Conflict of interests

5th September 2003 at 01:00
In the first of an occasional series, Reva Klein looks at the background to the IsraeliPalestinian crisis

The story of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict is the story of two peoples in the same land with different interpretations of history but with the same aspirations. In the Bible, Arabs and Jews share a common ancestor, Abraham, which makes their enmity all the more tragic.

In the beginning ...

there were Canaanites, a diverse semitic tribespeople in what we now call Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and large parts of Jordan and Syria. In the Bible, God renamed Canaan "Israel" and gave it to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. The Hebrews, under Moses and then Joshua, eventually found their way there after their long period of enslavement in Egypt in around 1800 BC.

In the biblical account, the ancient Jewish kingdoms, including the great ones of David and Solomon, lasted about 400 years, after which Jews had varying degrees of self-rule. This came to an end with the destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 and the Roman defeat of Bar Kochba in 135. But parts of this account are open to debate. What, we have to ask, is history and what is biblical mythology?

Foreign occupations

Palestina, the Greco-Roman name Hadrian officially gave to the area in the 2nd century AD, was overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab in population from the 7th century AD until the period immediately preceding the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

A succession of conquests saw Palestine under the rule of the Romans, the Christian Byzantine empire, the Arab Muslim empire and the Christian Crusaders. The longest lasting of the foreign occupiers were the Ottoman Turks, who controlled Palestine and much of the rest of the Middle East from the early 16th century until the First World War, when the Turks allied themselves with the Germans, thereby precipitating the demise of their empire.

Promises made

To prevent the Turks from taking control of the Suez Canal, the British contrived military alliances with the Arabs and European Zionists in exchange for promises that were to give birth to today's crisis in the Middle East. To the Arabs, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, promised a return to Arab sovereignty of most of the land the Ottomans had held. While the British later claimed that Palestine had not been included in the deal, the Arabs' understanding was that it was.

Complicating the situation further, British foreign secretary Lord Balfour signed a declaration two years later, in 1917, backing the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine. Some historians suggest this was in exchange for Jewish help with the war effort (and primarily to supply the Allies with acetone, a vital component of explosives production, which had previously only been available from Germany). While neither McMahon nor Balfour addressed the issue of borders, both Jews and Arabs from that point on believed that they had a right to be in the same small area.

Competing nationalisms

Both the Jews and the Arabs craved self-determination. For the Arabs, the nationalist ideologies of Europe had become increasingly compelling.

Lengthy Ottoman rule and European colonialism elsewhere in the region, as well as Russian Jews fleeing persecution to Palestine since the 1880s, fuelled the campaign for independence.

Zionism (see box) arose at about the same time as Arab nationalism, in the late 19th century. Both movements were secular and nationalistic. The main difference between them was that while Arab nationalism was a response to the long history of colonialism in the Middle East, Zionism was created and driven by events in Europe, specifically the persecution of Jews in central and eastern Europe.

The British in Palestine

Despite its promises to both the Arabs and the Zionists, Britain moved its troops into Palestine and set up an administration in Jerusalem after the First World War. The League of Nations granted Britain a mandate over Palestine in 1922, enshrining within it Balfour's pledge of support for a Jewish homeland. At that time, Palestine's population was 90 per cent Arab and 10 per cent Jewish.

It was a fraught period during which the foundations were laid for much of the discord that was to follow. While the Arabs and Jews viewed each other with distrust, they both had similar views of the British. And not without reason. On the international stage Britain backed the Zionist project of a Jewish homeland, yet in Palestine it was keen to keep on the good side of the Arabs, whose powerful regional allies and neighbours controlled access to oil and the Suez Canal.

In the interwar years, the Jewish Agency, set up by the Zionist Commission, encouraged increased Jewish immigration to Palestine. At the same time it established a sophisticated infrastructure for what would become the Jewish state. But peace was never part of the picture. Eruptions of large scale violence between Jews and Arabs punctuated this period. Fuelled by these incidents and by the growing number of Jewish immigrants into the area as a result of the rise of anti-semitism in Germany, a Palestinian nationalist movement gradually emerged.

With the increasingly threatening situation in Europe coupled with tough US restrictions on immigration, the Jewish exodus from Europe to Palestine intensified. Between 1930 and 1936, the number of Jews grew from 164,000 to 370,000. This precipitated a furious Palestinian response. The Peel Commission Report on the Arab Revolt, concluded the only way Jews and Arabs could live in Palestine was by setting up a partition. But vociferous opposition to this plan by the Arabs unsettled the British, who needed to defuse Arab anger in Palestine and the region. So the British government set harsh quotas on Jewish immigration to Palestine.

The 1939 White Paper stated that only 15,000 a year would be allowed into the country until 1944. Though illegal immigration brought in tens of thousands, many more were sent back to Europe to face death or persecution, or were re-routed to Cyprus, where they were held in miserable detention camps. The Second World War created strange bedfellows. Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husseini struck up an alliance with the anti-British, anti-semitic Germans, who were keen to use the Palestinians to lure Muslims in the Balkans into the SS. Meanwhile, Palestinian Jews put their animosity towards the British to one side to fight alongside them in the British army.

Victory and catastrophe

After the war, the UN called for a partition of Palestine into two independent states and in 1948 the Jews proclaimed their own state of Israel at the moment the British mandate came to a close.

Five countries in the Arab world - Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan - responded by rejecting the United Nations resolution and sending troops to destroy the newborn state. The war resulted in some territorial gains for Transjordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (the Gaza Strip), but Israel not only defeated its Arab adversaries, it extended its borders to include most of Palestine.

The Palestinians were the losers: between 500,000 and 800,000 fled or were expelled and became refugees, while about 150,000 were granted Israeli citizenship. For the Palestinians, Israel's victory was from that moment known as al-naqba, the catastrophe. It contributed to instability throughout the Arab world which continues today.

Peace talks between Israel and the defeated Arab states followed, but were elusive then as they are now. The main sticking point remains: on the one hand, Israel's insistence on secure and defensible borders and on the other, the Palestinians' demand for Israel to return territory captured since 1948.

The Six Day War

Since 1948, there have been no fewer than six wars and two protracted Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, in the West Bank and Gaza. The Six Day War in 1967 was no less a defining moment for the Jewish state than the 1948 war. While historians still argue over who started it and why, tiny Israel's victory over Syria, Jordan and Egypt sealed its fate as a mighty force, gaining three times the territory it had held six days before: the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai peninsula from Egypt, and from Jordan, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which has the greatest symbolic significance because it is where the Western Wall - a place of singular holiness to Jews - stands.

The territories captured in 1967 remain the most contentious and inflammatory issue in IsraelPalestine. A further 400,000 Palestinians became refugees as a result of Israel's territorial gains and the Arab world could or would do nothing to help them.

More than any single event, the Six Day War galvanised Palestinian militancy. Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation and Fatah, its military wing, as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other groups, surfaced soon after the war and have been active ever since.

Peace talks

If the Palestinian and Jewish peoples have endured similar amounts of pain and suffering, their leaders have also often mirrored each other in their intransigence and bellicosity. Time after time, peace talks have been scuppered by an eye-for-an- eye response to events. The Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn in 1993 by Israeli Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat, signified for the first time a mutual recognition of Israelis' and Palestinians' right to exist and laid the foundations for the Palestinian Authority, established in 1994 as areas of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the assassination of Rabin in 1995 set the peace process back immeasurably, bringing the right wing Likud party back into power. With Likud has come the rise of action against Israeli civilians and soldiers by Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

In response, Israel has imposed curfews, a threatening Israeli military presence in West Bank and Gaza towns and villages, civilian deaths and the controversial security barrier, physically cutting the West Bank off from Israel.

The much-vaunted Middle East Road Map, the latest peace initiative, now being pushed at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinians by America and Britain appears to be edging further and further off the table. With its success being predicated on the Palestinians being able to stop all terror attacks, it appears to be fundamentally flawed. Whether it serves as the basis for an alternative peace initiative that is workable and acceptable to both sides remains to be seen.


Middle East Research and Information Project: www.merip.orgpalestine-israel_primerzionism-pal-isr-primer.html



Washington Report on Middle East Affairs: www.wrmea.comBooks

The Palestinian People: A History, by B Kimmerling and J Migdal Harvard University Press, pound;11.95

PalestineIsrael: Peace or Apartheid: Occupation, Terrorism and the Future, by Marwan Bishara; Zed Books, pound;9.99

War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History, by Avi Shlaim

Penguin, pound;7.67

The Arab-Israeli Conflict, by Kirsten E Schulze, Longman, pound;9.99

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