VANCOUVER, British Colombia — Israel’s hopes that its massive operation on the West Bank would halt the terror bombing have died with a new wave of attacks. Many bomb-making facilities were destroyed in the operation, but Palestinian rage has increased and the slaughter continues.
In such a context it isn’t surprising that Israelis should be thinking about other terror campaigns against occupation in the Arab world, nor that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent bedtime reading should have included a magisterial study of Algeria’s war for independence against France. The war’s history is instructive for both Israelis and the Palestinians. But the lessons each draws from it are very different.
For Palestinians, Algeria’s savage but successful liberation struggle shows how the weak can defeat the powerful politically — even after being crushed militarily. It offers hope to a nationalist movement that, like Algeria’s FLN, is hopelessly outgunned by a determined and clever adversary.
Israelis, not surprisingly, reject the parallel.
The armed struggle against the French in Algeria started in 1954. Eight years later, the Algerians had won their independence, and the French — including more than a million embittered French settlers — had slunk back to France.
The war was fought with unremitting ferocity on both sides. Like the Palestinians, the Algerians mounted a terror bombing campaign against civilians, sometimes employing women to deliver the bombs. There were more than 42,000 terrorist attacks during the independence struggle, according to the French — though many of these were perpetrated by French settler extremists.
Like the Israelis, the French were determined to destroy the infrastructure that underpinned their adversaries’ terror campaign. To a large extent they succeeded. Some 400,000 troops mounted a pitiless but effective campaign that included mass executions and the most barbarous forms of physical torture. The FLN was crushed militarily.
The human costs were horrific. The French estimate that some 350,000 Algerians were killed during the eight years of war. The post-independence Algerian government claimed that the number was closer to 1.5 million. The French death toll was around 18,000.
But reactions in France and overseas both to the sickening tactics that the “paras” and the Foreign Legion had used to achieve their victory, and to the violence perpetrated by the settlers, enabled the Algerian nationalists to snatch a political victory from the jaws of military defeat.
Within France there was a growing realization that the political price of what was almost certainly a temporary military victory was simply too high. Internationally isolated, the French could not sustain their self-image as a liberal and democratic state while at the same time brutally repressing a people who were seeking the very liberte that the French themselves had long championed.
The huge influence that the intransigent settlers had exercised over French policy on Algeria waned rapidly as they resorted increasingly to terror and it became clear to Paris that continued occupation would mean huge political and economic costs — as well as the deaths of more young Frenchmen.
In 1962, the FLN, defeated militarily, but triumphant politically, won Algeria’s independence from France in a referendum.
That Palestinians find this parallel intriguing is not surprising. But Israelis are quick to point out that Palestinian violence can no more defeat Israel, than Algerian violence could have ousted the French from France. This the FLN could never have done.
This is true but misses the point. The goal of the Palestinian mainstream is to force the Israelis from the occupied territories — not from Israel. And here the Algeria parallel is indeed relevant.
Israel has no real answer to the suicide bombing campaign since the most important element of the “terrorist infrastructure” that Sharon seeks to destroy is not bomb-making workshops, but the rage in Palestinian hearts and minds. The more ruthlessly Israel seeks to crush terrorism, the greater the pressure from the international community and the greater the Palestinian rage.
The Palestinians can never defeat Israel by resort to terror. But Israel will never stop the suicide bombing as long as large numbers of young Palestinians remain willing to kill themselves in order to slaughter Israelis. And while the last intifada had little direct impact on Israel proper; the current campaign has brought large scale and apparently unstoppable terror to the heart of the Jewish state.
The Palestinian suicide bombers have killed the Israeli peace movement, boosted Sharon’s popularity and precipitated an Israeli campaign that wrought death and destruction throughout the occupied West Bank. But these acts of rage and desperation — on both sides — may also have created the “hurting stalemate” that in other conflicts has reluctantly impelled equally embittered enemies to start down the thorny path of political settlement.
The crisis triggered by the suicide bombing and Israel’s ruthless response has already led the Arab states to advance a peace plan that would give Israel the full recognition that it has long sought. The United States had pushed for an international conference at foreign ministerial level to address the issue, and the re-engaged Bush administration is now promoting the idea of a Palestinian state in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The book Sharon has been reading is “A Savage War of Peace,” Alastair Horne’s definitive history of the Algerian war. Its key message is that when the imposition of a lasting military solution is politically impossible and maintaining the status quo is hugely costly for both sides, then visionary leaders can sue successfully for peace.
In President Charles de Gaulle, France was fortunate to have a leader who was willing to take on the intransigent settlers and who recognized that for France to remain a liberal democracy and avoid being an international pariah it had to cease being an occupying power.
Israel’s tragedy is that Sharon is no de Gaulle.
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