Behind the Middle East Crisis

The Modern History

Lo, I am about to make Jerusalem a cup of reeling to all the peoples round about...on that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it shall grievously hurt themselves. And all the nations of the earth will come together against it.

Zechariah 12:2-3

Israel and the PLO have been sliding toward full-blown war since September 2000, as the last shreds of the Oslo Peace Process dissolved into an intifada and successive terrorist activities. The Palestinian National Authority's chief representative to the United States, Hassen Abdel Rahman, told a meeting of the U.S. Institute of Peace last April that if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continued on the current path, "...the gates of hell will open. We will go back, not to 1967, but to 1948 and unleash radicalism on the whole region."1

In the world media, the propaganda war still rages equally fiercely, paralleling the conflict it describes. Every night, talk channel pundits and their Israeli or Palestinian guests scream a bewildering array of claims, counter claims, propaganda and information, leaving the uninformed Westerner with the impression that this is a bad family feud that any wise person should remain far from. It is virtually impossible to sort out the arguments presented by Israelis and Palestinians without a lot of effort, but one thing is painfully obvious: both sides can't even agree on the historical facts that spawned today's conflict. It is also clear that both groups operate from two fundamentally incompatible worldviews, something the global secular community is using to point to religion as the cause of all the world's problems.

The Beginning of the Strife

The conflict is as old as Abraham's two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, patriarchs of the two peoples. The modern chapter began in the late 19th century, with the rise of Zionism as a result of the trial of a Jewish French military officer named Alfred Dreyfus, accused of treason. A Jewish newspaper reporter, Theodor Herzl, was covering the trial and in the course of the proceedings eventually realized that Dreyfus was being railroaded because he was Jewish. From that realization Herzl came to believe Jews would never be safe until they had a homeland of their own, and modern Zionism was born.

Two key historical events in this story occurred in the early 20th century. First, during WWI the British, under General Edmund Allenby, captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks in 1917. Until that time, Jerusalem and Palestine were backwater regions of the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Istanbul. Mark Twain visited Jerusalem in the 19th century and records it as a filthy old city in total disrepair. As Zionist Jews trickled into Palestine, they bought property from the absentee landowners - oftentimes the most undesirable portions of land at inflated prices - and converted swamps and desert land into blossoming agricultural kibbutzim (communes). With the increase of economic opportunity in Palestine, more and more Muslims began gravitating to the region to take advantage of the economic boom.

The second key event occurred when Britain promulgated the Balfour Declaration, saying His Majesty's government viewed with favor the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Fast Forward

As the number of Jews in Palestine increased, so did tensions between Arabs and Jews, fomented largely by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Husseini. Today's conflict was formalized with the birth of the Israeli state in 1948, when the United Nations - in a cliffhanger majority - of one vote - partitioned Palestine into two states, one for Jews (Israel) and one for Arabs (Jordan). The Jewish suffering of the Holocaust was a tremendous impetus for the world to accommodate the Jews, who had suffered so greatly during World War II. The Arabs rejected the partition plan and attacked the new Jewish state, initiating the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

During this time the Arabs inside the fledgling state of Israel fled their homes to avoid getting caught in the impending conflict, also fearing rule under Jewish dominion. This group of refugees became the group of people we call the Palestinians today. Many fled to Jordan or other neighboring states, where they were placed in refugee camps and never assimilated into the greater culture of those countries. Even though most of the original 1948 refugees have died, many of their descendants still live in camps and to this day demand the right of return to their former homes inside Israel. The Israeli government has refused to grant this right because the Palestinian numbers would overwhelm the economic and political demographics of Israel, making the Israeli Jews minorities in their own country. This issue will somehow have to be addressed if there is to be a satisfactory peace.

The Six-Day War (1967)

The events surrounding the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War is perhaps the biggest bone of contention regarding today's conflict: borders and who started the fight. Frequently, demands are heard about UN Resolution 242, which requires Israel to keep to its pre-1967 borders with its Arab neighbors, but no one can agree exactly what that will mean. At the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, no peace treaty was signed; a cease-fire armistice was the only thing defining borders and the terms of peace. A peace treaty was to be hammered out later, something which the Arab countries subsequently refused to do, since they still intended to retake the territory of Israel when the occasion presented itself.

A Bellicose Chronology

On May 15, 1967, Israeli intelligence discovered that Egypt was concentrating large-scale forces in the Sinai peninsula - remember this is before the days of satellite intelligence. On May 19, the United Nations Emergency Force stationed on the border between Egypt and Israel was evacuated at the demand of Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser. During the night of May 22-23, Egypt's navy blockaded the Straits of Tiran opening into the Indian Ocean, prohibiting passage to Israeli ships. On May 30, Jordan joined the Egyptian-Syrian alliance of 1966 and placed its armies under Egyptian command. Iraq followed suit shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, military detachments from other Arab countries began arriving. By the end of May, Israel confronted a Muslim force of 465,000 troops, 2,880 tanks and 810 fighter aircraft along the entire length of her borders with Arab countries, which had not been there less than a month earlier.

As Arab radio crackled with "drive-them-into-the-sea" rhetoric, the situation became very tense. Technically, the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran could probably be considered the first bellicose act of war, but there had been no violence or lives lost. Despite a huge Egyptian army threatening its southern border, Israel tried to diplomatically defuse the crisis by approaching Britain and France, who had guaranteed freedom of Israeli navigation. Those counties reneged on their promise. U.S. President Johnson proposed breaking the blockade with an international armada. In a May 28 broadcast, Israel's Prime Minister Levi Eshkol agreed to wait and see.

By June 4 it became clear that diplomatic channels had failed. Faced with imminent danger, Israel launched a preemptive air strike to shatter Arab air forces while their aircraft were still on the ground, a move which succeeded. During the six days of the war, in fierce fighting Israel took the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai Desert from Egypt, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from Jordan - all of the territories that have been on the table for negotiation during the Oslo Peace Process. Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt during the historic Camp David agreement under President Jimmy Carter, negotiated between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat would later pay for this with his life as the result of an assassination. The remaining territories are still held by Israel. The Palestinians view these lands as having been seized and occupied by Israeli aggression, while Israelis view them as spoils of a war they didn't start or want.

The Jerusalem Block

Jerusalem remains a stumbling block to peace as the Palestinians claim the city was theirs before the 1967 War, while the city is the heart and soul of the Jewish nation and religion. It was the once-great capital of King David and the site of Solomon's and, later, Herod's temple. Even though Muslims considered Jerusalem to be a holy site, building the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount in a.d. 687 to commemorate the site from which Mohammed made his Miraaj or Night Journey into the heavens, the city itself was virtually ignored until Jewish immigrants returned in significant numbers. The city is now the greatest source of division between Israelis and Palestinians, since the side that rules Jerusalem will hold dominion over the other's holy sites. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can agree to willingly give up any part of the Temple Mount. It is the ultimate point of honor.

The Oslo Accord established most of the West Bank and Gaza as Palestinian-controlled areas with the understanding that future negotiations would be required to settle the questions of boundary lines, the establishment of a Palestinian state, the issue of Jerusalem, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It was deemed that these issues were too hot to handle, and indeed these issues torpedoed the most recent Camp David talks. In a drive to establish himself as the president whose legacy was to bring peace to the Middle East, President Clinton pressured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat into addressing these issues prematurely. Coming to an agreement at that point would have meant political suicide for both men, and ultimately it cost Barak his position.

In the meanwhile, it is the common people on both sides who are suffering the effects of the constant violence. Israelis cannot feel safe in any public place, for fear a suicide bomber will strike, while Palestinians fear that Israeli reprisals will spill over into their neighborhoods. The Israeli economy has been hard hit with the decrease in tourism due to the violence, and Palestinians are struck with a 60% unemployment rate, in part because they are not allowed to commute to their jobs in Israel.

Why Do They Hate Us?

Many Westerners fail to understand the deeper religious nature of not only the Middle Eastern conflict, but also how that affects our own position in the world. September 11 caught the United States and the West by surprise, but it shouldn't have. The indicators were all there for anyone with eyes to understand what they were looking at, and it was clear something had to give. Western culture is viewed as a threat to Islam, which by now should have been well underway to converting the globe to the service of Allah. Indeed it really is, as in some parts of the western world it's the fastest growing religion. By 632, the prophet Mohammed had completed the task of conquering the Arabian peninsula, something he began only 10 years earlier. From Arabia, Islam swept through North Africa as well as modern-day Turkey and into the Balkans. From North Africa the Muslims invaded the Iberian peninsula and proceeded into the European heartland, where they were stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. Muslims continued to have a foothold in Spain, contributing greatly to Spanish culture, until they were finally expelled under Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492.

Islam is a rich and complex culture in itself, which traditionally assumes one of two roles. In a country where it is not dominant, it takes on a submissive, negotiating role until it can achieve the upper hand. Once in dominance, it switches faces and assumes control, imposing itself on the culture in which it finds itself the majority. Ultimately Muslims believe that the whole world will be Muslim, even if it takes a few centuries and any number of setbacks.

Arab Muslims have a love/hate relationship with the West. Muslims view Western culture as being decadent (frankly, they're right), and are distressed that Western governments have intruded into Muslim lands since World War I. Virtually all of the countries of the Middle East today are the result of artificial borders drawn up by Western powers following the Great War. Israel is viewed as a Western thorn in the Islamic heartland; an intolerable cancer that ultimately must be dealt with. The question in the Islamic mind is not how much land Israel holds; it is the fact that it holds any land at all in what was formerly Muslim territory. This is one core reason why the Middle East can never have peace unless it is imposed from without, and once the external pressure is removed, war will return.

While adhering to 6th-century religious practices, especially concerning sexuality and women, Muslims steadfastly believe in the ultimate global victory of Islam. Still while deploring Western culture, Muslims love Western technology and money. They use email, cell phones, faxes, and the like. They buy Western weapons and clothing and use oil money from Western countries to finance their activities, including terrorism.

World Opinion? Never Again!

The Jewish population of Israel has equally strong emotive ties to the land under question. Jerusalem is mentioned hundreds of times in the Jewish Scriptures. It was from Jerusalem and greater Israel that the Jews were driven into Diaspora. After enduring two millennia of exile, persecution and pogroms, Jews have finally returned to their homeland, about which they would conclude their yearly Passover seders by saying, "Next year in Jerusalem."

The horrors of the Holocaust cemented the need for a Jewish state in the ancestral Jewish homeland. That's why world opinion doesn't impress the Israelis as much as one might think it should. World opinion didn't help the Jews when they were seeking refuge from Hitler's Germany even before the Endlsung (final solution) had been implemented. Ships bearing Jews were turned back to Germany, even from the U.S. Most countries were unwilling to take them in when they desperately needed a place to go and public opinion had totally failed to apprehend the approaching slaughter. Countries have reneged on their vows to aid Israel. So in the Israeli mind, it is their lives in the balance and world opinion is just "talk." The vow, "Never Again!" weighs heavily in the Israeli mind-set and rightly so.

Another Final Solution?

The two groups competing for the same space in the Middle East have two different religions, two different worldviews, two different "scriptures" for the future destiny of the land. Coupled with that is a century of bloodshed, conflict, reprisals and hatred in which citizens from both sides have suffered and died, when for the most part, most simply want to live their lives and raise children in peace. It is clear that peace is unlikely unless it is imposed from without and then the question is, whose peace and at what cost?


  1. Hassen Abdel Rahman, speaking before the U.S. Institute of Peace and aired on C-SPAN, April 5, 2002.