of the world if she could make her own hotheads behave themselves.