main task of the freedom fighter is not to fight against the occupation,
as it may seem, but to win the hearts of his people. And on the other
side, the main task of the occupier is not to kill the freedom fighters,
but to prevent the population from embracing them.
I don't recommend books as
a rule, not even my own. But this time I feel the need to make an
exception. This is William Polk's book, Violent Politics, which has
recently appeared in the United States.
Polk was in Palestine in
1946, at the height of the struggle against the British occupation, and
since then he has studied the history of liberation wars. In less than
300 pages he compares insurgencies, from the American Revolution to the
wars in Afghanistan. His years on the planning staff of the State
Department involved him with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His
conclusions are highly illuminating.
I have a special interest
in this subject. When I joined the Irgun at age 15, I was told to read
books about previous liberation wars, especially the Polish and Irish
ones. I diligently read every book I could lay my hands on, and have
since followed the insurgencies and guerrilla wars throughout the world,
such as those in Malaya, Kenya, South Yemen, South Africa, Afghanistan,
Kurdistan, Vietnam and more. In one of them, the Algerian war of
liberation, I had some personal involvement.
The more I have become
became engrossed in other insurgencies, the stronger this wonderment has
become: is it possible that the very situation of occupation and
resistance condemns the occupiers to stupid behaviour?
Some years ago the BBC
screened a long series about the process of liberation in the former
British colonies, from India to the Caribbean islands. It devoted one
episode to each colony. Former colonial administrators, officers of the
occupation armies, liberation fighters and other eye-witnesses were
interviewed at length. It was very interesting � and very depressing.
Depressing � because the
episodes seemed to be a repeating themselves and each other, almost
exactly. The rulers of every colony repeated the mistakes made by their
predecessors in the previous episode. They harboured the same illusions
and suffered the same defeats.
In his compact book, Polk
describes the main insurgencies of the last 200 years, compares them
with each other and draws the obvious conclusions.
Every insurgency is, of
course, unique and different from all others, because the backgrounds
are different, as are the cultures of the occupied peoples and the
occupiers. The British differ from the Dutch, and both from the French.
George Washington was different from Tito, and Ho Chi Minh from Yasser
Arafat. Yet in spite of this, there is an amazing similarity between all
the liberation struggles.
For me, the main lesson is
this: from the time the general public embraces the rebels, the victory
of the rebellion is assured.
That is an iron rule: an
insurgency supported by the public is bound to win, irrespective of the
tactics adopted by the occupation regime. The occupier can kill
indiscriminately or adopt more humane methods, torture captured freedom
fighters to death or treat them as prisoners of war � nothing makes a
difference in the long run.
The real war against the
occupation takes place in the minds of the occupied population.
Therefore, the main task of the freedom fighter is not to fight against
the occupation, as it may seem, but to win the hearts of his people. And
on the other side, the main task of the occupier is not to kill the
freedom fighters, but to prevent the population from embracing them. The
battle is for the hearts and minds of the people, their thoughts and
That is one of the reasons
why generals almost always fail in their struggle against liberation
fighters. A military officer is the least suitable person for this task.
All his upbringing, his whole way of thinking, all that he has learned
is opposed to this central task.
An army officer is a
technician, trained to fulfil a particular job. That job is irrelevant
to the struggle against a liberation movement, in spite of its
superficial appropriateness. The fact that a house-painter deals with
colours does not make him into a portrait painter. An outstanding
hydraulic engineer does not become a skilled plumber. A general does not
understand the essence of a national insurgency, and therefore does not
come to grips with its rules.
For example, a general
measures his success by the number of enemies killed. But the fighting
underground organization becomes stronger the more dead fighters it can
present to the public, which identifies with the martyrs. A general
learns to prepare for battle and win it, but his opponents, the
guerrilla fighters, avoid battle altogether.
The iconic Che Guevara
defined well the stages which a classic war of liberation goes through:
"At first, there is a partially armed band that takes refuge in some
remote, hard-to-reach spot [or in an urban population, I would add]. It
strikes a lucky blow against the authorities and is joined by a few more
discontented farmers, young idealists, etc. It...contacts residents and
conducts light hit-and-run attacks. As new recruits swell the ranks it
takes on an enemy column and destroys its leading elements...Next the
band sets up semi-permanent encampments...and adopts the characteristics
of a government in miniature...".
In order to succeed, the
insurgents need an idea that fires the enthusiasm of the population. The
public unifies around them and provides aid, shelter and intelligence.
From this stage on, everything that the occupation authorities do helps
the insurgents. When the freedom fighters are killed, many others come
forward and swell their ranks (as I did in my youth). When the occupiers
impose collective punishment on the population, they just reinforce
their hatred and their mutual assistance.
Frequently the occupation
authorities succeed in causing a split among the freedom fighters and
consider this a major victory. But all the factions go on fighting the
occupier separately, competing with each other, as Fatah and Hamas are
It is a pity that Polk did
not devote a special chapter to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but
that is not really necessary. We can write it ourselves according to our
All along the 40 years of
occupation, our political and military leaders have failed in the
struggle against the Palestinian guerrilla war. They are neither more
stupid nor crueler than their predecessors � the Dutch in Indonesia, the
British in Palestine, the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam,
the Soviets in Afghanistan. Our generals may top them all only in their
arrogance � their belief that they are the smartest and that the "Jewish
head" will invent new patents that all those Goyim could never think
From the time Yasser Arafat
succeeded in winning the hearts of the Palestinian population and
uniting them around the burning desire to rid themselves of the
occupation, the struggle was already decided. If we had been wise, we
would have come to a political settlement with him at the time. But our
politicians and generals are not wiser than all the others. And so we
shall go on killing, bombarding, destroying and exiling, in the foolish
belief that if only we hit once again, the longed-for victory will
appear at the end of the tunnel � only to perceive that the dark tunnel
has led us into an even darker tunnel.
As always happens, when a
liberation organization does not attain its objectives, another more
extreme one springs up beside it or instead of it and wins the hearts of
the people. Hamas-like organizations take over from Fatah-like ones. The
colonial regime, which has not reached an agreement in time with the
more moderate organization, is in the end compelled to come to terms
with the more extreme one.
If not for the terrible
tragedies we witness every day, we could smile at the pathetic
helplessness of our politicians and generals, who are rushing around
without knowing where their salvation should come from. What to do?
Starve all of them? That has led to the collapse of the wall on the
Gaza-Egypt border. Kill their leaders? We have already killed Sheik
Ahmed Yassin and countless others. To execute the "Grand Operation" and
re-occupy the entire Gaza strip? We have already conquered the Strip
twice. This time we shall encounter much more capable guerrillas, who
are even more rooted in the population. Every tank, every soldier will
become a target. The hunter may well become the prey.
So what can we do that we
have not already done?
First of all, to get every
soldier and politician to read William Polk's book.
Second, to do what all
occupation regimes have done in the end in all the countries where the
population has risen up: to reach a political settlement that both sides
can live with and profit from. And get out.