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Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 by Bruce Hoffman - terrorism wins

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
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Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947
by Bruce Hoffman
Knopf

Arguments about Middle Eastern history bear a frustrating resemblance to the physicists' conundrum of an irresistible force clashing with an immovable object. No one ever seems to win.

In Anonymous Soldiers, however, Bruce Hoffman makes the startling but persuasive argument that, in fact, there has been a winner in the battle among Jews, Arabs and the West for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The winner, the author says, is terrorism.

Prepare to be deeply disturbed by this book. Hoffman, an authority on terrorism at Georgetown University, challenges popular characterisations of the valiant struggle of Jews to carve out their own nation, and advance Western concepts of democracy and civility in a land more often known for guns and savagery.

What if it turned out that Israel's freedom fighters bore a much closer resemblance to Carlos the Jackal than George Washington? What if it turned out that al-Qaeda's leaders drew inspiration from terrorist strategies employed by radical Jews in Palestine during the 1930s and '40s? Hoffman lays out in richly researched detail the case that terrorism and blackmail, not peaceful negotiation and diplomacy, are what formed the foundations of Israel's independence.

Anonymous Soldiers opens at the end of the first world war, as empires were disintegrating and indigenous populations were confronting colonialists through civil disobedience or outright military tactics. A gigantic power vacuum loomed over the post-Ottoman Middle East. The great European powers, working through the League of Nations, carved up the region, and Britain emerged with authority to rule over Palestine.

Britain walked into a buzz saw. Tensions were boiling between Palestine's Arab majority and Jewish minority. Both were demanding that Britain make good on previous promises to grant them territorial rights and self-governance.

With anti-Jewish sentiment spreading in Europe, Britain recognised the need to expand Jewish immigration quotas to provide a refuge in Palestine, but the Arabs reacted with a short-lived, largely rural campaign of terror raids on British forces and Jewish communities. When the British pulled back on the idea to appease the Arabs, Jewish factions erupted.

In the early days, much of the violence was small scale and easily handled by British police and troops. Arab violence and terrorism died down. Then, as the situation of the Jews in Europe grew more urgent with the rise of Nazi Germany, two Jewish terrorist groups - popularly known as Irgun and Lehi - began ratcheting up the pressure for Britain to expand immigration quotas. An unrelenting campaign of bombings and bloodshed began.

Among the activists were Yitzhak Shamir, of Lehi, and Menachem Begin, who led Irgun. Both would eventually become prime minister of Israel and, ironically, vociferous critics of the Arab terrorist tactics they themselves had employed.

Hoffman limits his discussion to the era leading up to Britain's withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 under an increasingly vicious campaign that included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, kidnappings and hangings of soldiers, and plots to bomb British government buildings in Rome and London. The campaign was so abhorrent that Jews such as Albert Einstein publicly condemned the violence and called Begin a terrorist.

Avraham Stern, a Lehi leader, was so adamant about defeating Britain that he organised meetings with emissaries of Adolf Hitler to form an alliance with Germany in 1941, Hoffman writes. This sustained campaign led to Britain's retreat from Palestine. Terrorism won, and it set the stage for Israel's founding the next year.

That's a troubling notion to grasp in a modern era when we continue to grapple with Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Perhaps even more troubling, Hoffman writes, was the discovery of The Revolt, Begin's memoir documenting his victory through terrorism, inside an al-Qaeda library when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Tribune News Service