31 January 2009

The roots of the Middle East conflict

By Nicola Pratt

Much mainstream reporting of the recent episode of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians neglected, like previously, to explain the historical background to this conflict. As a result, members of the public are left to think that this is a never-ending fight between Arabs and Jews, who are unable to live together in peace.

The problem is not that Arabs / Muslims are fundamentally unable to coexist with Jews. Arabs - who are Muslims and Christians - and Jews coexisted for centuries in the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Middle East until its downfall after WWI. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire gave refuge to many Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution in Europe.

The conflict in the Middle East is the result not of historical enmities but of a grave injustice committed by the British government in the early twentieth century and perpetuated ever since by the failure of the international community to implement a just solution.

During WWI, the British government sought to improve its position within the Middle East as a means of defeating its Ottoman enemy. Towards this end, in 1917, Britain responded to lobbying by a relatively recent and minority movement amongst European Jews called Zionism, and recognised the Jewish claim to a homeland in a part of the Ottoman Empire called Palestine (the Balfour Declaration). Britain had also promised independence to the Arabs under Ottoman rule, in return for Arab support in the war (an episode of history made famous in the film, Lawrence of Arabia).

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI, Britain took control of Palestine and allowed for an increase in Jewish immigration. They put down the growing unrest by the Arabs of Palestine, who were unhappy with British domination and the rapid growth in what was a predominantly European Jewish population.

After WWII, and in the wake of the Holocaust, the international Zionist movement pushed for an independent Jewish state immediately to enable unrestricted migration of European Jews to Palestine. This demand was strongly supported by the United States, which emerged from the war as a world power.

Unable to deal with both Jewish and Palestinian resistance, Britain handed the matter to the newly created United Nations. In 1947, a UN commission recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. This was vehemently opposed by the Palestinians and Arab governments since the Jews, making up 33 per cent of the population, would get 57 per cent of the land, including the fertile coastal region. However, the US and USSR supported partition since they were both keen for Britain to withdraw from Palestine.

The declaration, in 1948, of the State of Israel sparked a war between Israel and its Arab neighbours. The Arab armies, divided and weakened by their dependence upon their colonial masters, were defeated by Israel. Israel succeeded in establishing a state in 77 per cent of Palestine and almost two thirds of Palestinians (780,000) were displaced to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and neighbouring countries.

In the wake of the war, rather than attempting to implement UN Resolution 181 (the partition plan), the UN oversaw the negotiation of ceasefire agreements between the belligerent parties. This informally confirmed the borders of the new Jewish state. The UN also passed Resolution 194, calling on Israel to either allow the return of the refugees to their homes or to give them compensation. However, Israel, with the backing of the US and Britain, refused to implement this resolution and hoped that Palestinians would be resettled in other Arab countries.

Today, the world has forgotten these resolutions and instead the Palestinians have been forced to bargain for even the remaining 23 per cent of historic Palestine. Therefore, is it surprising that some Palestinians resort to violence to put forward their long-standing claims for self-determination?

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