The adage that if we ignore the past we are condemned to repeat it is proving true in the Arab/Israeli conflict with increasing regularity. The conflict we see today is presented world-wide as something entirely different, and context-less, from the one which began around the end of World War 1, and truly exploded in May 1948. Thus the Arab/Israeli war today is based on propaganda, name calling, and random accusations surrounding the suffering of innocent people.
It’s not surprising that two totally contradictory narratives have developed, and the conflict has become seemingly unsolvable.
Armed with the few basic historical facts we can understand, and critically analyse the Arab narrative that Israel is occupying their land, and analyse Israel’s narrative that they have a cultural, historical, and political right to be exactly where they are.
Back in 1919, in accordance with the accepted and frankly brutal modus operandi of the day, the British took on the conventional ‘right’ to oversee the Middle East. The Turks had ruled Palestine for several centuries, and when the British defeated the Turks, with the help of the Semitic people, Arabs and Jews, they ‘naturally’ took control of the Ottoman Empire. That doesn’t make it right, especially in today’s eyes, but back then it went with the territory .
That’s what humans did, and had done for thousands of years in the Middle East, and elsewhere. A succession of rulers and empire builders had dominated the area known as Palestine: Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander, The Romans, The Crusaders, Byzantine, The Islamic Golden Age, Mamluks, The Ottomans, The British.
Self-rule and self-determination were rare for the Semitic people of Palestine, Arabs or Jews, especially after the invasion of the Romans. And it was the mixed fortunes of both branches of Semitic people to be represented by the last of these successful empire builders, Britain.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that originally, peaceful self-rule was the stated intention of the British for the Arab and Jewish Semitic people. Some commentators may smile wryly and say that we all really know it was about trade routes and oil supplies. Such hidden agendas cannot change the official political moves which were made at the time, and to which ordinary people had to respond.
In order to understand the situation today in the Arab/Israeli conflict, I needed a basic knowledge of this more recent history. Then I could add my own thoughts in good faith. My observations are based upon recorded broad-brush strokes of history, initially perused on the internet. I have also read some books on the subject, mainly to substantiate the basic information, rather than for the more easily selective minutiae. My readily available sources are listed at the end of this article.
A Probable History
Suppose that, back in 1919, the Jews heading for the area of Palestine earmarked for the creation of the Jewish State, had been respectfully acknowledged by an Arab population heading for a new State of their own in Syria.
Then, based on well documented cultural and historical arguments, there may well have been no objection to the Jews building Israel exactly where it is today.
And yet, unbelievable as it may seem, at one point this outcome was entirely possible.
Before such a momentous decision as giving away a quarter of the phenomenal State of Israel could even be considered, it does not appear plausible to disregard the influence of the British and the French governments, in the early decades of the twentieth century, on the tensions prevailing in the Middle East today. Mainly through a faulty sense of direction, they built a road to war, and we need to go back to the cross-roads.
The original aim of giving a large portion of land for self-rule to the Arabs and the Jews, can be seen as an unusual and wise intention for the time. Probably only equalled in history by Cyrus the Great, back in the sixth century BC.
Unfortunately we didn’t get to see if the original plan would have worked out. Old habits of empire, back in 1919, expressed such thinking as that which informed the Sykes-Picot agreement. With this agreement, the original intention to allow Emir Feisal to set up an independent Arab State in Syria, with the Jews setting up their independent state in Palestine, was defeated.
Even so, in 1922 Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence made an effort to partially fulfil the original promises. From the original allotment to the Jews, of Palestine, which extended from the Mediterranean Sea, to where Iraq is today, Churchill created two countries, one called TansJordan for the Arabs. Seventy-five percent of Palestine became the promised, but substituted, Arab state; while the remaining 25% eventually became the promised, diminished, Jewish state of Israel.
But the majority of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine in 1922 seem to have known nothing of the centuries old Jewish predicament, and their historical ties with the land. It is possible that the ordinary Arab people were not made aware of what was originally proposed, and the reasons for it. The responsibility for doing this would have rested with the authorities of the time. Though it would not have been the simple matter then that, with the proper use of media, it could be today.
And it seems to me that the unfortunate mishandling of a noble aim, discussed in detail with Emir Feisal and Chaim Weismann, does not diminish the rights or needs of the Jewish people today, or make them guilty by association.
The division of Palestine was a compromise which the Jews, having no other choice, readily accepted, but which understandably did not satisfy the Arabs, who were justified in expecting something else. Indeed, Emir Feisal had added a note onto the very letter written by Balfour in 1917 to the effect that should any of the plans be changed, he could not be held to any agreements. But, the plans were changed.
Ironically, after all of the political machinations 1914 – 1922 and beyond, the Jewish homeland was to become established, under great and continuing duress, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
Nevertheless, in 1922, there seemed to be enough room for the Jews in what was now left of Palestine, the actual land which became Israel in 1948, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea. The total numbers of all cultures in the new and reduced version of Palestine, according to a British census in 1922, came to less than a million people. About 800,000 of these were Arabs, who were intended to co-exist with the Jews, as twice that number do today. And there were about 30 people per square kilometer.
In the same area which is Israel today, there are around 360 people per square kilometer and, as we shall see, this demographic has repercussions for the future planning of Israel.
In May 1948, Britain effectively left a land they had conquered but did not understand. Away from the resulting confusion which, if they were not alone in creating, as overseers they had responsibility for. On 14th May 1948 the State of Israel came into existence, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the Golan Heights in the north, to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, bordering with Egypt at the Sinai Desert in the southwest.
On 15th May 1948, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt attacked, with the aim of stopping the existence of Israel as quickly as possible. Minor battles and skirmishes within the nascent land of Israel, between Arabs and Jews, had been going on for many years already. Clearly, since at least 1919, the Arab narrative that Palestine was a land invaded by Jewish foreigners, had taken hold and informed their actions.
The Arabs were unsuccessful in defeating the new state of Israel, and between February and July 1949 various armistice agreements were signed between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries. At the time of the armistice, Jordan occupied a large area of the new Israeli state, which had existed for about a year; that is, Jordan occupied the regions known as Judea and Samaria, which they chose to re-name ‘the west bank’ of the Jordan River. This is a vague, geographical term, and I think they would have been more credible keeping the names Judea and Samaria.
Seen on a map today, the area of Israel referred to as ‘The West Bank’ looks like what it became in 1950, an untidy extension of the country of Jordan, who had decided to annex what they had occupied.
This was not considered a legal move by the international community, and only Britain and Pakistan recognised it. Today, Israel’s right to Judea and Samaria is disputed on the basis of the geographical limit of Jordan’s occupation in 1949. But Judea and Samaria were officially part of the state of Israel as of May 14th 1948.
[Logically, had Jordan been even more successful, they might have overrun, and occupied a much larger “west bank”. What cannot be disputed is that in 1922 the borders between Jordan and Israel were set for when Israel became a state. There was a strange looking plan offered by the UN in 1947. The Jews, again desperate, agreed to it, but the Arabs wisely refused. And the 1922 borders remained.]
Jordan’s occupation of Eastern Israel lasted until 1967, when Israel finally had enough strength to take her diminished allotted land back.
Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria, which had been occupied by Jordan in 1949, and annexed by them in 1950, now came to be known by some as “occupation by Israel”. That is, Israel were supposedly occupying part of her own country which had, incidentally, been first occupied and then illegally annexed by Jordan.
Thus it can only be that those who suggest a return to “pre 1967” borders, in a two-state solution, are attempting to re-instate Judea and Samaria as part of Jordan. Even though all but two countries in the world correctly said that Jordan had no right to the land they had merely occupied in war.
But then, in 1988, Jordan ceased to consider Judea and Samaria as part of her country, and unilaterally handed her illegal claims on, to the newly formed Palestine Liberation Organization. In this way “The West Bank” was morphing into “Palestinian Territory”.
Ironically, this re-naming of the west bank, if not Judea and Samaria, into something resembling the name of a country, is fine as long as we remember that both Jews and Arabs are Palestinians. As we shall see later, this can work well in a possible, and I think logical, future.
It is significant that, all through the twentieth century, colonized peoples have reclaimed their origins, demanded self-rule, and ousted imperialist occupiers, reverting to names for themselves and their countries in their native tongues.
Thus there are many Semitic countries in the Middle East now. Israel, a Jewish nation of old, is one of them.
And there are several Arab states as well: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq. Their creation seems not to have united the Arab tribes of 1919, and perhaps, with hindsight, the original intention of uniting the Arabs in Syria was unrealistic. Possibly it was never really desired.
By 1973, with the defeat of Egypt and its allies who had attacked Israel for the third time in twenty five years, it appears that it was recognized that, in open warfare, it was becoming unlikely that those members of the Arab community who were intent on destroying Israel would ever be successful, as Israel continued to developed her defensive capabilities.
It was around this time that the conduct of the Arab/Israeli conflict seems to have begun to morph into today’s shadowy yet bombastic form. With increasing media coverage, and the high profile involvement of people like Henry Kissinger, and more recently John Kerry, the attention, and the voices, of more and more people around the world have become accessible.
Thus, while the Jewish narrative remains what it has always been: that they have a historical and cultural right to a land where Israel is now situated; the Arab narrative began to change. It was no longer that “the Jews should be pushed into the sea” but merely that a quarter of their tiny land should be given to a section of the Arab population.
To help Israel see the sense of this new chapter in the Arab narrative, the scale, form, and ownership of the Arab attacks became, on the surface, relatively small actions by the PLO who had relocated to Lebanon, from where they attacked northern Israel. These attacks continued from 1971 – 1978, when Israel retaliated, leading to the war of 1982.
The conflicts with the PLO operating from Lebanon seem also to have been the beginnings of a change in popular perception of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Up until 1982, Israel was quite clearly fighting a war for survival against a much larger enemy. A people of one hundred million, against a single country of anything from one million, to the current seven or eight million.
Over the past 40 years or so the Arab narrative has changed the Arab/Israeli conflict into the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, through which wording Israel is seen as the stronger and aggressive power. And although it is said that the PLO were backed by the large and powerful country Iran, and became aligned with Hezbollah, the general media presentation of the conflict was changed.
Today, when Israel builds settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Arab spokes-people around the world condemn Israel for building in this area of her own country. In their narrative, the twice renamed west bank of the Jordan River is not part of the State of Israel. Yet much of the early Jewish and Christian history, and its protagonists, also revered figures in Islam, were considerable justification for the original plans concerning the creation of a Jewish State where it is today. And, in 1922 Judea and Samaria were included in the reduced allotment of land to the Jews.
A Possible Future
From the broad brush-strokes summarized above, my perception is that there are perhaps 4 or 5 million people, in Eastern Israel who have lived under 65 years of Jordanian Arab/Sunni Muslim influence.
It is not surprising then that they might reject the idea of being Israeli citizens, if they have been brought up to believe that they alone are the original people of this land, with an Islamic history, and that Jewish people are newcomers with no history.
Given previous Arab attitudes, behaviour and promises of destruction towards Israel based on what looks to me like a mistaken perception, it is understandable that with the best will in the world, having another Arab country, not on your doorstep, but rather living in your back room is not perceived as a healthy solution to the conflict.
The offer of the two-state solution [which is increasingly seen to include the strategic area of Israel known as Gaza] is that the Arabs in Judea, Samaria [and Gaza] will stop their periodic civil war actions of suicide bombings, tunneling, random rocket and personal attacks, in their stance as innocent victims of recent occupation, if only Israel will give them a quarter of her rightful country. A doorway through which 100,000,000 Arabs could one day stream into the heart of Israel, should they wish to, bringing them a victorious end to the actual and ongoing Arab/Israeli conflict.
The offer of a two-state solution is bound to be suspect, even if previous attempts to destroy Israel from 1948 onwards, and the caution they naturally engender, are put aside for a moment. The attempt to create a ‘Palestinian State’ in Judea and Samaria, after the occupation by Jordan, and the setting up of the PLO in 1964, simply shows that many Arab people have never accepted the decisions of 1919 -1922.
Such an attitude is their right, but, a million and a half Arab people do live in Israel today, and many of them have found high level positions in Israeli society. The fact that Jews and Arabs can live together peacefully in Israel cannot be denied. And because some Arabs and Jews can live in harmony, the onus falls on those who will not, to state their case. This would necessarily include an historical, religious and cultural discussion of the premise that Israel is occupying Arab land.
In reality, this is the belated, more reasonable type of action that is being called for today: to get around the table and talk openly, with the world watching, about the truth of the matter.
The desire to settle things peacefully is a major step forward, but the actual competence to do so will be based upon the ability to produce a narrative that will stand up to critical analysis. If the solution could be found in vague, easy concepts, or in the shoutings of the loudest voice, or the posturings of the celebrity diplomat, then we would already have peace in the Middle East.
Semitic people, both Arabs and Jews are far too shrewd to be satisfied with a solution which favours one side over the other. Bargaining, and getting a fair deal are skills nurtured through history by Semitic people.
If, as in my own perception of the Middle East, based on religious, cultural, and historical factors, Israel has every right to exist exactly where it is today, including Judea and Samaria, the practical question becomes: What would be a just solution in 2015 to the dark confusing mess which has been created there?
One ongoing effect of Jordan’s occupation of Judea and Samaria until 1967 seems to have been that, because of the similarity in cultures between the people living in Eastern Israel in 1948, with that of the occupying people of Jordan, the people living in Eastern Israel haven’t didn’t really have the opportunity to move forward with the rest of Israel into her particular Jewish future. Instead, while being Israeli citizens, they moved into Jordan’s Arab/Sunni Islamic future for 20 years.
One cannot blame the inhabitants of an occupied area of a country for not keeping up with the rest of their country, when they, by military convention, have been kept separate.
Meanwhile, it is important in creating a plan for the future to acknowledge that the vast majority of Arab Muslim people living on Israeli soil which was not occupied at the end of the 1948/49 war by Arab invaders, have taken the opportunity to assimilate the new culture and made their lives accordingly, with many an outstanding success.
Therefore, if the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict was made common knowledge, and headline news, and the two-state solution was recognised and dropped for the escalation of alienation that it must be; then there would be a clear choice for the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria.
They could openly acknowledge their Israeli citizenship, and agree to embrace and further Israel’s Jewish State, while being free to live as they wish.
Or they could petition to become real Jordanian citizens by choice, rather than the quasi ones they seem to have been for the past sixty-five years. These choices would be, with appropriate education and discussion, a relatively simple operation. Particularly when compared with what is on offer at present.
It would be a useful re-direction of personal energies, and financial resources in Eastern Israel, and could be achieved in the education of a generation.
As with any other country in the world, the rulers of the land set the overall cultural and religious standards. Clearly Israel is a Jewish state, the national language being Hebrew, the strict observance of Shabbas and traditional Holy Days, and the deeper fabric of society make this clear.
I have noticed a great willingness to embrace various other cultures and religions, within this overall arrangement. This is an attitude which befits a people who are the curators and protectors of such an important religious and cultural centre of the world. This attitude is enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
The original idea behind the Balfour Declaration, though subverted in 1919, stipulated that resident Arabs should not be displaced if they wished to live within the nascent Jewish state. This was a noble caveat, even though some may have seen it as a threat, based on the perception of the two cultures coming together with their different approaches to life.
And it is understandable that, because of the differences, the question of ‘majority’ between Arabs and Jews in Israel has been an important issue since day one of the plan to have a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
But this anxious view, while completely rational circa 1919, is not necessarily accurate in 2015. As I mentioned earlier, back in 1922, the area of Palestine ultimately allotted to the Jews for their proposed state of Israel, was populated by roughly 30 people per square kilometer.
Today, the population of Israel is about 360 people per square kilometer. Her population density compared to western countries is exceeded only by The Netherlands, with something over 400 people per sq. km. But while Israel’s birthrate is currently over three per female, The Netherlands, and the rest of Europe in general, is under two, for, I think, wise logistical reasons for all of us.
I believe that Israel will find it necessary, or at least wise, along with many countries in the world in the near future, to ask, and educate, her citizens to reduce their birthrate to two per family. [World population in 1920 was around 1.86 billion. Today, it stands at something over 6 billion.]
From my reading on the Guttmacher Institute website, it appears that family planning is an accepted part of Islamic culture also where, ideally, quality of life takes precedence over sheer numbers of people.
Many commentators are of the opinion that a couple of centuries of this lower birthrate would ease a lot of the current strains and tensions affecting the whole world. And it is not so long ago that Catholicism, which frequently over-saw the creation of families of ten or twelve children, made changes in this area for reasons perhaps more connected to the emancipation of women, than the current worries we all have with regard to over-population.
By making this, I think necessary, change to her cultural ethos, Israel, while including the citizens of Judea and Samaria in everything, would not lose her Jewish cultural majority. However, the Arab people living in Judea and Samaria who, I believe, currently do not vote in Israeli elections, would immediately have real influence on the policy of the Israeli government.
Diversity and individuality evolve year by year within all previously uniform and rigid religious/cultural/political groups. And the freedom to practice one’s own preferred relationship with the universe is likely to become more and more attractive to all human beings.
The acute situation in Israel, apart from being frustrating and frightening, is also the reason why the Middle East is such an apt focus for world attention today. For, regardless of cultural differences, action informed by clear and wise thinking, which knows no boundaries, is the only thing which will solve the Middle East problems, and so point the way for the rest of the world to solve their own similar ones.
In terms of the historical modus operandi of many conquering nations, the original idealistic intentions for the Semitic people of the Middle East, Arabs and Jews, could be seen as wise and generous.
That they were incompletely achieved back then is tragic but perhaps not surprising. That they can be completed in what is a new, potentially much more enlightened era for all of us in the 21st century is to be hoped, and even expected.
To an increasing number of people, all religions seem evil and destructive because they are said to cause wars. Not only does this thinking disregard the great good to be found in religion: the solace, guidance, and inspiration, but it tends to lay the blame for innate problems of human nature on perceived evil abstractions, rather than the other way around.
Likewise, many lack the will or tenacity to trace even the recent history in the middle east, thinking perhaps that they have nothing to learn.
Then here is also something more material to consider: The area of Israel is approximately 26,000 square kilometres. The population of Israel, including all regions, is roughly ten million. Israel exists bordered by several Arab countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, which together total well over one million square kilometres of land.
At the moment, within the theatre of the Arab/Israeli conflict, which is precisely about the possession of land for historical reasons, Arab nations have roughly 40 times more land than Israel, and around one hundred million more people.
I can’t help thinking that if the positions were reversed, those of the international community who have no time for history or religion would be crying out, “You can’t allow the Arabs a lousy 26,000 sq. km. of land, when you have over a million? What’s the matter with you!”?
But those who are influential, who make decisions and recommendations which affect so many peoples’ lives in the middle east and around the world, are duty bound to make their research into history, culture and religion and their thoughts on these topics public, as a preface to their suggestions. Then they might persuade us that they have the right answers.
The following sources have been helpful in developing my personal view of the Arab-Israeli conflict as expressed in this and previous articles on the subject:
The Ethnic Cleansing Of Palestine – Ilan Pappé
Also a Video/Lecture on the same subject – Ilan Pappé
Churchill And The Jews – Martin Gilbert
The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom – T.E. Lawrence
A Peace To End All Peace – David Fromkin
My Promised Land – Ari Sharit
Exodus and The Haj – Leon Uris
Numerous Wikipaedia articles re demographics/histories/dates/cultures in the Middle East
You Tube programmes on Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmood Abbas, Khaled Meshaal, and several other commentators with strong opinions on both sides