is often said that the roots of the conflicts in the Middle East,
which many U.S. diplomats seem to think can be handled with just
one more full-court-press and a conference, – and we're talking
not just of disputes between Israelis and Palestinians but the larger
regional hostilities – are centuries-old, even milliennia-old.
is truth in this, especially insofar as political and ethnic leaders
stir and exploit ancient memories and resentments. However, the
present conflict featuring suicide/homicide bombers and reprisals
with tanks and helicopters can be traced in more recent history.
Understanding that history might not resolve the conflicts, but
it might offer some insight for often-perplexed observers.
most obvious starting point is the founding of the state of Israel
in 1948. That event was influenced profoundly by the Nazi Holocaust
of European Jews, but its founding also has roots that go back to
the late 19th century and the social currents in Europe that led
to the founding of the Zionist movement.
is almost unique among modern nation-states not only in its Jewish
religious/cultural character but in the fact that it was brought
into being through a combination of United Nations action and British
acquiescence. On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate in Palestine,
under which the territory had been ruled since the end of World
War I, came to an end. In accordance with a special report from
the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, approved by the
General Assembly Nov. 29, 1947, the area was partitioned into two
states, one Jewish and the other Arab.
minutes after the British Mandate officially ended, President Truman
announced that the United States recognized the new State of Israel.
The Soviet Union quickly followed.
the Arab states that were then U.N. members had voted against the
resolution (along with Cuba, Greece, India and Pakistan). While
Jews in Palestine had rejoiced when the U.N. resolution passed,
Palestinian Arabs took up arms. The last six months of British rule
were precarious and violent, marked by attacks and counter-attacks
in which dozens of Jews and Arabs were killed. Jews were also attacked
in other Muslim countries, notably in Aden, Tripolitania, Syria
and Egypt, with the total death toll in the hundreds. On Dec. 30,
1947, Arabs attacked an oil refinery at Haifa, killing 41 Jewish
Arab states bordering on the new Jewish state attacked the newborn
Israel immediately. Egyptian planes bombed Tel Aviv. The territory
known as Transjordan (now Jordan) and Syria advanced in the area
allocated to Israel by the United Nations, bombarding the Jewish
Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Egyptian troops advanced to the
southern outskirts of Jerusalem. Iraqi troops participated.
the nine months of warfare that followed, Arab Legion troops occupied
and deliberately demolished the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Israeli
forces fought back fiercely. At the end of the war the cease-fire
lines defined what would be the borders of Israel for 20 years,
a territory somewhat larger than the U.N. had anticipated. Jordan
occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River, whose residents were
largely Palestinian Arabs, and eastern Jerusalem. Egypt occupied
the Gaza Strip. Israel had firm control of most of the territory
now recognized as modern Israel.
what Israelis call the War of Independence some 6,000 Jews, about
1 percent of the Jewish population in Israel, were killed. In the
years immediately following some 1 million Jews immigrated to the
country, from Europe, North Africa and Muslim countries in the Middle
East. During and immediately after the war, hundreds of thousands
of Arabs fled the battlefield or were encouraged by Israel – sometimes
forcibly and brutally – to leave their homes. Several thousand Arab
homes in Jerusalem were taken over by Jews, some of whom had just
fled Muslim lands.
a half-million Arab refugees were placed in camps in Jordan, Lebanon,
Syria and Egypt. These refugees, never fully assimilated into the
Arab x countries surrounding Israel but kept in wretched refugee
camps for years, became the foundation of the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO) and the later movement for a separate Palestinian
state. Some 160,000 Arabs remained inside Israel or returned shortly
after the war ended. They became Israeli citizens and multiplied;
Arabs now constitute about 20 percent of the Israeli population.
what led to the large-scale migration of Jews, mostly but not solely
from Europe, that resulted in some 600,000 Jews living in what became
Israel in 1948? Some fled from the Nazi Holocaust, but in fact during
most of World War II the British prevented or severely limited Jewish
migration to Palestine.
migration question takes us back a few years.
the Jewish Diaspora when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
(or C.E.), Jews had traveled and settled in myriad places, usually
but not always retaining their culture and separateness and often
serving as scapegoats on whom the rulers of various countries blamed
the problems that usually arose from their own misrule. The ancient
land of Israel was sparsely populated, mostly by Arabs, until 1900
or so (although there had been a strong Jewish presence in Jerusalem
useful turning point in Jewish history is 1896, when the Austrian
Jewish writer Theodore Herzl published "Der Judenstaat,"
or "The Jewish State." The 35-year-old Herzl, who had
already achieved some prominence as a journalist, argued that the
only real solution for Jews in Europe – who had been widely persecuted
(though sometimes valued, e.g., as moneylenders when the church
virtually outlawed interest) in the Middle Ages and were mostly
but sometimes uneasily assimilating in the liberal bourgeois European
states of the 19th century – was to have a state of their own. That
way they could develop the political power to keep themselves safe
and remove themselves from countries in which they were often a
source of friction and where the lives of even the comfortably assimilated
could be insecure or marked by obsequiousness.
convened what came to be called the First Zionist Congress in Basel,
Switzerland in 1897, and the Zionist Organization thenceforth (after
some discussion of whether Argentina would be a good candidate for
the new Jewish homeland) embarked on a long campaign of encouraging
Jews to migrate to Palestine.
all Jews were enthusiastic, by any means; Jews and historians are
still arguing about the true character of the Zionist movement.
Highly religious Jews tended to see it as a secular, political movement;
many others believed the Messiah would lead the Jews back to the
promised land in God's good time, not man's, and to pursue the goal
through political and military means was impious. Many comfortable,
assimilated Jews in Europe, who had spent years learning to fit
in, had no desire to become pioneers in a harsh desert country.
Some Jewish businessmen were put off by the air of earnest socialism
and the whiff of utopianism that pervaded most Zionist gatherings.
Herzl was not just a visionary but a practical organizer. Before
he died in 1904 he had created a movement with solid institutions.
By 1904 and 1905 significant numbers of Jews were moving to Palestine
and buying land, often inspired by the idea of living in the ancient
homeland and making it bloom, of the dignity and glory of physical
labor in a communal setting, the kibbutz. In 1933 about half the
Jewish population of 120,000 in Palestine lived in agricultural
AND THE CASE FOR A HOMELAND
cause of a Jewish homeland took a significant psychological step
forward during World War I. The area had been ruled for centuries
by the Ottoman Turkish empire. In 1917 (in events dramatized and
somewhat romanticized in the movie "Lawrence of Arabia")
the British captured Jerusalem and precipitated the defeat of the
Ottomans. After the formation of the League of Nations, the Europeans
divided the Middle East into "Mandates" to be run by various
European great powers. The British held Palestine, Transjordan and
a piece of the Arabian peninsula and held sway in Egypt. The Suez
Canal was the transportation lifeline to Britain's most important
colony, India, and the British wanted to control everything remotely
close to it. Oil was not yet a major factor.
the British in 1917 arrived in Palestine there were about 650,00
Arabs and some 56,000 Jews. On their arrival both Jews and Arabs
hailed them as liberators, and they did establish mostly clean colonial
governments and relatively independent courts. On their departure
in 1948, both Jews and Arabs accused them of treachery and betrayal,
and the British were more than happy to leave – especially since
India had become independent, which made England-to-India transportation
less important, so control of the Suez was no longer worth the headaches
Nov. 2, 1917, shortly after the conquest of Jerusalem, British Foreign
Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter, approved by the Cabinet,
to Lord Rothschild, stating that "His Majesty's Government
view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home
for the Jewish people."
still don't agree on the reasons the British approved the Balfour
Declaration. One Israeli writer, Tom Segev, in the recent book,
"One Palestine, Complete," argues that the decisive factor
was that many Brits really believed the Jews controlled world finance
and wanted to stay on their good side. Others cite a desire to get
American Jews behind U.S. entry into the war, while others note
a religiously based, philo-Semitic strain in British Christianity
just then. The story that the declaration was a reward to Chaim
Weizmann, a Zionist activist and scientist who developed synthetic
acetone, which was important to the British war effort, is now considered
the reason, the declaration provided a political lever for Zionist
activists from then on. Depending on which history you read, the
government in London was generally pro-Zionist but British diplomats
on the ground, whether enchanted by the exoticism or aware of the
demographics – many Arabs, few Jews – became Arabist in sympathies.
Certainly Arabs were more often welcomed into the high-society British
salons in Jerusalem than Jews. The British, through control of immigration
policies, tried to maintain a 40/60 Jew-to-Arab balance in Palestine
and in 1939, as most close observers felt a new European war coming
on (to be fair, the Holocaust hadn't yet begun), closed Palestine
to further Jewish immigration.
both Jewish and Arab independence movements, and Jewish-Arab mutual
hostility, sometimes accompanied by violence, rose and ebbed during
the time of the British Mandate, an important factor in the eventual
establishment of a Jewish state in Israel was the Nazi slaughter
of European Jews during World War II. After the war European and
American diplomats, often prodded by Zionists, wondered how many
Jews might have been saved if a homeland had been available. After
the formation of the United Nations the idea of a Jewish homeland
was high on the agenda.
COLD WAR AND THE PLO
as the Middle East was dominated by Europeans during the League
of Nations Mandate period from about 1920 to 1950, the region was
heavily influenced by the Cold War – as well as the rise of an Arab
nationalist movement – from the 1950s through the 1980s. Generally
speaking (with numerous complications) the Soviets sought to use
radical Arab nationalism to further their aspirations and the West
backed Israel. These global influences deepened Arab-Israeli hostilities.
The fact that Palestinian refugees were kept in camps rather than
being assimilated into Arab countries deepened the hostility most
Palestinians felt toward Israel.
Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in refugee camps in
1964, with the purpose of driving the Jews into the sea, or at least
out of Israel. In 1967 the Arab countries started a war with Israel
but were decisively defeated during the Six Day War. At that time
the Israelis took – conquered? occupied? seized? – the rest of Jerusalem
and the West Bank, now the center of so much agitation. The Arab
countries tried again in 1973 and Israel again defeated them.
– or because of? – feeling constantly beleaguered and assimilating
numerous immigrants, Israel has built a remarkably modern society.
An agrarian society has become a notable high-tech center and an
identifiably Israeli culture in music, literature, theater and art
has been built by migrants from around the world.
demise of the Soviet Union brought a cessation of support for some
Arab regimes and may have helped to bring on the Oslo peace process
in 1993. Whether because it was pushed too hard by President Clinton
seeking a legacy or it was never on solid ground, the hopes it engendered
now seem a distant memory. The demise of communism also makes it
possible to view the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an essentially
local ethnic conflict with only minor geopolitical implications.
But old habits, alliances and sympathies die hard, and U.S. presidents
still seem to believe they have an obligation to try to solve it.
Arabs still believe that the Middle East is essentially Arab country,
that the Israelis are interlopers, colonizers, oppressors, the new
Nazis. Particularly with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and
the threat it poses to established Arab regimes as well as to others,
there's a disturbing upsurge of sometimes quite vicious anti-Semitic
(or anti-Jewish if you want to play that semantic game) material
in the Arabic-language press in several countries.
become a secular state with religious underpinnings rather than
a utopian ideal, Israel has certainly done brutal and perhaps indefensible
acts in the ongoing conflict. Never politically unified, except
in time of immediate crisis, Israel has seen the birth of a "post-Zionist"
school among certain Israeli intellectuals, which tends to blame
Israel or Zionism for most of the ills of the region.
must skip over a good deal of recent history to get to the present
day. Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Ariel Sharon and
Yasser Arafat respectively – both longtime adversaries viewed as
terrorists, war criminals or worse by many on the other side – are
in an especially violent and confrontational mode just now.
this will be a turning point or another episode in a long history
of mutual hostility and occasional turns toward peace may become
clear in the next few weeks and months. As I hope this briefly sketched
history suggests, however, the dispute has deep roots and both sides
have grievances, legitimate and manufactured, that they don't yet
seem inclined to set aside even momentarily, much less forget.
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