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Reviewed by:
  • The Palestinian Military: Between Militias and Armies
  • Charles D. Smith
The Palestinian Military: Between Militias and Armies. By Hillel Frisch. London: Routledge, Middle East Military Studies series, 2008. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. viii, 218. $150.00.

Hillel Frisch is senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies and Middle Eastern History at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and is a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a conservative forum with close ties to the Israeli military. These links inform, to some degree, his analysis of the Palestinian military and the assumptions that underlie this study.

The first chapter, “The Quest for an Army,” surveys some of the scholarly literature on the relationship between war and the rise of the state, especially the work of Charles Tilly. Frisch then turns to examine the Palestine mandate and Palestinian efforts to form militias from 1936 to 1948. Chapter Three discusses Palestinians in Arab state armies while Chapter Four analyzes the PLO and the Palestine Liberation Army from 1964 to 1993. Chapters Five and Six consider Palestinian security forces under the Palestine Authority from 1994 to 2000 and then these same forces during the al-Aqsa intifada. Chapter Seven, “Politics, Law and Security,” surveys Arafat’s efforts to form a cohesive military during the same period, 1993 to 2000, followed by two chapters discussing recent events, and the rise of Hamas.

Frisch’s approach is informed by Charles Tilly’s scholarship on European state making, published in the 1970s and 1980s, and his own discussion of the experience of insurgent movements generally. In cases where territory was occupied by a foreign power, Frisch relies on the work of Joel Migdal, notably Migdal’s seminal Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (1988). As Frisch notes, the Israeli experience reflected the pre-independence British mandate where the British either tolerated or “abetted local Zionist initiatives” that, in Migdal’s words, enabled the “maturation of a collective decision-making process and the development of ‘rules of the game’ prior to Israeli independence” (pp. 4–5).

In contrast, as Frisch observes, Palestinians could not develop any sort of effective military deterrence given “the extremely asymmetric relationship between the Palestinians and Israel” after 1948, a relationship he compares to that which characterized the Algerian revolt against the French (p. 15). But Frisch then comments, with reference to the Palestinians, that they bungled “a century of hindsight” touching [End Page 1368] on military action and standing armies and that “the Palestinian leadership failed . . . to come to the seminal conclusions” drawn from scholars such as Tilly to the effect that the international system was no longer “anarchic” but had been transformed into a system of core and periphery states with Israel a core state and the Palestinians on the periphery. As a result, Frisch argues that with the respect to the creation of a national army and state building, “the Palestinians should have (my emphasis) been intimately involved”in such projects (p. 1) and that, as he concludes, “the Palestinians . . . [once more] failed to internalize the insights considered by Tilly” and other scholars (p. 189).

When comparing these statements to the historical record, an air of unreality pervades the book and the logic behind it. Are we to assume that Palestinian leaders should have opened a library and read Charles Tilly in order to learn how to build an army and form a state when Frisch has already admitted that the British fostered Palestinian factionalism from the beginning while at the same time assisting Zionist efforts to “create integral representative institutions” (p. 18)? This judgmental approach then leads Frisch to argue (p. 137) that the Palestinian failure to develop a viable legal system from 1993–2000 was due to Palestinian culture (my emphasis) which embodies “illiberal norms.” No historical work purporting to be scholarship attributes in derogatory fashion the behavior of a people to culture, especially when that population is resisting occupation.

It is clear that Palestinian inability to form either a military or the beginnings of a rudimentary state apparatus stemmed from British commitment to assist Zionist growth at the expense of the Palestinians, a unique...