Commentary Magazine


Violent Truce, by Commander E. H. Hutchison

Blinkered Observer
by Hal Lehrman
Violent Truce. By Commander E. H. Hutchison. Devin-Adair. 199 pp. $3.50.

On the evening of June 30, 1954, firing broke out across the frontier dividing Jordanian from Israeli Jerusalem. By dawn one Jordanian and eleven Israelis had been wounded and one Israeli killed. Did this mean that the Jordanians had done most of the shooting? Or that they were the better marksmen? Not at all, we are advised by Commander Elmo H. Hutchison, U.S.N.R., in this account of his 1951-54 tour of duty as Military Observer with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and Chairman of the Israel-Jordan Mixed Armistice Commission. “The heaviest firing,” Commander Hutchison affirms, “had come from Israel.” Then why the outsize Israeli losses? “What had held Arab casualties down,” the Commander reveals, “was the narrowness of the streets, the thickness of the walls, and the Arab social custom of staying closer to home after dark in contrast to the higher living Israelis across no-man’s land.” Curiously, neither the New City’s sinful promenading on modern avenues nor the Old City’s virtuous torpor in medieval alleyways occurs to the author as an explanation for the results of another instance of Jerusalem crossfire. This time there were ten Jordanian dead and fifteen wounded, against only six Israeli wounded. “On that occasion,” Hutchison tells us, “Jordan suffered the brunt of the attack.”

An unbiased eyewitness report of the fighting along the Israeli-Arab borders would have been fascinating as well as instructive. Commander Hutchison was in an excellent position to write it, having been on the spot at Mt. Scopus, Kibya, Scorpion Pass, and Nahalin. He tracked assorted raiders and smugglers, knew fellaheen and sabras, sipped cocktails with Israeli spokesmen and tea with Arab sheikhs. Conclusions soberly drawn after such a highly responsible mission might have illuminated a dark and dangerous area of the Palestine conflict. Instead, the Commander has produced an angry polemic, a book which lends retrospective support to the Israeli complaint that his pro-Arab bias prevented him from seeing straight when he was on the job.

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Commander Hutchison’s gods, he says, are truth, neutrality, objectivity. “Light rather than heat,” declares the dust jacket. Forewords by no less than three of his former colleagues—among them Danish Major General Vagn Bennike, onetime UNTSO Chief of Staff-insist on the “unemotional,” “dispassionate,” and “accurate” character of his story. In view of these protestations of objectivity, a reader has the right to expect some measure of awareness from him that neither the Israeli nor the Arab case could possibly be all black or all white, and that, specifically, Israel could not always be the transgressor.

This expectation is not fulfilled. Hutchison finds the Israelis guilty on every count—not merely while he himself was on the scene, but all the way back to the beginning of the trouble in Palestine, and all the way up to the moment he delivered his typescript to his publisher a year after leaving the area. The historical survey he gives us, from the Balfour Declaration down to the Arab-Israeli war, parrots the views of the British Colonial Office and the Arab League. Thus he cites with obvious approval, at this late date, recommendations by British investigators made as long ago as 1930 that “excessive immigration” should be prevented because “the cultivable area of Palestine was far less than originally estimated.” And five Arab armies invaded Israel in 1948, it appears, solely because they doubted the UN’s ability to keep the imperialist Jews from swarming across the Jordan.

If the world nevertheless believes that the Israelis are not to be blamed for all the post-Armistice strife along the borders, it is only because of the Zionists’ skill in the “battle of the pen” and the corresponding helplessness of the Arabs. For a fleeting moment Commander Hutchison concedes that Arab infiltrations at one time “amounted to a serious drain on Israel’s economy.” But he insists that peace could have been achieved easily by the so-called “local commanders’ agreements” which the Israelis rejected—and in which he has a visionary’s faith, despite the record of their frailty. It is the Arabs, he doggedly maintains, who want a settlement. But he shows some uncertainty about Israel’s motives. On one page she wants to “bait the Arab states into some overt act of aggression,” on another page “to force the Arabs to the peace table.” Either way, he is quite sure the Israelis are deliberately keeping the borders enflamed. His solution calls for ironclad Western guarantees of borders revised in the Arab favor, and an imposed peace based on UN Resolutions—in the listing of which he omits such inconvenient items as the UN’s condemnation of Egypt for barring the Suez to Israeli cargoes. Further, he admonishes Israel to desist from promoting immigration; the Ingathering of the Exiles means “only one thing to the Arabs—eventual aggression by Israel for the acquisition of more territory,” and an influx of Jews from Eastern Europe would flood Zion with agents and disciples of Moscow.

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This mixture of charges and proposals is indistinguishable from that advanced by any Arab publicist today. Mr. Hutchison embellishes it with photographs of Arab corpses and damaged Arab property (there are no pictures of the death and destruction suffered by Israel), and by attributing to the Israeli government views held by its bitterest adversaries. One Yaacov Liberman, identified as a member of the opposition Herut party, is quoted as telling a New York press conference that Israel should grab the Gaza Strip and Jordan. “Through such statements,” Hutchison notes, “Israel is emerging in a true light as the ‘Aggressor in the Middle East.’” Nor is he above flying squarely in the face of the truth. In Damascus last December, when the Israelis made their retaliatory raid on Syrian entrenchments at Lake Tiberias, top UN officials in the Syrian capital themselves volunteered the information to me that the attack had been touched off by Syrian harassment of Israeli fishing, including open fire on Israeli boats. But, says Hutchison, “actually there had been no hindrance.”

Mr. Hutchison rhapsodizes over the beauty of the Arab East, and also over the gathering “momentum” of the Arab drive for economic and social progress. He still credits the Nasser regime in Egypt with domestic reforms that less credulous observers have long since debunked. His portrait of President Nasser as a reasonable man being persecuted by a villainous Ben Gurion acquires a burlesque air against the background of the present Suez crisis. Nasser’s arms deal with Russia was an innocent “trade agreement . . . to receive much needed arms [and] unload surplus cotton.”

The one blemish Commander Hutchison finds on the Arab horizon is the Palestinian Arab refugee camps—for which the Israelis get all the blame. But in a chapter on Israel limited to three pages, he finds space to express dismay at the way children are reared in kibbutz nurseries. He resurrects the long exploded myth of a Red Israel. To his horror, he “discovers” that Mapam and Ahdut Avoda—“two of the Communist parties” [sic]—hold seats in the government.

There are men with better credentials than Commander Hutchison’s wearing UN badges in the Middle East. After naval service in the Pacific during World War II, he managed a retail store, worked for a chemical company, and recommissioned ships by way of preparation for duty as a military observer in the Levant. His education among the Arabs has since fitted him somewhat better for his present occupation: Director of Middle East Activities for the American Friends of the Middle East. This present engagement is only the latest proof of the Commander’s neutrality.

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