Occupied Territory

The U.S. is looking to Israel for clues to running its occupation. Bad idea.


By all accounts the American liberation of Iraq is not going well. Attacks on U.S. troops have spread beyond the Sunni Triangle and have become increasingly sophisticated. Pressure is growing from all sides for a change in tack.

As Seymour Hersh points out in the New Yorker, the one thing that most observers and participants agree upon is the need for a new approach in Iraq. One former Pentagon official told Hirsch that the world’s most sophisticated army is getting whipped in Iraq because American forces lack reliable military intelligence.

“Instead of destroying an empty soccer field, why not impress me by sneaking in a sniper team and killing them while they’re setting up a mortar? We do need a more unconventional response, but it’s going to be messy.”

Beyond messy, it’s going to be severely problematic for America’s standing with Iraqis. Coalition forces have launched a series of operations aimed at wiping out the mid-level of the guerilla operations from Iron Hammer to “pre-emptive manhunting,” which recalls the assassination programs of the Vietnam War.

When it comes to expertise on controlling an angry, rebellious population under occupation, of course, there’s no better authority that the Israeli military. American commanders have sought advice from Israeli defense experts on the finer points of urban warfare. Military officers have traveled to Israel to learn from Israel’s counterterrorist operations. While American officials say they have much to learn from the Israeli army, they say there are no Israeli military advisors helping in Iraq.

Israel’s experience in containing a guerilla uprising may be of use to U.S. military planners, but the hard-line Israeli model is not likely to help on the “hearts and minds” front or sustain the perception, already weak, that America is liberating, not occupying, Iraq. On the other hand, Israel has had notable success in coercing or bribing Palestinians to provide intelligence. From the early days of the war to the current period of suicide bombings and rocket-launched grenades, occupation forces in Iraq have suffered from poor military intelligence.

Judging by the chaos in the Israel and the occupied territories, it’s probably a good thing that U.S. military leaders aren’t planning on employing Israeli tactics wholesale. Unfortunately actions speak louder than words, and more than a few commentators have started drawing parallels between Israeli and American military technique.

Despite the similarities, the nature of Israeli and American occupations are different. Israel has maintained a military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. The state has encouraged Israeli civilians to live in the occupied territories by giving settlers significant economic incentive essentially to create a new ethnic composition in the region. While America has strong economic interests in having a U.S.-friendly administration in Iraq, Washington is scrambling to save face and scale back its troop presence.

The problem is that if that most Iraqis think that U.S. presence is essentially one of occupation, not liberation, then the attacks are bound to increase. Unfortunately, the U.S.’s “anti-terrorism” tactics don’t seem to be improving relations with Iraqis.

Thirty miles north of Baghdad in Abu Hishma, a town of 7,000, America’s new tactics are in full swing. As Dexter Filkins reports in the Sunday New York Times, the town, the site of significant attacks on allied forces, has been surrounded by barbed wire, its men issued mandatory I.D. cards, and a single check-point set up to allow residents in and out. Such tactics are undeniably similar to those used by the Israeli army to control angry Palestinians — and the Abu Hishma residents know it. “I see no difference between us and the Palestinians…We didn’t expect anything like this after Saddam fell,” a man named Tariq told the NYT. Tariq’s sentiment could be the kiss of death for American forces.

Only a few towns are being given the same treatment of Abu Hishma, but in a region of the world sensitive to the notion of occupation, that might suffice to antagonize the people. A small number of buildings thought to be used by attackers have been demolished, relatives of insurgents have been imprisoned, and 500-pound bombs have been dropped on buildings used by insurgents, all tactics from the Israeli playbook.

On Sunday Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander in Iraq, announced that attacks on allied forces had dropped from 40 a day two weeks ago to less than twenty. While attacks may be diminishing, Iraqi anger is not. Washington may not be interesting in punishing the Iraqi people, but at least some soldiers think it necessary. “You have to understand the Arab mind … The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face,” said Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division. Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, the battalion commander, shares his sentiment, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.”

While Tariq tells Filkins that he feels like a Palestinian, Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old primary school teacher, admits that he feels humiliated, “We are like birds in a cage.” As Baruch Kimmerling writes in a recent book review in the Nation, humiliation fuels extremist groups.

Fred Kaplan of Slate notes that the parallel between the American and Israeli occupation is bad news on all accounts.

“This is bad business on two counts. First, it reinforces the myth, propagated by radical groups in the region, that the United States is waging a war against Islam. American officials showed they understood this danger earlier in the year—and during the first Gulf War in 1991—by going out of their way to keep Israel out of the conflict. Why are they so openly aligning with Israel—and emulating its methods—during the equally sensitive post-battlefield phase of this war?

Second, Israel is a poor model on substantive grounds. Even when such a heavy hand has succeeded at swatting foes in the short run, it has tended to alienate more Palestinians in the medium-to-long run. The idea is to isolate the guerrillas from the population, but the result is often to turn the population into guerrillas.”

If the U.S. is to further adopt Israel-like tactics, it would not only lose its ability to criticize parallel Israeli actions, but would make a mockery of its quest to bring democracy in the Middle East. George Bush can’t afford to be seen as another Ariel Sharon.

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