Sunday, August 23, 2009

West's Wild East 4

Continued from the post before last...

Meet the 'Israelis':-

Jakov Baratz, Director of Military Intelligence, is The Tower of Babel's poster boy, the complete converse of that awful Syrian Ba'thist, Colonel Safreddin. He's your typical, conscience-racked Israeli philosopher-warrior who does everything humanly possible to avoid civilian casualties when planning his country's next war crime... which the author has based on Israel's 1966 "reprisal raid" on the West Bank village of Samua when the West Bank was still under Jordanian control (1948-1967). "PLO terrorists" have been infiltrating Israel from the West Bank and Jakov and his staff have been tasked by Aron the PM to prepare a plan for said "reprisal raid"on one of three villages in the Hebron area. They must consider how long it'll take Jordanian troops to counterattack, and, of course - being Israelis and all - "We have then, to consider the villagers themselves. We are to avoid civilian casualties*. Our plan is to move out the population and then destroy the village. However, the villagers must have some place to go. If there are caves and wadis where they can shelter, so much the better. We cannot have them caught in cross-fire between the Jordanians and ourselves... Any questions?... 'Suggestion, sir.' 'Let's have it.' 'Medical services. In case there are civilian casualties...'" (pp 90-91) [*"The Israelis are among the most disciplined troops in the world and go to great lengths to avoid civilian caualties." Greg Sheridan (See my 8/2/09 post On Planet Sheridan)]

As the "raid" proceeds, Jakov and Israeli Chief of Staff Chaim observe the action from an "observation post overlooking the Hebron valley": "In essence, the Hebron plan was very simple and there was little room for mistakes. At 0600 the fighters would be in the air, and the ground troops would be right on the Jordan border. They would drive 5 kms into Jordan territory and surround the village. The villagers would be moved out and a mixed company of infantry and engineers would move in to clear out stragglers and set demolition charges in houses and public buildings. The charges would be exploded, the company would withdraw, the operation would be over. The tanks were there to protect the infantry, provide a massive show of strength and bar the road to any approach by troops of [Jordan's] Arab Legion. The only probable oppostion would be small arms and sniping from armed irregulars of the PLO." (pp 310-311)

And lo, like clockwork, "[w]hen the villagers saw [the Israeli tanks] they fled in panic..." But, just for the panic-proof among them, "a huge distorted voice began calling on the villagers - if any remained - to leave their homes and follow their neighbours... They would not be harmed, the voice promised them, but if any man fired a shot... they would be killed without mercy. The call was repeated, once, twice and again. Then, under the watchful eyes of the gunners, the last frightened folk crept out of their homes and hurried away. The ring of tanks closed around the huddle of empty habitations. The troops moved in to prepare its destruction." (pp 315-316)

Jordanian troops arrive only to be badly mauled by Israeli tank rounds. In the village, "buildings... spouted fire or collapsed like card-houses in a puff of dusty air," before Israeli troops, "shepherded" by tanks, depart for home, "unscarred, unhurried." Remarks Chaim, "Very neat, very efficient." (pp 316-317) The PM, of course, is a tad pissed off at the number of Jordanian casualties, but Chaim will have none of it: "'We told you the risks. You accepted them. We [the military brass] won't be made scapegoats'. The PM drew in his horns like a snail."

To recap: the cool, civilian casualty averse Israeli army has carried out the pollies' dirty work with the heaviest of hearts, but apart from one too many Jordanian troops biting the dust, neither villagers (shame about their village though) nor Israeli heroes emerge with so much as a hair out of place. Now you believe that, don't you? West did. Sheridan does. Only problem is history wasn't quite as "neat" as the novelist would have us believe.

According to Israeli historian Tom Segev, "The military had been demanding permission from the government to act against a Jordanian village for months... The government had refused, authorizing only limited action that the military commanders deemed useless. Now the army proposed entering the village of Samua... and bombing a few dozen houses there. Chief of Staff Rabin [Chaim] went to see [PM] Eshkol [Aron] at his home in Jerusalem. Eshkol would have preferred to take steps against Syria, but he agreed that the circumstances demanded action in Jordan, despite the risk of unwanted conflict with the Jordanian army." (1967: Israel, the War & the Year that Transformed the Middle East 2007 p 150)

Nor, it seems, did the villagers or their attackers emerge unscathed: "Israel's envoy to Washington, Ephraim Evron, reported that the [military] attache [at the US embassy in Amman, who visited Samua] had seen 'many civilians' bodies, which suggested that not all the houses were evacuated before being blown up. Some of the bodies were those of elderly women who had not been able to escape in time, Evron reported. Operation Shredder, as it was called, grew far beyond the [security] cabinet's expectations... A regiment commander in the paratroopers was killed and 10 IDF soldiers were wounded." (1967, p 151) Oops!

There were other consequences of the raid as well: the West Bank erupted in anti-Hashemite riots, savagely put down by the Jordanian army. It also had the effect of convincing King Hussein that whether he threw in his lot with the Syrians and the Egyptians or not, Israel wanted to occupy the West Bank regardless (see Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War & Peace, Avi Shlaim, 2007, p 227). Funny that, because one of the novel's themes is alleged Arab provocations of Israel designed to goad it into war.

Party pooper Segev might describe Yakov, Chaim & Co as "like adolescent boys or bulls in rut. They believed in force and they wanted war. War was their destiny (1967, p 296)," but what the hell does he know? West's Director of Military Intelligence is a man who cares, damn it, a man in pain:

"As he walked back alone to his office [Jakov] thought, as he had thought many times before, that it was all too spare and frigid and impersonal - a game played on a sand map, with no true knowledge, or even knowledgeable discussion about the human factors involved. Move out the civilian population! So simple! A roar on a bull horn and the human ants march out in orderly procession from the ant-heap. But it was never like that. How could it be? It was something far more poignant and destructive, old women doddering in panic through the alleys, a confusion of men shouting and yelling in contradiction, babies snatched from the breast, children herded like frightened sheep to caves and clefts in the hillside, the small hoards of seven hundred poor lifetimes buried under a pile of rubble. For what? To tell a harried princeling that he must police a hundred miles of desert border a little better. Medical services! God Almighty, how easy it was to say - how harsh the instant reality! A man with his eye gouged out by a bullet; a boy pushing his spilled guts back into his belly; the blank puzzlement on the faces of the dead. How easy it was to make political calculations - as if you could work out the whole human equation with a pair of calipers and a slide rule. Across the Atlantic the assembly of nations would sit in judgement on the act which, today, was being planned with such professional detatchment. All round the spinning planet, men and women would read the news and wonder whether this incident or the next would trigger an atomic destruction. There were no bounds to the consequences of the simplest act of violence. One man dead meant thousands would never be born. One homeless man might one day tear down cities in a mad vendetta against the human race. You could push the monstrous logic to a point at which it would drive you mad. On the other hand you could affect to ignore it altogether and limit yourself to that area of action which was allotted to you by legal commission. You could inform, advise, protest and then submit yourself to the consensus with a clear conscience... Or could you? He remembered Eichmann* sitting in his glass box in the courtroom, and making the same plea in a hundred different forms. What beat Eichmann in the end was the sheer horror of the arithmetic; but it started with the first Jew beaten by the first bunch of bullies in the street. So, if because of what you have begun this morning, one child is killed in a Hebron hovel, where do you stand? You know it can happen. You know it probably will. You have already accepted this tacit probability. How do you plead, Jakov Baratz? Guilty or not guilty?" (pp 91-92) [*Whoops! Inappropriate analogy! Morris West, you're an anti-Semite for sure!]

Like all those Israelis charged with keeping the hordes of Amalek at bay, Jakov suffers terribly from Existential Threat Syndrome (ETS): "'A man was killed this morning, sir; a peaceful farmer...' 'We have lost 6 million dead in the holocausts, Captain. Israel is built on their ashes. remember that'... The young man saluted and went out, closing the door behind him. Baratz stood staring at the map, where the red ink was spattered like blood spots and the cryptic military symbols told the story of a daily battle for survival. The map was as familiar to him as his own skin and he reacted instantly to every itch and prickle on its surface. Sometimes in his troubled dreams it was a skin; a living human skin, stretched tight and pegged down over a narrow ground between Egypt and Jordan and Syria and Lebanon and the sea which was its life blood. Suddenly the skin would errupt into swellings and pustules and out of these would come legions and legions of soldier ants, marching in serried ranks until they blotted out the skin and ate through it to the bare ground. When the ants left, the ground would be covered with bones, over which the voice of the ancient prophet chanted a threnody: The Power of the Lord laid hold of me and by the Spirit of the Lord I was carried away and set down in the midst of the plain which was covered with bones. Round the whole extent of them he took me, where they lay thick on the plain, all of them parched quite dry. Son of man, he said, can life return to these bones... Then, in the dream, there would be a silence while he waited for the promise of resurrection that should follow the threnody. But the promise never came and he would wake, sweating and terrified, knowing that if the ants took over the land there would be no resurrection any more and that the House of Israel would be blotted out for ever."

But, despite his troubled dreams, he's really just a regular guy we can all identify with (unlike those Arab freaks already described: "[H]e did not believe in magic any more than he believed in the God of the Fathers, who could sit removed in his heaven while 6 million of his chosen ones perished in a monstrous hecatomb. And this was the irony of his situation, that in him, an appointed trustee of the continuity of Israel, the continuity was already broken. The hands which lay before him on the table were not anointed to a priesthood. No prophecies were written in their leathery palms. They called down no benediction from a silent sky. They were artisan's hands, apt to the working of wood and metal. They were soldier's hands, that could strip a gun and assemble it again from stock to muzzle swifter than most. They were lover's hands, which had once wakened Hannah to triumphant ecstasy..." (p 6)

And, and, he's sooo connected to the land: "He had come to it as a child, son of a landless trader from the Baltic, and he had never forgotten the splendour of his arrival: the furnace blaze of the sun, the blinding sky, the mountains hewn as if by wild axe-men, the desert where the air danced and cities and palm trees swam upside down and vanished at a glance. As a youth he had farmed it, building rock walls with his bare hands, carrying baskets of earth on his back, planting the vine twigs and the lemon-trees. As a man he had fought over it, using the military skills that the British had taught him, counting every bloody mile from Lydda to Ramle, to Abu Ghosh and the final foothold on Zion*. And now his love for it was manifold: a dark passion that bound him closer to the soil than he ever had been to the body of a woman. He was jealous too, like all lovers; because his tenure in the beloved was always insecure - and no one knew better than he how strongly it was threatened." (p 30) [*So Jakov threw himself into the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948? You gotta love this guy.]

To be continued...

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