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Hamas campaign recalls Tet Offensive: Could this also be a turning point?

As in Vietnam in 1968, the lessons are there to learn, if people are prepared to learn them

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

Palestinians celebrate beside a destroyed Israeli tank at the Gaza Strip fence east of Khan Younis. Photo courtesy AP.

If you stand back just far enough, history repeats itself. And we might just learn something from the outlines.

The lesson comes from the Vietnam War. On January 30, 1968, during the Vietnamese New Year festival, approximately 85,000 combatants from the National Liberation Front (the so-called “Viet Cong”) and North Vietnam staged a surprise attack all across South Vietnam.

The scale and the audacity of the campaign was unprecedented. But more than that, it was the surprise element that stood out.

The offensive targeted over 100 locations, including cities, towns and military installations, and the capital of South Vietnam, then known as Saigon, hitherto immune from large-scale fighting. A damaged US embassy was a very visible symbol.

Prior to Tet, the Americans, with the most powerful army in the world, and their South Vietnamese puppets appeared to be in control. While it was going on, much of it televised, the world held its breath.

When it was over, most of the gains by the insurgents appeared to vanish, and they paid a very heavy price for their chutzpah. Some estimates number their death toll at 50,000, with their opponents at a fraction of that. It was clearly a tactical military failure. The Vietnam War dragged on for another seven years.

And yet, today most historians call the Tet Offensive the turning point, or the beginning of the end, of the Vietnam War. A military defeat for the insurgents was really a political and psychological victory.

The sheer boldness of the Tet Offensive was the first sign. It became clear that the insurgents could not be beaten without sacrifices much greater than previously anticipated. American General William Westmoreland estimated a further 200,000 troops would be required, but notwithstanding the number, it was the first major indication that there might not be a military solution. Second, American domestic support for the war, strong up to this point, suffered a blow that would prove fatal. While some hardliners called for the use of nuclear weapons, popular support diminished rapidly.

Third, it sent a message to the South Vietnamese, the people and its army—you are not safe in your homes, your offices, your military encampments. And the message to Americans was that you will send your children to die here in greater and greater numbers. Fourth, the world’s backing of the US occupation, hitherto robust, began to wane. Its allies in combat, like Australia, the Philippines and South Korea, had a crisis of confidence, and its non-combatant allies, like Canada and Europe, started to turn away.

And finally, people around the world began to realize that the American colonial enterprise was not only doomed but morally wrong.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 helped darken American attitudes on Vietnam. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to the recent incursion by Hamas militants into Israel. It is not a precise duplicate of the Tet Offensive by any means. Nothing in history is that neat. But some similarities are too obvious to ignore.

Israel will undoubtedly eliminate the immediate threat. It has the power to do so. It will find and neutralize the attackers. It will reduce the military capacity of Hamas. It will punish Gazan civilians, as it has innumerable times. It will clamp down further on West Bank militants and the brutality of that particular occupation will continue.

The hostages will be a different matter. And that is one of the most powerful impacts of this Hamas incursion. Not only has Hamas sent the message: you in Israel thought you had us bottled up; you thought you were safe, that you could ignore us; but you are not safe on your streets, in your offices, your homes, even your bomb shelters and panic rooms. But, with the hostage-taking, it has also sent the message: we can and we will come and drag you out of your safety and drag you into hell, the hell that you make for us and that we suffer every day.

This could well be a major turning point in the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether a turning point for good or ill will depend on the nations of the world, on Israeli leaders, on Israeli Jewish citizens, and, up to a point, on Jewish diaspora communities.

When the tumult dies down and the killing pauses, and Gaza once more lies in ruins, what lessons will be learned?

Let us remember that today’s Palestinian 12-year-olds fearfully experiencing bombardment in Gaza and Nablus, will be 16-year-olds in four years’ time, ready and willing to sacrifice themselves to avenge. If Israel means, as it swears, to root out the Hamas “terror machine,” does that include today’s 12-year-olds? Or tomorrow’s? Or those who will be that age in four years’ time?

I have written before that Israeli politics is in a life-and-death struggle between two large ideological groups. Life-and-death literally, given the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli Jew in 1995.

Today’s immediate situation may seem to have united these opponents as reserves are called up. But let’s not be fooled. When the dust settles, the internal political crisis will sharpen.

On the one hand we have what I call the “kibbutzniks,” a large group of Israeli Jews who are generally secular, Ashkenazi (of European background), and left-leaning or liberal in their political and social orientation. They believe in Israel as a Western-style democracy (for the Jews, it must be said) and the perfectability of the Zionist project. While they are the original ethnic cleansers of Palestine in 1948 and 1967, they have now come to realize that Israel’s survival comes only with some sort of rapprochement involving land-swapping and limited sovereignty for the Palestinians. Yet, for them, rapprochement comes with as little abandonment as possible of continued domination over the Palestinians.

On the other hand, we have what I call the mitnachlim (derived from a term devised by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, an extremist leader of the post-1967 war’s nachlut, or settlement movement in the newly conquered territories) typifying the bloc opposed to the kibbutzniks. The mitnachlim are typically ultra-religious, with more non-Ashkenazi involvement. They are mostly right-wing, and believe that Western-style democracy, with its formal protection of minorities and lip-service to human rights, is anathema. They want an absolutist and theocratic model of governance.

And, imbued with an expansionist “greater Israel” ideology, the mitnachlim reject any territorial compromise with the Palestinians. As one Israeli parliamentarian has already demanded in response to the Hamas incursion, “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of ‘48.” That ethnic cleansing, it should be noted, involved thousands of casualties and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians.

Both armed with powerful and sometimes deadly vetoes, the two Jewish-Israeli factions vie for political, cultural and military supremacy. The mitnachlim have recently captured political power with the most right-wing parliament ever, but it is the kibbutzniks staging massive demonstrations and threatening to refuse military reserve service.

However, demographics suggest long-term hegemony for the mitnachlim. Not only is their birth rate higher than that of their opponents, but while kibbutzniks are ageing, others who are highly-trained and entrepreneurial, are not merely protesting, but they are leaving Israel entirely. “Startup Nation” are actually voting with their feet and their money. Will there be enough people with enough will remaining who see that this will be solved only through ending the occupation with a just settlement that includes the right of return and true Palestinian sovereignty?

The fact that Israel itself contributed to the launch of Hamas as a religious bulwark against secular and pro-socialist Palestinian nationalism does not bode well.

As in Vietnam in 1968, the lessons are there to learn, if people are prepared to learn them. When history presents us with parallels, albeit imperfect ones, we need to pay heed. One thing is for sure: Israelis and their allies can no longer ignore Palestine, pretending, as so many of them do, that the brutal occupation can continue with impunity. It will not be pretty but I suspect this changes everything. As Antonio Gramsci so famously warned in 1929, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Larry Haiven is Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

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