Only death will discharge us from our ranks…
Our dream is to die for our country…
With the tears of bereaved mothers
And the blood of innocent babies as mortar
We shall plaster bodies to bricks
We will erect the edifice of the homeland
We are accustomed to hearing such sentiments from certain circles in the Palestinian National movement. Many of us are understandably repulsed by what appears to be a cult of death and martyrdom. But these words were not uttered by a member of Fatah or Hamas, rather they are selections from the anthem of the Zionist underground paramilitary group Lechi. I encountered this anthem for the first time when my tour guiding course visited the Lechi memorial last fall. I was taken aback hearing this type of rhetoric from a Zionist source, and it reframed for me how I hear it coming from the mouthes of our enemies.
The convergence of my tour guiding class with Operation Defensive Edge provided other opportunities for comparison between certain elements of the pre-state Zionist paramilitary undergrounds and Hamas. When visiting the Haganah museum in Tel Aviv we encountered the “sliks” where arms were hidden in the pre-state settlements, in synagogues, schools, homes, and the like. We even heard the story of Yaakov Feinberg, who transferred arms under the back seat of his car, and had his son pretend to be asleep on top of them to keep the British from searching under the boy. In our lectures on the Bar-Kochbah revolt we immediately connected the elaborate system of Bar-Kochbah’s tunnels with Hamas’ underground network on the Gaza border.
So for the past year or so, I have been thinking about what separates/ed the Zionist liberation movement from Hamas. I have come to think that we may share more than we’d like to admit.
Nevertheless, I was very disturbed by Gideon Levy’s recent piece “Weapons of Mass Distraction” that highlights many of the very same parallels mentioned above. Levy seems to have two main points 1. Israelis are unwilling to admit the similarities between our early freedom fighters and Hamas. 2. Since, the pre-state Zionist underground behaved like Hamas they both baer equal legitimacy or illegitimacy. We must either accept the legitimacy of Hamas or proclaim the illegitimacy of Etzel. As he writes:
In the face of Israeli propaganda that accused Hamas of using a civilian population, in the face of the abundance of justifications and dubious pretexts to bomb and bombard mosques, schools, clinics and places of shelter – just because weapons were stored there – no one in Israel stood up and said, ‘And what about our organizations that fought against the rulers of the land?’ In Israel, no comparison between Jews and Palestinians is allowed on almost any matter. Hamas is a terror group and Etzel is not.
I take issue with Levy’s claim for a number of reasons. First of all, my fellow students from all walks of Israeli society did notice the similarities and were comfortable noting them out loud. Second, the legacy of both the Irgun and Lehi was and to a large degree still is a matter of public debate. Stern and Begin were branded as fascist or worse in their times by their political rivals. While decades have passed since the days of the undergrounds and the urgency of the controversy has abated, I believe many Israelis question the legitimacy of Etzel’s, Lehi’s and even some of the Haganah’s actions. This gut-wrenching self analysis was pioneered by the so-called revisionist historians a few decades ago. Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land can be seen as a recent expression of this self analysis.
Moreover, Begin’s role as partner in establishing peace with Egypt must be seen as a mitigating factor in the legitimacy that his image has received. If a figure from Hamas is able to make a lasting piece with Israel, I imagine the impression of Hamas in the Israeli public will change radically. That does not seem to be the trajectory that they are on.
But all this is secondary to the main flaw in Levy’s argument. Based on the fact that both the Zionist undergrounds and Hamas stored arms within civilian populations, he concludes that their legitimacy is equal. This claim ignores a vital distinction between the way the Zionist undergrounds and Hamas function(ed). Hamas not only stores weapons in civilian areas, they also fire them from within civilian population centers. This, more than any other of Hamas’ actions, justifies to one extent or another Israeli fire on what would otherwise be a non-military target.
This is a level of warfare that to the best of my knowledge was rarely if ever engaged in by members of the Zionist paramilitary groups. My reading of Zionist history is full of civilian evacuations. Perhaps the best known is the evacuation of the children of Kefar Etzion who were able to return to their childhood home as young adults following the Six Day War.
The most poignant expression of this distinction for me came in the midst of Operation Pillar of Defense. A group of children from a kibbutz on the Gaza border had been brought to our northern kibbutz to get a reprieve from the bombardment in the south. My own children were out of the house, running an activity for these impromptu guests. I turned on the radio to hear that the IDF was about to begin an attack in Gaza, and had sent warnings to the civilians in the area in question to leave. Hamas in response was demanding that its civilian population stay put. I couldn’t believe my ears so I checked non-Israeli media sources. Indeed the BBC and others were all reporting that Hamas was instructing its civilians to stay put. As Israeli children were brought out of the line of fire, Gazan children were told that their place was in the battlefield.
There is no doubt that our past is not as clean as we might like it to be, and that there are points of commonality between the Zionist undergrounds and Hamas. However Levy’s attempt to paint both with the same brush is absurd and maybe even disingenuous.