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What Jabotinsky got right, and what he got very wrong about Israel’s security

Ittay Flescher
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Published: 25 July 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Israel’s PM recently paid homage to the pioneer leader known for advocating an "Iron Wall" against Palestinians. ITTAY FLESCHER considers the implications.

Each year in Israel, a memorial is held on the anniversary of the death of early Zionist leader and territorial maximalist Zeev Jabotinsky. It is usually attended by the Prime Minister.

This year the memorial was particularly significant because it is 100 years since the publication of Jabotinsky’s influential essay “The Iron Wall”, which argued Zionism must proceed, regardless of the Palestinian Arabs, protected by an “Iron Wall” of security.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the memorial, held on July 18, as prime ministers usually do. He tweeted a message:

“One hundred years after the ‘Iron Wall’ was stamped in Jabotinsky’s writings, we are continuing to successfully implement these principles.”

Jabotinsky was tragically mistaken in that building an “iron wall” would lead to long term peace.

In response to this tweet, Yousef Munayyer, former executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, wrote: “In the Iron Wall, Jabotinsky identified Zionism as a settler colonial movement and noted that it was only natural to expect the native Arabs to resist Zionism just as people resist colonialism around the world.”

Munayyer seems to be referring to the following paragraph in Jabotinsky’s 1923 essay. “It may be that some individual Arabs take bribes. But that does not mean that the Arab people of Palestine as a whole will sell that fervent patriotism that they guard so jealously, and which even the Papuans will never sell. Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised.”

Jabotinsky’s prophecy of Palestinian resistance has proved true. His suggested response, to which Netanyahu was referring, is captured in this paragraph: “Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”

Over his 15 years as Prime Minister over multiple terms, Netanyahu has solidified the so called “Iron Wall” perhaps more than any other Israeli leader. At the Jabotinsky memorial, he again invoked it, arguing Israel must stand as “a powerful iron wall against our enemies has been adopted by every Government of Israel, from the right and the left … whoever tries to harm us on one front, or more than one front, needs to know that they will pay the price.”

This is the security doctrine of Netanyahu’s government today, ensuring all who harm Israel pay a heavy price. The logic is that if Palestinians are forced to pay a high enough price whenever they harm Israelis, they will eventually give up on their path of violence.

The trouble is many Palestinians have a similar logic. Organisations such has Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Lion’s Den think that if they cause enough harm and pain to Israelis, Jews will eventually leave Israel or, at least, vote in a government that will end the occupation.

The similar psychology means that when we are attacked, our dominant response is to raise the stakes. This leads to immense suffering for all who live between the river and the sea.

Today, both sides suffer regular casualties, though since 2000 Palestinians casualties outnumber Israelis by a factor of 20:1.

Israelis are mostly killed in shooting and knife attacks against civilians or soldiers. Palestinians who kill Israelis are often shot, arrested, have their family houses demolished and their entire villages placed under curfew.

In the West Bank, Palestinians are mostly killed in demonstrations against settlements being built on their land, in accidental crossfire or in self-defence if they are armed with knives of guns. In Gaza, most casualties occur as direct targets, responding to rocket attacks on Israel, or as bystanders near Hamas or Islamic Jihad targets.  

IDF soldiers who kill unarmed Palestinian civilians often do so unintentionally, and therefore rarely face any criminal sanctions.

Jabotinsky was right in his diagnosis of the problem, but wrong in his solution.

The founder of Betar youth movement saw that Palestinians would never stop resisting Zionism until they had a homeland with safe and secure borders like the Jews. But he was tragically mistaken in his belief that building a physical or metaphorical “iron wall” between Israel and her Arab neighbours would lead to long-term peace for either people.

So, what’s the alternative?

Since moving from Melbourne to Jerusalem in 2018, I have been working as a journalist and educator in a peace organisation exploring alternatives to the iron walls Israelis and Palestinians have metaphorically and physically built across this land and deep within their hearts.

While I’m probably wrong given how few people agree with me, I feel there is only one way for Palestinians and Israelis to raise their children without the pain of walls, checkpoints and compulsory military service.

We must see the suffering and loss on the other side as we do on our own. Some groups like the Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace try to do this through their joint memorial held on Yom HaZikaron, but this approach is still considered marginal and even traitorous in many parts of both societies. Yet without building meaningful human relationships of trust between the majority of Israelis and Palestinians that would lead to such displays of empathy for the other side being the norm rather than exception, I see no way to create a different reality.

Many will say the path of peace has been tried and failed at Oslo, Camp David and Annapolis, meaning that the status quo is the only choice for the time being. To them I say, I much prefer the risks of dialogue with our most bitter enemies in the hope of a breakthrough than sticking to the current thinking of making those who hurt us hurt more, which only leads to suffering and pain.

About the author

Ittay Flescher

Ittay Flescher is the Jerusalem Correspondent for The Jewish Independent. For over twenty years, he has worked as an educator, journalist, and peacebuilder in Melbourne and Jerusalem. He is the co-host of the podcast ‘From the Yarra River and the Mediterranean Sea' and the author of the upcoming book ‘The Holy and the Broken.’ He is also the Education Director at a youth movement that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers who believe in building equality, justice, and peace for all.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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