Journal of Holy Land and Palestine Studies
Volume: 19, Number: 2 (November, 2020)

Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, An Army Like No Other: How the Israeli Defence Forces Made a Nation (London: Verso, 2020). 448 pages. Hardback. ISBN-13: 978-1-78873-784-5

Bresheeth-Zabner’s book offers an incisive analysis of the Israeli state project in Palestine, focusing on the formation, history and developmental dynamics of the Israeli military. Argued through amply documented detail, the book affords us an understanding of the nature of the militarized Israeli polity as a configuration firmly anchored in the settler- colonial context, and its imperial interface. It is primarily through this lens that one can make sense of the central role of the Israeli army, its relationship to the nation-state, as well as the current dynamics of the Palestine/Israel conflict.
The book lays out its case through an examination of the serial wars and military campaigns that have symptomatically marked Israel’s short history, from the founding 1948 war, through the Suez War of 1956, the 1967 war, the 1973 war (the only one started by the Arabs), the Lebanon wars of 1982 and 2006, and the first Intifada and Oslo Accords. This cumulative account reveals the underlying logic that threads through each of these historical episodes, and that informs the constitution of the Israeli polity, as well its relationship to the outside world. The chapters on Israel’s military-industrial complex, and on the IDF today (the Israeli Defense Forces), provide an understanding of the local, regional and global developments and transformations that bring us to the present moment. These include Israel’s partnership in the neo-liberal globalized economy, and the IDF’s technological and operational re-orientation towards engagement primarily with non-state actors and civilians after 1973 (and the Camp David and Oslo Accords).
Perhaps the most important point the author argues is the foundational and continuing role of settler-colonial violence in the formation and operational identity of the Israeli army, and in the constitution of its organic nexus with the Israeli nation-state. This is an analysis of the dynamics that lie at the heart of Zionism as a complex of practice, objectives, ideology and policy. It is the settler-colonial project, envisioning the conquest of a land emptied of people (still unfinished today), that necessitated a logic of armed violence, and required the development of a military industry and a deeply militaristic ethos and organization. This continues to shape the nation-state and sustain its settler- colonial identity and horizon. The documentary details marshaled undermine the claims that self-defense was the guiding ethos of Israeli campaigns and politics. Rather it was the settler-colonial project and its continuing aims and expanding requirements that provided the driving force of Israeli politics and policies: ‘. . . the IDF becomes the formative agency of Zionism, its most influential social machinery’ (p. 384).
By this account, Israeli society came into being and attained its institutional shape and cultural-ideological matrix
through and with the military institutions, and through and in tandem with their practice of violence against the indigenous population: first the Haganah and the Palmach during the pre-state phase and the founding war of 1948, and later the IDF. The early founders of the Jewish state, and the pre-state militias they formed and worked with (Ben Gurion, Rabin, Dayan, Sharon, Peres) had a clear modus operandi based on night attacks, brutal preemptive strikes, and retaliations against civilian populations. The author elaborates how the post–state policies and practices were necessarily modelled on the pre-state phase, how each subsequent war introduced new elements but was a continuation of the previous one: war was (had to be) a primary ‘instrument of policy’ (p. 126). At each point, a new old endgame is sought, especially in light of continued Palestinian resistance. Thus a logic of constantly ‘unfinished business’, organically embedded in the settler enterprise, and ever requiring new modes and episodes of violence, marks the trajectory of the Israeli state in the region. The revolving door between the military and civilian life and society, the author argues, becomes a major obstacle in the face of political solutions. He concludes that significant change is unlikely to emerge from within Israeli society itself.
Bresheeth-Zabner elaborates a second fundamental point: he shows how Israeli colonial violence and militaristic growth were fed and made possible by the financial, military and political support of western powers, significantly the UK in the founding phase, France’s provision of military supplies and arms (including nuclear technology and material) in the early period, and the USA subsequently, but also massive German reparations that went directly into the armaments industry. Western policy and practice consistently supported Israel’s colonial practice and rationale, and indeed still do to this day, allowing the mass incarceration of 2 million people in Gaza who as a result are now teetering on the verge of a monumental human disaster. One can, therefore, describe the colonial project in Palestine as a fully globalized project from its inception.
It is this nexus of settler-colonialist vision and imperial support that propelled the development (and increasing sophistication) of the Israeli military-industrial complex. Right from the 1920s, Zionist leaders in Palestine were oriented to the need to develop an arms industry, and they were able to muster the resources, skills, and support to do so. As Israeli military capability benefitted from and, in turn, helped serve imperial Western interests in the region, ‘Israel became a specialized war economy, depending on and benefitting from armed conflict. War became ... its organizing principle’ (p. 294). The author describes in detail how the IDF, and the political and financial elites controlling it, became the primary conduit of Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world. As he correctly argues, Israel’s military and security industries have now become key lynchpins of the Western-led contemporary order and serve as ‘a prosthetic limb’ (p. 297) of the US (and Western interests) across the globe. Israel’s military hardware, field experience, security technologies and methods, all have become major currencies that it has parlayed into support of various repressive regimes across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Throughout the text, the author documents the systematic deceptions involved in the ideological discourses and the policy statements by Israeli elites, as well as their Western allies, over the years. Deception, he points out, was a fundamental tool that consistently deflected attention from the actual objectives and policies that were put in place to implement, or support, Israel’s territorial-ideological objectives. These deceptions were produced for the benefit of regional and international publics, but they were also an internal modus operandi by which Israeli military elites were able to shape state policies and outcomes in line with their vision (e.g. the Qibya raid in 1953, the ‘Lavon affair’ in 1954). At a time when the category of ‘fake news’ has explicitly emerged and been repeatedly circulated, it seems ironic that the industrial-scale production of deception (distortions and false narratives) about the Palestinian Israeli conflict has been, and continues to be, so successful. It could not have been so without the conscious, systematic and systemic complicity of various media and political elites in the Western world, a state of affairs that reveals the still colonial constitution of vision, practice and policy in the West.
This is a very important book, offering a highly timely and rigorously documented view of the military/nation-state nexus in Israel, its links and dynamics, and its global sources of power. In the process it unavoidably affords us a view of the workings of the contemporary global order, in which Israel’s role as policeman and instrument is becoming more critical to the repressive, discriminatory and surveillance operations that are being increasingly developed and deployed today.
Lena Jayyusi
Emeritus Professor Zayed University United Arab Emirates
DOI: 10.3366/hlps.2020.0244