Israel is returning to the pre-state era of lawless chaos - analysis

At the heart of the story is a struggle for law and order. Either the country would be given over to the law of the gun, or to a state.

 A SHOOTING attack in Kfar Kana, not far from the community that was once called Sajera, has led to people feeling they have no security. (photo credit: FLASH90)
A SHOOTING attack in Kfar Kana, not far from the community that was once called Sajera, has led to people feeling they have no security.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

In October 1908, a young man arrived in a village called Sajera in the Galilee. The village was perched on the hill above Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, about a three-hour walk – or 15km – from the south of Safed and east of Nazareth. 

It was here that Baron Edmund de Rothschild purchased land in 1902 and over the next few years, families from the area came to carve out a small village. These included a diverse group of Kurdish Jews and some Subbotniks from the Russian Empire. Later, more Jews arrived – Zionists dedicated to building a collective society. 

David Ben-Gurion, who would go on to be Israel’s first prime minister, went there in 1908 when something interesting was taking place in this village. Jews in some of the agricultural farms in the area had hired Circassian guards for their villages. 

For some of those who came from the Russian Empire, the Circassians may have seemed familiar. Circassians were a group of Muslims who had fled Russian expansion into the Caucasus. Thousands came to the Golan, now Jordan, and also to the Land of Israel, where they built small towns. Like Jews fleeing places like Poland or Odesa, these men would have had commonalities as outsiders in Ottoman Palestine.

However, the new farmers of Sajera wanted Jewish laborers and Jewish guards. Accordingly, members of a Jewish self-defense group, Bar Giora, went to the area to help the Jews defend themselves.

 A JEWISH FARMER and a laborer in the old colony of Sajera, 1928. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A JEWISH FARMER and a laborer in the old colony of Sajera, 1928. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Tom Segev’s biography of Ben-Gurion, A State at Any Cost, “The idea excited Ben-Gurion as well, ‘Jews in their land should defend themselves,’ he wrote. ‘It was a matter of national honor and critical to the Jewish people’s rebirth in its homeland,’ he declared.”

These decisions were momentous. Soon Jews founded HaShomer, another self-defense group, that is seen as the origins of the modern Israel Defense Forces. 

At Sajera, Segev’s biography notes, the young man “learned the lesson that this was the price to be paid for achieving the Zionist dream.” The price was that the founding of these organizations also meant that people would fall in battle against those who sought to steal from, rob, and kill Jewish farmers. 

Israel faces a wave or murder and chaos

TODAY, ISRAEL appears to be facing a similar type of chaos. Murder rates have reached an unprecedented level this year. 

A recent article on Ynet noted that “the elections for the local authorities are getting closer and closer, and in Arab society there are those who are afraid to participate in them – and have already decided not to do so on the grounds that the state fails to provide security for the candidates and elected officials.” 

Daily murders and the rise of powerful gangs and mafia now appear to be reaching a point where they control villages and may even be exerting control over parts of the country. Many businesses complain of being forced to pay “protection” throughout the Galilee and southern Israel. In a recent incident, gangs of men held a camel race at an IDF firing zone. It appears that part of the land has slipped through the fingers of the authorities. 

The struggle leading up to the creation of the State of Israel was a struggle for the land. Would there be law and order and security for people, or would people on the roads be waylaid, attacked, robbed, or killed? It was not a simple story. 

In the Ottoman era, government control was often weak. The Ottomans tried to introduce increased security measures in the 19th century with new land laws. The sultan even acquired swaths of land in the country and later Europeans, such as the German Templers, also settled certain areas. 

When the British arrived in 1917, they governed Palestine via a mandate, and hired locals, such as the Supernumerary police. The British Mandate saw several eras of violence. During the Arab Revolt, for instance, there were widespread assassinations within Arab villages and communal violence between Arabs and Jews. This also led to radicalization among political factions on both sides, with revenge killings by Arab and Jewish groups. 

In September 1937, some three decades after Ben-Gurion had visited the Galilee, the British commissioner of the Galilee district, Lewis Andrews, was assassinated. Andrews was mourned by dozens of Jewish communities in the area that existed at the time. He had been killed on his way to prayer services at the Anglican church in Nazareth, an article in Israel HaYom noted in 2013. 

Andrews was a key figure during the Mandate period and a friend of many leading Jewish officials and activists. The article about his life says that Arab “residents of Acre danced on the rooftops” when they heard he had been murdered. Apparently, the assassins were followers of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, an extremist who had fought against Jews and the British in the early 1930s. Today, the Hamas terrorist group names its brigades after Qassam. 

While the 1930s’ fighting was largely seen as a “revolt” against British rule and also against “Zionists,” there is more to it than that. Much of the violence was also directed at other Arabs; and like many terrorist struggles, there are connections between criminal gangs and terrorist extremism. At the heart of the story is a struggle for law and order. Either the country would be given over to the law of the gun, or to a state. In the end, the State of Israel emerged victorious. 

However, thousands died in that quest. For many Jewish farmers in places like the Galilee, securing the landscape and roads, and working with neighboring villages was key to the success of the project that led to the state. Even after the state was founded in 1948, there was lawlessness on the borders. “Infiltrators” in the 1950s often attacked Jewish communities. 

What is happening today in Israel? An article on Ynet about local municipal elections says that people are afraid to run for office. Blackmail has been used against candidates. Gangs and families strive for power. “About a week ago it was revealed on Ynet that at least 25 Arab elected officials are defined by police as threatened and receive different levels of security,” the article noted in early September. 

“Tensions in our locality are very high,” said one candidate. “Sometimes people are threatened because they write who they will vote for. Unfortunately, freedom of expression has become dangerous and may cause real harm.” 

THIS ROSH HASHANA, Israel is faced with a complex crossroads. 

There have been calls to use Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to deal with the crime wave. Considering the level of violence, it’s clear why. For instance, a shooting attack in Kfar Kanna, not far from the community that was once called Sajera, led to people feeling they have no security. 

In some communities, people cannot open a business before “protection” is paid to people who show up and claim to be “guarding” their business. Even though laws exist to prosecute this, it appears many act with impunity, and many entrepreneurs are in fear. In another incident, cars at a luxury hotel were burned. The reports said the incident took place in an area between Safed and the Sea of Galilee. 

The levels of violence are fueled by illegal weapons being trafficked. It also appears that Hamas is taking an interest, recently commenting on the high levels of violence in Israel. In addition, Iran was alleged to be behind a smuggling attempt across the border near Ashdot Yaakov, south of the Sea of Galilee. Israel is now building a new fence along the border with Jordan due to the smuggling. 

These incidents across the Galilee and the Negev illustrate that the country is facing similar struggles as activists like Ben-Gurion saw in the era from 1908 to 1948. There is increasing lawlessness across the landscape: Farmers are attacked or forced to pay protection money, and gangs threaten villagers. 

Today, there are also questions about who will provide security, and there are calls to use the same security methods employed to defeat terrorism in the West Bank in order to deal with the rising violence in places like the Galilee. 

This would be an incredible reversal of the normal discussion about “sovereignty” in the West Bank. It used to be that there were concerns about Israel applying law and order in the West Bank. Today it’s unclear whether the sovereignty that Ben-Gurion and his friends wanted in Sajera continues to exist in areas around Sajera (now called Ilaniya). 

Today, in all areas of the Galilee, one can find stories of murders – from Kfar Qara to Abu Snan to a car wash in Yafia near Nazareth or Taibe east of Tel Aviv.  

Israel has not yet surmounted the lawless violence that was a hallmark of the era leading up to 1948.