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Idiot’s guide to the Middle East conflict

T

How many times have you been approached by someone and asked the question,

so what do you think about what’s happening in the Middle East? How

frustrated have you been with your inability to string together a few

coherent words, let alone a solid, robust argument to support your views?

You are not alone, hours of study and a Ph.D. are the minimum requirements

here for a full understanding of the intricacies and subtleties of a

situation that doesn’t even have a history that people can agree on.

 

There is nothing more confusing than the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

Millions of words have been written and spoken about it, but how much of it

has truly sunk in, how much of it has made sense, how much of it has been

untainted by personal opinion or editorial slant? Jews and Zionists will

tell you one thing and Arabs and Arabists will tell you the opposite! Surely

they can't both be right, surely there can only be one truth, one set of

proven historical events that can unravel the whole mess. Unfortunately it

isn't that straightforward. The situation is so complex, puzzling and

emotionally charged that it is well-nigh impossible to get an objective

viewpoint it is difficult to find historical sources with no 'axes to

grind', commentators who could be accepted as truly impartial. Nevertheless

please indulge me over the next few minutes, while I try to unravel the

mystery, sweep away the web of confusion, set my course for the heart of the

matter and try to make sense of it all.

 

There are two main issues to look at. Firstly, who really owns the land,

particularly the area known as the 'West Bank' and, secondly, what is the

origin of the Palestinian refugee situation?

 

Let's first go back to the 19th Century and look at the 'lie of the land'.

Palestine, as it was called then (a name given by the Romans in the 1st

Century in an effort to remove any Jewish associations with the land) was a

poor country, ruled by absentee Turkish landlords, as part of the crumbling

and corrupt Ottoman empire. By all accounts the land was largely barren and

uninhabited, its population was either nomadic or largely involved with

agriculture, despite the poor environment. Sir John William Dawson, writing

in 1888, said, "no national union and no national spirit has prevailed

there. The motley impoverished tribes which have occupied it have held it as

mere tenants at will, temporary landowners, evidently waiting for those

entitled to the permanent possession of the soil" (Modern Science in Bible

Lands - New York 1890 - pp. 449-450). In 1835, Alphonse de Lamartine wrote,

"Outside the gates of Jerusalem we saw indeed no living object, heard no

living sound, we found the same void, the same silence …" (Recollections of

the East, Vol I (London 1845) pp 268).

 

Thanks to the Turks, the land had been totally neglected. Hundreds of years

of abuse had turned the country into a treeless waste, with malaria-ridden

swamps, a sprinkling of towns and an unliveable desert in the south. This

was the position in 1880, and this is incontestable fact.

 

But now we start to get discrepancies. How many people DID live in the land

at that time, and WHO were they? Jewish sources put the figure at between

100,000 and 250,000. Arab sources put the figure at about 480,000 (456,000

Arab, 24,000 Jewish). And who were these Arabs? Arab sources would simply

say that these were indigenous people, Arabs who have lived in this land for

generations. Jewish and independent sources say otherwise. They would point

to immigrations from Egypt (to escape heavy taxes), Algeria, Turkey and

elsewhere. There are suggestions that up to 25% of the Moslem population of

Palestine in the 19th century were immigrants.

 

A final word here from the author of "Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

According to the American author Mark Twains independent eye-witness

account in 1867, The Innocents Abroad, the land was barely populated,

just a collection of small villages in a dry, barren land. This complete

book is available on the Internet, so you can check it for yourself.

 

Heres his summary.Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think

Palestine must be the prince … It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land …

Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse

that has withered its fields and fettered its energies … Nazareth is

forlorn; about that ford of Jordan where the hosts of Israel entered the

Promised Land with songs of rejoicing, one finds only a squalid camp of

fantastic Bedouins of the desert; Jericho the accursed, lies a moldering

ruin, to-day, even as Joshua's miracle left it more than three thousand

years ago … Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has

lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village … Capernaum is

a shapeless ruin; Magdala is the home of beggared Arabs; Bethsaida and

Chorazin have vanished from the earth … Palestine is desolate and unlovely.

And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a

land? …" (The Innocents Abroad (New York 1966) - summary of Palestine

visit).

 

Palestine was simply an outpost of the corrupt and decaying Turkish Ottoman

Empire, a part of Greater Syria. It was not a country or a state in the

manner of, say, an England or Germany at that time. It was simply a

collection of villages that happen to exist within the geographical region

known as Palestine. Although many Arabs did own their own homes, the

majority were the poor fellahin, who worked as hired hands for the

landowners. There was no nationalism in the land, no feeling of belonging to

a people, loyalty was to the local clan or village. Arabs did not see

themselves as Palestinians and often referred to their homeland as

Southern Syria.

 

Jews had lived in the land right from biblical times, though, in the 19th

century, they were very much the minority. The first major wave of Jewish

immigration started in the 1880s and, by the end of the 19th century, Jewish

population had tripled to over 80,000 (Arab sources).

 

This included the foundation of the Jewish settlement of Rishon-le-Zion,

where 40 Jewish families settled - followed later by more than 400 Arab

families from Egypt and elsewhere. This was a community that worked and was

at peace. The Arabs saw the benefits of what the Jews were doing to the land

and joined them. Between 1882 and 1914 pioneering Jews started, slowly, to

transform the land. They worked on the swamps and the undrained rivers. Life

was tough, if you didn't die of malaria, you could be killed by Bedouins.

Soon Jewish villages were springing up all over, and the towns of Jerusalem,

Tiberias, Safed and Haifa started to grow. In 1909 they founded the first

modern Jewish city, Tel Aviv. Life was still tough, although disease wasn't

so much the problem. Attacks by Arab neighbours increased, even though,

through the efforts of these Jewish pioneers, life for all in the land was

improving - including the Arab neighbours.

 

Newspapers and other media sources today give the impression that Israel

occupy land once owned by people living in a Palestinian state. But

evidence is to the contrary. For a start, the Arabs in no way saw themselves

as Palestinians. When the First congress of Muslim-Christian Associations

met in Jerusalem in February 1919, the agreement was that we consider

Palestine as part of Arab Syria. The only people who considered themselves

Palestinians in the first half of the 20th century were the Jewish

inhabitants! Even the Jewish national newspaper was called The Palestine

Post (now called The Jerusalem Post).

 

The other point concerns ownership of the land. Did Jewish immigrants seize

it or was the land acquired legally? Land settled in by these first

immigrants in the 1880s was bought from the absentee Turkish landlords, who

were eager for the extra cash. The land initially settled in was the

uncultivated swampy cheap and empty land. Later on they bought cultivated

land, some of it at exorbitant prices. In his memoirs, King Abdullah of

Jordan wrote … the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are

in useless wailing and weeping. Up until 1948, with the formation of the

State of Israel, no land was seized or acquired in any way other than

through legal means.

 

In the 20th century, Arabs as well as Jews were immigrating into Palestine,

mainly from Egypt, TransJordan, Syria and Lebanon. Between 1922 and 1931,

when the country was administered by the British, illegal Arab immigrants

(i.e. extra to the agreed quotas) comprised almost 12% of the Arab

population. The Hope Simpson Report acknowledged in 1930 that there was

"uncontrolled influx of illegal immigrants from Egypt, TransJordan and

Syria". The rate of immigration increased during the early 1930s, which was

a period of prosperity in Palestine. The Syrian Governor of Hauran admitted

in 1934 that 30,000-36,000 people from his district entered Palestine that

year and settled there. In 1939, Winston Churchill said "Far from being

persecuted, the Arabs have crowded into the country and multiplied until

their population has increased more than even all world Jewry could lift up

(increase) the Jewish population". This is an important (though much

contested) point, because it dispels the myth that the Palestinian people

have lived there for generations. When we talk about Palestinian refugees,

displaced as a result of the formation of the State of Israel, consider how

many of them would have been as recent to the land as the Jews themselves!

 

So now we reach that magic date, 1948, the formation of the State of Israel.

And the major point of contention the Palestinian refugees.

 

This is where objectivity flies out of the window and we get the sharpest

divide in peoples perceptions of actual historic events. In a nutshell,

what happened was that the day after Israel became a country, it was invaded

by Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Within 2 weeks, against all

odds, Israel was victorious, resulting in an expansion of territory and the

displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who had been living in

Palestine.

 

As a result of these events not one but two refugee situations were created.

 

Just under 750,000 Arabs (U.N. estimate) lost their homes. These became the

Palestinian refugees. They lost their homes through two main reasons. Some

were driven out by the Jewish (Israeli) army, others fled after being told

to do so by Arab army commanders, expecting an eventual victory (i.e. when

the Jews would be driven out of the land), at which time people could return

to their homes. Apart from extremists on either side, people generally

accept these as the main reasons, though the proportions (i.e. what

percentage were driven out or told to leave) would vary wildly, depending on

your viewpoint. The Palestinian website,

http://www.palestinehistory.com/palst.htm concedes that about half probably

left out of fear and panic …, which is a grudging concession to the Jewish

view. The quote continues … while the rest were forced out to make room for

Jewish immigrants from Europe and from the Arab world. This leads us to

examine the second refugee situation, the lesser known and the largest one.

 

Up until 1948, Jews had lived in most of the Arab Muslim countries of the

Middle East. In most cases they had been there over 1000 years before Islam

even existed. From 1947 hundreds of Jews in Arab lands were killed in

government-organized rioting, leaving thousands injured and millions of

dollars in Jewish property destroyed. In 1948 Jews were forcibly ejected

from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and

Algeria, who confiscated property from the fleeing Jews worth tens of

billions in today’s dollars. Of the 820,000 Jewish refugees created by this

situation, 590,000 were absorbed by Israel.

 

Now we get to the real point of this article. All the facts presented so far

are from an endlessly contested history. People have argued about these

facts until the cows come home and have got nowhere in the process. So Im

now going to ask you to move on from the murkiness of endless debate and

into the light of certainties.

 

And the certainty is as clear cut as they come. You can witness it with your

very eyes. It is a fact that cannot be contested. Palestinian refugees still

exist, in camps, on the West Bank, in Gaza and elsewhere. Have you ever

wondered why?

 

The 820,000 Jewish refugees who were forcibly ejected from Arab countries

where they had often lived for thousands of years were all welcomed and

integrated into Israel or the Jewish world elsewhere, where they became full

citizens. There are no Jewish refugee camps.

 

The 750,000 Arab refugees who were displaced in 1948, were placed into

squalid refugee camps by fellow Arabs who had just gone to war (and lost) on

their behalf but were unwilling to pay for the consequences. Incredibly,

over 50 years later, over a million of these poor people are still in these

camps, despite billions of dollars of relief paid by rich Arab states, the

United Nations, the EU and others. Where on earth has this money gone and

why on earth are they still in camps and not integrated into Arab society?

 

Palestinian Arabs are no doubt a peaceful, welcoming and gifted people, but

they have been the greatest victims of the whole sorry affair, pawns in a

wider struggle orchestrated by their powerful Arab brethren. For reasons

known only to their political and religious masters they have lived for two

or three generations within the bounds of these camps. Isn’t a refugee camp

meant to be a temporary home, as it has been for millions of refugees in

other situations, until the people could be relocated to homes of their own?

Not so here. Palestinians were never allowed to be ordinary refugees. They

have been kept in a form of forced captivity for a sinister purpose. A

purpose that has succeeded in transforming a peace-loving gentle people into

terrorist pariahs and has provided an atmosphere where it is considered holy

and noble to send your young men and women out as living weapons of

destruction to blow up other young men and women. What must this do to their

national psyche, when suicide is seen as a positive ideal? Lets be honest

here and consider who is really responsible for this tragedy. It is not

Israel. Cant they see who their real enemy is?

 

But they lost their homeland, you may say. This is true, though, as I have

suggested, many would have been recent immigrants to the land, rather than

having lived there for generations, as suggested by the propaganda. And, of

course, they were surrounded by oil-rich neighbours who shared their race,

culture and religion. A homeland in Jordan, for example, would have been

perfectly possible and logical. But lets look at it in a wider context.

When I walk the streets and look around I see people of every hue and shade,

I hear accents ranging from the Russian Urals to the Hindu Kush. These are

not people who have been born in my country, these are people who have

relocated here, many as refugees. There is nothing unique about

Palestinians! Lets look at other recent refugee situations.

 

Quoting from Encyclopaedia Britannica:

 

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the post-revolutionary civil war

(1917-21) caused the exodus of 1,500,000 opponents of communism. Between

1915 and 1923 over 1,000,000 Armenians left Turkish Asia Minor, and several

hundred thousand Spanish Loyalists fled to France in the wake of the 1936-39

Spanish Civil War. When the People's Republic of China was established in

1949, more than 2,000,000 Chinese fled to Taiwan and to the British crown

colony of Hong Kong. Between 1945 and 1961, the year that the communist

regime erected the Berlin Wall (opened 1989), over 3,700,000 refugees from

East Germany found asylum in West Germany … The partition of the Indian

subcontinent in 1947 resulted in the exchange of 18,000,000 Hindus from

Pakistan and Muslims from India--the greatest population transfer in

history. Some 8,000,000-10,000,000 persons were also temporarily made

refugees by the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 … During the 1980s and early

'90s, the principal source of the world's refugees was Afghanistan, where

the Afghan War (1978-92) caused more than 6,000,000 refugees to flee to the

neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran. Iran also provided asylum for

1,400,000 Iraqi refugees who had been uprooted as a result of the Persian

Gulf War (1990-91). The breakup of Yugoslavia, for example, displaced some

2,000,000 people by mid-1992.

 

Then, of course, the Jews themselves, over the last 3000 years, have been

relocated more times than you could count.

 

And what of the West Bank or the occupied West Bank, as it is more often

known? It is true that Israel occupy the land, since gaining it as a

result of the victory in the Six Day War in 1967, but who did they occupy it

from? Well, believe it or not, the West Bank itself was illegally seized by

Jordan after 1948. After doing so, they made it an area forbidden to Jews

can you imagine the fuss there would be if Israel adopted this same attitude

with Arab settlers! So who did Jordan take the West Bank from? Before 1948

the West Bank was part of the area administered by the British as part of

the British Mandate. It didn’t belong to them, they were just caretakers.

Before that, the West Bank called Judea and Samaria by the Jews - was just

the eastern part of Palestine, occupied by whoever happened to live there,

Jew or Arab. It was not land owned by any state, as Palestine was just a

neglected province of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. So, in reality, the West

Bank has not legally ever belonged to any State in modern history. So when

Jewish settlers make their home there, they are doing so on land that has

been legally bought, not seized from anyone else, whether a State or

individuals.

 

The crisis in the Middle East is over a strip of land the size of Wales, a

hoped-for safe haven for a people with historical links to the land going

back over 4000 years, a people who have not, in truth, been welcome anywhere

else in the world. The fact that this land is surrounded by over a dozen

nations gripped by a religion characterized by military conquest and

subjugation is one of those tragedies of history that make you realize that

there’s more than meets the eye in the affairs of man. Israel is surrounded

by nations that hate it intensely because its very existence is an affront

to their religion. And try as they might, with whatever tactics they have at

their disposal even if this includes the callous exploitation of a whole

people, the Palestinians they will do their best to right the situation.

They have failed to date, but they wont give up. That is the nature of

Islam. You only need to look at its historical record. But they neglect one

thing. The God of the Jews is far greater than theirs and will ultimately

prevail.

 

By Steve Maltz, Saltshakers (www.saltshakers.com)

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