May 02, 2016 - The original intifada; the broader meaning of Yemeni Jews arriving in Israel; Levant mission creep?


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses why the very first Palestinian intifada erupted 80 years ago; if last month's arrival of Yemeni Jews fleeing the fighting in Yemen to Israel means the end of exile in Arab lands; and whether last week's announcement of the deployment of 250 additional US combat troops to Syria is a sign of mission creep.


Q. Why did the very first Palestinian intifada erupt 80 years ago? 

A. In April 1936, Arab resentment at Jewish settlement in British Mandatory Palestine erupted in the form of the murder of a Tel Aviv-based Jewish poultry salesman, Avraham Hazan, in Tulkarm, by an Arab “gang”. More Palestinian attacks on Jews, some large-scale, followed. The ensuing three years of violence, generally known in Israeli historiography as the Arab Revolt, witnessed the death of hundreds of Jews and British soldiers along with thousands of Arabs. 

Seen in retrospect, this was an intifada or Palestinian “awakening” against the Zionist project. And as a precursor of the intifadas of recent years, a number of significant features and developments stand out.

First, the violence prompted the British to recruit Jewish police and military forces from the Yishuv, thereby providing an early boost to preparations for forming the Israel Defense Forces and repelling Arab armies during the 1948 War of Independence. On the other hand, the violence led the British, under a controversial White Paper, to freeze Jewish immigration to Palestine, thereby condemning untold numbers of European Jews to die in the Holocaust. Then too, an Arab boycott of the Jewish economy spurred greater Jewish economic independence, for example through the construction of a port for Tel Aviv.

Significantly, the British responded militarily against Arab attacks in ways that Israel has never invoked: air strikes on areas under mandatory control, wholesale trials generating condemnations and hangings, and use of Arabs as human shields.

Finally, the outbreak of violence in 1936 prompted the British government to appoint the Peel Commission to investigate. This produced the Peel Report of 1937--a prescient document much worth rereading today. One of its more significant conclusions concerned the failure of the prominent concept that Jewish economic investment in Palestine (then still flowing in from 1930s Europe) would promote peaceful coexistence--what is now called “economic peace”. A second was the very first official call for solving the conflict by creating two separate political entities, Jewish and Arab, in Palestine: “while neither party can fairly rule all Palestine, each race might justly rule part of it. . . . Partition offers a chance of ultimate peace. No other plan does.”

Back then, the Palestinians would have been granted around 80 percent of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean for their state. They refused.


Q. Yemeni Jews to Israel: end of exile in Arab lands?

A. Last month witnessed the arrival in Israel of a handful of Jews fleeing the fighting in Yemen. Reportedly a few opted to remain behind. Israeli immigration authorities more or less announced that the ingathering of the Yemeni exiles was complete. While the actual act of receiving another few Yemeni Jews was essentially symbolic, it nevertheless symbolizes several important concepts.

First, it reflects Israel’s ongoing sense of mission regarding the ingathering of the Diaspora in general but particularly the rescue of imperiled Jewish communities, whether in the crumbling Soviet Union or crumbling Yemen. At present, there do not appear to remain any such endangered communities, but that could always change, for example in Iran where there remain more than 20,000 Jews, or conceivably though less likely, in Morocco.

Second, the Yemen operation represents a remnant of a very successful grand strategy conceived by David Ben Gurion upon the founding of the State of Israel: to use large-scale “aliyah” to Israel to create a demographic critical mass that Israel’s enemies would acknowledge as unassailable. This is not just my terminology: I can never forget the 1991 pronouncement of Egypt’s al-Ahram Middle East Strategic Balance--then the preeminent source of Arab strategic thinking--to the effect that the million Soviet Jews then streaming to Israel put paid to any lingering Arab dreams of besting the Zionist state.

And third, the fact that Israel could extract these beleaguered Yemeni Jews from a war-torn land and was prepared to brag about it reflects a high degree of confidence in the viability of Jerusalem’s regional clout and relations. That is the same regional reach that was echoed last month in the overt Saudi announcement of reassurances to Israel regarding the safety of Israeli shipping and security in the Tiran Straits at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. And it is reflected in reports that various groups of Houthi rebels in Yemen had actually jockeyed to purchase strategic clout by facilitating the Jews’ departure.


Q. US troops to Syria: mission creep?

A. Last week while on a visit to Europe, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 US combat troops to Syria, in addition to 50 who are already there. While the troops are not intended for direct combat roles, the decision is unusual for several reasons.

For one, unlike in Iraq, the troops were not invited by the president of Syria, Bashar Assad. So this is a violation of the sovereignty of what is left of Syria. But while no one is overly concerned about Assad’s hurt feelings, many in Congress argue that the president is not authorized to deploy American forces to fight ISIS and that the post-9/11 congressional authorization to deploy troops against al-Qaeda is being severely stretched.

On the other hand, even 300 US troops in Syria is such a small number as to be insignificant. Obama seems to be intent on making a gesture that could be seen as balancing the Russian military presence on Syrian soil and perhaps encouraging NATO allies to follow suit, while avoiding any embarrassing military role or losses for the US in Syria.

The New York Times opined on June 26, “increasing the American military presence in Syria raises serious risks and many unanswered questions. Chief among them are these: What do more troops mean for American involvement in the future and how does this war end?”

Precisely because these are unanswerable questions, one is left with the impression of mission creep. It can be argued that something similar has been happening in recent months in northern Iraq, where American military advisers at one base, Kara Soar, reportedly had to be protected by Iraqi security forces who then in turn had to be protected by a new American fire base created by Persian Gulf-based US forces diverted to Iraq specifically for this purpose. Most recently, the growing anarchy in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, calls into question whether the US objective of pushing ISIS out of Mosul can be accomplished any time soon without a far larger increment of US troops.

If you carefully read the recent Jeffrey Goldberg analysis--based on his interviews with Obama--in The Atlantic, you are aware that Obama is extremely--and understandably--risk-averse regarding the Levant conflict. His main concern is keeping terrorism far away from US shores. He wants Europe and the Sunni Arab states to do much more to protect shared security interests. He is against “impetuous or, in some cases, manufactured responses that make good sound bites but don’t produce results” and argues that “ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States.”

One may agree or not agree with these statements, but sending 250 troops to Syria seems to be entirely in keeping with this approach. Mission creep in the Levant, if it exists at all, remains minimal.

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