I have been inspired by CeeCee’s post on the topic of the Middle East. How have things reached the point where there is open warfare in the Middle East?
This is not a rant, but a layperson’s guide to Middle Eastern history and an exploration of how matters have escalated. I am attempting to provide an unbiased factual account. I am not an expert in this field by any means, and I accept that I may have made errors in my account of history. If you are aware of any errors, please let me know. I am not “judging” any of the parties or taking sides. I am attempting to paint a picture of how things have come to this pass. There is a very involved history behind the conflict, which reaches back (at least) to World War I.
History of the formation of Israel
From the 1920s, Palestine was under British mandate with the support of the League of Nations. This was as a result of World War I, when Britain captured this area, which had previously been under Turkish control. The root of the current conflict lies in a number of different promises as to whom the land would be given:
- Hussein-McMahon Correspondence: Correspondence between Hussein ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca and Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt. In a letter dated 24 October 1915, McMahon stated that Britain agreed to cede to the Arabs all areas requested by Hussein, except for “the districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo…” The letter does not specifically mention what was to happen to the Sanjak of Jerusalem, the Ottoman administrative division that covered most of Palestine.
- Sykes-Picot Agreement: A secret agreement made 16 May 1916 between Britain and France which established how the Palestinian territories were to be divided up under British and French control. It appears that Sykes was not aware of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, and it was not taken into account in dividing up the area. This was the agreement which was subsequently ratified by the League of Nations.
- Balfour Declaration: Made 2 November 1917. The British government stated to the Zionist Federation in Britain by letter that it favoured the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine provided that civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine were not prejudiced.
The Jews regard Israel as their ancestral and spiritual homeland. They had been expelled from Judaea in 135AD by the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, following a Jewish revolution led by Bar Kokhba. This led to the Diaspora, where Jewish populations were scattered all over the world. As a result of anti-semitism in Europe, by the 19th and early 20th century, many Jews became convinced that the only way to escape persecution was to have their own state. After World War II and the Holocaust, the movement for a Jewish state gained international support.
Britain relinquished its mandate over Palestine after World War II. On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181). This proposed to partition the territory into separate Jewish and Arab states, with the Greater Jerusalem area (including Bethlehem) to come under international control. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it. Neighboring Arab and Muslim states also rejected the partition plan. The British mandate ended on 15 May 1948 and the State of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948.
The neighboring Arab states (Transjordan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) and local Palestinian Arab paramilitaries immediately attacked Israel following its declaration of independence, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War ensued. Consequently, the partition plan was never implemented. Instead, the 1949 Armistice eliminated “Palestine” as a distinct territory. It was divided between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
As a result of the 1948 War, many Palestinians fled, emigrated or were expelled from their homes to other parts of Israel or to neighbouring countries. The issue of Palestinian refugees and whether they should be allowed to return remains a major bone of contention between Israel, the Palestine Territories and other Arab countries. In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 which declared (amongst other things) that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live in peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so” and that “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return.” However, parts of the resolution were never implemented. After the 1948 War, Israel expelled many Palestinian Arabs. Similarly, Arab countries expelled many Jews living in their territories.
In 1967, a further Arab-Israeli War occurred, sometimes called “the Six Days War”, involving Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. By the end of the war, Israel had gained control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Israel continues to hold the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
In 1973, the Yom Kippur War occurred (also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War). It was fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations led by Egypt and Syria . The war began on the day of Yom Kippur, with a surprise joint attack by Egypt and Syria. They invaded the Sinai and Golan Heights respectively, which had been captured by Israel in 1967.
In 1982, Israel became involved in the Lebanese Civil War. This war had started in 1975 involved the conflict between various religious, ethnic and political groups in Lebanon. Israel entered the war to end the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s growing presence in Lebanon. In 1983 – 1984, Israel effectively withdrew from Lebanon, leaving a small residual force which was finally withdrawn in 1990.
Attempts to find a peaceful solution
There have been attempts to find a peaceful solution on both sides. Most recently, in the early 1990s, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation entered into peace talks which culminated in the Oslo Accords. As a result of the Oslo Accords, in 1994, the Palestinian National Authority was created. It was envisaged as an interim administrative organization that governs parts of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Five years after its formation, the parties were to negotiate who should have final control of areas. The final status agreement was supposed to be concluded by 1999 but has never been concluded.
There have been a number of subsequent attempts to conciliate between the parties, including the following:
- The 2000 Camp David Summit (involving, among others, Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton);
- The 2001 Taba Summit (involving, among others, Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, the EU); and
- The unofficial Geneva Accords (involving some Israeli and Palestinian politicians).
A difficulty in resolving the issue is that in September 2000, the “Second Intifada” began. It has often stated to have been sparked off by Ariel Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Essentially, it sparked off riots by Palestinians, as well as terrorist and rocket attacks on Israel and followed by retaliatory attacks on the Palestinian Territories by the Israeli army.
The present conflict
Apart from Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, the other players in the present conflict are as follows:
- Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni Islamist organization formed by Sheikh Yassin. Hamas is know for its suicide bombings. Article 13 of Hamas’ Covenant states: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with.” Hamas formed the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people in early 2006. It entered goverment as a result of widespread corruption of the secular Fatah faction, formerly headed by Yasser Arafat.
- Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia Islamic group and political party, with a military arm and a civilian arm. It was founded with the aid of Iran and is apparently funded by Iran and Syria. Hezbollah follows the ideology developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The present conflict was started when on 9 June 2006, 8 Palestinians were killed by an explosion at a beach near the municipality of Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip. There is still disagreement as to whether the explosion was caused by the Israeli army or unexploded ordnance. As a result of this explosion, Hamas withdrew from its 16 month old truce with Israel. On 10 June 2006, Hamas admitted it had fired rockets into Israel.
On 24 June 2006, Hamas initiated raids into Israel from the Gaza strip and captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Shalit’s captors call for the release of all Palestinian women and children under the age of 18 held in Israeli prisons in return for information about Shalit. Israel refused to negotiate. As a result on 28 June 2006, the Israeli Defence Forces initiated Operation Summer Rains where they entered the Gaza Strip and arrested of various members of Hamas, as well as destroying of a number of government offices.
On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah initiated “Operation Truthful Promise”, named for a “promise” by its leader to capture Israeli soldiers and swap them for the remaining three Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. The early morning raid into Israeli territory resulted the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the death of eight Israeli soldiers. This was an apparent “copy-cat” attempt to emulate Hamas’ kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. The Israeli Army commenced an attack on Lebanon in response to the Hezbollah attack. It has now commenced an air and sea blockade of Lebanon, and has bombed the main Beirut–Damascus highway.
This is where matters now stand. I hope that this is a helpful and measured account of what is happening and how history has contributed to the present situation.