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Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict

(last updated in 2006)

 

The modern Arab-Israeli conflict is the culmination of more than a century of hatred, arrogance and a near suicidal unwillingness on the part of Arabs to compromise with the existence of a Jewish state, despite the fact that the area on which it sits has been the ancestral homeland of the Jews since 2000 years before Muhammad was even born.

 

In the 3500 years since the first establishment of Israel, many other empires have come and gone in the region, yet the Jewish people have always maintained a presence in the land that is sacred to them.

 

At the beginning of WWI, most of the Middle East belonged to the Ottoman Empire.  Muslim control of the region had been nearly constant since Mohammad’s armies subjugated the Jews and Christians in the seventh century – punctuated only by 150 years of Crusader opposition.  In the three decades prior to the war, the population of the geographic area known as Palestine was augmented by an influx of European and Russian Jews.  This was the beginning of the modern Zionist movement, whose proponents believed that it was their destiny to reclaim the land of Israel. 

 

With the fall of the Turkish empire in WWI, Palestine came under British control.  The next three decades were marked by legitimate efforts on the part of the Zionists to buy land and immigrate like-minded Jews, generally from Europe and Russia.  Tensions in the region steadily worsened as the balance of power began to swing decisively in favor of the Jews, who for centuries had been treated as third-class dhimmis in this part of the world.

 

In 1937 the British, who attempted to limit Jewish immigration and typically sided with the Arabs in other matters as well, proposed to divide Palestine into two sections, with the Arabs receiving about 80% of the land.  Although the Zionist leadership was open to the plan, the Arabs rejected it on grounds that Jews had no claim to any part of Palestine.  This would be the first of many such missed opportunities on the part of a Muslim community that seemed inexplicably addicted to hatred and intransigence, even when tolerance was mutually beneficial.

 

As the Zionists gained the upper hand in the region, their attention turned to the British, who were now seen as the main obstacle to forming a State of Israel.  The more hard-line Jewish residents began to use terrorist tactics against both military and civilian targets in the region to bring pressure on the British.  Herein lies one of the more ironic chapters in Middle East history, because most of these tactics, pioneered by Jewish (Marxist) terrorist groups, were later used against the State of Israel for presumably achieving the same end, self-determination - although the Jews lacked the Jihadis' tenacious drive for killing as many civilians as possible.  Two former Irgun terrorists, Begin and Shamir, even went on to become Israeli prime ministers.

 

During World War II the Arabs of Palestine supported the Nazis over the British by a margin of 10 to 1, while the Jews supported the Allies.  The Palestinian spiritual leader actually spent the war years in Berlin, where he worked directly with Hitler in drawing up a "final solution" for the Jews of the Middle East.

 

After the war and Nazi holocaust, the UN drew up a partition plan for the Palestinian region that would have created a State of Israel for 600,000 Jews in borders somewhat smaller than what the current nation now occupies.  Although the resolution passed, the compromise was rejected by the Palestinian Arabs and the surrounding Arab States. 

 

In a badly coordinated effort, five Arab countries proceeded to attack the fledgling nation and waged a war lasting from the end of 1947 to the spring of 1949.  Each of the Arab states was primarily interested in gaining land for itself rather than cooperating strategically with the others.  Certainly there was no real interest at the time in forming an independent Palestinian nation.  This, combined with superior organizational and military skills on the part of the Jewish fighters, meant an Israeli victory despite being severely outnumbered by 40 million Arabs.

 

As a result of the conflict some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced (most via mass exodus, but some under compulsion from Arab and Jewish armies).  About 150,000 Palestinians returned and became Arab Israelis (they currently comprise around 13% of the present-day population of 6.5 million).  The new nation occupied an area that was larger than the 1937 UN mandate had called for.  The West Bank (the region sandwiched between the eastern part of Israel and the western bank of the Jordan River) became part of Jordan and included the city of Jerusalem (see map, below).  The Gaza Strip (a small rectangle of land on the Mediterranean) was under Egyptian control.  Both areas contained a large number of Palestinian refugees.  Refugee camps were also established in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

 

Following the creation of Israel, Muslim countries evicted and confiscated the property of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens, who became refugees as well.  Unlike the Palestinians, who merely moved from one part of the region to another (often just a few miles away), with no major change of culture or language, these Jews were forced to adapt to far more challenging circumstances.  Rather than obsess with grievance and live on handouts, however, they chose to get on with their lives.  Their success and that of their children is what could easily have been for the Palestinians as well, had they made choice to do so.

 

It is important to note that, other than inflammatory rhetoric, the Arab countries have done very little for Palestinian refugees.  They did not pay reparations, as losing parties often do after starting wars.  In fact, it was 30 years before any Arab nation contributed as much aid to the Palestinian refugees as Israel.  Neither was there much effort to integrate the Palestinians within the Arab lands to which they had migrated.  The Arab countries did not even spend the massive wealth confiscated from expelled Jews toward resettling Palestinians, which could easily have resolved their situation once and for all.

 

Instead, bitterness towards the state of Israel was cynically agitated by Arab dictators and religious leaders, as they realized that their interests were better served by posturing the free and democratic state of Israel as a pariah rather than political role model.   Extreme antipathy was also fueled by the Israel's economic and agricultural success in a region dominated by poverty and wasted potential - something which had to arouse the jealousy of an indigenous population, who believed the Jews to be descended from “apes and pigs,” as alluded to in the Qur'an.

 

Israel did not ingratiate itself by instigating the 1956 Sinai war with Egypt, the dominant Arab power in the region.  After pushing the Egyptian forces literally out of the Sinai Peninsula and across the Suez Canal, the Israelis relented to international pressure and ceded back the land.  Israel’s pretext for the war was to curb the terrorist incursions across its borders.

 

In 1967, the Egyptian leader, Nasser, who had secured alliances with Syria and Jordan, began an illegal and massive buildup of troops along the border with Israel, and blockaded a major Israeli seaport .  This action, which was accompanied by unusually bellicose rhetoric from Nasser, was a warning that Israel was about to be attacked on three fronts again.

 

To avert the promised catastrophe, the Israeli Air Force launched a stunning pre-emptive attack on Egyptian air bases on the morning of June 5th, 1967.  Had the Egyptians struck first, it is likely that the war would have gone the other way, but, as it was, the conflict was decided in the first few hours of the first day of action.  With Egypt’s air force out of commission there was no support for the troops on the ground and they were quickly routed.  Syria and Jordan joined the conflict, somewhat reluctantly, and they were routed as well in what became know as the “Six-Day War.”

 

The immediate result of the war was that Israel gained an enormous amount of real estate, more than tripling its size.  Most of the gain, land-wise, was in the sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula, all the way to the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.  The more significant areas, however, were the Golan Heights (formerly Syrian), the West Bank (formerly Jordanian) and the Gaza Strip (formerly Egyptian).  With these territorial gains came more than a million Palestinians (former residents and refugees) and the city of Jerusalem.

 

Immediately following the war, hard-line Israelis, giddy from the campaign’s stunning success, began a movement to construct settlements in the occupied territories, taking or purchasing land and building residential enclaves.  This was not done with the explicit approval of the Israeli government, which had taken pains not to offend Palestinian sensibilities during the war, but neither did the government step in to effectively prevent the settlements.  Not surprisingly, the presence of these Israeli communities in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank became a major obstacle to permanent peace.

 

It is worth noting, however, that the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) occurred several years prior to the 1967 war - when there were no "occupied lands."  This is significant because the Palestinian goal was "driving the Jews into the sea" (in their own words).  Interestingly, this part of their charter has never been revoked.

 

In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel with greater success, but little to show for the effort.  A lasting peace agreement between Egypt and Israel was attained during the Camp David Accords in 1979 largely as a result of Anwar Sadat’s desire for peace, Israel’s return of the Sinai, and U.S President Jimmy Carter’s indefatigable effort to see the process succeed.  Syria was later placated by an offer to return the Golan Heights (though they still sponsor the Hezbollah terrorist group) and Jordan soon relinquished its claim to the West Bank.

 

The one party that could not be appeased, it seemed, were the Palestinians themselves, who waged a low-level terrorist campaign against Israel costing thousands of innocent lives and billions of dollars over the years.  The violence was directed in large part by the leadership in exile, under the direction of Yasser Arafat.  Had the Palestinians chosen instead the path of peaceful protest, in the manner of Ghandi or the American civil rights leaders of the 1960’s, it is certain that they would have quickly and easily attained both political statehood and international respect.

 

In some ways the Palestinian cause was a just one.  In the wake of the 1967 war, Israel dictated economic policy in the territories that often worked to its own advantage.  There were agricultural stipulations that prevented Palestinians from competing with Israeli farm products and other such mandates that worked to ensure Israel’s industrial dominance.  Israel also controlled the electrical power grid for the territories and much of the best real estate.  For example, in the densely populated Gaza Strip, with 1.1 million people, some 7,000 Jewish settlers eventually sat on 20% of the land - although the land was formerly uninhabited since Arab riots drove the originally Jewish residents out in 1929.

 

It is the Palestinian demand for political autonomy, however, that is most palatable to the consciousness of Western nations, including the U.S.  This is the same sort of petition used in the past by those under colonial rule, who solicited international sympathies to secure independence (often prematurely).  Arab political leaders treat the subject rather cautiously, of course, since they do not allow their own people the same freedoms (including the Palestinians living in refugee camps).  Perhaps the greatest of all ironies in the present-day Middle East, as David Horowitz has pointed out, is that Arab Israelis enjoy more social, legal and political freedom than do Arabs in any of the fifty-three Muslim countries. 

 

When set against the larger picture, it becomes apparent that there is far more beneath the surface of Arab support for the Palestinians than a curious enthusiasm for democratic freedom.  Arabs currently control about 99.9 percent of all land in the Middle East and the entire nation of Israel is only about half the size of San Bernardino County in California.  This lends support to those claiming that the issue, for Muslims in the region, is more about Israel's existence, rather than a necessary Arab homeland. 

 

There may be an impression in the Muslim world that Israel is responsible for Palestinian suffering, but it is not accurate.  Moreover, of the 11 million Muslims who have been killed by violence since 1948, less than 1 in 315 died in the fight with Israel.  Over 90% were killed by fellow Muslims.

 

Even those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause cannot help but notice that the people are being used as pawns by the leaders of Muslim countries, who are only too willing to see the grievance perpetuated for purposes of political distraction, even to the point of refusing Palestinians the right to settle permanently in the same Arab counties where they have been living as "refugees" for nearly 40 years.

 

The PLO made a disastrous error in 1991 by supporting Saddam Hussein's brutal invasion and annexation of Kuwait.  The Iraqi dictator incorporated the "liberation" of Palestinians along with the traditional demagoguery used in justification for Arab imperialism.  The problem for Yassir Arafat was that no one else was buying it.

 

The Gulf states reacted harshly in the wake of the Palestinian betrayal.  Previously a supporter of the "cause," Kuwait alone ejected 400,000 of Palestinian workers following the war, adding to the lost revenue from donations. 

 

The PLO was literally on the verge of bankruptcy in 1993, which forced Arafat into appearing to compromise with Israel in 1993.  In exchange for a phased autonomy, the right of Israel to exist would finally be recognized.  The agreement was signified by a White House photo-op session arranged by the American President, Bill Clinton, who visibly coaxed the two parties into shaking hands while standing in the backdrop looking toward the cameras.  It was a legacy-defining moment for Clinton that later cost the Israeli Prime Minister his life. 

 

Yasser Arafat returned from exile to head the newly created Palestinian Authority.  Israel provided weapons to Arafat’s police force and withdrew from the non-settlement areas of the territories.  The Palestinians were given a perfect opportunity to build their economy and infrastructure, and get on with their lives.  The future seemed bright and hopeful but, as usual, the world had underestimated the undercurrent of Muslim hate.

 

After decades of fomenting rage and encouraging the most horrible sort of terror against the innocent, the Palestinian leadership found it difficult to simply turn off the violence.  At the end of the day, the more radical elements of the Palestinian community, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, do not want peace with Israel.  They simply want Israel to not exist (even though it powers 80% of the Palestinian economy).

 

These forces have been engaged in a terrorist campaign, both against Israel and against their own people.  Their tactics of intimidation give them majority support within the community and enable them to control the peace issue by keeping the moderates from speaking out.  Whenever an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel seems imminent, a new terrorist campaign will begin, with the hope that massive loss of civilian life will provoke a military response from Israel.  An Israeli military incursion will in turn agitate ordinary Palestinians, pressuring their leadership to withdraw from the bargaining table.

 

Oddly, this cycle of violence has worked mostly to the detriment of the Palestinians themselves, particularly in economic terms.  Scholar Benny Morris noted that the first four months of the latest Intifada (uprising) cost the Palestinians more than $500 million in lost revenue and mushroomed the unemployment rate from 12% to over 40%.  Aid from the international community (which currently stands at about $4 billion per year) has fosters dependency, reduces work incentive and dooms future generations.

 

International sympathy for the Palestinians has declined almost to the point of being sustained merely by anti-Semitism.  Unfortunately, this is a powerful motive, particularly in the Muslim world, where hatred of Jews is rooted in the Qur'an.  There is no greater proof of the cynicism behind the sympathy for Palestinians than the near absence of concern for the millions of displaced, raped and murdered Darfurans, who, despite being Muslim themselves, have been brutalized by the Islamic Republic of Sudan in the name of Jihad since 2001.

 

Yasir Arafat’s personal credibility was put to the test in 1999 when the Israelis agreed to meet 95% of his demands (with additional compensation), including a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.  The former Nobel Peace Prize winner rejected the offer, opting instead for the Intifada and a notable loss of stature before his death in 2004.

 

Though both sides have their extremists, there is hardly the same commitment to wanton terrorism on the part of the Israeli community that is seen from the Palestinians.  The attack by a settler on a Hebron mosque in 1994, although celebrated by some orthodox members of the Jewish community (and vigorously cited by Muslim apologists) still stands largely as a singular event against the backdrop of routine bombings and home invasions by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah over the years.

 

The decision by the ruling party of Palestine (Arafat's al-Fatah organization) to leave the terrorist groups intact, as well as jaw-dropping corruption and abuse of public funds, cost them political power as Hamas won elections outright in January of 2006 despite that organization's support for hundreds of inhuman attacks on Israeli civilians.

 

The fact that the Palestinians elected a terrorist group to power only months after Israel unilaterally turned the Gaza strip over to them speaks volumes about the mindset of the people.  Although it is popular to use terms like "cycle of violence" to imply moral equivalence between the two parties, there is no real similarity in the way that the two sides approach the conflict today.

 

Peace requires the commitment of both parties.  Agreements aren't possible when one side promotes terror and consistently fails to keep its word.  Peace will only happen when the Palestinians value their children's future more than their own grievances.

 

 

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