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The Eye of the Storm

TIP ---Click on any Photo or graphic to get a full size version--

The Origins and Development of Arab-Israeli Conflict

There’s an old joke told about the commercial aircraft approaching Belfast in the 70’s. The captain comes on the intercom to address the passengers; ‘We are now approaching Belfast International Airport. If you want to set your watches to local time, put them back 400 years’. Well, we’re now approaching the middle east, and to get an understanding of the present conflict we need to go back about 4,000 years.

Ancient Israel.

The origins of human settlement in the area known as the Levant are lost in the obscurity of time. We are all familiar with the Old Testament story of the Jews in captivity in Egypt, fleeing to the Levant, there to found the kingdom of Israel. The problem with this account is there is absolutely no archaeological or historical evidence to support it. Israeli archaeologists, among the foremost scholars in the world on the subject, spent over 10 years searching the Sinai desert and Israel for any evidence to support the legend, and had to admit that they could find none. Neither is there any mention of any aspect of the story in contemporary Egyptian records.

What we do know is that in a series of bloody battles between the various groups in the region, (recorded in lovingly gory detail in the Old Testament); the Canaanites, the Malachite’s, the Phoenicians and others, one group emerged dominant; the Hebrews, and sometime around 1,200 BCE founded the kingdom of Israel.

The history of the Kingdom of Israel would take several lectures in itself, but is essentially one of slow decline, as the kingdom was successively buffeted by the major powers of the region; the Egyptians, the Assyrians and most damagingly, the Babylonians. By 39 BCE there was a new kid on the block; the Romans, and they quickly conquered what was left of the Kingdom of Israel and founded the Roman province of Palestinia. A form of the Kingdom was allowed to continue, serving as a puppet regime to the Roman administration.

Masada, site of the Jew's last stand

Palestine was to prove the Roman’s most troublesome province, as the Jews obstinately refused to bow to Roman rule, and engaged in a series of armed risings against Roman occupation. These culminated in the Great Jewish Revolt of 70 CE, which took the Roman’s years to suppress, and only finally ended when the last Jewish stronghold at Masada was taken.

The Romans decided to remove the gloves and deal with this problem once and for all. Now in the context of the Romans, ‘removing the gloves’ was a frightening prospect indeed. They engaged in a series of bloody reprisals designed to once and for all break the will of the Jews to resist.

Hundreds of villages were razed, thousands of Jews massacred, and the Temple at Jerusalem, the most sacred site on earth according to Jews, was torn down. All that remains of the Temple today is the West Wall, more popularly known as the Wailing Wall, hence its significance for Jews.

In addition the Romans rounded up the bulk of the Jewish population and expelled them from Palestine. These exiles settled in Alexandria, Rome and other major cities of the Empire, beginning the phenomenon of the Diaspora, and the tragedy of the ‘wandering Jew’.


By the 4th century the Roman Empire had become too unwieldy to govern as a single unit, and it was split in two. The Western Empire continued to operate from Rome, and the new Eastern Empire set up its capital in the city of Byzantium, (modern Istanbul), renamed Constantinople.

It became common to refer to this eastern Roman empire as the Byzantine Empire after the original name of the city, to distinguish it from the Western Empire, but the Byzantines always insisted on referring to themselves simply as Roman, and saw the term Byzantine as insulting.

By this time too Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman state, (east and west), and as they have always done whenever they have had the temporal power to do so, Christians persecuted those who believed differently to them.

Thus the Jewish and non-conformist Christian populations of the region found themselves subject to frequent bouts of repression and persecution

Arab horesemen, late 7th century

Their lot improved considerably after 634, when a new power swept through the region and defeated the weakened Byzantines. These were the Arabs, united for the first time by their new religion of Islam, who swept up from the Arabian peninsula and conquered the region in a spectacular series of victories.

Muslims regarded Christians and Jews as An Al Khitab; usually translated as ‘people of the book’, because they too, in common with Muslims, held the Old Testament as sacred. They were protected under Muslim law, and while they were required to pay a special tax, and barred from service in the army or from bearing arms, by the standards of the day their treatment was relatively benign, and considerably better than it had been under the Christian Byzantines.

Initially conversion to Islam was strongly discouraged; it was seen as a religion for Arabs only, but gradually the rules were relaxed, and by the 11th century the majority of the population of the region were Muslim, with large centres of Christian population, and smaller centres of Jews. Ironically it was the return of the Christians in the guise of the Crusaders that saw the final end to an organised Jewish presence in the region.

Crusaders of the early 12th century

When Jerusalem fell to the crusaders in June 1099 it was subject to one of the most appalling massacres in medieval history, as the Christians rampaged through the city for three days slaughtering every living soul they could find, man woman and child, an estimated 10,000 in all.

Jerusalem’s Jewish population was rounded up and forced into the synagogue, which was then set alight, burning them alive.

The Christians were finally expelled in 1247 when the last crusader stronghold fell, and the region returned to Muslim rule. By now the inhabitants of the region were predominantly Muslim. There were small communities of Christians, but Jews existed now only in isolated groups, a village here and there.

The Muslims were divided among themselves as various dynasties vied for power, but by the 16th century a clear winner had emerged; the Ottoman Turks.

They quickly established their rule throughout the region, across all of North Africa and even into the Balkans. Indeed an Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna in 1529, and again in 1683. The area around the Levant became the Ottoman province of Syria.

The second siege of Vienna marked the high point of Ottoman power. From then they were to undergo a slow but inexorable decline, as they were gradually pushed back by the newly emerging European colonial powers.

France and Britain concentrated on taking territory in North Africa, the Austro-Hungarians expanded into the Balkans, the Russians applied pressure from the North. The Ottoman empire slowly shrunk in the face of European encorachment.

 

The West Returns.

In 1914 Turkey backed the wrong horse and sided with the Germans and Austrians. They had left the Arabian peninsula largely untouched. It was barren, arid and of no commercial or strategic importance. The strange black stuff that oozed occasionally from the ground was not seen as being particularly useful. The region was inhabited by wandering tribes of nomadic Bedouin, fierce tribesmen with a legendary fighting prowess, who spent their time much as the ancient Gaels had in Ireland; if not raiding each other they were feasting with each other.

The British realised these might be a valuable resource, and so entered into a series of talks that ended with the first significant agreement of our story, and the first great betrayal as the Arabs have come to see it. The agreement emerged from a series of exchanges between the British High Commissioner in Cairo; Sir Henry McMahon, and Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the most influential and powerful of the Bedouin princes, hence it is usually referred to as the Hussein-McMahon accord.

While historians have debated about exactly what the British had promised or demanded, the Arabs have always seen it as a straightforward offer; if the Arabs rose in revolt against the Turks and aided the British, the British in return would ensure independence for Arab lands following their eventual victory.

Hussein agreed, and a Bedouin army was formed under the joint leadership of his son Prince Feisal, and a young British officer named T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was to lead the army to a series of spectacular successes, culminating in their seizure of the Turkish port of Aqaba, generally considered unassailable because of its formidable shore batteries, but which Lawrence seized by attacking from the desert.

Ottoman territory (in green), 1914
Colonial betrayal - the Sykes-Picot Agreement

The success of the Bedouin army secured the left flank of the British and Anzac forces in Mesopotamia, allowing General Allenby to push on to Jerusalem, capturing the city in 1917, and putting it under Christian control for the first time in 600 years. Job done, the Arabs now looked to the British to make good on their promise of independence.

But the British response was ‘yes well, actually, about that…’, and the first great betrayal, as it is seen by Arabs. For at the same time as the British had been promising the Arabs independence following the end of the war, they had secretly been negotiating with the French to carve up the region between them. This was the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, named after the British and French diplomats who negotiated it, intended to divvy up the region, and squeeze out any possible Russian expansion. Lawrence was so disgusted at the betrayal that he handed back his Victoria Cross in protest.

The Arabs were outraged, and the matter was referred to the newly-formed League of Nations, who modified it slightly. Britain and France would not be allowed to rule the region directly, but would be given territories, (largely in accordance with those assigned to them under the Pact), to administer as mandated territories; i.e. to rule temporarily, while they prepared them for independence.

So the Arabs, having believed they had been promised independence, were told that what they were actually getting was a period of preparation for independence, but they would remain under foreign control for now. Arabs grumbled, but reluctantly accepted the plan. The British settled down to prepare the British Mandated territory of Palestine for independence.

The British Mandate of Palestine.

The Mandated territory of Palestine

However, worse was to follow. Arabia had undergone a series of armed conflicts as different tribal groups vied for power.

From this one man emerged as dominant; Ibn Saud, who went on to unite the peninsula under his rule, found the state of Saudi Arabia, and the royal house that rules it still.

Hussein’s son Sherif Abdullah, squeezed out of the peninsula by the victorious Saud, led a large army north with the intention of seizing territory from the French in Syria.

The British were worried about the destabilising effect this might have, and so made contact with Abdullah while he was resting with his army at the oasis of Amman.

And after half had been given awayHow would he fancy it, they wondered, if they were to give him all of their mandated territory east of the river Jordan , where he could create his kingdom? While the region was sparsely populated and arid, the wily Abdullah knew an opportunity when he saw one, and agreed. And so the Palestinians awoke one morning in 1921 to find that half the country had been given away, and was now the Kingdom of Transjordan.

Original Balfour declarationWorse yet was to follow. In the mandated territory now under British control, and which the population of the area believed was being prepared for independence, waves of foreign immigrants began arriving from Europe and establishing communities. These were Jews, coming to the region as part of the Zionist program.

Zionism was the political movement which had gathered strength in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It argued that Jews would never be accepted in European society, and would never fully be part of it. The only solution lay in Jews returning to their ancestral homeland in the Middle East, there to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel.

The idea had long been seen as an idealistic pipe-dream, more of a metaphor than an actual objective, but in 1918 conditions were favourable for the movement. For the first time the region was under the control of a power that was sympathetic to the idea; Britain.

 


Jewish  settlers arrive in PalestineTaking advantage of a favourable wind Lord Rothschild, the effective leader of the Jewish community in Britain, had lobbied hard for official support for the Zionist cause. The result was the publication in 1917 of the Balfour Declaration, a letter from the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, declaring his government’s support for the creation, within British-controlled Palestine, of a national homeland for the Jews.

Historians have long speculated about exactly why the British did what they did when they did. A major motivation was no doubt to garner the support of American Jews for the idea of a British victory, since the fulfilment of the Zionist program depended on it, who would then hopefully lobby the US government to enter the war.

A second motivation was to create a state in the region, fast becoming strategically vital, that would share the values of the west and be sympathetic to its governments. The newly arriving Jews were very much seen as the vanguard of a superior culture and civilisation, and the local Arabs, though disgruntled now, would soon warm to the newcomers when they saw the benefits their superior technology brought. Churchill was very much of this view, stating that Jewish immigration was ‘good for the region, good for the Jews, and good for the British Empire’.

Others, Belfour among them, were at least partly motivated by fundamentalist Christian zeal, which saw the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, and the recreation of the ancient Kingdom of Israel, as a necessary precondition of the second coming of Christ. This last belief still inspires the unswerving support for Israel among the fundamentalist Christian right in America.

However, the declaration called for the establishment of a national homeland, not a separate state. What was envisaged was that portions of the newly independent Palestine would be set aside and designated as areas for Jewish settlement. No one was talking about a separate Jewish state. Secondly, the declaration made it clear that the rights of the existing population must not be interfered with in the creation of this homeland.

The attitude and behaviour of the newcomers didn’t help matters. The small Jewish population in the region had lived in harmony with their Arab neighbours, integrated and part of the community. The newcomers lived in segregated communities, cut off from the indigenous population. They had no difficulty in letting the natives know that they were the representatives of a superior culture, and that the whole area properly belonged to them.

The Haganah guard a settler village

The Arabs viewed these developments with growing suspicion and alarm, and it wasn’t long before tensions between the two communities spilled over into violence.

In response the immigrants formed an armed militia known as the Haganah, to patrol and protect Jewish communities. But two far more ruthless and extreme Jewish militant groups were also formed; the Irgun and the Stern Gang.

While the Haganah were mostly defensive in nature, and Irgun and Stern Gang sought to bring the fight to the Arabs.

Special  Night Squad of the IrgunThey operated what were known as Special Night Squads, squads that would infiltrate Arab areas at night, abducting and murdering Arabs, who’s bodies would be found dumped on rubbish tips or by the roadside the next morning.


They followed an ideology that one Jewish historian summarised as “every Jew had the right to enter Palestine; only active retaliation would deter the Arabs; only Jewish armed force would ensure the Jewish state”.

British troops in Jerusalem, c 1935As the violence escalated the British struggled to keep control, veering between trying to placate the Arab population, which would enflame the settlers, or trying to placate the Jewish immigrants, which would annoy the Arabs.

They imposed limits on Jewish immigration, but these were widely circumvented by illegal smuggling of Jews into the area. The British sought variously to impose greater restrictions on immigration, then ease restrictions, as they tried to mollify both communities. In the end of course, all they did was to annoy both.

By the late 30’s the Arab population was in open revolt. They lacked centralised leadership though, and were divided among themselves. In contrast the Jewish settlers were highly organised and united in a common cause. Though smaller in number, their greater organisation and unity made them a more potent force.

Ironically, calm descended on the situation in 1939, as the outbreak of war everywhere else led to an outbreak of peace in the middle east.

Both Jews and Arabs joined the British army in almost equal numbers to fight the common enemy, the Jews being formed into the Jewish Brigade, the Arabs into the Palestinian Legion.

The closest thing that the Arabs had to a leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, destroyed whatever credibility he had when he sought to align himself with Hitler, even travelling to Berlin to meet him. At the end of the war he returned to Jerusalem a virtual outcast, as much among Arabs as Jews.

In 1946 the situation was reversed, as the advent of peace in the rest of the world saw a renewal of violence in the middle east. With the memory of the Holocaust fresh in their minds the actions of Jewish militants took on a harder and more ruthless edge.

Both communities resorted to violence, but the bulk of the attacks came from Jewish groups, designed now to intimidate Arabs out of as much ‘Jewish’ land as possible. When the British sought to restrain such attacks they too became a target.

King David Hotel after the bombingThe Stern Gang in particular engaged in a series of terrorist attacks on the British, the most notorious of which was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 people; British, Arab and Jewish, were killed. With the situation spiralling out of control, the British handed the whole mess over to the newly-formed United Nations to try to resolve.


Map showing operations by Jewish militants that were being conducted as the time of the UN partition approached

The UN set up UNSCOP; the UN Special Commission on Palestine, which soon came to the conclusion that the two communities would not be able to live together in a single country, and so the partition of the British Mandate into two separate states was the only solution.

Of course the proposal outraged both sides. Jews said it didn’t go far enough. The region was their ancestral homeland, and belonged to them in its entirety by right.

To Arabs it went too far, they had lived in the region for centuries, and were now being told that they would have to leave their lands to make way for foreign immigrants who had never set foot in the region before.

The better organised Jews were quicker to react. As the plans were finalised Jewish militants launched a well coordinated series of attacks on selected areas that had been designated to be part of the Arab state of Palestine, but which they saw as properly belonging to Israel.

Haifa; Palestinians flee Jewish attacksAreas such as the port towns of Jaffa and Haifa, and areas around Jerusalem, came under sustained attack from Jewish groups as they sought to terrorise the Arab populations into fleeing. Jaffa, for example, was subjected to almost daily mortar attacks from the Stern Gang.

There were several massacres of Arabs by Jewish militants, the most notorious occurring at Der Yassin, an Arab village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There, on the morning of April 09th 1948 about 120 members of the Irgun entered the village and attacked the inhabitants, killing everyone they could find. Estimates for the number of dead range from 110 to over 300.

Meanwhile the fledgling Israeli army; the Israeli Defence Force or IDF, was being formed. Composed mostly of the old Haganah, but also incorporating elements of the Irgun and Stern Gang.

 

The First Arab-Israeli War.

Bodies of arab  dead from Der YassinAs the situation deteriorated, and the appointed date for partition approached, neighbouring Arab countries warned that if Jewish attacks continued, and if Jews went ahead with a unilateral declaration of independence as they planned, then Arab states would intervene militarily. On the 14th May 1948 David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, proclaimed the independence of Israel. The next day the new state was attacked by all its Arab neighbours.Thus began the struggle that is now so much a part of the Israeli’s story of their own independence.

IDF Self-Propelled Gun, 1948

However, this was very far from the David and Goliath contest that it is often portrayed as. While on paper the Arab armies were far larger, what mattered was not the overall size of the forces available, but the size of the force committed.

The Arab states had no real enthusiasm for the project and, newly independent themselves, had their own problems.

The Saudi’s committed only one Battalion, the Lebanese made it clear they had no interest in the project at all, and the Iraqis were there only reluctantly.

 

IAF B-17 Flying Fortress, 1948The only potent force was that of Sherif Abdullah, now King of Transjordan, who commanded the British-trained and officered Arab Legion. But he had his own agenda, and had in fact done a secret deal with Golda Meir, Israel’s first President, to allow him to seize control of the West Bank once the fighting began.

On the other side the newly-formed IDF was a potent force indeed.

A considerable portion of its members were veterans of the various allied armies of World War Two, various European or Russian resistance movements, and of the Haganah, Irgun or Stern Gang. It was well equipped with tanks and artillery, having been generously funded by benefactors in Europe and America. And crucially it had one thing that the Arab states did not; an airforce. The new IAF; Israeli Airforce, was well equipped with British Spitfires and American Mustangs, and even had Flying Fortress Bombers, which were used to bomb Cairo.

1948 - Palestinains are rounded up

The result was that within a little over two weeks the IDF had turned back the Arab assaults and were ready to take the offensive. They quickly drove into areas of what was meant to have been Palestine, seizing territories they saw as rightfully theirs.

Once the fighting began the Israelis implemented what was known as Plan Dalet; the systematic expulsion of the Arab population from newly seized territories, and from the state of Israel.

That the program was implemented is not disputed, though Israelis and their supporters have always maintained that it was not official policy, but was the result of actions of local commanders. Arabs have always seen Dalet as a planned program of ethnic cleansing.

But the reality on the ground was the same in either case.

and dumped into refugee camps Israeli trucks turned up at villages and towns, and the population were given 10 minutes to gather what they could, then driven and dumped across the nearest border, there to fend for themselves. In all some 360 Arab villages and 30 towns were systematically cleansed of their populations.Refugee with the key of his lost home

Two great problems have bedevilled all attempts to find a permanent solution to the middle east crisis, and the first had now been created; the question of Palestinian refugees.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians were either rounded up and expelled, or fled their homes in the face of attacks.

In all close on 900,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes, to be dumped into makeshift refugee camps in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and the bulk of them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

There they remain to this day, waiting in vain for the day that they will be allowed to return to their homes.

Jewish settlers take over evacuee's houses. Many retain the key to their house, their most cherished possessions are the few bits and pieces that they managed to take with them. They may only be cracked cups or crockery, but they are valued because they came from their home in Palestine.

Children born in the camps, who have never set foot in Israel, can describe in intimate detail the view from the front porch, or the olive groves out the back, as the memory is passed from generation to generation.

In most cases their homes are long gone. Israeli victory was followed by waves of new immigrants from Europe and the rest of the world, who arrived to be given the homes and land of the Palestinians. When the UN Special Commissioner, Count Bernadotte of Sweden, voiced his objections to such practices he was murdered by a Jewish militant. During the war Bernadotte had negotiated the release of over 30,000 inmates from Nazi concentration camps.

From the very start every government of Israel of whatever political hue has totally and absolutely rejected any possibility of a return for Palestinian refugees. No amount of pressure or cajoling has managed to make them shift one inch. In the months after the war any Palestinians trying to sneak back to their homes or villages were automatically designated as ‘infiltrators’ and shot on sight. The years that followed saw further, less high profile, expulsions, as in the 50’s for example, when an unknown number of nomadic Bedouin living in the Ngev desert were forced across the border into Egypt by random army attacks on their encampments.

The war saw Israel expand its territory by 21%, seizing some 77% of the territory that had been designated as part of the state of Palestine by the UN partition plan. Palestine itself never got to exist, it was strangled at birth. The few parts of the would-be state not annexed by Israel were occupied by neighbouring Arab states. King Abdullah of Jordan seized the West Bank and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians themselves became a nation of refugees. Only Jordan granted them citizenship, no one else did. They became, in the words of one historian, pitied by all but wanted by none.

And so the state of Israel had been founded. The immediate reaction of neighbouring Arab states was to sit in the corner and sulk. They refused to recognise the state of Israel, refused to accept its right to exist, and refused to consider any compromise or negotiations. On the other side the Israelis absolutely rejected any return of captured territory, or any return of expelled Palestinians.

Map of Palestine, showing the extent of the Israeli seizure of territory.

And so violence filled the gap, and a depressing pattern of attack and reprisal that has persisted down to the present day was initiated. At first it involved raids across the Israeli border with Egypt by Arab paramilitaries known as the Fedayeen. These would be met by the inevitable, and usually disproportionate, Israeli retaliation. To put some figures on it, in the first 6 years of Israel's existence Fedayeen raids killed some 300 Israelis. Israeli air and artillery attacks launched in reprisal killed some 5,000 Arabs. The cycle continues today; Arab militant attack, massive Israeli retaliation, even more vicious Arab reprisal, even greater Israeli retaliation, and so on, and so on, and so on…

 

The Suez Crisis.

When the British left Egypt they left behind them, as they usually did, a cobbled together government that they thought would be amenable to their interests. And as usual this government was as corrupt as it was unpopular. So when a young Egyptian army colonel named Gamal Abdul Nasser staged a coup and seized power in 1954, it proved hugely popular with the bulk of the population. Nasser then embarked on a program of economic and social reform that saw the power of the old elite curtailed, land redistributed to the poor, and a program of modernisation and industrialisation rolled out.

At first Nasser was popular with western governments also. They provided loans and funding for his modernisation program, the centrepiece of which was the construction of the High Dam at Aswan, which still provides a huge portion of Egypt's electrical power.

The Suez Canal - Vital international waterway

But it all went sour when Nasser decided that Egypt should modernise its military as well.

The US and Britain, anxious to maintain the prevailing balance of power, refused to provide military equipment, and so Nasser committed a sin unpardonable in the context of the Cold War; he turned to the Russians. Overnight he went from being the hero of the west to being the spawn of Satan.

The West reacted by withdrawing funding for the Aswan dam, and in response Nasser announced he was taking the operation of the Suez canal into Egyptian state ownership. At the time the canal was operated by an Anglo-French company, and the profits went to them, but Nasser announced that he was nationalising the Suez canal, and would use the profits to complete the dam.

Gamal Abdul Nasser, President of Egypt The move caused alarm in the British government, who had always seen the Suez canal as a vital strategic interest, and so the Prime Minister Anthony Eden came up with a reckless and risky plan. The British, French and Israeli governments hatched a secret plot to give Britain and France control of the Suez, and the Israelis control of the Sinai. The plan involved the Israelis launching a surprise invasion of Egypt, to push across the Sinai desert and up to the canal. The British and French, feigning shock and surprise, would demand that both armies withdraw from the canal region. Suez Crisis - IDF armour advances into the Sinai

The Israelis would of course comply, and Egyptians would of course refuse, as they were being asked to abandon their own territory in the face of an invading force.

The British and French would then send troops to seize control of the canal, on the pretext of securing a vital waterway for the international community.

The Israeli attack was codenamed Operation Kadesh, and Anglo-French attack was Operation Musketeer.

And so on the 29th Oct 1956 Israel launched an unprovoked and unannounced attack on Egypt. They drove quickly across the Sinai, and were soon up against the canal. As per the plan Britain and France now demanded that both sides withdraw.

British Paratroopers attack Port Said

As per the plan the Israelis agreed and the Egyptians refused, and so as per the plan Britain and France began bombing raids against Port Said, followed up by an invasion by airborne and seaborne troops. They were soon in complete control of the port and the canal. Militarily the operation was a complete success. Politically it was a complete, total and unmitigated disaster.

The British and French governments had not prepared their publics for the operation, and there was widespread outcry at the spectacle of Egypt, the innocent party in the whole affair, being bombed and attacked by three armies, in circumstances that few could see as justified. But the unhappiness of the British and French populations was nothing compared to the absolute fury in the United States.

Eisenhower was apoplectic with rage when told that two of America's major NATO allies had embarked on a reckless military adventure in such a sensitive part of the world without consulting them first. He made it clear that the US was firmly opposed to the action and would not support it. A UN resolution was passed demanding the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Egypt, and when America voted in favour the writing was on the wall for Britain and France.

Both were forced into a humiliating climb-down, and had to withdraw their forces. The Israelis were forced to abandon all their gains and return to their original borders. Within months both British and French governments had collapsed, and other colonies took note of Britain's weakness, and they began to demand independence. Within a decade Britain had lost most of what was left of its empire, with many historians seeing the Suez disaster as the match that lit the fuse.

Nasser was an national hero, and a hero to Arabs everywhere. He had faced down three powers and won. In Israel there was a deep sense of bitterness and betrayal, as they saw the gains they had made through military daring thrown away by political cowardice.

The conclusion they reached was that Israel was on its own. It could not rely on allies, and must never again put itself in a position where it was dependant on another power. They began planning to improve their military and territorial situation, and the international community be damned.

 

Israel Victorious.

Despite having seized territory well in excess of that designated for the state of Israel, the Israelis were still not happy with their position, and saw the situation as very much one of unfinished business. Three issues in particular bugged them; the Straits of Tiran, the question of Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

Map showing Israel's main areas of concern

The Straits of Tiran represented Israel’s only access to the Red Sea, but the approaches were controlled on both sides by hostile powers; Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who could at any time block access.

Jerusalem had been divided by Israel and Jordan in 1948, but Israel always saw a united Jerusalem as being its only and rightful capital.

And finally the Golan Heights were a mountainous area of Syrian territory on Israel’s northern border, and Israel always felt vulnerable being overlooked by such commanding heights in the hands of a hostile power.

Egyptian planes destroyed on the ground

And so in the early 60’s Israel began planning for an operation that would solve all three problems. By the 06th June 1967 they were ready.On that day they launched simultaneous surprise attacks on Egypt, Jordan and Syria. This was the famous 6 Day War, but in reality it was over in 6 hours.

This was the length of time it took the IAF to destroy the Arab airforces on the ground. With their airforces gone, the final result was not in doubt. Jordan realised this and asked for peace terms on the first day, but the Israelis rejected any such overtures and ploughed on.

The rushed into the West bank and captured the entire city of Jerusalem. In the north they soon captured the Golan Heights, while in the south they raced across the Sinai, capturing large amounts of Egyptian prisoners as they advanced. It has recently emerged that several groups of these prisoners were massacred by the IDF. In the worst single incident a group of 250 POW’s, and some construction workers that had also been captured, were killed. Within 6 Days Israel had achieved all its goals and called off the offensive.

Israelis were euphoric. For the first time they had acted alone, in defiance of everyone else, and had succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Jews could for the first time in centuries admire themselves, and be admired by others, as victors. As one Jewish commentator put it; the Jews had been cured of the stain of helplessness. But amidst all the jubilation and celebration a lone voice sounded a dire and prophetic warning.

Victorious Israelis reach the Wailing Wall

An aged Ben Gurion addressed a meeting of the ruling Labour party. Israel must immediately return all of the captured territories he said, for the cost of keeping them would rot the soul of Israel from the inside. The Israeli army would go from an army of liberation to any army of occupation, and the measures they would have to adopt to maintain control of the territories they had seized would change forever the character of the army, and gradually erode the widespread support and goodwill Israel now enjoyed. But his warnings fell on deaf ears.

The IDF arrest Palestinians in Gaza, 1967

The hapless Palestinians were the real losers, as usual. Refugees who had fled to the West Bank or Gaza Strip now found the Israeli army crashing in the door behind them. Once again the trucks and bulldozers came, and once again they were evicted from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers.

Mass evictions were the order of the day, applied without distinction to refugees who had fled there in 1948, and Arab families who had lived there for centuries. The first intractable problem had been created in 1948; Palestinian refugees. The second one was now created; Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Initially the official policy of the Israeli government was not to build settlements in the occupied areas, which they hoped to rule with as light a touch as possible, realising that large scale settlement would make that goal unattainable.

An Uzi in one hand and a Torah in the other Jewish settler on the West Bank But almost immediately young Israelis, mostly motivated by a religious fervour that saw Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria (as the insisted in calling the West Bank), as a sacred goal, began setting up illegal settlements. The IDF protect a Jewish settlement on the West Bank

With large sections of the political class and the army openly sympathetic to such moves the government soon capitulated, and settlements became official policy. They have been a source of tension and dispute ever since.

Large areas of occupied territories were cleared of their Arab residents, and their homes bulldozed to make way for Jewish settlements, some of which grew to house tens of thousands of settlers. The tensions inevitably led to attacks, the attacks to reprisals, and so once again back to the vicious spiral of violence and bloodshed.

As the settlements grew and grew so too did the IDF presence, and Palestinians found themselves squeezed by ever more restrictive security measures. Attacks on settlers which killed innocent children and civilians, often deliberately, led to a hardening of attitudes and an increase in militancy.

So bitter have feelings become that the Israeli government had to intervene to prevent settlers erecting a memorial celebrating the actions of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish American doctor who entered a mosque in Hebron and opened fire on worshippers with his M16, killing 29 and wounding 125.

To this day many settlers celebrate ‘Goldstein day’ on the anniversary of the massacre, often dressing their children up to look like the good doctor. Settlers are very intransigent on the issue. God gave them this land, (presumably in his role as divine estate agent), and that’s an end to it.

 

The Yom Kippur War.

By 1973 Egypt was now governed by President Sadat, who was becoming increasingly aware of how the continued struggle with Israel was draining Egyptian resources, and holding back national development. He wanted a way out, but in order to maintain his authority he had to be seen as operating from a position of strength. So he needed a victory. Syria, eager for an opportunity to win back the Golan Heights, were happy to cooperate, and so the two powers began planning for a surprise attack on Israel, to return the favour for 1967.

The attack began on the 06th Oct 1973, and was launched to coincide with the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur War: Egyptians breach the Bar Lev Line

It caught the Israelis completely by surprise. The Egyptians smashed through the Israeli fortifications along the Suez canal known as the Bar Lev Line and, advancing under a cover of Russian-supplied SAM (Surface to Air) missiles that negated Israeli air power, they made rapid progress.

With their war stocks dwindling rapidly and their army withdrawing very serious alarm bells were ringing in Israel.

But further north the Syrians were making much less progress, and appealed to Sadat to continue his advance further than originally planned in order to ease pressure on them.

Unwisely Sadat agreed, but once they advanced beyond the range of their SAM screen the Egyptians became vulnerable to IAF air power again.

Syrian T55 advances towards the Golan Heights

When the US government began a massive shipment of arms and ammunition to Israel, and announced that they would give them whatever they needed, Sadat realised he had achieved as much as he was going to and called off the offensive.

Despite only partially succeeding Sadat was hailed as a hero. If nothing else he had shattered the myth of Israeli invincibility, and had seriously shaken the Israeli's confidence in their own security. Sadat had built up a huge store of brownie points among the Arabs, which was just as well, because he was now about to expend them all.

 

The Camp David Agreement.

Sadat had the victory he needed, and after a year or so to let the dust settle he opened quiet diplomatic talks with the Israelis, to explore the possibility of a comprehensive peace deal. Unfortunately at the time the Israeli government was headed by Menachim Begin, former leader of the Stern Gang, who had been a wanted terrorist by the British. He was a hardliner, and rejected all Sadat’s overtures.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with Donald Rumsfeld

A dramatic gesture was needed to break the impasse, and so in 1977 Sadat publicly announced that he was willing to travel to Israel and address the Knesset in an effort to secure peace.

At a time when no other Arab country even recognised Israel, much less would talk to them, the gesture was dramatic indeed.

Begin reluctantly accepted, but dragged his heels about following up on the overture. The new US president, Jimmy Carter, fearing the momentum was being lost, invited both leaders to the Presidential retreat in Camp David to negotiate.

It was a brilliant move. Carter essentially locked the two leaders up, and told them that they weren’t getting out without a deal. The talks were reportedly fractious at times, and President Carter did some serious arm-twisting, but he was determined to get a peace deal.

By dint of perseverance, and US pressure, a deal was done, and in April 1978 the Camp David accord was signed, the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin

Sadat was denounced as a traitor by other Arab leaders, but the genie was out of the bottle, the spell had been broken. When the howls of protest had subsided other Arab countries quietly moved to normalise relations with Israel too.

Jordan was next, glad of the opportunity it had waited years for, and today Israel has signed agreements with all its Arab neighbours bar Syria, where the return of the Golan Heights remains a sticking point. Nobody is sending anyone Valentine cards, but they are at peace. The problem that bedevils the region now is that of the Palestinians.

 

Palestinian Militancy.

By the late 50’s the Palestinians; pitied by all but wanted by none, had reached the conclusion that they were on their own, and must look to themselves to try to improve their lot. One young man who took this approach was Yasser Arafat, who in 1959 had formed a militant Palestinian group known as Fatah, (victory). By the mid 60’s they were launching regular guerrilla attacks on Israel from bases in Jordan. These, of course, produced the inevitable reprisals.

By the late 60’s Palestinian militancy was a growth industry, and Fatah, (now the main element of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation; PLO), had been joined by other, even more extreme organisations, most notably the PFLP, (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), an outright terrorist group, inspired by militant Marxism. The PFLP adopted the tactics of plane hijacking and hostage taking, most famously when they hijacked an Israeli passenger plane and flew it to Entebbe.

Burning planes on the runway of Amman Airport

By the 70’s Jordan, now ruled by Abdullah’s grandson King Hussein, was becoming increasingly impatient with Palestinian militants, and the unwelcome attention they brought on the country.Hussein was favourably disposed towards the west, and the idea of an accommodation with Israel, but his freedom of action was always constrained by the large Palestinian presence within his borders, nearly 60% of the total population.

But in 1973 the PFLP flew three hijacked passenger planes to Amman, Jordan’s capital, evacuated the passengers and crew, and blew them up in front of the world’s cameras. For King Hussein it was the last straw. Despite the risk of reaction from Palestinians he ordered the army to move against militants and expel them from the country.

PLO fighters clash with Jordanian troops After a brief struggle the PLO were ejected, and took up residence in south Lebanon.

The Lebanese government, in the throes of a civil war between its Christian and Muslim populations, was in no position to do anything about it. They reluctantly accepted the situation, taking some crumb of comfort from a PLO assurance that they would not involve themselves in Lebanese internal affairs, an assurance that proved less than cast iron.

 

The Invasion of Lebanon.

The PLO continued their attacks on Israel, and Israel became increasingly determined to deal with this problem once and for all. In 1982 they made their move, launching a massive invasion of Lebanon. The invasion was part of a wider plan drawn up by two of the government’s most hard line cabinet members; ex-Stern Gang leader Menachim Begin, now PM, and ex-paratroop commander Ariel Sharon, now Minister of Defence. They saw the invasion of Lebanon as part of a scheme to finally deal with the whole Palestinian problem.

IDF armour masses on Israel's northern border as they prepare to invade Lebanon

According to the plan the IDF would drive as far as Beruit and topple the Lebanese government, replacing it with a pro-Israeli Christian administration. The IDF would then proceed to destroy the Palestinian militants once and for all. The remainder of the Palestinian population could then be rounded up and dumped in Jordan.

The sudden influx of Palestinians would destabilise the Jordanian state and topple its government, which would doubtless be replaced by a Palestinian administration. Jordan would then become the de-facto home of the Palestinians, to where Israel could then move the remaining Palestinians under its control.

Two problems prevented the plan succeeding; the inability of the Christian factions to unite behind a single leader, and the dogged resistance of Palestinian fighters trapped in Beruit.

 

Week after week the Palestinian fighters in Beruit held out, despite the city being subject to a merciless bombardment by the Israelis. It is estimated that around 25,000 Lebanese were killed in the onslaught. International criticism mounted, and eventually even Ronald Regan intervened to appeal personally to the Israeli Prime Minister to call off the attack.

Begin bowed to the pressure, and a deal was brokered whereby the PLO would be evacuated to Tunisia by sea, well out of harm’s way, and the US would lead an international military force to ensure security in Beruit pending the creation of a new administration.

Some of the many victims of the massacre

The main concern of the departing fighters was for their families left behind, but the Israeli's gave guarantees that the IDF would protect the camps where the Palestinians lived. The PLO departed for Tunisia.

The IDF did indeed secure all the refugee camps, but on the night of the 16th Sept 1982 they allowed columns of their allies in the Christian Militia to enter the two largest camps, Sabra and Shatilla, and then sealed the camps behind them.

The Militia ran amok for three days, slaughtering every Palestinian they could find. In all an estimated 3,500 were killed, mostly women and children.The Israelis then let the militia out, and sealed the camps again so international aid organisations couldn’t get in.

Ariel Sharon and George Bush share a joke
When the news emerged it caused massive international uproar. It provoked, for the first time ever, mass demonstrations by ordinary Israelis, protesting against the actions of their own government. Initially the IDF denied any responsibility, but an international commission headed by Sean McBride found them to have been directly responsible. Sharon was forced to resign, and later a court in Belgium convicted him of war crimes in his absence.Hezbollah fighter in South Lebanon

The Israelis withdrew from Lebanon but, unwisely as it turned out, decided to continue to occupy a 6 mile wide strip of Lebanon along their northern border as a buffer zone. This continued occupation provoked the emergence of a Lebanese resistance movement known as Hezbollah, very well organised, very well trained and, for the first time in the middle east conflict, introducing an element of religious zealotry to the already volatile mixture.

Up until now religion had not really played a part on the Muslim side of the conflict, (though it had with the Israelis, as with the fundamentalist Judaism of many of the settlers). The PLO had been avowedly secular, and the likes of the DFLP and PFLP were motivated by Marxism, not Islam. The main Arab governments in the area, Egypt and Syria, had spent much of their time suppressing Islamic fundamentalism, and Jordan was a secular state from the start.

On a side note, the present fundamentalist lunacy of the likes of Bin Laden and others emerged out of opposition to the Arab governments in the region, not opposition to Israel or the West.

Hezbollah drew their inspiration, (and much of their funding), from the new fundamentalist regime in Iran, and saw themselves as part of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s crusade to export the Islamic revolution abroad. Hezbollah introduced a new tactic to the conflict, one of the most shocking and terrible so far; the suicide bomber. In fairness suicide attacks in Lebanon were confined to military targets, but the tactic would be taken up later by even more extreme groups, and used without discrimination against civilians.

The IDF and their Christian Militia allies fought a long war of attrition in south Lebanon and eventually, having lost more men there than they had in any previous conflict, Israel was forced to withdraw in 2000.

 

Intifada.

Back in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza strip life continued its miserable routine for Palestinians. Subject to frequent harassment by the IDF, stopped and searched at checkpoint after checkpoint, frequently abused or assaulted, living in appalling conditions, but subject to eviction at any time to make way for a new settlement, attitudes hardened and tensions rose. By 1987 the camps were like powder kegs, waiting for a careless match.

The match was thrown on the 08th Dec 1987, when an IDF tank transporter ran into a group of Palestinian youths and killed four. Almost overnight the camps erupted in spontaneous uproar, as stone throwing youths took to the streets to vent their frustration. The First Intifada had begun.

While the common image is of Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli tanks, the protest was far wider than that. It also involved a general strike and a program of civil disobedience. Palestinian women took the lead in organising sit-ins, rent strikes and other protests. The Israeli reaction was predictably excessive.

They designated stones as ‘potentially lethal missiles’, and sanctioned the use of live ammunition in response.

And so for months the world sat down to the evening news to watch images of well armed Israeli soldiers in armoured personnel carriers and tanks firing into groups of Palestinian children throwing rocks at them.

The protests lasted for nearly two years. In all about 164 Israelis were killed, mostly soldiers. An estimated 1,100 Palestinians were killed, mostly children. The rising had several effects. It cemented a strong Palestinian national identity for the first time. No longer were they just ‘other Arabs’, the Palestinians were a separate group, this was their land, and they were prepared to fight for it.

It also marked the end of the ‘Jordanian solution’ that had long been pushed by Israel; the notion that Jordan would become the Palestinians national homeland. The uprising had been spontaneous and locally led. Even the PLO struggled to assert some influence over it. When it was over Palestinians realised that they didn’t need the Jordanians, or anyone else, to speak for them or decide their future. They would do that themselves.

Finally the nightly images of Israeli over-reaction eroded what little support there was for the state in all but their staunchest backers, and focused international attention on the plight of the Palestinians. Even in the US news organisations that would have never been critical before expressed their objections to Israeli tactics.

 

The Oslo Accord.

The protests also led to a concerted effort to secure some sort of long term solution. Led by Norwegian diplomats and initiative was launched to bring the PLO and Israelis to the negotiating table. Months of tortuous wrangling followed, but conditions were favourable.

Bill Clinton was president, and determined to secure a peace deal. Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister in Israel, a moderate and flexible politician, and Yasser Arafat had previously renounced the use of violence, and publicly accepted the right of Israel to exist within its 1967 borders, giving up the Palestinian claim to those lands seized in 1948.

The Famous handshake - Rabin and Arafat

The result was the 1993 Oslo Accord, establishing for the first time an independent Palestinian administration. Under the deal the Palestinians recognised and accepted Israel’s 1967 borders, in return for the creation in the West Bank and Gaza of a Palestinian authority. Israel would retain control of external affairs, and would maintain a military presence in parts of the new PA (Palestinian Authority) areas, but the Palestinians would have a large measure of self-determination over their own lands.

Or at least that’s what they thought they were getting, but when the euphoria of Arafat’s return to the West Bank had subsided, and the details were examined, the real picture emerged.

What the Palestinians thought they were getting, (left) V what the actually got, (right)

The Israelis would retain direct control of large parts of the West Bank, some settlements would be dismantled but most would remain, and considerable portions of the rest of the PA area would be under joint IDF-Palestinian control.In all only about 30% of the West Bank would actually be directly controlled by the Palestinians.

But the Palestinians were not even going to get that.

 

The Suicide Bombers.

In 1995 Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish radical, and a new government under hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu came to power. Netanyahu announced that not only were settlements not going to be dismantled, but a raft of new settlements were going to be constructed. Worse, he announced a reduction in the amount of territory that would be handed over to the PA, and a delay in handing over the remainder.

Once again Palestinians found themselves being evicted and their homes bulldozed to make way for settlements. In all they would only be getting about 13% of the territory they originally thought they’d be getting.

Aftermath of a suicide attack on an Israeli market

The frustration and anger led to a fall in support for the PLO, now seen as ineffective, and a rise in support for two extremist, ruthless and barbaric militant groups, both motivated by radical religious fundamentalism; Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

They revived the Hezbollah tactic of the suicide bomber, but without any distinction as to who it killed.

And so Israel was subject to a series of appalling suicide attacks as young Palestinian radicals strapped suicide vests to themselves and went into Israel with the explicit intention of killing as many civilians as they could.

Israeli teenager killed by a suicide bomber.

Targets included rush-hour buses, shopping malls, wedding receptions, crowded markets and, in one particularly disgusting attack, a group of Israeli teenagers waiting to enter a nightclub to celebrate the end of their final school exams.

Israeli border guards attack Palestinians

The Israeli reaction was predictable. They cracked down brutally on the occupied territories. Operations were launched where an entire area would be flooded with IDF, sealed off and cleansed of militants.

Missile strikes and helicopter attacks were launched against militant leaders and suspected militant installations.

A policy of destroying the homes of the family members of suicide bombers was introduced, as was that of targeted assassination, the extra-judicial killing of suspected militants. Of course, ordinary civilians ended up being the main victims.Powers of arrest and detention were extended to the degree that they now border on a policy of internment.

IDF Merkava tank on the West Bank


Prison camps sprang up in Israel and around the occupied territories into which suspects were thrown, there to be routinely abused, tortured and even killed.

The Israeli Supreme Court approved a policy of physically abusing prisoners to extract information, known euphemistically as ‘shaking’. It is estimated that nearly half of all Palestinian males have spent time in an Israeli prison.

 

The 2006 Elections.

In 2006 Hamas defeated Arafat’s Fatah to win the elections for the PA. Despite being democratically elected, the US, Israel and much of the international community announced that they would not deal with them. Eventually armed conflict broke out between Hamas and Fatah in the West Bank, and Fatah managed to seize power there. Hamas continued to control the Gaza Strip.

In response Israel has blockaded the entire area. The Gaza strip has been sealed off, and nothing is allowed in or out. Even innocuous items like construction equipment, fuel, spare parts for generators, are banned, as they are deemed to be of potential use to Hamas. In the strip the Palestinians are only surviving because of goods smuggled in from Egypt through a network of tunnels that now pepper the border.

Elderly arab sits beside the ruins of his home

Further north the Israelis are constructing a ‘security fence’, a 25 foot wall that will eventually surround large parts of the West Bank.

The wall divides Palestinian farms and communities, cuts farmers off from their water, is all on the Palestinian side of the border, and will leave considerable parts of supposed Palestinian territory on the Israeli side of the wall.

The real tragedy is that the solution to the whole mess is there for the taking. Palestinians have accepted the right of Israel to exist within its 1967 borders, and have given up their demand that refugees be allowed to return to their lands.

Map showing the proposed route of the Wall

On the Israeli side most ordinary Israelis are in favour of the policy of trading land for peace, of giving up settlements in the occupied territories to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, consisting of the West Bank and Gaza strip.The Obama government is also in favour of this ‘two state’ solution, as is the EU and most of the international community. What is holding things back is religion.

On the Israeli side, because of their electoral system, small religious parties usually end up holding the balance of power, and most see settlements as a sacred right. No Israeli government thus far has been willing to face down the inevitable protests from religious fundamentalists that would accompany any significant reduction in settlements. Indeed Netanyahu, again in power as this is being written, has announced yet another expansion in settlement building on the West Bank.

Map showing the extent of Palestinian territorial losses down through the years.On the Palestinian side Islamic fundamentalists in Hamas and Islamic jihad deny the right of Israel to exist, and want to see the entire state destroyed. They see their fight as part of the wider struggle to restore the ‘caliphate’, a religious theocracy that would rule the region as the original caliphs had in the 7th century.The proposed 'two state' solution

But it remains the fact that most ordinary Israelis, and most ordinary Palestinians, just want to get on with their lives in peace and security. Most would accept the two state solution, and if properly implemented the religious hardliners on both sides could be quickly marginalised.

But for now the region remains locked in the seemingly unending cycle of attack – reprisal – attack – reprisal. Each attack hardens attitudes and leads to stronger reprisals. Each reprisal radicalises another potential suicide bomber and strengthens support for religious extremists.

 

The End