Monday, February 6, 2006

Disengagement - Part 2 - Amona and the Altalena

2 February 2006
Millburn, New Jersey

Part 1 would have been the end of the blogs for this year but I can’t resist one last political ramble. Part of our last full day in Tel Aviv was spent at the Etzel Museum. This museum serves to educate and be a memorial to members of the right-wing underground. The main organizations so memorialized are the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin among others, and the Stern Gang. Whoops, sorry, my mistake, at the Etzel Museum Mr. Stern and his followers had a minor ideological difference with Irgun, Lehi and just about everyone else on the planet and so formed a splinter organization known, in this museum as the “Stern Group.” Nice ring to it. Sound like a bunch of financial advisors or accountants. What all these groups did was engage in a national liberation struggle to convince the British to leave and the Arabs to stop shooting at Jews. Fortunately for them their side won the war and, eventually, became part of the government. So they get to be heroes of the struggle for independence and not terrorists who indiscriminately killed civilians along with military and political targets. In the Etzel Museum, the Haganah and the leaders of the Yishuv (the governing body for Jewish affairs in Palestine) play minor roles at best or are stumbling blocks at worst, in the struggle for a Jewish State. This would come as a surprise to David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and any of your children who learned Zionist history at school or summer camp (unless, of course, you send them to a Betar summer camp)

So, it's 1948 and Ben Gurion has announced the formation of the State of Israel and now he has a critical task to perform. What distinguishes a State from “a bunch of folks” is the ability to define its own borders and to have a monopoly on the use of violence within those borders. Whenever a national liberation movement manages to gain the upper hand, its leadership has a short-lived window of opportunity in which to get all the factions into one unified government. Oh, there can be political differences of opinion but, as the Palestinians now like to chant, there can only be one people and one gun. If the liberation movement fails to get this level of control, someone else will soon be running the show. For example, Sun Yat Sen in China and Kerensky in Russia failed to get everyone under one command. But Lenin and Stalin and Mao did manage to gain such control. This can be done by merging groups or by winning the Civil War (you can be nostalgic for Jeff Davis and Mars Robert but Abe Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were the big winners).

So, shortly after the State was declared, Ben Gurion and Begin, et al, cut a deal under which Irgun fighters would form two distinct brigades within the Haganah. The combined organizations will eventually become the Israel Defense Force (Tseva HaHaganah Le Yisrael). For a few months during 1948 Haganah and Irgun were ostensibly under a single command. But not really. Etzel’s international wing had continued its fund raising and arms buying activities outside of Israel and, in the early fall of 1948, sent the Altalena sailing toward Tel Aviv. The ship was loaded with arms, ammunition and about 900 volunteers ready to fight the Arabs. Well, the government didn’t mind receiving guns and conscripts to fire them. What the government objected to was Irgun’s contention that its brigades should get a substantial portion of the weapons first and then Haganah could have the rest. Ben Gurion rejected this and, taking a page from the British playbook, sent troops to prevent the Altalena from unloading its cargo. Things got out of hand and the new government of Israel wound up firing upon a ship of Jews, blowing up munitions and killing a dozen or so people. Etzel relives this tragedy much like the south likes to refight the Civil War. But the government of Israel had to do what it did or risk falling apart before it could really dig in.

As noted in another blog, Menachem Begin goes on to help form a political party that eventually becomes part of Likud, becomes Prime Minister after the Labor Party has failed to deliver security and jobs and has suffered a series of corruption scandals and, within a few years, the man who once espoused and would never give up a dream of Israel within Mosaic, if not Solomonic or Hasmonean borders, became the first Prime Minister to dismantle a settlement. Netanyahu would interject that Begin got something in return for the disengagement from Sinai but no one on the right has ever described the pull out from Sinai as anything other than a tragedy. Nevertheless, Begin had to decide what the borders would be and he had to be ready to use force if necessary to defend those borders from without and from within...just like Ben Gurion had to sink the Altalena or watch his government fall.

Which brings us to Amona. Unlike the Gaza disengagement, the settlers’ groups decided to use violence against the police and army rather than give up nine illegally constructed houses. No one is talking about the fact that the rest of the Amona settlement is still alive and well. This time the settlers decided that it would be OK to throw rocks at and otherwise try to injure representatives of the government rather than give up an inch of what they claim as Israel. Problem is that the government, including a couple of panels of the Israel Supreme Court, has determined it to be an illegal settlement (one established without government permission). Well, where I come from, if you throw a rock into a policeman’s face your head, arm or some other body part that you have become attached to is going to be broken and you are going to be arrested and charged with assault and resisting arrest (police just love charging people who are lying on the ground, writhing in pain, with resisting arrest). Lots of people are shocked and outraged that (pick your side) would do this to (pick your side). I’ll spare you my rant about how the settlements were a bad idea in 1972 and have gotten only worse since then. Let’s just state the obvious: If you’re the government and want to remain the government, then, when faced with uncompromising opposition to your rules, you have to sink the Altalena.

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