Johann Hari: Israel should remember its own 'terrorist' origins

Deprived of a state, Jews took up arms. Palestinians are in the same position today

The Independent

Published: 24 July 2006

As Israeli forces killed more than 300 civilians and drove half a million people from their homes in the name of stamping out "terrorism", a small, sour historical irony passed unnoticed last week in Jerusalem.

The veterans of another "terrorist" organisation gathered, right under the nose of the Israeli forces, to celebrate the slaughter of 91 people, including 28 Brits, in a hotel. It fondly recalled planting bombs that blew up civilians on buses, in marketplaces and cafés, introducing these tactics to the Middle East tango. It looked back on rounding up the population of an entire village - 251 men, women and children - and shooting them all. It even marked the memory of kidnapping the other side's soldiers and holding them for weeks - before hanging them by the neck until they were dead.

So has this "terrorist" organisation been punished with aerial bombardment from the Israeli Defence Force? Not quite.

The group was called the Irgun, and it was made up of Jewish nationalists whose children now comprise the Israeli establishment. Through the 1930s and 1940s, it planted bombs across Palestine, targeting both British soldiers and Palestinian civilians. It had two goals: to drive the British imperialists out, and to terrorise the Palestinian population into unconditionally accepting the creation of Israel.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's "war on terror" Prime Minister, can scarcely condemn them. He spent the first three years of his life living in one of their terror training camps while his parents worked as their gun-runners. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister widely tipped as a future PM, is the daughter of the Irgun's director of military operations, a mastermind of civilian slaughter.

While the war in Lebanon went supernova last week, the remaining Irgun fighters unveiled a plaque marking the 60th anniversary of their decision to blow up the King David Hotel. If only Olmert, Livni and the wider Israeli public could remember their own family's history of "terrorism", they would be able to see how futile are their own current military campaigns against "terrorists" in Gaza and Lebanon.

When Jewish people were deprived of a state, a section of their population took up arms and fought for one - often with terrible tactics. Some of them even dreamed lunatic dreams of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinian people are in exactly the same position today, stoked and supported by Hamas and Hizbollah.

Three summers ago, I sat in a cool, bare flat in Gaza City and met a string of young men who were training to become suicide-murderers. As I spoke to these young men who were marinated in rage, I was struck by how familiar their words sounded.

I had just been reading The Revolt, the memoirs of Menachem Begin, the Irgun commander who went on to become the first Likud Prime Minister of Israel. "Blood brought our revolt to life," he wrote. "Only when you are prepared to stand up to Zeus himself in order to bring fire to humanity can you achieve the fire-revolution." The suicide-murderers said, "We will create Palestine in blood and fire. The Jews only understand blood and fire."

Olmert and Livni need to ask themselves, how would their parents, determined terror-fighters, have responded to the aerial bombardment Israel is inflicting this week? The Irgun did not stop blowing up Arab civilians because they were crushed by British gunships and Apache helicopters. They stopped because the world gave them a slab of what they wanted. Not everything - the Irgun wanted all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but they settled for a state of their own within more limited borders.

Hamas and Hizbollah cannot be silenced by military means. Their stash of rockets might be blown up this year, but the renewed ferocity of their hate will guarantee they are rebuilt next year. They will not watch passively as their children are reduced to near-African levels of malnutrition, as has happened in Gaza, or while the kill rate is 10-to-one against them, as in Lebanon.

They will only ever be silenced by giving them something - not everything - of what they want. Both have agreed that if there is a real two-state solution along the 1967 border, they will not fire at Israel proper again. They want all of the land, ethnically cleansed of their enemies, just as Olmert and Livni's parents did 60 years ago. But they will settle for less.

Yet the Israeli government has not chosen this route - of de-escalation and negotiation, towards two states for two peoples on the one slim patch of land they are condemned to share. Instead it has chosen war.

That's why, 60 years from now, Lebanese and Palestinian fighters will be proudly gathering in Gaza City and Beirut to unveil plaques honouring the "terrorists" who killed and died fighting Israel this week. At this rate, with the Middle East veering ever further from the only sane solution, the historical irony will still be missed.