Category Archives: middle east

“You have to die, so that I can live.”

Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.

This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.

The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.

It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.

Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.

Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).

When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.

Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.

Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.


Filed under Cronulla riots, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, middle east, morality, Political, politics, psychology, religion, terrorism, tolerance, torture, Uncategorized, USA, war

Egypt and FGM

It’s awful that it has taken the death of a 12 year old girl to precipitate change, but it is good that Egypt is now looking at banning female genital mutilation outright. Even more positively, leaders in the Sunni Muslim and Coptic Christian communities have spoken out unequivocally against the practice, which is practiced by adherents of both faiths. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a cultural shift.

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Filed under christianity, feminism, human rights, islam, law reform, middle east, sexuality

An apposite quotation

Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm but the harm does not interest them. -T.S. Eliot, poet (1888-1965)

I found this nice little quotation today. It encapsulates my own opinion on these matters so pithily, concisely and, well, poetically! It could apply to so many of the topics of my blog posts: politics, global warming, the Stolen Generation, misplaced paternalism towards indigenous people, the Iraq War, what makes George Bush tick…

In fact, this nice little quotation even applies to the draconian water restrictions in Victoria at the moment. They are being imposed merely so that the government can feel important and appear to be doing something, but the truth of the matter is that the majority of water use and wastage is in agriculture and industry, so cutting domestic use is essentially pointless and inconveniences everyone hugely. That’s one thing for which I would criticise many greenies of my acquaintance – they say “this is the perfect solution” (eg, wind farms) without looking at the practicalities or the broader picture, and recognising that there are always drawbacks to everything (eg, wind farms are unsightly, create noise pollution and may endanger rare parrots).

No solution to anything is ever going to be perfect. It’s a question of weighing up the bad and the good consequences. Sometimes, despite good intentions, a solution can cause more harm than good.

Going to another current topic, I’m sure the US Republicans thought: “Liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein and force Iraq to become a liberal democracy, that will make things much better.” Um, maybe not.

The situation in Iraq reminds me of Yugoslavia after Tito died. Removing a dictator always seems like a good thing, but when the dictator had been holding vicious sectarian disputes in check by his oppressive regime, the results can be disasterous. By removing the dictator, the lid was taken off the sectarian disputes and all hell broke loose…

As per my previous post, I continue to hope that Saddam is not executed, despite his crimes. I suspect that it is being done for precisely the same reason as the water restrictions; so that people can look like they are doing something important and productive in an otherwise hopeless situation.


Well, latest news is that Saddam was executed anyway. We’ll see whether this is a solution or, as I suspect, a creation of a worse problem.


Filed under Iraq, middle east, politics, Saddam Hussein, water restrictions

Middle Eastern Misery

It’s a sad world. I read in the paper yesterday that the Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon turned up to the Iranian Holocaust denial “conference” organised by President Ahmadinejad.

I wonder if the Grand Dragon is aware of the history of Iran? Iran’s official religion is Shi’a Islam. As a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. Since this time, Iran has tried to extend the influence of its particular brand of revolutionary Islam. President Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. He sees himself as continuing this tradition, and after his election, he reportedly stated, “Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution of 1384 [the Iranian year at that time] will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world.” He also reportedly said that “the wave of the Islamic revolution” would soon “reach the entire world.” He also called for Israel to be “wiped out” or “wiped off the map”. Iran has funded organisations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, a militant Shi’ite paramilitary organisation, whose kidnap of two Israeli soldiers from Israeli territory sparked off the disasterous military incursion by the IDF into Lebanon.

Although obviously Ahmadinejad and Duke share a bond because of their anti-Semitism, I never thought to see them in the same room at the same time. Shared hatred produces strange bedfellows. I doubt that the Grand Dragon really wants the Islamic revolution to come to the land of the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps he should think about that…

Unfortunately, sentiments such as this are not confined to Iranian presidents and Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragons. I saw a report the other day about an Australian website called Mission Islam, which has some extremely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in its section entitled “New World Order“. I really hate nonsense like this with a passion.

As I have argued in a previous post, these kind of anti-Semitic notions are not just racist stereotypes. Racist stereotypes are bad enough, but these are worse. They are falsehoods which have been used in the past to justify genocide on a massive scale. And now, to add insult to injury, people such as Ahmadinejad seek to deny that the genocide occurred.

What is the agenda behind this? Ahmadinejad seeks to prove that the Holocaust did not occur, because he believes that the corollary is that Israel was not entitled to the grant of territory it received in 1947 after the war. More subtly, he seeks to use regional hatred of Israel to strengthen Iran’s prestige and religious influence in Arab countries. If Iran can “wipe Israel off the map”, or encourage other countries to turn their backs on Israel, its preeminence and power in the region will be assured.

Many Islamist terrorist groups (both Sunni and Shi’ite) say that they have brought terrorism to the West because they are dissatisfied by the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel. These groups hope that the average person just wants the threat of terrorism to go away and that the average person doesn’t care or know about the complicated history behind the occupation (also dealt with in a previous post). Israel is worried that the terrorist groups are succeeding, if this recent opinion piece from from Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is anything to go by.

It is all very depressing. If Australians are tempted to think that Israel should be abolished, they should think how Australian settlers and immigrants would feel if all the indigenous people in Australia turned around and said, “We want you to all go back to where you came from. This is our land. You are occupying it against our will, and colonialists stole it from us 200 years ago.” What would the average Australian say? “Hey, I’ve got a connection to this land! I was born here, I grew up here. This is my country too. I don’t deserve to be punished because of the way in which this land was acquired.” I would also hope that the average Australian would be willing to share the land with Aboriginal people (although every time a native title case which is positive to indigenous people is handed down, my hopes seem to be dashed again).

The situation with Palestinians and Israelis is analogous, except that the Jews have had a continuing spiritual connection with the land in question since the Romans expelled them from the area in 135 CE. Obviously, what needs to be acheived is some kind of compromise in which the competing claims to the land are recognised (easier said than done, I know, but one can always hope).

For those who support the Palestinian cause and think that Ahmedinejad’s criticisms of the Holocaust are valid: how would they feel if Israel held a conference to deny the existence of the Nakba (‘cataclysm’), otherwise known as the expulsion of the Palestinians from Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israel War? I’m sure they would feel outraged. Of course, there are arguments as to the extent of the Nakba and as to the reasons why Palestinians fled, but as far as I am aware, Israel does not deny that it occurred or that it is an invention. And nor should it.

For those who wish to preemptively strike at Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or the like, please keep in mind that this would probably result in the deaths of many innocent people. It may be trite to say it, but empathy is what prevents us from becoming inhuman. If the Nazis had had empathy for fellow innocent human beings, the Holocaust would never have happened. I think the Holocaust has produced a hardness in the hearts of some Jewish people: “No one helped the Jews in World War II, so why should we accomodate anyone else? We’ve got to look after ourselves and strike back before others do so.” I gather that those Jews who went meekly to the gas chambers are sometimes derisively called “sabon” (soap) in Israel, and some Jews believe that they should never be meek again. Nevertheless, I think it is very important to retain compassion and humanity. Otherwise one risks perpetrating the same crimes against another people as were perpetrated against one’s own people.

Among all this depressing commentary, there are a few rays of hope. Irfan Yusuf, an Australian Muslim lawyer, wrote an excellent commentary last year criticising Ahmedinejad’s rampant anti-Semitism, and drawing an interesting contrast between the attitudes of Ahmedinejad and Saladdin. A French Muslim commentator, Tariq Ramadan, has strongly criticised the tendency towards anti-Semitism in some modern Muslim thought:

“To my regret, anti-Semitic utterances have been heard not only from frustrated and confused young Muslims, but also from certain Muslim intellectuals and imams,” he says, “who in every crisis or political backsliding see the hand of the ‘Jewish lobby.’ There is nothing in Islam that gives legitimization to Judeophobia, xenophobia and the rejection of any human being because of his religion or the group to which he belongs. Anti-Semitism has no justification in Islam, the message of which demands respect for the Jewish religion and spirit, which are considered a noble expression of the People of the Book.”

Even when he identifies urges that have their source in economic distress and social frustration, or the desire to protest against Israel’s oppressive policy, among people who express themselves in an anti-Semitic way and are involved in anti-Semitic acts, Ramadan refuses to demonstrate understanding or forgiveness toward them. He says: “The social and political forces in the Muslim communities must act to educate toward the delegitimization of elements of anti-Semitism. Leaders and imams have the responsibility to disseminate an unequivocal message about the profound connections between Islam and Judaism and Islam’s recognition of Moses and the Torah.”

“Despite what is happening today in Israel and Palestine, despite [then Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s policy, despite the feelings of anger and frustration – those responsible for all the Muslim political and social organizations must open a clear dialogue that distinguishes between criticism of Israel’s policy, and anti-Semitic and Judeophobic statements and actions. This is lacking today and this is a great responsibility.”

I could not have said it better myself. Perhaps there is some hope after all. Let’s all stand up against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. And let’s hope for more examples of compassion, empathy and understanding from all.


Filed under islam, judaism, middle east, politics

More on the Middle East and Anti-Semitism

I refer to my earlier posts on the Middle East and Anti-Semitism. Simplistic portrayals of Middle Eastern issues are divisive and unhelpful. It seems that there are big problems on university campuses with some “left-wing” groups who take a simple line that Israel (and therefore Jewish people) are evil. I was very pleased to read that Islamic and Lebanese student groups are condemning such behaviour.

How can one have a straightforward view when even the basic facts on which such views are built are in dispute? For example, in relation to the recent Lebanese conflict, there has been heated debate as to whether media reports of a Lebanese ambulance being hit by an Israeli missile are accurate. On the one hand, a blogger has suggested that the reports were not accurate, but on the other a newspaper reporter has suggested that the reports were accurate.

Having done a fair bit of research on the web into the Middle East, I’ve discovered the crazy political world of the blogosphere. The trend seems to be that the left wing sites are anti-Israel and the right wing sites are anti-Islam. I don’t see why it should be a matter of being left wing or right wing. The Socialist Alternative students mentioned in The Age article above who identify as “left wing” seem to have gone so far around the political spectrum that they could be categorised as “right wing”. In fact, I don’t even know what those labels stand for any more. I think I’m going to be “other wing” or “my very own wing”.

Abusing someone merely because they are a member of a particular ethnicity or religion is just plain racist. This doesn’t mean one turns a blind eye to unpleasant behaviour by individuals of an ethnicity or religion, but just because someone happens to be a Jew or a Muslim should not be taken to indicate that they are a bad person! It certainly doesn’t excuse abusing someone, spitting on someone or making them feel uncomfortable on a university campus.

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A rant about anti-Semitism

I don’t know why some particular groups in society seem to attract conspiracy theories: for example, Jews, Cathars, Masons, Opus Dei…to name a few. I never heard anyone say “I want to kill that Presbyterian”, or of an allegation that there is a Taoist plot to control the world.

An issue which has been eating away at me for the past few weeks is the growing friction between religious groups. I have had difficulty writing this post, because I find the issue so depressing and upsetting. However, when I saw in the paper that Mel Gibson had been sentenced for his drink driving episode, I was reminded again of my proposed post, and I’ve decided to have another shot at it. My particular concern is what I perceive as a rise in anti-Semitism in the wake of the recent Middle East conflict. I am not Jewish myself, but I have a very strong dislike of anti-Semitism.

Gibson was arrested for drink driving on 28 July this year, and reportedly asked the arresting officer if he was Jewish, and then said, “F**king Jews, the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” He has since issued two apologies for his behaviour. But is this a case of in vino veritas as far as Gibson’s views are concerned?

Ten years or so ago, the only time you saw overt anti-Semitism was in far right groups such as the Citizens’ Electoral Council. Unfortunately, in the wake of Islamist terrorist attacks, it seems to have become acceptable to be blatantly anti-Semitic in mainstream contexts. I read an article in The Times the other day describing the routine of an Australian comedian at the Edinburgh Festival, Steve Hughes. Hughes apparently said that kids should stop playing Cowboys and Indians and play Nazis and Jews instead (to which an audience member called out “Throw them in the oven”). Hughes then said, “I want to bash Condoleezza Rice’s brain to bits and kill that f**king Jew Richard Perle.”

Why is Perle’s religion relevant? Is Hughes suggesting that Perle is an eminence gris manipulating Bush behind the scenes? With a comment like that, Hughes is intimating that evil Jews are manipulating United States foreign policy. In fact, as always, the reality is far more complex. Some of the biggest supporters of the state of Israel and the Republican government are in fact evangelist Christians (who ironically, as Michael Gawenda points out, are also major supporters of Gibson’s film, The Passion).

I wonder if, secretly, a number of people agree with Gibson and Hughes on some level. I have heard one person say, “Why didn’t they [the Jews] take Uganda when England was going to give it to them? Then we wouldn’t have all these problems with the Muslims now.” (ie: If the State of Israel hadn’t been created, we wouldn’t be worrying about terrorists now, so terrorism is the fault of the Jews.) This is a more nuanced version of the sentiment which was behind Gibson’s outburst.

So, my theory is that the current mainstream anti-Semitism arises out of a belief that tensions in the Middle East have provoked Islamist extremism and hatred of the West. Terrorists often refer to the creation of the state of Israel and the Israel/Palestinian conflict as a motivator behind their actions. They also refer to US support of Israel and US and British invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama bin Laden has even cited Australia’s support for the liberation of East Timor as a reason for reprisals against Australia. So does this mean we should just swallow the cant of these terrorists without question? I am suggesting that we should not let fear blind us, and we should not adopt anti-Semitic rubbish.

I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with foreign policy pursued by the United States or Israel, as long as the criticism is reasoned and fair. But I do think people should be aware that a number of terrorist organisations have adopted anti-Semitic propaganda wholesale and are regurgitating it as fact, so one should be cautious of uncritically accepting their explanations for their actions.

What I do have a problem with?

  1. Suggestions or inferences that there is a worldwide conspiracy by Jews (or Israel) to control the world (through office in particular governments, through banks or through the media). This reeks of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a text which purports to detail Jewish plans to obtain world domination through control of the press and finance. It was used as propaganda in Nazi Germany. It has been exposed as a fake emanating from tsarist Russia, but it is still cited as “proof” of Jewish plans for world domination by organisations as diverse as the Citizen’s Electoral Council, Hamas and Hezbollah.
  2. Suggestions that the Holocaust is a “made up” event designed to engender sympathy. Such suggestions have recently been made by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The implication to be drawn from this is that the UN granted Israel to the Jews on false premises. This is simply vile. It is a fact that millions of Jews (and gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, communists and others) were killed in concentration camps. I think that anyone who doubts the Holocaust should read Primo Levi’s If this is a man, a personal account of the author’s survival in Auschwitz. Levi was a physicist and his account of Auschwitz is written in a scientific and clear manner which makes the horror of his subject matter all the more terrifying.
  3. Suggestions that “the Jews” (or Israel) are actually responsible for the World Trade Centre bombings. You think I’m kidding about this? Unfortunately not. A friend of mine received an e-mail from a workmate making this very allegation (and he quickly sought to set the sender of the e-mail straight). The suggestion is notorious enough to be cited on the “Snopes” Urban Myths website and on the US Department of State website. Another conspiracy theory which has been advanced is that the US military arranged the attacks to justify a war against Islam, and that the recent arrests of terrorists in Britain has the same motive.

I have heard some people offer excuses for comments of the above nature on the basis that the conduct of Israel towards Palestinians is unfair. This is like saying “Well, it’s okay to spread all kinds of lies about that boy Peter, because we had a fight last week and he beat me.”

Some people go further and say that Israel should not exist at all. My personal belief is that Israel has a clear right to exist. A point which is often overlooked in this debate is that existence of Israel was validly mandated by the UN (although, obviously, there are still disputes as to its present borders). The manner in which Israel should and does respond to threats to its sovereignty and people is a different and difficult question. One could argue for days on the rights and wrongs of the Israel/Palestinian situation, or the rights and wrongs of the recent conflict in Lebanon and not come to a resolution. I think a realistic view of the situation would concede that all parties have done things which have not been right, and that there is no easy solution.

I strongly believe that you have to take every person as you find him or her. I do not think it is fair to impose a stereotype on a person just because of their religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, or to make generalisations about a particular group. However, the anti-Semitic notions above are more than just stereotypes or generalisations (for example, “anti-Christian” or “Islamophobic” sentiments). Why? Because they are not just “anti-Jewish” statements. They are falsehoods, some of which have been used in the past to justify genocide. This makes them particularly poisonous. These topics are no joking matter. I don’t care who makes the suggestions and what the political agenda is. There are no excuses for anti-Semitism.

Postscript re Islamophobia

I should make it clear that our response to terrorism should not be to become anti-Muslim. That just replaces one ill with another. Again, you have to take every person as you find him or her. Dean Jones’ “joking” comment that South African cricketer Hashim Amla (a devout Muslim with a full beard) resembles a “terrorist” is offensive and equally deserving of criticism. The comment looks particularly unfunny in light of the recent arrests in Britain for alleged terrorist plots to blow up airlines. I feel sorry for decent Muslims who have to endure anti-Muslim feeling because their religion has been used as a justification for the violent actions of extremist organisations. But I also believe that Islamist extremism must be recognised by Muslim communities, and not excused or ignored.

For an interesting and intelligent comment on an appropriate response to terrorism by Muslim communities in Britain, I recommend having a read of an article in The Times by Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury. The leader of the London Tube bombings was a member of his constituency.


Filed under islam, judaism, middle east, politics

The Middle East – How has it come to this?

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.


Filed under history, middle east, politics