The focus of our June 7 discussion was Israel/Palestine. We were honored to have Alan Dowty — author of a book by that name — join us to help understand the current Middle East situation and the history of the relationship between Jews and Palestinians in that region.
The origins of the conflict between these populations goes back to the 1880s when Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began settling in the region as a result of persecution. At the time the area was under the Ottoman (or Turkish) empire, where Jews generally had been welcomed as refugees as far back as the time of their expulsion from Spain in 1492. But the Jews who migrated into the empire had usually been welcome as citizens who merged into the prevailing culture. Those who arrived in Palestine followed the admonition of Theodore Herzl to establish a homeland, which was a threat to the population already living there.
The Arabs in the area, around one-half millions Muslims and Christians, lived under the shadow of the Crusades, the aborted attempt of Christian European armies to recapture the holy land at any cost from about 1100-1300. After World War I, British displaced Ottoman rule, which improved health, transportation, and communication services.
For Arabs, the growing Jewish presence presented a threat that they would lose their land. After World War II, almost all Jews accepted the idea that Palestine should be their homeland after persecutions and rejections by other countries. Hagenah(meaning Defense) was founded in 1920 to protect Jewish immigrants. In 1936 “the great revolt” by Palestinians began with the intent to expel what they considered Jewish interlopers in their land.
Dividing Palestine was first proposed in 1937 by the British Peel Commission. The British were caught in the growing conflict from Jews escaping persecution and native inhabitants, eventually evacuating in 1948 as the State of Israel was declared. Israel also inherited a sizable Arab minority as the war between Israel and its neighbors — plus Palestinian groups — began. Nevertheless, an agreement was reached between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon — for Israel to claim possession of about 78% of the former British Palestinian mandate.
The two decades between 1948 and 1967 wars were dominated by the personality of Gamal Nasser, who served as a model for unity of all Arabs. By the early 1960s a number of Palestinian fighting groups emerged, including Fatah (under Yasser Arafat) and the PLO. The period of 1956–67 was relatively quiet as UN peacekeepers were stationed on the border between Israel and Egypt.
The 1967 war was precipitated by the Soviet Union warning Egypt that Israel was about to attack Syria. Egypt moved troops into the Sinai and closed the gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships. In six days of fighting that began on June 5, Israel captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. A “land for peace” formula was adopted by the UN at the end of the year in which Israel would exchange land for recognition, and this has been the basis for subsequent negotiations, but the word Palestine does not appear in the resolution.
Anwar Sadat became Egyptian president when Nasser died in 1970 until his assassination in 1981. Sadat coordinated an attack on Israel with Syria in 1973 which was defeated. Starting in 1977 Egypt strengthened ties with the US and negotiated peace with Israel under Manachem Begin, which also led to a treaty with Jordan. But the Palestinians still saw themselves as oppressed, which resulted in the Intifada and Hamas, which had both violent and non-violent purposes: improving the lives of Palestinians and confronting Israel. But among Palestinians — many of whom worked in Israel — income and consumption levels have improved considerably since 1967.
There have been numerous short bursts of war between Israel and Palestinians since that time, among them in 2008, 2012, and the most recent spate of attacks that resulted in many deaths, but inevitably more on the Palestinian side which has inferior offensive and defensive capabilities. UN fact finding often has found fault on both sides for causing excessive civilian casualties.
The most recent change in government about to take place that combines representatives from the right and center of Israeli politics, as well as Arab members of Knesset, may be cause for cautious optimism. The current coalition may be a hopeful sign that all sides are willing to give a bit in an effort to end the politics of confrontation that has affected the area for over 100 years. At first they might seek to agree on rebuilding the infrastructure and economies of all areas before they can hopefully build enough trust to address the ultimate and unavoidable issue of how the land is to be shared or divided.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.