With an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire tentatively set for Sunday night, will Israel resist the “seductive calls for a show of power in Gaza” (as one Haaretz op-ed puts it)? After excoriating the Egyptians for not doing enough to secure the Sinai, Israeli diplomats and editorialists are now denying that there is any sort of “crisis” brewing in Egyptian-Israeli relations (Haaretz also reports that the IDF airstrikes were “reduced” in order to give the Egyptians breathing room).
Israel may have an interest in preventing wider regional unrest, especially with Egypt (and Syria’s) precarious domestic situations. But it serves the Israeli government no purpose to de-escalate the Gaza airstrikes now, just as it served Ehud Olmert’s government little purpose to avoid the 2006 Lebanon War. The escalating violence in southern Israel today presents the Israeli government with the prospect for a “splendid little war,” as an American jingoist might say.
America’s own “splendid little war” was the 1898 Spanish-American War, the war in which America became an overseas imperial power. It was indeed a “splendid little war” – if you were a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male with presidential aspirations (that is, if you were Theodore Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time and fought in the war). It was less so if you were Cuban, Puerto Rican or Filipino. For such individuals, it was an imperialist war. And in the Philippines, the “splendid little war” soon turned into a protracted guerilla war that killed tens of thousands of Filipinos and hundreds of American soldiers.
The orders of one American general, Jacob H. Smith, in the Philippines to his men were for them kill every Filipino male over the age of ten and make Samar, the island they were fighting on, a “howling wilderness.” A famous political cartoon condemning the orders showed Americans executing Filipinos and was captioned “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took The Philippines.”
Read into that today whenever the IDF arrests or assaults Palestinian minors for throwing stones (technically, the minors are “resistance fighters” – and the Americans on Samar were responding to a “sneak attack” when they began their reprisals). And also be sure to read into the fact that a lot of American anti-imperialists in the early 1900s were more concerned that the killing of Filipinos was bad for the national character than they were about seeking justice for the victims. They wanted to stop the killings mainly because they made the U.S. look bad, not because the victims were considered worthy of equal consideration that would be extended to white victims. Humanitarianism that did suggest the latter was exceptional (as a result, the anti-imperialist movement was often just as racist as the imperialist camp).
The imperialist camp triumphed over the anti-imperialists, though, at the time and in the history books. “Remember the Maine!” and the “Rough Riders” are the images that have endured in popular imagination since 1898.
Much less remembered is how the U.S. victory in the “splendid little war” provoked existing national resistance movements in Cuba and the Philippines to fight against the U.S. Having gotten rid of Spain, they were not too keen on bowing to American rule. The American response was loaded with racism – historians have tended to forget that most of the U.S. officers who fought against the “Filipino Insurrection” won their spurs in the ethnic cleansing campaigns of the late-19th century Indian Wars in the American West. Others, including former Confederate soldiers, were ardent segregationists. For some time, the U.S. policy in the Philippines followed the old Imperial Russian slogan of “the harder you hit them, the longer they stay quiet.”
This assumption is present in Israel today: that somehow, the attacks will convince the Palestinians that resistance to the Zionist enterprise is useless because of IDF retaliation. Returning to the early 20th century, this was the “logic” behind the aforementioned punitive expedition in the Philippines. The “howling wilderness” campaign was perhaps the most infamous, but by no means the only, U.S. punitive expedition in the islands. Mechanized warfare, especially the airplane, has allowed punitive actions to become more impersonal: the Germans pioneered this during the world wars, and the practice was mastered (and euphemized) by the Allied Forces in WWII as “strategic bombing.” It was brought to its present form by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his associates during the Vietnam War. Their bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia were meticulously calculated in terms of tonnage dropped and targets destroyed needed to “break” the enemy.
This industrial operations theory of warfare is the “logic” behind IDF planning today; the “mad dog” view is the philosophy underwriting it. Notably, none of these aerial bombing campaigns succeeded in breaking the populations’ will to resist (their material capacity to resist, though, was indeed adversely affected). And considering the prices Palestinians pay every day in resisting the Zionist enterprise simply by existing, the idea that IDF airstrikes will affect Palestinian “morale” an utterly fallacious assumption on the Israeli’s part.
Why is it fallacious? Well, Machiavelli thought that the seizure of property in conflict was perhaps the greatest offense you could inflict on a people because the losers would always have to endure the sight of their property in someone else’s hands.
The Palestinians have not forgotten this. Nor have the Israelis (though Israel has tried to whitewash it and expedite the process of seizing land). The clothing of the jingoes were that of the cowboy, incorporating the virgin lands mythology of the frontier with belligerent self-assertiveness – today, the clothing of the Israeli jingo is that worn by Israeli settlers. If alive today, Theodore Roosevelt would probably consider Jewish Voice for Peace to be a group of unpatriotic dilletantes, liken the Palestinians to Apaches, and embrace the Israeli residents of Gush Etzion as kindred spirits.
With the way Israelis are responding to the attacks, it is quite clear that a “splendid little war” (or a Tonkin Gulf Resolution) would be in Netanyahu’s best interests. De-escalation on the part of the IDF would be an admission that Israel has overreacted, has made mistakes. And de-escalation would theoretically embolden Israel’s enemies (Spain was mocking American valor, jingoes screamed, and also violating the Monroe Doctrine). There is little sense, from the Israeli government’s POV, in taking the high ground, especially with the Palestinian statehood initiative at the UN next month and ongoing efforts to escalate settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Among other things, the Israeli reaction makes it harder for the Palestinian Authority to sit down with Israeli negotiators in pursuit of an objective that Israel and the U.S. have already written off as unfeasible and dangerous.
Today, perhaps more than ever if the Zionist enterprise is to retain the initiative, Israel has to show the Palestinians who is the boss. KM Shauel Mofaz (Kadima), a former Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff, sums the Israel choice up succinctly:
“Israel must decide: will we continue with this intolerable reality of a war of attrition or will we strive for an unequivocal decision with regards to Hamas, including targeting its leaders and infrastructure with the aim of toppling its reign in Gaza?”
Jingoistic? Well, Israel has learned from the best.