/ 16 January 2024

Israel in Gaza: Who are the Amalek?

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Joshua Defeating Amalek, Unknown date. Creator: Pauwels Casteels. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Invocations of the Amalek played a prominent part in the South African case in the International Court of Justice that accused Israel of imminent genocide, which played out in The Hague last week.

Who are the Amalek?

It is a nation in Jewish and biblical mythology that was so terrible that only destroying it in its entirety could remove its baleful influence. So evil was it that allowing a single person or animal to survive would result in misery for generations to come.

In the context of a call to war, it is hard to see that invoking Amalek is anything but a call to genocide.

However, the Amalek story can be interpreted another way — it represents the potential for pure evil that exists in everyone and, unless you can completely eradicate that potential (not necessarily by violence), it will come back at you. It can consume you and be both destructive and self-destructive. Seen this way, Amalek represents something we need to eradicate in ourselves, not an “other” group who can only be dealt with by genocide.

In the context of the Israel-Palestine context, it is worth trying to understand what such a figurative Amalek consists of. The Zionist side has consistently tried to paint the Palestinians that way, and themselves as innocents, only acting in self-defence. 

Yet this is not the whole picture, is it? There are numerous reports of what can only be described as pogroms against Palestinians on the West Bank, sometimes conducted with the complicity of Israeli security forces, but seldom with consequences of law enforcement — much as Jews were treated in tzarist Russia.

Still, the impression is created that the perpetrators are a fringe — the crazies who cannot be reined in by the mainstream. This impression goes back a long way, to the conflict preceding and following the establishment of Israel in 1948. 

The Stern Gang and Irgun were the crazies; the mainstream lead by independence prime minister David Ben-Gurion were embarrassed by such behaviour. Fast forward to today, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is openly invoking Amalek. Is this a massive change? Are the crazies finally in charge?

No. All that has happened is that the leadership is no longer pretending that the “crazies” are a different group. A very revealing 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by historian Ilan Pappé, lays it all bare. Based on archives including Ben-Gurion’s own diary, it makes a convincing case that the “crazies” were acting in concert with the official Zionist movement, who merely required deniability of the worst excesses.

Some examples.

The small village of Lifa. In December 1947, the Haganah, the main Zionist paramilitary organisation, sprayed a coffee shop with machine guns, while the Stern Gang shot up a nearby bus.

Haifa was ethnically cleansed in 1948. First, the elites were forced out by heavy shelling, starting the previous year, leaving the Palestinian community leaderless. 

Another tool used was running oil and fuel down from high points and setting them on fire. When terrified residents, seeing the river of fire, rushed out to save their homes from conflagration, they were machine-gunned. 

Orders from Mordechai Maklef, operation officer of the Carmeli Brigade, later the Israeli army chief of staff, were: “Kill any Arab you encounter; torch all inflammable objects and force doors open with explosives.”

This unrelenting terrorist campaign resulted in almost all of the original population of 75 000 fleeing — some leaving cooked food on the table and toys on the floor. When refugees congregated in the marketplace near the port, the Carmeli Brigade, formed as part of the nascent Israeli army, shelled the crowds resulting in a stampede to the harbour, where overcrowded boats sank.

Another tactic used in Haifa was disguising Haganah members as Palestinians to carry out dirty tricks such as bringing a car laden with explosives to a garage for repair, where it was detonated, wreaking death and destruction. 

Irgun specialised in throwing bombs into crowds and by 1948 were doing so in collaboration with Haganah. Not surprisingly, some such incidents resulted in Palestinian riots with Jewish casualties, an excuse for retaliatory violence.

All of this happened when the British were nominally still in charge of Haifa, yet they did nothing to stop the carnage.

To test the British resolve, in December 1947, Haganah’s high command decided to trash a village and massacre many of its inhabitants. At this stage, the orders were to save women and children (though without much concern about precision). Balad al-Shaykh was the target, and over 60 Palestinians were killed. 

With a satisfying lack of response from the British, all restraints were dropped.

On 15 May 1948, the coastal village of Tantura was captured. Surrounded on all sides, there was no escape. A hooded collaborator was produced who picked out anyone who was accused of fighting back or was in any way considered a problem. Those picked out — numbering over 200 — were taken aside and shot, exactly the tactic the Nazis would have used. Despite limited resistance, the village was shot up, even after raising the white flag of surrender.

This is by no means the only example of mass summary executions and shooting up villagers.

Meanwhile, by March 1948, Ben-Gurion’s assessment was that the majority of Palestinians had accepted partition as a fait accompli and would not fight against it. Yet the balance of opinion on the Zionist side was shifting from couching measures as retaliation to outright offence, to drive out as many Palestinians as possible. 

A key player in developing this trend was Yosef Weitz, whose view was, “The only solution is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries. Not a single village or a single tribe must be let off.”

Weitz played a major role in the Village Files project, a chronicle of all the existing villages that played a key role in planning of ethnic cleansing. By the late 1930s, each Palestinian village was accurately mapped and a record was kept of “hostility”, a chilling precursor to later massacres. 

Part of the project was developing a network of collaborators. This archive was used as a basis for military attacks on villages aimed at depopulating them — whether by mass murder or by terrifying the inhabitants into fleeing.

The origins of the Village Files project in the 1930s, before Hitler’s foul intentions came to fruition, belies the belief that the entire ethnic cleansing project was a product of Jewish post-Holocaust desperation.

There is much more — Pappé has filled a whole book.

The final part of the puzzle is the brilliant propaganda campaign that has turned the victims into villains. Apparently Arab states invited the Palestinians to leave on false promises and Israel conveniently took over the now-vacant land. Mass murder? Who? Us?

Goebbels would have been proud.

So, fast forward to today. We see much of the same pattern. In the West Bank, Palestinians by and large are just trying to get on with their lives, yet they are subject to violent pogroms and provocations, such as illegal settlements. If they fight back in any way, they are subject to savage retribution.

What is happening today in Gaza is little different to what happened in the 1940s — even the rhetoric, though it is now out in the open, and no longer “fringe”. The main difference is that Hamas has plentiful atrocities on its own side, though it cannot compete with the real experts.

Back to the call to arms invoking Amalek. I have heard the suggestion that the people making statements like that are idiots — they have created a huge opening for the South African case to prove genocidal intent. Not smart people like Ben-Gurion who maintained deniability, while happily allowing massacres?

What Israelis really need to do is to stop denying their own past.

What was done to create a Jewish state is an abomination. Massacres, shelling refugees, machine-gunning civilians, lobbing bombs into crowds, summary mass executions, making conditions of life impossible, treating Palestinians as subhuman — all of these are hallmarks of genocide and echoes of Nazi tactics.

Wake up, Zionists. You are the Amalek. This does not mean that you deserve to be killed. What it means is that you need to drive the evil out from your inner being, otherwise it will consume you and turn you into your own worst enemy. Permanently. You are already there but it is not too late to change.

Philip Machanick is an emeritus associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.