Lloyd Geering

Part 4
Who Solves the Conflict?

From The Fourth R
Volume 15-4
July–August 2002

Read Part 1: The Jewish Claim
Read Part 2: The Palestinian Claim
Read Part 3: The British Responsibility

In 1998 Israel celebrated fifty years of statehood. Jewish aspirations had come a long way since 1897 when Herzl called the first Zionist Conference. There were great celebrations throughout Israel but they were tempered by a strong cautionary undertone indicating that conditions were far from happy. The Palestinians in the occupied territories declared it 'a year of catastrophe' and Israelis were acutely aware of their insecurity.

The State of Israel came to birth in 1948 in the midst of armed conflict. When the War of Independence broke out, the United Nations appointed Count Folke Bernadotte to mediate between Israel and the Arab states. After arranging two very brief cease-fires, he was assassinated by Jewish terrorists. No truce was observed faithfully by either side until July 1949, when the UN mediator secured separate armistice agreements between Israel and each of Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria.

Uncertain Armistice

For the next twenty years Israel lived in the state of an uncertain armistice with its Arab neighbors. The UN supplied a peace-keeping force to watch over the danger spots at the no-man's land separating Israel from Arab territory. This narrowed down to only a few yards at the point where the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem met the new Jewish city of West Jerusalem.

Israel then had sovereignty over about four-fifths of Palestine, which was significantly more than had been intended in the original partition plan. Egypt controlled the Gaza strip, largely populated by Palestinian refugees. The West Bank, including the Old City of Jerusalem, was taken over by Transjordan, which had become the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Palestine, as such, had disappeared.

The new state of Israel received world-wide moral support. The grim discovery of the Nazi death camps at the end of World War II led to widespread sympathy with the Jewish people. Soon after 1948 Israel was recognised by more than fifty governments and it had joined the United Nations.

But Israel remained a little island amid a sea of large, hostile Arab nations. After 1948 the Arab world in general, and the Palestinians in particular, quite openly declared it was their aim to destroy the state of Israel, drive the Jewish immigrants into the Mediterranean sea, and regain the land unlawfully taken from them.

The Plight of the Palestinians

The Palestinian Arab-speaking community, now widely dispersed and quite demoralized, just ceased to exist as a social entity. About one-eighth of it remained in Israel as Israeli citizens. Although Israel had agreed, under UN pressure, to 'uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex', this was far from what took place. Palestinian land was confiscated and the owners were forced to abandon agriculture and become unskilled wage labourers. Some three hundred villages were razed to the ground. Archival evidence (only recently released) has shown that David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), the first Prime Minister of Israel, was particularly anti-Arab and believed all Arabs should migrate to the Arab countries. Over the first few years many thousands of Palestinians were forcibly transported to the borders.

For West Bank Palestinians it was different. About two-thirds of all Palestinians became Jordanian citizens. However, tensions soon developed between the original Jordanian citizens and the better-educated, more skilled Palestinian newcomers.

For the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip it was worst of all. The Gaza Strip, which is only twenty-five miles long and four to five miles wide, became one of the most densely populated areas of the world. During 1948–1967 it was little more than a reservation for refugees, under Egyptian control, which was brutal and repressive. Poverty, unemployment and social misery became characteristic of life in the region.

In 1949 the UN established a total of fifty-three refugee camps in Jordan, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria, in order to shelter the 650,000 Palestinian refugees. Initially the refugees lived in tents, often several families to a tent. It was ten years before these were replaced by small houses of concrete blocks with iron roofs. Conditions were extremely harsh because of the extreme temperatures in winter and summer. Many camps are still there after fifty years and most people living in them have known no other life.

The Armistice Breaks

The uneasy armistice between Israel and its Arab neighbors was too fragile to last indefinitely. It broke in 1956 when President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. This so directly challenged Franco-British interests, that France hatched a secret plot with Britain and Israel. Israel was encouraged to attack Egypt and then France and Britain would intervene on the pretext of keeping the peace. The plot went badly astray; the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign and Nasser was left stronger than ever.

In early 1967 the Syrian bombardments of Israeli villages from the Golan Heights began to intensify. When Israel shot down six Syrian MiG planes in reprisal, it quickly found itself at war with Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Israel so quickly overcame the combined forces of all three Arab states with its air force, that it was all over in six days, leaving Israel in complete command of the Old City of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel's victory gave rise to a further displacement of Palestinians, with more than 250,000 people fleeing to the East Bank of Jordan. But about 600,000 Palestinians remained in the West Bank and 300,000 in Gaza. That is how Israel, with 3,000,000 Jews found itself in possession of the whole of the Holy Land at last, but there were now 1,200,000 Palestinians, living under Israeli rule.

Further sporadic fighting led once again into a full-scale war in 1973. On October 6, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Israel was attacked by Egypt across the Suez Canal and by Syria on the Golan Heights. Although the Israeli army this time suffered heavy casualties, it nevertheless pushed its way further into Syrian territory and even established a bridgehead west of the Suez Canal.

Within a space of twenty-five years Israel had advanced by stages from a precarious foothold to the occupation of the whole of the former Palestine. In 1980, it unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, to form one permanently united Jerusalem. Six months later Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights, thus making this Syrian land a permanent possession of Israel. Since then, Israel has increased its presence in the so-called occupied territories by establishing more than one hundred fifty new Jewish settlements. This process became known as the 'creeping transfer' of Jews to the West Bank.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a Jewish philosopher in Israel, before he died a few years ago at the age of ninety-one, warned that the continued occupation of the Gaza strip and the West Bank would eventually spell the end of the State of Israel. He greatly angered his fellow-Israelis by referring to them as 'Judeo-Nazis' and said, 'Who will want to be known as a Jew in 100 years, unless we stop doing to another people what was done to us?'

Palestinian Liberation Movements

So what was happening to this other people? Golda Meir had said there was no such people as the Palestinians. It is quite ironic that the dispersion of the inhabitants of Palestine, caused by the creation of the state of Israel, has had the long term effect of welding the Palestinians into a people, a people who now refuse to be set aside and ignored. This happened very slowly. At first they were quite demoralized, being scattered into three main groups: those who, in 1948, had remained to be citizens of Israel, those in the occupied territories, and those who lived in other lands, in what they thought was temporary exile.

Out of this dispersion situation there began to emerge something like a Palestinian consciousness, from which a new nation was struggling to be born. First the Palestinians formed a secret organization known as Fatah (The Palestine National Liberation Movement). They began the training of guerrilla units to carry out raids on Israel. In 1964 an Arab summit meeting in Cairo established a public movement known as the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). This soon claimed to be the sole representative of all Palestinian people. Among the principles of its charter were the right of all Palestinians to an independent state, the total liberation of Palestine, the return of the refugees to their homeland, and, as a necessary precursor, the destruction of the State of Israel.

In 1969 Yasir 'Arafat, the leader of Fatah, became chairman of the PLO and has remained the titular head of the Palestinian people ever since. As the aim of the PLO has been the total liberation of Palestine, they recognized that this could be achieved only through armed struggle. To this end guerrilla warfare (later turning into terrorism) became a key component in the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

The Roots of Terrorism

Since September 11 the whole world has suddenly become acutely aware of terrorism and this now global phenomenon has rightly come under universal condemnation. But there has been too little understanding of what gives rise to terrorism, whether in Ireland, Palestine or New York. At the root of the more serious acts of terrorism are three main ingredients:

  • There is a long-term grievance in which people believe they have moral right on their side.
  • These people find themselves to be relatively powerless in the face of an overpowering enemy.
  • They find that the world at large, including even the UN, either ignores their grievance or is unable to do anything effective about it.

Under such conditions patience becomes ex-hasted. Terrorism and sabotage are seen as the only measures which will ever achieve any change. This does nothing at all to justify terrorism morally, but it does help us to understand it psychologically. The only long-term method of dealing with terrorism, therefore, is to go to the root cause — the original grievance.

The long-term grievance of the Palestinians is that, in the West Bank and Gaza, for over thirty-five years they have been forced to live in a state of subjection to their Israeli conquerors in what is their own land, and the world has done nothing for them. Possessing very few arms they were quite powerless against the well-equipped army and air force of Israel, which is backed by the United States, the most powerful nation on earth.

The more moderate Palestinians claimed that, while they hoped to dismantle the Jewish state of Israel and purge Palestine of Zionism, they also sought to establish a non-sectarian state in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live in equality. But most Israelis have viewed the PLO simply as a terrorist organisation, committed to destroying not only the Zionist state but also Israeli Jews. The very long period in which Jews have suffered anti-semitic persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, only serves to confirm their belief that the Palestinians are simply one more anti-semitic enemy, which they must resist absolutely.

The guerrilla tactics employed by the PLO soon got them into trouble with their own fellow-Arabs in Jordan. In September 1970 it erupted into a brief but bloody civil war, which became known as 'Black September'. In 1971 the Jordanian army crushed the Palestinian military and forced them to go to Lebanon. From there, Palestinian guerrillas carried out attacks on Israel. Israel countered with raids into southern Lebanon.

Israeli-Egyptian Peace

The first real step towards peace came from Egypt. In 1977 President Sadat made an historic and courageous visit to Jerusalem to present his peace plan before the Knesset (or Israeli Parliament). This enabled the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, to negotiate peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979. Under the Camp David Accords Israel and Egypt signed a treaty that formally ended the state of war that had existed between them for thirty years. Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist. President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin of Israel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. While Sadat's popularity rose in the West, it fell dramatically in the Arab world. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League. Then Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists while reviewing a military parade in October 1981.

Israeli-Palestinian Tensions Increase

The 1980's were fully taken up with increased tension between Israelis and Palestinians in Lebanon. Israeli jets bombed Beirut and southern Lebanon, where the PLO had a number of strongholds. This led to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a drawn-out civil war in Lebanon, and the brutal massacre of some 18,000 Palestinians.

It is little wonder that hardening Palestinian feeling led to the first intifada (or uprising) in the occupied territories in December 1987. A whole generation of Palestinian youth had grown up under Israeli occupation, for some seventy percent of Palestinians were under twenty-five years of age. Their political status was uncertain, their civil rights minimal, and their economic status low. The growth of Palestinian population by natural increase now constitutes a demographic time-bomb. The total number of Palestinians throughout the world is currently estimated to be about four and a half million.

The intifada took the form of a mass popular protest with most shops closing. Israel responded with university closings, arrests, and deportations. Large-scale riots and demonstrations broke out in the Gaza Strip. This first intifada lasted until 1993 and during that time over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, and some 16,000 imprisoned. It caused a new and more militant group to emerge, known as Hamas; this is an underground armed wing of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which rejects any accommodation with Israel.

Renewed Efforts for Peace

In 1989 the PLO proclaimed the 'State of Palestine', and its governing body, the Palestine National Council, regarded itself as a kind of government-in-exile of the new quasi-state, with Yasir 'Arafat as president. Although this declaration was largely rhetoric with no substance to it, within a short time twenty-five nations, including the Soviet Union, but excluding the United States and Israel, had extended recognition to the government-in-exile.

Of much more importance was the PLO's acknowledgment of Israel's right to exist. It officially condemned terrorism as a deliberate policy, abandoned its long-standing goal of destroying Israel and accepted the goal of separate Israeli and Palestinian states. This was a tremendous step forward for which they have received little credit from Israel, partly because there is so little trust between the two sides and partly because Israel does not want a Palestinian state, believing an independent Palestinian state would constitute too much of a danger.

A change of Israeli government in 1992 led to the signing in Washington, by both PLO and Israel, of the historic 'Declaration of Principles'. Prominent among the Palestinian negotiators was Hanan Ashrawi, daughter of one of the founders of the PLO. She grew up in an Anglican family and earned a doctorate in English literature in USA. She became a Professor at the Palestinian University of Ramallah, and frequently appears on television programs. She convincingly articulates the new spirit of Palestinian pragmatism and is much more able than Yasir 'Arafat; but, being a woman in Arab society, she has not been universally accepted as the natural leader that she is.

The new Principles included mutual recognition and a plan by which some functions of government would be progressively handed over to a Palestinian Council in various West Bank towns and Gaza. Here the Palestinian Authority (PA) has assumed local control of education and culture, social welfare, health, tourism, and taxation. Internal security for these areas rests with the Palestinian police. For this significant advance, Peres, Rabin and 'Arafat were jointly awarded the Noble Prize for Peace in 1994. But in 1995 Rabin paid for it with his life, being assassinated by a Jewish zealot. There have been fanatics and terrorists on both sides.

The peace process initiated by Shimon Peres was known by the slogan 'Land for Peace', since security from further acts of terrorism was all that the Palestinians had to offer in return for land possession. The process received a setback when, in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, the newly elected right-wing Prime Minister of Israel, made clear what he intended for Palestinian independence. There was to be no Palestinian state and the present borders of Israel were not to be pulled back. Indeed the maps now appearing in Israel no longer show the West Bank as 'occupied' territory but as 'disputed' land within Israel.

The quest for peace began to look decidedly more promising when Ehud Barak became Prime Minister in a landslide victory in 1999. Barak was elected on a platform that promised a clear peace with Israel's neighbors, primarily the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. He met Yasir 'Arafat in Oslo on November 2, this marking the fourth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. An ambitious but rather tight programme was intended to bring the peace process to a speedy conclusion.

By May 2000 Barak had withdrawn all Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon. He planned to make peace with Syria by handing back most of the Golan. Barak was prepared to offer Palestinians autonomy over more of the occupied territories than any leader before him, and also to dismantle most of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Barak had promised his people they would have a referendum and he believed he could carry a solid majority of the Israeli public with him if, by his negotiations, he could offer Israel a permanent peace.

Then things began to go badly wrong. Israel be-came deeply divided about the Golan and the dismantling of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Barak's popularity declined rapidly in the opinion polls. Finally, 'Arafat disappointed him and many others by refusing to sign the agreement; he knew he could never get the Palestinian Authority to accept such a reduction of its aims. Barak, who had staked his prime ministership on the deal, was already losing so much Israeli support that he could never have won the promised referendum. The peace process then ground to a halt.

The Peace Process in Reverse

Not surprisingly a second intifada was declared. This was triggered off by Ariel Sharon. Already well-known to both Jew and Arab as an impulsive, uncontrollable and dogmatic man, he made a provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Sharon leads the Likud Party, whose Manifesto asserts that the State of Israel has an eternal and indisputable claim to sovereignty over all the land West of the Jordan. It opposes the granting of any concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. Shortly afterwards Sharon was elected Prime Minister; the peace process went into reverse.

More recently a series of terrorist acts by suicide bombers has intensified the tension. Sharon's heavy-handed response of invading Palestinian towns and wreaking destruction has been counter-productive. First, it simply increases the supply of suicide bombers, who in their desperation believe, however irrationally, they have nothing to lose. Secondly, it is now causing Jewish voices from abroad to express strong criticism of Sharon. Thirdly, it is causing Israeli reserve army officers to revolt. David Zonshein, a decorated officer and grandson of Holocaust survivors, said, 'As a Jew I cannot do the kind of things expected of me on reserve duty. I will never again bust into a Palestinian home and interrogate and humiliate a father in front of his children'. Fourthly, it is so unifying the Arab nations that they have even brought Saddam Hussein in from the cold.

Resolving the Conflict?

The gap between Israeli and Palestinian expectations is so great, it is difficult to see how any compromise can ever be reached. The Israelis want to retain military control over the whole of the Holy Land, refuse to see Jerusalem again divided, do not welcome an independent Palestinian state, are opposed to the return of Palestinian refugees and do not wish to dismantle the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians want a completely independent Palestinian state, want East Jerusalem returned as their capital, want all Jewish settlements in the occupied territories disbanded and want free entry for the return of Palestinian refugees and exiles.

Who can resolve this conflict? Extremists on both sides make it impossible to reach a compromise. The British tried and failed. The UN then took over and should even now be the chief mediator, but its role has been increasingly usurped by USA. The USA cannot effectively mediate while it continues to be seen by the Palestinians as Israel's big and powerful brother, particularly as both Israel and USA have persistently ignored UN directives. Yet failure to heal the conflict in the Holy Land has the potential to escalate into a wider and even more serious international conflict.

Samuel Huntington, director of the Harvard Institute of Strategic Studies, warned of this in 1996 when he said that the patronising superiority of the West is bringing us into a clash of civilisations. He referred to what he called the major fault lines in the earth's 'civilisation plates', two of which are the Islamic world and the western world.

In the nineteenth century it was the European empires which dominated the globe, none more so than the British. The twentieth century ended with the United States dominating the globe. In both cases the Islamic world developed resentment against the chauvinistic arrogance of the West.

This resentment gave rise to several reactionary movements, the most common of which is simply referred to today as Muslim fundamentalists. In their eyes the only adequate response to a dominating global superpower, such as USA, is a global jihad.

As we move into the twenty-first century, within a process of rapid globalization, the Western world has to learn the hard lesson that though domination by force may quell violence, it does not bring peace. That point was made more than two and a half thousand years ago by a prophetic voice which came out of Jerusalem. Jeremiah the prophet proclaimed, 'They are saying peace, peace, when there is no peace'. It is not for nothing that the Holy Land is regarded as the religious centre of the world by nearly half of humankind. Jerusalem remains to this day a powerful symbol. In many ways it is a microcosm of the world at large, and of the international tensions within it. In particular, there runs through this city the major fault line between two of the earth's 'civilisation plates', Islam and the 'Christian' West. When we have found a way of establishing peace in the Holy Land we shall have some chance of creating a stable global peace.

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Lloyd Geering is Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and the author of several books including Christian Faith at the Crossroads and Tomorrow's God. His new book, Christianity without God, appeared in 2002.

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