Images courtesy of the author / Palestine Nexus
On October 28, 2023, Israel announced its ground forces had invaded Gaza with the goal of “eradicating Hamas,” something most Israelis believe is necessary. But what does history teach us about Israel’s previous attempts to destroy Palestinian violent resistance?
In 1956, Israel also declared its intention to “eradicate” Palestinian militancy in the Gaza Strip. Recall that from 1949 to 1951, Palestinians entered Israel in the thousands, the overwhelming majority unarmed, returning home after the war, as refugees so often do. To Israel, the Palestinians were not refugees, they were “infiltrators,” and more than a thousand defenseless Palestinians were slaughtered by the Israeli military when they attempted to return home.
Unsurprisingly, violence bred violence. Palestinian fighters carried out dozens of attacks in the coming years, and committed a number of atrocities. In April 1956, for instance, Palestinian militants infiltrated Israel from Gaza and attacked the Shafrir synagogue, killing six Israeli children.
Israel’s retaliation was brutal. From 1949 to 1956, Israeli forces killed somewhere between 2,700 and 5,000 Palestinians. “The vast majority of those killed were unarmed,” but it wasn’t enough to stop the cross-border raids.
“Israel may have killed most of the fedayeen in Gaza, but it failed to kill the idea that Palestinians have a right to live in Palestine.”
So, after seven years of disproportionate retaliation, the Israeli military set itself the goal of “eradicating” Palestinian militant resistance from Gaza. It invaded Gaza in 1956 and occupied the Strip for six months, from October 1956 to March 1957. Israeli forces killed thousands of Palestinian fighters and executed dozens. Here is how Benny Morris, who has written the most detailed account of the period, describes the incidents:
“On 3 November , the day Khan Yunis was conquered, IDF troops shot dead hundreds of Palestinian refugees and local inhabitants in the town. One UN report speaks of ‘some 135 local residents’ and ‘140 refugees’ killed as IDF troops moved through the town and its refugee camp ‘searching for people in possession of arms.’ ” (Morris, Israel’s Border Wars, 408).
While the Israeli military did in fact stop the raids out of Gaza, it simply pushed Palestinian militancy to the West Bank, where fighters carried out some seventeen attacks in the next three years.
Meanwhile, a more serious challenge emerged on the horizon. After a cease-fire was reached in Gaza, Egypt worked with a UN force to root out the Palestinian militants, including two young commandos named Yasser Arafat and Abu Jihad. In 1959, they established an organization called Fatah, an Arabic acronym for Palestinian National Liberation Movement. That organization became Israel’s chief adversary for the next four decades.
Israel may have killed most of the fedayeen in Gaza, but it failed to kill the idea that Palestinians have a right to live in Palestine. And if they were denied that right, they would seek it through force. The idea that refugees have a right to return to their homes after a war, so it seems, had more vitality than Israel realized.
And, over the course of the next two decades, Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) carried out hundreds of attacks against Israeli targets in their attempt to claim that right by force.
By 1982, Israel had had enough with the PLO, and decided to invade Lebanon, where it was based. Israel’s goal was to “destroy the PLO infrastructure in Lebanon, especially in all the territory south of Beirut. Success of such action could deal a mortal blow to the PLO.” In short, as in Gaza in the 1950s and Gaza today, Israel sought to eradicate Palestinian violent resistance.
Israel managed to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. It also occupied the country’s south for two decades to ensure they didn’t come back. But, not unexpectedly, Israel didn’t eradicate violent resistance. Instead, its invasion and occupation of Lebanon led to the establishment of a new movement, carrying a new flag, backed by a new regional power. Instead of eradicating militant resistance, Israel exacerbated it.
Today, that new movement, Hezbollah, is Israel’s most formidable military adversary. It has already joined the current escalation in violence, carrying out seven cross-border attacks on Israeli military targets on October 27 and firing a number of missiles into Israeli territory on October 28. It has also forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis out of their homes in the north.
By 1987, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza had become increasingly brutal: Israel had killed on average thirty-two Palestinians every year during the prior two decades, and it had expelled thousands more Palestinians from their homes. Then, in December 1987, an Israeli truck driver killed four Palestinians in Gaza, and Palestinian nonviolent protests broke out as a result. Expectedly, Israel resorted to more violence to quell the protests, killing 142 Palestinians in Gaza in the first year of the uprising while suffering zero casualties.
And, also expectedly, Israel’s violent suppression of Palestinian protests led to even more violence. In response, Hamas transitioned from a charity organization to a militant group, and began carrying out attacks against Israeli civilians.
Alas, every few decades, Israelis believe they can eradicate Palestinian resistance with overwhelming force, and every few decades, Israelis wake up only to discover that the violence has gotten worse.
To eradicate Palestinian violence, Israel must address the root causes of it. Palestinians believe they did not lose their right to live in Palestine just because they were violently ethnically-cleansed from it in 1948. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza believe similarly that they have never lost their right to live in the West Bank and Gaza free from Israeli violence, apartheid, occupation, and siege. If history has shown us anything, it’s that Israel will have to address those issues if it wants to prevent the next October 7th.