Israel's Penchant for Destruction

Posted August 20, 2006

Israel's brutal assaults on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip follow the pattern the country has long established in its military actions. The hallmarks of Israel's approach to warfare are the wanton, if not deliberate, killing of civilians; the destruction of governmental and civilian infrastructure; and the intentional creation of refugees, often numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

The template for Israel's conduct was established in its 1948 War of Independence. During that conflict, Israeli troops engaged in some two dozen massacres, according to noted Israeli historian Benny Morris. Israeli military historian Aryeh Yitzhaki estimated that Jewish forces were responsible for 10 major massacres (with more than 50 victims) and perhaps 100 smaller massacres. Whatever the exact number of such incidents, the murder of civilians is well documented.

The most well-known atrocity during the 1948 war was the slaughter of over 100 residents of the peaceful town of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, on April 9, 1948, by two Jewish militias led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. This was more than a month before Arab armies attacked Israel. (Beginís Irgun was also responsible for bombing Jerusalemís King David Hotel, killing 91, while Shamirís Lehi later assassinated UN mediator and Swedish nobleman Count Folke Bernadotte, who had saved 21,000 Jewish lives during the second world war.

According to Jacques de Reynier, a Swiss physician working for the Red Cross who arrived two days later, the townspeople were "deliberately massacred in cold blood." "All I could think of," he later said, "was the SS troops I had seen in Athens." Twenty-five male survivors were taken to Jerusalem and paraded through the streets in a perverse victory celebration, then shot to death in a nearby quarry.

Fear induced by news of the massacres caused many Palestinians to flee during the war. So did forcible expulsions, the most notorious of which took place in the neighboring towns of Lydda and al-Ramla, southeast of Tel Aviv. On July 12 and 13, 1948, on the order of David Ben-Gurion, under the operational command of Yitzhak Rabin, and directly led by then-Major Moshe Dayan, Israeli forces expelled the two towns' 50,000 residents. "The corpses of Arab men, women and even children," wrote American reporter Kenneth Bilby, were "strewn about in the wake of the ruthlessly brilliant charge."

Perhaps the most innovative Israeli depopulation tactic during the 1948 war was the use of loudspeaker trucks urging the Palestinians to flee before they were all killed, warning that the Jews were using poison gas and atomic weapons, or playing recorded "horror sounds"--shrieks, moans, the wail of sirens and the clang of fire-alarm bells.

Altogether some 750,000 Palestinians were turned into refugees during the war. The new Israeli government announced in June 1948 that it would not permit any of the Palestinians to return to their homes inside Israel, making their eviction permanent.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, worked to render the refugees' return a physical impossibility. Its forces leveled 418 Palestinian towns and villages, erasing the majority of Palestinian society from the face of the earth. Scholar Walid Khalidi's magisterial book, All That Remains, lovingly recalls each one. Israel's infrastructure warfare had begun.

After the 1948 war, large civilian death tolls remained a central feature of Israeli combat methods. In October 1953, for example, a young Ariel Sharon led a reprisal raid on Qibya, a small West Bank village. The attack was successful, leaving 70 townspeople dead. "Bullet-riddled bodies near the doorways and multiple bullet hits on the doors of the demolished houses," according to a U.N. report, "indicated that the inhabitants had been forced to remain inside until their homes were blown up over them."

And so it's been ever since. Israel's 1978 invasion of Lebanon killed 2000 and created 250,000 refugees. Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, directed by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was on a much vaster scale: nearly 20,000 people, 90 percent of them civilians, died. The offensive culminated in a 40-hour orgy of bloodletting at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut that left 3500 innocents dead. While an Israel-allied Lebanese militia carried out the actual butchery, Israeli troops surrounded the camps and provided illumination with flares.

Israelís 1993 and 1996 assaults on Lebanon created 300,000 and 500,000 refugees, respectively.

The total number of Israeli civilians killed over the years by Palestinian resistance and terror organizations--fighting for the very survival of their people--has always been a tiny fraction of the number of civilians killed by Israel. And the Israeli public has been so horrified by its military leaders' bloodshed that Ben-Gurion, Begin, Shamir and Sharon were all elected prime minister.

Now we are witnessing Israel's fifth attack on Lebanon, which has leveled much of the country's infrastructure, causing billions of dollars of damage; created a million refugees; and killed some 1300 civilians. Israel's old habits die hard.

Robin Miller ( has been a writer, attorney, advocate for social justice and student of the Middle East for 25 years.

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