O land of Palestine

Only a sliver called East Jerusalem stayed with Jordan which too was later put to sword and occupied

Shahzad Chaudhry May 21, 2021
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war was a rout. The Egyptian air force stood decimated over the first three days without a chance for them to get in the air. The Syrian and the Jordanian air forces stood equally vanquished. Undisturbed by any opposition Israeli land forces moved at rapid speed and within six days occupied all of Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and Jerusalem from Jordan. Only a sliver called East Jerusalem stayed with Jordan which too was later put to sword and occupied. Stunned by the ferocity of attack and the lethality of the Israeli war machine the Arab nations and the Soviet Union, which stood as their patron, went to work. This war taught the world to build shelters to save sitting-duck aircraft on aprons. It also taught the Soviets to build something formidable to defend against American platforms which seemed unstoppable with existing defences.

Come 1973, it was time to avenge the defeat. Egypt led what is now called the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 Arab-Israel War. The belligerents were the same, principally Egypt and Syria with aims to recover their lost lands, and a sprinkling of other Arab states. It was Israel’s turn to be surprised. The Soviets had developed the SA-6 SAM system which was a radar-guided robust air-defence platform and shared it with Egypt mainly which deployed batteries of it along the western edge of Suez. As the Israeli air force reacted to the Egyptian air and ground attack against its positions on the eastern edge of Suez it came across its October surprise in the SA-6. By some counts Israel lost 84 frontline fighter aircraft against these defences in the first three days of war and then she cried for help.

The United States closely observed the havoc that the new air-defence weapon system caused against its signature F-4 Phantom fighter which largely equipped the IAF. It had however a counter in an anti-radiation missile called the Shrike which would ride the radar beam of the emitting threat to destroy it. The US flew replacement F-4s from its inventory and a huge stock of the Shrike missiles to go along. It also sent its F-4 pilots experienced in employing the Shrike to fly alongside their Israeli counterparts. A combination helped tame the Egyptian air defence but at a significant cost.

The war ended after three weeks. The Egyptians recovered the eastern edge of Suez from Israeli occupation but lost another larger chunk of land in the north-west to Israel which placed the Israelis only 100 kilometres from Cairo. Egypt’s 3rd Army was encircled by the Israeli forces which let them off only after modalities of a ceasefire had been worked out. Syrians lost the remaining pockets at Golan which was now fully and truly under the occupation of Israel saving its main water-body, the sea of Galilee, from any Syrian mischief. Damascus lay only 30km from Israeli positions. Sinai was returned to Egypt after the Camp David Accords of 1978 between Egypt and Israel — Egypt forever eschewing the Soviets for their new masters, the US. That wrote the script of the future of the Middle East. The Israelis captured some SA-6 Batteries and studied those with the Americans to develop an even more effective anti-dote, the AGM-88A HARM, which was subsequently tried to even greater effect against the SA-6 in 1982 in the Bekaa Valley, completely annihilating Syrian defences there.

In the Middle East today no nation boasts of an air force as combat ready and operationally prepared or more exquisitely equipped than the IAF. What the US conceives in technical innovation — military or intelligence — Israel proves it in battle. This nexus between the US and Israel is a two-way interaction which helps the US know and learn more and hone better its military potential. There are three air forces of any significance among Arabs in the Middle East today: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All boast of a thriving relationship with both the US and Israel. That takes any threat to Israel out of the equation. Thanks to Jared Kushner many in the Arab world now boast of a burgeoning political and economic relationship too with Israel. That pays put to any thought of a collective Arab response to Israeli atrocities against the hapless Gazans in Palestine.

Gaza and the West Bank arrogated in Israeli control as a consequence of these wars who now exercise complete control over them. The PLO rules nominally. It is a case of one state, two people — the two-state concept buried under the span of time and the huge differential in power as this tale of two wars illustrates. The veritable, iconic, PLO head, Yasser Arafat, succumbed to the same ravages of inevitable capitulation before naked power bolstered by the lone superpower of the time and signed on the dotted line in the famous Rabin-Arafat Oslo Accords of 1993. Arafat was feted with a Nobel along with Rabin and the PLO became the principal power wielder in areas nominally under Palestinian Authority. The truth and differential of power dictated its own reality in the Middle East which holds till date. Rest are only promises.

Hamas in Gaza carries the torch of resistance against Israeli occupation but has little to offer in riposte than homemade contraptions in rockets that aren’t lethal enough and not accurate enough. Hence, they use a lot of those to cause some effect. This gives the Israelis the freedom to attack them in a wholehearted campaign eliminating any capability that Hamas may have developed in the intervening years. Gaza is locked from all sides by Israel yet they suspect outside help mainly from Iran reaching them. It is this gathered capacity of mild to moderate nuisance that Israel is wary of and will eliminate every few years through a devastating campaign. That is why massacre happens in Palestine every few years.

Here are a few lessons to imbibe: (a) Technology, innovation, lethality and a honed military system will trump passion any day; (b) A society built on strong fundamentals even if smaller in size will outdo all others regardless of the size of their passion — Israeli society rests on five fundamentals: technological innovation, finance and business, military and intelligence superiority, agricultural excellence and a strong academia and research faculty; (c) In combination such a nation will dictate its own geopolitics — exclusive support of the US is handy in warding off interventions aimed at mitigating Israeli domination; (d) When a leadership compromises a movement dies a slow but sure death — a Nobel prize buried the Palestine liberation movement under the glory of its weight. What remains is a weakened and a fragmented resistance front for Palestine.

The Westphalian nation-state which holds its interests dearer over all else precludes the possibility of a unified Muslim sentiment in support of Palestine. They shall have to pave their own destiny. Mere homilies are unknown to be of much use. A benevolent US, a la East Timor and South Sudan, only can assist which for the moment isn’t ready to compromise on Israeli exclusivity. The road to Palestinian freedom, if that, remains long.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2021.

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