Article photo 1
Gary Rashba is the author of more than 35 articles on defense, aerospace and international topics.
Article photo 2
Gary Rashba’s book HOLY WARS – 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land (Casemate Publishers, 2011) provides an overview of the Holy Land’s profound military history.

The Military History of the Holy Land: An Interview with Gary Rashba

Today’s Arab-Israeli conflict, ever-present in the news, is merely the latest iteration of an endless record of violence in the Holy Land – a region with an unmatched military history, involving forces from across the world and throughout the millennia.

To learn more about the military history of the Land of Israel and its relevance for current events, Near East Report interviewed Gary Rashba, author of Holy Wars – 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land. Rashba has written more than 35 articles on defense, aerospace and international topics, which have appeared in publications ranging from military and aviation history enthusiast magazines to the more widely read VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and International Herald Tribune (New York Times International Edition) newspaper.

Near East Report: Could you share a particularly interesting anecdote from the Holy Land’s military history?

Gary Rashba: There are many good ones: the Mongols – the greatest empire in world history – suffered their first defeat in what is today Israel; Napoleon also had his first taste of defeat there, at Akko (Acre). But my favorite would be the ironic one that Israel’s first fighter aircraft were Avia S-199s, which were Messerschmitts constructed in Czechoslovakia with parts and plans left over from Nazi Luftwaffe aircraft production.

The Avia S-199s arrived just in the nick of time during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to go into action against an Egyptian breakthrough in the south that was threatening to advance on Tel Aviv. The shock of an air attack when no one knew Israel had such weapons helped to sap momentum from the Egyptian advance, and they bogged down. The irony of Jews flying Messerschmitts to save the country is mind-boggling!

NER: 3000 years of military history is a huge time span to cover. What perspective can readers gain from your book?

GR: That the Land of Israel has been fought over from time immemorial. While each side in the modern dispute blames the other for its origins, truth is the Land of Israel has been contested for millennia. Canaanite and Philistine charioteers, Assyrian archers, Alexander the Great, Roman Legions, Arabian horsemen, Crusader knights, Mongols, Ottomans, Napoleon and the British have all left their mark there. Today’s Arab-Israeli conflict is merely the latest round.

NER: Are there trends, or does history repeat itself?

GR: Besides the military tactics and strategies that remain as relevant today as they were in Biblical times, such as the need for good intelligence, surprising an enemy and thinking out of the box, there are also perennial issues like defense budget cuts.

Back in the Seventh Century, the Byzantines cut their defense budget following a long period of warfare with their Persian rivals. As a cost-saving measure, they stopped payments to desert tribes that served as their first line of defense. This allowed the armies of the new religion of Islam to penetrate deep into their territory before the Byzantines were able to respond, opening the way to defeats that lost Christendom the Holy Land to the Muslims in the year 636. What’s interesting to note is that the Jews living in the Holy Land welcomed the Muslim conquest due to discontentment living under the Byzantines.

The Maccabees’ story is a timeless one of rebels successfully fighting a modern army, seen repeatedly throughout history, and certainly in our own times.

Another example that springs to mind comes from Napoleon’s failed “Holy Land Campaign.” Napoleon released captured Ottoman fighters against their signed commitment not to take up arms against the French for a full year; three weeks later he captured many of these same men who again fought against his forces in a subsequent battle. I can’t help but think of the terrorists released on similar commitments not so long ago in exchange for the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. I am skeptical about the terrorists honoring their side of the deal.

NER: In what ways is the Holy Land’s history relevant for the current situation in the Middle East?

GR: Throughout history, the power of faith and protecting one’s way of life have motivated people to raise arms, even against seemingly impossible odds. Holy Wars is full of such examples: the Israelites, David taking on Goliath, the Maccabees, the “Jewish War” against the Romans, and it doesn’t stop there. Ditto for Israel’s War of Independence and the Six-Day War. These recurring themes can be seen in many of today’s conflicts around the world.

NER: What are the primary factors that underlie Israel’s success on the battlefield?

GR: First off, the human element – the strong desire to serve in defense of the country, accompanied by an unmatched esprit de corps. There are so many examples of IDF soldiers volunteering to serve in their units even when they were not called up or otherwise required to be there.

Add to this a focus on technological superiority. I recently heard an Israel Ministry of Defense official talk about Israel’s long-term embrace of technology, where he jokingly credited the Israelites for using acoustic technology to bring down the walls of ancient Jericho! Failure to stay with the times can be fatal. An example that I cover in Holy Wars is the battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, where the reluctance of Egypt’s Mamluks to adopt the contemporary technology of firearms cost them their 250-year rule over the Middle East to their Ottoman rivals.

Israel’s technological superiority can be attributed to the country’s defense industries, which are second to none, combined with the strong support of the United States. U.S. support is epitomized by the U.S. commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, ensuring Israel has the most advanced means with which to protect itself. The most recent example is that Israel will be the first in the region to operate the super-advanced F-35 stealth fighter.

American support is so important in present days when changes in the region are bringing on much uncertainty. This support is also realized when the United States stands by Israel’s side in international forums like the United Nations, where Israel often finds itself lacking friends.

NER: Does your book Holy Wars touch on the U.S.-Israel alliance?

GR: One must remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is relatively new. France was Israel’s chief ally for quite some time, up until the 1967 Six-Day War. Only then did the U.S. relationship begin to prosper into what it has become today.

To appreciate the relationship before that time, during the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the United States sponsored a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on members, among other things, to “refrain from giving any military, economic or financial assistance to Israel…” The resolution did not pass, but this is an important reminder not to take today’s U.S.-Israel relationship for granted. Like any relationship, it must always be nurtured and cultivated.