The Context of the Conflict
by Raja S. Tanas
on the evening news just about any night lately, and you'll
be treated to images of carnage and words of desperation, beamed at you from
the Middle East. Such mayhem without context can cause some to harden their
allegiance to one side or another; others may react by simply turning off
their TV. But there are historical forces at work in the region -- forces
2,000 years in the making -- that aren't included in most broadcasts. To
make sense of what appears to be nothing more than senseless violence, a
brief look at the region's history is necessary.
history of the modern Middle East region began with the rise
of Islam in 622 when a powerful Arab-Muslim empire emerged, extending from
the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea. A non-Arab-Muslim empire known as the
Ottoman Empire gradually replaced the Arab-Muslim empire beginning in 1301,
eventually meeting its own demise during the Great War (World War I).
Palestine was a province of these two empires between 638-1918, except for
one century under the rule of the Crusaders (1099-1187).
this period, anti-Semitism in Europe was the norm. More
than 18 centuries after the Romans drove the Jews out of Jerusalem in A.D.
70, European anti-Semitism reached a high point by the mid-1880s as
epitomized in the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, then a military officer in
the French army, was falsely accused of selling military secrets in Germany.
The cry of "Death to the Jews" resounded throughout Europe. That was the
world into which Adolf Hitler was born.
1897, an Austrian Jew by the name of Theodore Herzl
envisioned the establishment of a separate safe haven for European Jews in
Palestine, then a province of the Ottoman Empire. In Herzl, the Zionist
movement was born. Its goal was to create a European Jewish homeland in
its inception, Zionism faced horrendous difficulties. The
Ottoman Sultan refused to allow European Jews to leave for Palestine.
However, the golden opportunity for the success of Zionism materialized when
the Great War commenced in 1914.
the success of the allies against the Ottoman Empire, the
British promised Sharif Hussain, then the leader of the Arabs, the entire
Eastern Arab homeland (the Arabian Peninsula) for an independent Arab state
if his militia forces were to join the allies against the Ottomans. It was a
sealed deal for Sharif Hussain. Two years later, on November 2, 1917, the
British made another deal with European Zionist leaders, promising them
Palestine as a homeland, if they were to support the war effort with
finances and fighters. This was another sealed deal made by the British,
known as the Balfour Declaration.
the Great War was over, the victorious allies split up the
Ottoman Empire into independent nation states. In the San Remo Agreement of
1920, Palestine, Lebanon, Transjordan, Syria and Iraq were created. Between
1920-73, other states were created as the British gradually left the Arabian
Peninsula, resulting in the gestation of 13 states that had once made up the
1920, the League of Nations assigned Palestine, Transjordan
and Iraq to a British mandate, while France received Syria and Lebanon. (A
mandate was intended to administer a newly created country until it was
strong enough to establish its own government.) All of the new Arab states
received their independence as promised from the British and the French
between 1920 and 1973 -- except for Palestine. Under the British mandate
(1920-1948), the newly created Arab state of Palestine was transformed
demographically and politically into a European Jewish state. How did this
British mandate over Palestine officially began on July 1,
1920. Immediately, the British implemented a policy allowing European Jews
to immigrate into Palestine according to the terms of the Balfour
Declaration. Over a period of 28 years (1920-1948), the Palestinian Jewish
population increased from 3 percent to 31 percent, while Jewish land
ownership increased from less than 2 percent to 6.5 percent. During the same
period, the Palestinian population became aware of the goals of Zionism and
the plans of the British Mandate. Fierce fighting commenced as early as 1922
and lasted through 1948 between European Jewish immigrants and native
a few months before the termination of the British mandate
in Palestine, the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine into
two states, one Palestinian and the other Jewish. The Palestinians refused
to share their homeland. Subsequently, a civil war began around November
1947 and lasted until February 1949. The result was the birth of yet another
state, taking up 78 percent of historic Palestine. This state was called
was U.S. President Harry Truman who was instrumental in
creating the State of Israel on May 15, 1948, the same day a Jew from Poland
by the name of Ben Gurion unilaterally announced the birth of Israel. The
new creation was immediately recognized as a sovereign nation by the United
States. Franklin Roosevelt had promised Arab leaders that they would be
consulted after World War II as to the fate of Palestine, but his promise
died with him in the waning days of the war.
the world after 1945, there was a great deal of
deserved pity and shared guilt over the Holocaust, which gave the Zionist
push for a homeland great momentum. At one time European leaders even
discussed forcing Germany to carve out a new Jewish state as a penance. But
with Jewish settlement in Palestine already underway for two decades, and
with religious beliefs tied to that place, Zionists preferred to stay the
Truman made the recognition of Israel without
consulting with the Congress or the American people. When asked why he did
this, he replied, "I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to account to hundreds
of thousands of people who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not
have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."
involvement in the Middle East dates to that moment.
In its new role as a superpower, the U.S. also inherited the messy situation
that the British and the French had created in the region dating back to
June 5, 1967, Israel waged a war against its Arab neighbors.
The result was the occupation of the remaining 22 percent of Palestine (the
West Bank and Gaza), the Syrian Golan Heights and Sinai. Israel returned
Sinai to Egypt in 1979 as a result of the Camp David Accords, while it
annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.
the 1967 war, Israel did not spare a moment in building
settlements for Jewish newcomers from all over the world on land confiscated
from the native Christian and Muslim Palestinians. Often, this required
bulldozing Palestinian homes or building bypass roads that cut across their
neighborhoods. As would be expected, animosity between the native
Palestinians and the Israelis was there to be nourished.
no hope from Arab regimes to help them liberate their
homeland, the Palestinians launched the first intifada in December 1987; it
lasted until September 13, 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed at the
White House. Despite the ongoing peace process, Israel continued its policy
of land confiscation, building settlements and demolishing of Palestinian
homes. Meanwhile, Israel continued to offer immediate citizenship to any
Jews who wanted to move in. And their calls have been answered; for example,
since 1990, 1 million Russian Jews have settled in Israel.
July 2000, the peace process culminated in Camp David II
under the auspices of the Clinton administration. During the summit, the
Palestinians came under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to accommodate
Israeli demands to renegotiate U.N. Resolution 242, which required Israel to
withdraw from the occupied territories, and U.N. Resolution 194, which
required Israel to allow for the return of the Palestinian refugees. No
agreement was reached. Camp David II was a total failure.
months later, the Israeli leader (now prime minister) Ariel
Sharon provoked the Palestinians by visiting Haram Al-Sharif, the third
holiest place in Islam, along with more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers. That
incident triggered the current intifada that has resulted, so far, in nearly
500 Israeli and more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths.
the aftermath of September 11, a variety of voices, inside
and outside the United States, argued that the healing of the
Israel-Palestine dispute was central to winning the war on terror led by
President George W. Bush. Yet in the weeks after 9/11, the Bush
administration maintained its stance of diplomatic disengagement from the
March 28, 2002, the 22 member states of the Arab League
offered Israel a comprehensive peace plan that would lead to full diplomatic
relations between each of them and Israel if the latter were to end its
occupation of Palestinian territories, the Golan Heights and Shaba Farms in
southern Lebanon. A day later, Israel invaded the Palestinian towns and
villages in pursuit of Palestinian militants. The world has yet to see the
consequences of this military operation.
Palestinians demand peace with justice. For them, peace and
justice can take place only within the parameters of international law and
implementation of U.N. resolutions. The Palestinians contend that Israel
defies international law and ignores U.N. resolutions because of the strong
support it receives from the U.S. to do so. For example, they highlight the
more than 70 U.N. Security Council Resolutions issued against Israel since
1948, none of which has been implemented to date.
order to allow the children of Palestine and Israel to live
in peace, it is our responsibility as Americans not to support one party
against the other. Rather than becoming pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, we
should become pro-justice and call for the application of international law,
the four Geneva Conventions and the implementation of U.N. resolutions that
pertain to the conflict.
S. Tanas is a professor of sociology at Whitworth College,
where he has carried out extensive research in the area of Middle Eastern
and Islamic studies. Tanas was born and raised in a Christian
home in the Holy Land.
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