Israel’s military failed the nation, but that won’t end Israeli militarism

The October 7 attack was a shock to the system in Israel that made clear there is no military solution in Palestine. But Israelis would not heed.

Israeli soldiers are seen in a staging ground near the Israeli Gaza border, southern Israel
Israeli soldiers are seen near the Israeli Gaza border on October 9, 2023 [File: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg]

Israel before October 7 was a riven nation. After nine months of mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his judicial coup, polarisation was at an all-time high.

The bitterness and determination to bring down his government had galvanised more than half of the country. Remarkably the protests were joined by former officers from the army, Mossad and Shabak, as well as employees of leading high-tech companies which make up the backbone of the Israeli military industrial complex (MIC).

It looked like Netanyahu would fall within months. As all eyes were focused on a much-awaited verdict of the Supreme Court on one of his government’s judicial legislation changes, no one was paying much attention to Gaza. Despite intelligence warnings from Egypt, Hamas’s attack on October 7 came as a surprise.

To fully comprehend the shock it inflicted on the Israeli society, one needs to go back to the point of creation of the Israeli nation.

A nation-building institution

The building of the Israeli army started well before the creation of Israel. The Zionist leadership in British-ruled Palestine was well aware of the need for a modern military force to take the land from its indigenous population. Zionist organisations controlled less than 7 percent of the Palestinian territories as late as 1946.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, three competing organisations – Haggana, Irgun and Lehi – secretly and illicitly trained and armed tens of thousands of fighters and built rudimentary but efficient armament plants. By the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, their ranks swelled to 120,000 troops, as thousands of British soldiers who had fought in World War II and survivors of Nazi Germany’s death camps joined them.

During the 1948 war, this formidable force easily defeated the few thousand untrained irregulars from Palestine and the rather inferior forces from the surrounding Arab polities – Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. As a result, some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled while the new state of Israel came to control 78 percent of Palestine.

Newly created Israel had a large army but had no nation. The 650,000 Jews within the new polity were far from a homogenous group: They spoke numerous languages, came from diverse cultures and did not share a political ideology.

This was immediately noted by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The nation he would create would be a nation at arms, in a permanent state of neither peace nor war. To make this mode of existence into Israel’s modus vivendi, a major social engineering project lasting decades would follow, requiring constant renewal.

Thus, just as the Israeli state was created by the Zionist army, so too was the Israeli nation. After all, it was the largest, richest, and most powerful institution in Israel. Drafting all male adults, as well as many women, created a common experience on the basis of which common identity started to emerge, grounded in conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab nations.

Through a long series of wars initiated by Israel, as well as more limited military campaigns in between, a national identity was created totally dependent on the Israeli army. Other issues could divide the Israelis, but – almost – all were members of the largest club in society, one which cut across class, culture, language and religious boundaries. The army became an organisation trusted by all Israeli Jews, as opposed to all other, civic and state organisations, which divided rather than united Israelis.

Israel became a warrior democracy akin to a modern Sparta, with a citizen army of Jews and a small minority of Druze and Bedouins.

From a professional army to a colonial police force

The army in Israel was elevated in public opinion to such heights that even when the Egyptian and Syrian forces dealt it a devastating blow in the 1973 war, the blame was mainly put on the politicians, like Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, rather than on army officers.

The partial defeat was an early sign of an important process which had started in 1967, transforming the army into a glorified colonial police force. Its troops, instead of focusing on the threat of fighting back foreign armies, were tasked with subjugating more than a million Palestinians in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza. As the Israeli state started settling these lands illegally, the military was deployed to guard and facilitate the process.

Another factor that further accelerated this transformation was peace-making and normalisation with Arab states achieved with the help of Israel’s closest ally, the United States, pressuring these nations. These diplomatic efforts totally disregarded the Palestinians.

Normalisation started with Egypt signing a peace treaty in 1979, which was followed by Jordan in 1994. Then came the Abraham Accords of 2020 with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan also normalising relations, and Saudi Arabia declaring plans to follow suit.

This process removed the threat of military attacks from neighbouring Arab countries on Israel, allowing the Israeli army to focus on suppressing the Palestinian population.

More confident than ever in its security arrangements, the Israeli state became also much more extreme in its policies towards the Palestinians. This escalated even further in 2023, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, buoyed by the Abraham Accords and supported by extreme far-right settler parties.

His government started to move even more aggressively towards the final stage of the Zionist project – that of dispossessing Palestinians of the 12 percent of historical Palestine still under their partial control.

Recently, as tension heightened in the West Bank due to settler pogroms, thousands of Israeli troops were moved there from the envelope around Gaza, to protect settlers in their continuing attacks on Palestinians and facilitate the expulsion of Palestinian families from their land.

Amid this escalation, Netanyahu continued to believe that trouble from Gaza is most unlikely, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad could not possibly face the might of the Israeli army, with its technological superiority and vast intelligence apparatus. This only fitted his policy of helping Hamas in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians were a disorganised, poor, and isolated nation, without a proper army, with no heavy weapons of any kind – what was there to worry about?

The shock of October 7

But then, out of the blue, came Hamas’s attack of October 7 and the sky caved in. A small Palestinian force of just more than 2,000 fighters moved in to take over several military bases and strongholds in Israel’s south. Like in 1973, the surprise attack caught the Israeli army unprepared, with some Israeli soldiers still in their underwear and without their rifles when they came under fire.

Within hours, using a combination of missile attacks, drones, small arms, motorcycles, and power gliders, Hamas’s fighters were able to defeat all the forces defending the Gaza theatre, kill hundreds of Israeli soldiers, carry out massacres of civilians, and return to Gaza with more than 250 hostages, which they planned to exchange for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

After the initial shock, the Israeli army struggled to launch a coordinated response. Some back-up units took hours to arrive on the scene and when they did, the battles with Hamas’s fighters were anything but well-thought-out. According to reports, civilians held as hostages and Israeli troops may have been killed in the crossfire or due to the use of indiscriminate firing, air raids and tanks to target Hamas fighters in the kibbutzim. The military was unable to re-establish full control over the south for several days.

This was perhaps unsurprising given that the Israeli army has never won a battle decisively since 1967 and has not fought a regular army since 1973. When facing small resistance groups, like the PLO, Hezbollah, or Hamas, its success has been rather limited.

The reason for this is the transformation of the Israeli army into a brutal colonial police force that for decades has mostly fought unarmed men, women and children. It is no longer trained to fight a war and continuously underestimates the capabilities of its enemies.

What was especially shocking for Israelis about Hamas’s attack was the fact that army spokespeople and commanders admitted to the utter chaos and the innumerable mistakes made by all involved in the military response. The Israelis realised their army was not able to protect them, despite the enormous budget it has, the huge number of soldiers it retains, the advanced technologies it employs, etc. That the painful defeat was dealt by such an inferior opponent is the most hurtful insult to Israeli militarised identity.

As most Israeli adults, men and women, served in the army, their identity, both personal and socio-national, owes more to it than to any other institution in Israel. When the army fails so dramatically, it is a failure shared by all Israelis. The defeat of the Israeli military is a defeat of all Israeli Jews.

The socio-political change in Israel was immediate and all-encompassing, turning the Jewish Israelis sharply to the racist right that many of them opposed before the Gaza crisis. Even famous academics, like the sociologist Sami Shalom Chetrit, found it acceptable and necessary to write, just two days after the attack: “First I wish to clarify: All Hamas members, from the head to the lowest murderer, will all die. I dislike wars (one was enough for me) but I am not a pacifist. I would shoot them myself.”

This is typical of many reactions of the professional middle class, and is certainly not the most disturbing. One is tempted to think that this was written in the heat of the moment, but this is not so – the reaction to the Hamas attack, and the deep humiliation it caused to all Jewish Israelis has pushed them to a position which before was held by the far-right settler militias carrying out the pogroms, against all Palestinians.

“Everyone in Gaza is Hamas” is a normalised by-line of many of the journalists and columnists right now, and the stakes are raised daily and ratchetted up, with the full support of the population.

I do not believe this is either short-term or reversible. And there are no signs of any soul-searching in the Israeli public now that it is crystal clear that there is no military solution to the colonial conflict, unless Israel decides to undertake the elimination of everyone in Gaza.

This genocidal option has already been floated around by some Israeli ministers – one even suggested using nuclear weapons for the task. Unfortunately, as activist and journalist Orly Noy pointed out in a recent article, large sections of Israeli society have also embraced it.

An internal document dated October 13 leaked to the Israeli media lays bare the Israeli endgame after the “expected defeat of Hamas”. It outlines three phases of the planned Israeli takeover of the Gaza Strip which include a bombing campaign focused on the north, a ground attack to clear the underground network of tunnels and bunkers and finally the expulsion of Palestinian civilians to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula with no option for return.

Over the past few days, we have been witnessing this three-phase programme take shape in the terrible landscape of the Israeli destruction of Gaza. At the time of writing, Israel has killed more than 10,000 Palestinians and injured tens of thousands, apart from nearly 3,000 missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Israel’s ire knows no bounds. The Israeli dehumanisation of Palestinians is not a sign of social strength, but of a terminal ailment of the social fabric of Zionism. It is what will bring its dissolution, I believe.

The Israeli army, the author and the executioner of the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 Naksa now carries out the 2023 Nakba. It is a terrifying act of genocide and ethnic cleansing, unlikely to be the last.

There are still more than four million Palestinians between the river and the sea. The plan to expel them has been written a long time ago. The leaders of the West, in their political and moral criminality, have enthusiastically signed up to this plan, without even reading it. If they think this will help Israel and bring stability to the region, they must be very deluded.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.