A Pain in the Middle East

By Bill Monson

It’s hard for most Americans to conceive just how much the Arab world hates Israel.

To us, raised in the tradition of the Bible, Palestine is the Promised Land ó the Holy Land of Moses, David and Jesus. But our perception lacks historical perspective.

After the Romans crushed the Bar-Kokhba Rebellion in 135 C.E., few Jews were left in Palestine. They’d been killed, sold into slavery or fled for their lives. Rome controlled the country; and after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Palestine became a center of Christian pilgrimage.

The Arabs took Palestine from the Byzantine Empire in 640 C.E. Except for interruptions by Christian crusaders, the Muslims ruled it until the 20th century. The Arabs consider it a Muslim country because of this length of occupation. They also believe Mohammed rose into heaven from Jerusalem. A great shrine called the Dome of the Rock was built on the supposed place of his ascension.

Unfortunately, the site was on the location of the former Jewish temple which means the Jews cannot ever rebuild their temple without desecrating one of the holiest spots in Islam.

So long as there were not many Jews in Palestine, there was not much of a problem; but in 1881, pogroms began in Russia. Large numbers of Jews emigrated to the United States and a smaller number went to Palestine, now under the Ottoman Empire.

In 1897, Theodore Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress, and the struggle for a Jewish homeland began to grow. Russian pogroms continued to swell the number of emigrants to Palestine. (In 1905, they exceeded 200,000.)

During the First World War, Great Britain sought to seize Palestine from the Ottomans. To garner worldwide Jewish support, the pro-Zionist Foreign Secretary published a declaration in 1917 committing Britain to support a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Britain did, in fact, conquer Palestine and governed the area under a League of Nations mandate after 1923. During the 1930s, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews began to increase the number of emigrants to Palestine.

Arab pressure caused Britain to back off from the Balfour Declaration and to restrict emigration.

During World War II, however, the British again needed Jewish support. Many Arabs were pro-Axis and wanted Britain out of the Middle East. The Palestinian Jews were willing to contribute fighting men to Britain in return for a homeland. The British proposed a partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish sectors. When the war ended, though, the British once more resisted Jewish emigration. This led to the famous voyage of the refugee ship "The Exodus" that embarrassed Britain in the eyes of the world. (The novel Exodus by Leon Uris ably describes it.)

War-weary Britain dumped the problem of Palestine into the hands of the fledgling United Nations, which voted for partition on November 29, 1947.

U.S. President Harry Truman overrode State Department resistance to support the resolution. Ironically, the Russians also supported it because they wanted the British out of the Middle East. The Arab states voted unanimously against it, but it passed by a vote of 33-13 with ten abstentions.

The Jewish sector would contain 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs in a homeland of 5,500 square miles. Arab Palestine would have 804,000 Arabs and only 10,000 Jews in 4,500 square miles.

On May 14, 1948, British rule over Palestine ended, and David Ben Gurion announced the State of Israel was born. Within hours, armies from five Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq) invaded.

The secretary-general of the Arab League declared: "This will be a war of extermination." The spiritual leader of Palestine’s Muslims, Haj Amin al Hussiene, said: "I declare a Holy War, my Muslim brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!"

The United States was first to recognize the new state, but President Truman enforced an arms embargo to the warring parties. Ironically, the anti-Semite Joseph Stalin allowed Israel to buy arms through Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite, because he wanted to embarrass the United States and to throw the British out of the entire Middle East so the U.S.S.R. could gain influence there.

In the U.S. many Jews organized illegal arms shipments to Israel. The United Jewish Appeal raised millions of dollars for relief.

Somehow, the Israelis hung on. When they began to win territory from the Arabs, a cease-fire was hurriedly arranged by the U.N. The Jordanians absorbed Arab Palestine (now called the West Bank). Jerusalem was cut in two, but the Jordanians controlled the Western Wall ó Judaism’s holiest site. Egypt took the Gaza Strip; but Israel had won the Negev Desert and Galilee ó a larger area than the U.N. partition originally planned. Unfortunately, the war set in motion the flight of over 600,000 Palestinian Arabs and killed six-thousand Israelis, almost one-sixth of the population.

Wounds were opened that still bleed 55 years later.

Part II: The Continuing Crisis

After surviving a bloody birth, the new state of Israel was left surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors during the 1950s as it used foreign aid from the U.S. and contributions from American Jews to buy weapons.

The population grew as additional immigrants arrived ñ 200,000 Holocaust survivors, thousands of Jews fleeing Arab retaliation in Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

In 1956, Egypt’s Abdul Nasser closed the Suez Canal. Israel joined Britain and France in an effort to reopen it. In a swift attack, the Israelis occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula. U.S. and Soviet diplomatic pressure forced out the British and French and obtained the return of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for the canal’s reopening.

Smarting from his defeat, Nasser bided his time. In 1967, he closed the Strait of Tiran to all Israeli ships or any foreign ships carrying strategic materials to Israel. He also ordered out the United Nations peace-keeping force in the Sinai. On May 27, he announced his intention to destroy Israel, and Iraq’s president echoed Nasser’s goal. Syria and Jordan soon joined the forces lining up against the Jews.

Israel struck first ñ on June 5, 1967.

In six days, Israel destroyed the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and expanded its territory by 200 percent. It captured the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River, all of Sinai, the East Bank of the Suez Canal ñ and most critically, all of Jerusalem. Israel once more held its holiest site ñ but it contained the Dome of the Rock, also holy to Muslims. In addition, more Arabs were forced from their homes into containment camps. The humiliation of the Arabs was nearly complete; and the war has been a source of hatred ever since.

Egypt and Syria tried again in October, 1973 with an attack during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Again, they lost. Four years later, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat sought peace; and on March 26, 1979, Sadat, Menachem Begin, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a peace agreement in the White House. The Israelis began withdrawing from the Sinai. Begin and Sadat shared a Nobel Peace Prize, but Sadat was assassinated by radical Egyptian Muslim soldiers on October 6, 1981. The peace treaty remained in effect, however.

But Israel had other problems. The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964 with the goal of eliminating Israel and replacing it with an Arab Palestine. The PLO regarded America and Americans as enemies because they supported Israel’s right to exist and sent her aid. Yasir Arafat became its leader after the Arab debacle of the Six Day War and began to conduct terrorist operations, including the 1972 kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The PLO set up bases in southern Lebanon from which to attack Israel.

On June 9, 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLO. It did not do so. The PLO dispersed into civilian refugee camps and Yasir Arafat was allowed to leave Beirut. International opinion turned against Israel; and its government was eventually forced into the negotiations with Arafat and the PLO which are still unsettled two decades later.

In the meantime, Arabs continue terrorist operations, and Israel finds itself with the U.S. as its main support. A thorny area of contention is the West Bank of the Jordan, the old Judea and Samaria, which many Jews consider a part of the original Jewish homeland. However, this area is also the home of a million Palestinian Arabs who want no part of Israel rule. This area is at the heart of many of the problems with Jordan and the PLO. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin became Israel’s Prime Minister and halted Jewish settlement in the disputed area. In 1993, secret talks between Israel and the PLO led to the Oslo Agreement ñ a five-year plan in which Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would gradually become self-governing. In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, but on November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist; and hard-liners began to dominate Israel’s government. Elements of the PLO and Hamas continued to conduct terrorist operations which were met with increasing retaliation by Israel. Syria and Lebanon remain avowed enemies of Israel; and Middle East peace seems as far off as ever.

Ironically, both Arabs and Jews trace their descent from the same ancestor ñ Abraham. Both claim Palestine as their god-given homeland. Jerusalem is a holy city for both. But millennia of hatred and war have turned them into blood enemies.

Centuries of Western intervention and colonialism have not improved the situation. Meddling by Britain, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. have only fueled the feud. The Arabs have the riches of oil, but Israel has atomic weapons. Stability in the region seems still a long way off.

And the relationship of the U.S. with Israel remains a point which must be considered in any future actions in the Middle East. Arab hatred of Israel continues to rub off on the U.S.