Idiot's Guide To The Middle East Conflict

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 Twain's independent eye-witness account in 1867, "The Innocent's 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. Here's 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 people's 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, 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 I'm 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? Let's be honest here and consider who is really responsible for this tragedy. It is not Israel. Can't 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 let's 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! Let's look at other recent refugee situations. Quoting from Encyclopaedia Brittanica,

"The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the postrevolutionary 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 won't 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.

(c) Saltshakers 2002

If you found this article useful, feel free to distribute it to others. I am currently negotiating with two publishers for this material to be part of a book I am writing, called "The Land of Many Names - towards a simple Christian understanding of the Middle East conflict." The aim of the book is to give a sensible view of the conflict, for Christians to understand. It will highlight the "spiritual" nature of the conflict and, to this end, I will be helped by an ex-Muslim, who will give Islamic views on such topics as Israel, Jerusalem etc.

(c) Steve Maltz

Yad b'Yad Articles