All Arabs but especially Syria

Palestine (PLO)










Palestine state



A territory claimed by two peoples.

The Israelis see the territory as the ancestral home of the Jews. But until the 20th century there had not been a majority population of Jews since the time of the Roman Emperor Titus (AD 70 and the Bar Cochba rebellion of AD 135) - if, indeed, there had been a majority then. The Arabs and Jews both claim to be descended from Abraham (Ibrahim in the case of the Arabs) and their languages are related. While the Jews were dispersed throughout the world the land was inhabited by Arabs (who include the descendants of some of the original inhabitants, converted to Islam or Christianity and Arabic-speaking). Their descendants claim the right to continue to live there.

Religious war?
This war is often represented as a war of Islam against non-muslims. This does not seem to be the real situation. It is to be compared with colonial wars against European settlers, such as occurred in southern Africa and Algeria. Religion is incidental to the political problem. (One complication is the belief by certain millenialist Christians, mainly in the US, that the events of the "end times" are about to occur - a laughable belief but apparently influential on US policy under the recent second Bush regime).

Until 1917 Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. At the peace conference following the first world war Palestine was awarded to Britain to administer as a mandated territory. Before that war Theodore Herzl had proposed that Jews should settle in Palestine as a refuge from persecution and killings in the Russian Empire. His Zionist movement then started buying land in Ottoman Palestine. Like European settlers in various countries during the Age of Hegemony, Herzl's Zionists did not see the need to consider the rights of the inhabitants. Not all the world's Jews supported him and the Zionists and many still don't.

During that war the British Foreign Secretary A.J.Balfour had promised Palestine as a "Jewish national home" . This was partly to gain support of the Jews during the war. It is unclear what he meant by this Declaration as the terminology is ambiguous but probably implied a British dominion over the whole area.

Jews from Russia and Germany moved to Palestine during the Ottoman and British periods and built cooperative settlements on land they bought from the Arabs. This provoked organized opposition from the Arabs and the first Intifada. By the time Jews were fleeing from Nazi Germany there were two opposing armed groups. The British administration tried to protect the rights of the Arabs and prevent Jewish refugees going to Palestine. The result was that both groups opposed the British whom the Arabs blamed for allowing settlements.

First war
In 1947 the United Nations, reviewing the former League of Nations mandates, ordered that the territory should be divided between Arabs and Jews. But the British withdrew as they realized they could not control the situation. The Zionist settlers declared independence in 1948. Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan) and Syria invaded Palestine. The new Israeli army captured some of the territory awarded to the Arabs in the UN Partition agreement. The Egyptians captured the Gaza strip.

Second war
In 1956 there was a second war between Israel and Egypt assisted by Britain and France who were trying to regain control of the Suez Canal (which had been nationalised by Gamel Abdel Nasser). The Israelis were made to withdraw by the UN.

Third war
Another war in 1967 resulted in the capture of the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza strip from Egypt.

Fourth war
In a fourth war in 1973 Israel gained control of the Sinai and the banks of the Canal and the Golan heights from Syria. The Sinai was returned to Egypt following a peace agreement - and the Canal reopened.

Fifth war
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon and controlled the southern area for many years, but has withdrawn now.

The Palestinians now form three main groups. One group still lives in Israel and are citizens of the state of Israel. Another group lives in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, the area originally awarded to Arabs by the UN. A third group lives in refugee camps or other Arab countries, especially in Kuwait (until 1990) and elsewhere on the Gulf.

Contrary to international law Israel has been allowing Israelis to build settlements in the West Bank and in the occupied part of Jerusalem. Israel has declared the annexation of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, though it has not been accepted by other countries, who still accredit ambassadors to Tel Aviv.

Some Israeli political and religious groups regard the whole area defined by the Bible as a Greater Israel and claim the right to expel Arabs - a potential policy of ethnic cleansing. Israel claims the right of any Jew throughout the world to settle in Israel. After the breakup of the Soviet Union (1990-91) thousands of Russian Jews arrived, which worried the Arabs. However, there is also an outflow of Israelis leaving. As in Rhodesia before independence, the population is not as stable as it seems.

Sixth war
In January 1991 Israel was attacked by missiles from Iraq during the Kuwait war and bombed Iraq in return.

Although Syria was neutral with respect to Israel during this war, there are reports that Syria has been buying missiles since the end of the war.

A Peace Conference was called to meet in Madrid in October 1991. The talks proceeded slowly with procedural objections which amounted to filibustering - a clear unwillingness to talk about substance on the part of the Israelis, who had been compelled to attend by American threats.

At the end of August 1993 it was announced that secret talks, apart from the official talks, had been taking place in Norway between the PLO and the Israeli government. In September it was announced that each side had recognized the other. Palestinians would be allowed to administer the Gaza Strip and the city of Jericho. These might be the nucleus of a Palestinian state. The Israeli government apparently hopes they would be federated with Jordan.

Opposition Likud members opposed this agreement. Islamic party Hamas also opposed any agreement. It remains to see whether the agreement will bring peace. Many Palestinians regarded it as giving them less than they were entitled to, though others thought it better to have something than nothing.

The right wing government of Ariel Sharon elected in Israel probably intended to allow no further autonomy to the Palestinians. A further revolt by Palestinians broke out in 2000 and led to something close to all out war by 2002

Relations with other Arab states do not seem likely to worsen, however, as all are weak and dependent on the US.

Seventh War (2002-3)
Israeli forces invaded the area looking for organisations that train suicide bombers, who kill people in the Israeli area. These invasions in their turn encourage more Palestinians to prepare themselves for suicide attacks. The Sharon government started to build a wall to separate the Occupied Territories from Israel Proper (but leaving many settlements of Israelis within the West Bank and Gaza) and some Palestinian land on the Israeli side of the wall.

2006 War
Ariel Sharon left office after a stroke in January 2006. The Palestinians elected a government composed of Hamas which declared that it would not recognise the right of Israel to exist. A group of guerrillas entered Israel through a tunnel in June 2006 and took an Israeli soldier prisoner. Israel then invaded the Gaza strip again and bombed various buildings. The war continues, endlessly, at the same time as a war in Lebanon.

The West Bank formed a government of Al Fateh, more moderate and secular than Hamas, which continues to control Gaza (but it hasn't been elected). Thus there is also a Civil War between the two Palestinian territories, with Gaza in a state of siege.

The Israeli government threatens to attack Iran, and has conducted an air exercise that seems designed to practice an air raid on Iran's nuclear industry. Were they restrained by the US government? Or are they instruments of the US policy to intimidate Iran, being manipulated by Washington? Or indeed, is Israel manipulating the Americans?

December 2008
Another war broke out at the end of December. Israeli air forces bombed Gaza city and destroyed many buildings and killed several hundred people. They claimed they were retaliating for rockets fired into Israel, by Hamas supporters (who had seized power within the Gaza territory). After a few days Israeli forces entered the Gazan territory with tanks.

It seems at least possible that the Israeli authorities were trying to suppress Hamas in Gaza before Barack Obama was inaugurated, fearing that his government will be less indulgent than the Bush presidency towards Israeli bellicosity. Bush and Cheney expressed their support for Israeli actions without any criticism at all.

Two days before Obama's inauguration the Israelis declared a cease-fire. Had they gained anything?

Muslim hostility to the west
This war may be provoking the widespread anti-American feeling building up throughout the Muslim world on the grounds that Israel gets most of its weapons from the US as well as a large subsidy to the government and is thus seen as a proxy of the US.

Is there any possible Solution to these wars?
In the long run only an agreement between the Zionists and the descendants of the original inhabitants, perhaps along the lines of the process that ended apartheid in South Africa could bring lasting peace. This seems some way off. Both sides would have to compromise, for example, providing for the continued residence of the immigrants in a single democratic state and the rights of the original owners of the land to be compensated or to resume residence on their property. The settlers would have to admit that the original Zionist idea was a mistake. So far few people on either side are working towards this kind of solution. It can be assumed that periodic wars will continue until this kind of solution is adopted.

Can the State of Israel exist except by continual war on its Arab neighbours? Is any peaceful outcome possible? The methods of the Israeli government have been condemned by human rights observers. They include assassinations of dissident leaders of the Palestinians, imprisonment without trial, and probably torture.

This conflict seems unlikely to end in the near future. However, to an observer who is neither Jewish nor Arab, Israel resembles the medieval Crusader states which spent their whole time under siege from the surrounding Arab rulers. They were all conquered in the end.

Israel likes to invoke as a justification for its attacks on its neighbors the "war against Terror" - the current slogan adopted by the United States, just as South Africa used to claim to be fighting the Cold War against "Communism". In both cases these were slogans to attract assistance from the United States. Neither were true as the war in South Africa was against exclusive power for the settlers and so is the war in Palestine; both are against injustice.

Two-state solution?
Many politicians say that what they hope to see is a solution that will give each side a state of their own. This formula dates back to the 1948 UN Partition of the Palestine territory into two territories: one for the Arabs; the other for the Zionist settlers. This has been the stated object of all peace proposals. In practice neither side seems to believe in it. Israel's practices point to their wish to limit the Palestinian area's economy and military power. The Palestinians clearly believe that in the long run they must eliminate Israel, with a two state situation being only a step towards elimination.

There does seem to be a similarity with the old South Africa, in which the former government pretended to give power to the majority by making them citizens of what became called Bantustans - states in which the real power was held by the South African police and army. The governments of these "states" had very little autonomy and were not recognised by any other state. Thus there is now a Palestinian Authority with a President, prime minister and civil service. Israeli forces have from time to time destroyed the buildings of this authority. Its only real income is from external aid from the European Union and other, Arab, sources.

The economic ability of the people in the Palestinian territory is suppressed by Israeli power. If most of the Arabs wish to see the Israeli state eliminated, how many Israelis wish to see the Arabs removed to other Arab states? This conflict is really, very intractable.

President Barack Obama has appointed an American negotiator to try to encourage peace.

In November 2012 major disturbances broke out. Palestinians from Gaza released a large number of rockets on Israel, killing a small number of Israelis. In return the Israeli forces bombed Gaza, attempting to assassinate leaders of militant Arabs and discourage further attacks. A larger number of Arabs were killed and many Gazan government buildings damaged.

Interesting reading

Middle East for Dummies

The Middle East for Dummies

Patrick Tyler-A World of Trouble

A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East--From the Cold War to the War on Terror

Review by Martin Woolacott

Last revised 19/11/12


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