Dirty Pool

By Paul M

David Ben-Gurion in the Negev during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

When Mirax first sent a Haaretz link around to a few of us and asked if someone would like to write about it, my first impulse was No, I wouldn’t. Haaretz was calling attention to new evidence that Israel engaged in biological warfare during its war of independence and I have no desire to defend or condone that. No desire to leap up and condemn it either, others will take care of that. But I read around a bit, and eventually decided there was more to be said.

I’ll come back to the Haaretz piece in a minute. First, lets go to the source, which is a paper called ‘Cast thy bread’: Israeli biological warfare during the 1948 War published in September by Middle Eastern Studies, a sixty year-old, peer-reviewed journal. The authors are Benny Morris, arguably the best-known Israeli historian alive, and Benjamin Kedar, less famous but more prestigious. In it, they lay out the evidence for a campaign, code-named Cast thy Bread, that lasted from April to December 1948, to contaminate wells with typhoid bacteria.

Typhoid causes debilitating, mainly intestinal, illness and, untreated, has a mortality rate of about 10–20%. With treatment (which was already available in 1948) that can drop below 1%. The intention was to prevent Palestinian militias and invading Arab troops from re-occupying positions from which they have been evicted by Jewish forces.

Without justifying the plan, Morris & Kedar are scrupulous in setting out the context: For four months a civil war has been raging in Mandatory Palestine, in which the Palestinian Arabs have been the aggressors and the Jews have been playing defense. Everyone understands, because the Arabs have made no secret of it, that in another six weeks the local Arab militias will be joined by an invasion from all the surrounding countries. The Jews have been keeping their heads above water but they have already lost a thousand people and it’s by no means clear that they can defeat the coming assault. Militias based in Arab villages are attacking Jewish convoys and settlements, in particular trying to strangle the Jewish community in Jerusalem by cutting off the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem road. The Haganah, the Jewish militia, has had some success in fighting them but doesn’t have the numbers to garrison every cleared village. Without that, Arab fighters simply come right back when the Jews leave. So starts the Jewish policy of expelling villagers and razing villages: not ethnic cleansing but a military response to the enemy’s use of human shields. Polluting the wells is seen as an extension of this.

The authors are scrupulous in other ways too. They show that approval of the plan went all the way to the top—to David Ben Gurion—and they name everyone they can from him down. They detail the many reservations and rejections of the plan, the people who refused, or protested but complied, or simply took the vials they were given and quietly emptied them down a drain. They describe the way much of the war was already, and continued to be, fought with water, both sides destroying water sources as a form of attack or retaliation. They point out that biological weapons had been illegal under the Geneva Protocol since 1925 and they imply, though they do not state, that everyone knew this because of the level of secrecy they maintained. And they describe the mission-creep that occurred, the original goal of keeping Palestinian Arab militias at bay expanding, first to denying the invading Arab armies a foothold in the Palestinian villages that would welcome them or the Jewish settlements that were about to be overrun, and ultimately to a proposal (never carried out) to harry the attackers through the water supplies of their own cities.

I have only one complaint about the paper. Morris & Kedar strew the words “poison” and “well-poisoning” liberally around. You can make the case that bacteria used in this way qualify, but common use and most definitions see a poison as a chemical agent, and the common image is of a quick (or worse, slow) and grisly death. Contamination, infection or pollution would all have been more accurate and  appropriate choices. This matters, first because as the authors themselves point out:

“… the typhoid and dysentery germs dispensed in 1948 were basically non-lethal. The scientists and Haganah/IDF officers probably hoped that they would induce disease, an epidemic even, which would bar militiamen from returning to their villages and attacking Jewish settlements and traffic….”

Just as important, it matters because there’s a millenium-long history of Jews falsely accused as well-poisoners. Serious people should do what they can not to feed that monster.

Back to Haaretz. They picked up the story a month later. Scrupulous they are not: They can’t resist helping you know what to think. The headline blares ‘Place the Material in the Wells’: Docs Point to Israeli Army’s 1948 Biological Warfare but from there on they’re much happier to run with “poison” than “biological” or “bacteria”. Typhoid doesn’t even get a look-in though typhus, a different and more deadly disease, is mentioned once. You have to get seven paragraphs in before you read anything about the historical situation or the planners’ motives, and what you get then is this:

“The operation began in April 1948, when fears of an invasion by Arab armies were mounting. … The idea was to prevent Arabs from returning to their villages and from settling in Jewish locales that would fall into their hands.”

Morris & Kedar’s careful noting of the military rationale is gone and, though I don’t expect any newspaper to maintain academic standards of precision, that is inexcusable. In Haaretz’s hands, the goal has morphed into ethnic cleansing. In the very last paragraph we are told:

“Morris and Kedar believe that the objective of the IDF operation was not to cause mass killing but rather to disrupt the Arabs’ moves”

but the fact that it was the moves of Arab fighters, not civilians, that were the chief concern goes unsaid lest it disturb the narrative.

Having read both pieces there didn’t seem much point in writing a post. If you want to read the original it’s a free download here. If you want the short form à la Haaretz, it’s online too. But just before I wrote to Mirax to decline, I did one more thing: I looked to see who else had the story. As of this writing, there are a handful and they’re all who, and what, you would expect. That is they are hate-mongering sites, Palestinian and other, who picked up the story via Haaretz and are gleeful at what they’ve found. All of them cast their own stories in terms of ethnic cleansing, genocide and territorial expansionism. I decided that there needs to be some more said. It’s not going to influence the haters, any more than Morris & Kedar’s careful analysis will, but it might be helpful to people who want to think about the rights and wrongs.

Morris & Kedar set the plan in its immediate context. Let’s go back and widen it a bit more. Here’s a true story. Five years before Cast thy Bread, in a different war, the German air force bombed the harbor at Bari that the Allies were using to supply their troops as they started their slog through Italy. Losses were high and one contributor to this turned out to be the American supply ship John Harvey, which exploded while carrying 2,000 mustard gas bombs containing around 130,000 lb. of the poison between them. US military authorities eventually acknowledged the cargo, claiming they were to be used only in retaliation in case the Germans used chemical weapons first. However (1) this is the word of the same authorities who initially covered up the existence of the bombs altogether, even though the knowledge could have saved lives and (2) even retaliatory use would have been illegal under the 1925 Geneva Protocol—the same one that bans biological weapons.

What are we to do with this bit of knowledge? Does it make the USA a war criminal and invalidate its participation in World War II, or make America the aggressor and potential mass murderer? No, it doesn’t. Why? Because the John Harvey was a bad act done during the pursuit of a just cause. No one who believes in the justice of the Allied fight against Nazi Germany & Japan will change their mind on learning of this story or others like it. Could the cumulative weight of such acts rise to a level that changes the calculus? Yes, in theory, but the fact is it didn’t—even if you add in the firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden and the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While hating that such things happened, whether or not they believe in their necessity, people who are not ideologically-driven recognize that there’s no such thing as purity of action in war and they calculate accordingly.

Being a Zionist is a good way of collecting bruises, but it comes with some great perks. Top of the list is knowing that you are supporting a just cause: the liberation, protection and welfare of a people that has been on the receiving end of centuries of prejudice and ill-treatment, nothing more, nothing less. Cast thy Bread, morally dubious and repugnant (Morris & Kedar’s words) though it was, doesn’t change that. To accept as much in the John Harvey case but not in this one would be to be a hypocrite, especially when you reflect that Allied reversals in Italy were setbacks, while Israel’s defeat would have been an extinction. To berate Israel for Cast thy Bread without acknowledging the illegality of the joint Arab invasion, let alone the Arab League’s Azzam Pasha’s explicitly genocidal declaration of October 1947:

“… this will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Tartar massacre or the Crusader wars”

… is more of the same.

Another of the bennies of Zionism is that you never have to fear getting stuck inside the notorious internet bubble. It’s not possible to escape criticism, contrary views and so much worse, so that you are constantly having to think Can it really be that I’m right and all these other people are wrong? But there’s a third gift that helps a lot with that: You only have to follow the chain for a link or two to be shown the transparent distortion, cherry-picking and general malice that underpins anti-Zionism. Middle Eastern Studies to Haaretz to The Palestine Chronicle gets you there in two hops, or maybe just one.