Jul 14, 2006

Middle East backgrounder

From the Comments;

I called my local mp Joe Preston consevative and stated the point of war crimes and his secretary remined me of ww2 crimes and that Isreal has a right to defend.
[context; the Conservative gov't of Canada has voiced unconditional support for Israel's invasion of Lebanon and Gaza]

You should have asked him to remind you what exactly the people in Gaza and Beirut being bombed had to do with the holocaust.

This comment of your MP points out the very great difficulty of talking rationally about the Middle East. For a number of reasons, cultural, historical but most cogently, religious, very few commentators on the Israel/Palestine conflict are able to attain sufficient detachment.

Because this land is the cradle of the three great monotheistic religions, it is almost impossible for devout followers of those faiths to step back and consider the facts of the case as if Israel was just another country. Jews and Christians see it as part of divine plan; God gave that real estate to the Jews and anything they do to defend it is okay by God. Or at least some Christians, and some Jews. There are many secular Jews, some Zionist and some not, and there are some Orthodox Jews who regard the state of Israel as a blasphemous usurpation of God's authority.

(This is why any talk of a "Jewish conspiracy" is just nuts; there's an old Jewish saying, get four Jews together and you'll have five opinions.)

Likewise, it is mostly the evangelical Christians who are vehemently pro-Israel. Their "logic" is that the Jews return to the Holy Land is necessary for the coming of Armageddon, when their loving God will rain fire and brimstone down on the heathen for seven years, something they earnestly wish for. They can't be easily dismissed as cranks, either, because they are so politically powerful in the United States, Israel's chief sponsor and protector.

On the other side, Muslims (and again we need to say some Muslims) regard Israel as a satanic intrusion into their culture area, and see a divine duty to wipe it out.

Well, I'm a Buddhist and none of those holy lands, holy books or divine injunctions means squat to me. (To paraphrase a very old joke, why can't the Jews and Arabs just behave like good Buddhists?) So maybe I can try and see things from a neutral perspective.

Leaving aside the current crisis for the moment, let's consider the overall picture, trying to treat Israel not as a special divinely inspired realm, nor as the embodiment of evil incarnate, but as just another state; one among many.

The issues around the foundation of the state of Israel are complex. It is not true that Palestine was, as early Zionist rhetoric claimed, "a land without people for a people without land." There were inhabitants; both town-dwelling and nomadic (Bedouin). There were also a minority of Jews who had been there time out of mind, and who sometimes regarded the Zionist newcomers as trouble-making interlopers.

The early Zionists didn't think in terms of displacing the Arabs. If Palestine was not empty by any means, it wasn't overcrowded either and there was land to buy. Trouble began in the thirties, when Palestine was under a British mandate. The British had been playing a duplicitous double game ever since the Balfour declaration, which contradicted promises made to the Arabs. Actually, it was a triple game, because they also made a secret pact with the French to carve up the Middle East regardless of either Arab or Jew. (Maybe even a quadruple game, because they also did a dirty on the French and took the Mosul region; perfidious Albion.)

The British never had a consistent policy in Palestine, and fed expectations on both sides. As more Jews emigrated there to escape an increasingly dark fate in Europe, the Arabs took fright, fearing a demographic revolution that would leave them a minority in their own country. There were riots, sometimes with fatalities. There also emerged a new, harder Zionist movement that spawned terrorist gangs like Irgun and Stern. The first terrorists in the modern Middle East were Jewish. Their targets at this stage were mostly British soldiers and administrators, not yet Arabs. (The very first terrorists in the Middle East were probably the Ismaili Assassins of the 11th century. Those guys were scary)

When the Brits did their usual colonial cut-and-run leaving the natives to sort it out (as they did in India) all hell broke loose. The nascent United Nations had imposed a partition plan, but neither side was happy with the boundaries. There are conflicting accounts of the Israeli War of Independence, it's hard to cut through the rhetoric. It is true that the Arab states, themselves newly independent, launched a war of aggression seeking to destroy the fledging Jewish republic. But it is also true that Jewish terror gangs, with the complicity of the army, perpetrated a number of atrocities against peaceable Arab villagers, most notoriously at Deir Yallon, in what must be called ethnic cleansing.

There are also issues of historical controversy around the outbreak of the 1967 war; Israel it is clear fired the first shot, but their claim is that it was a legitimate act of pre-emption. The Arab states, headed by Egypt at this juncture, probably did intend to attack. They had certainly taken some hostile actions like blockading the Gulf of Aqaba.

The result of this war, of course, was that Israel was now in possession of additional territories; the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan heights, Jerusalem and the Sinai (the last was later returned to Egypt in a deal that got Sadat assassinated by one of his own crazies; a typical danger for peace-makers in the Middle East)

Without getting into the whole history of the occupation, one salient development needs to be stressed. The Israelis have throughout this latter period been moving settlers into the West Bank (and for a long while, also Gaza). The settlers, understandably resented by the local inhabitants, have required protection by the military occupation regime. This protection has included heavy-handed military repression, the confiscation of lands for buffer zones, the building of Jewish-only highways and most recently, a massive concrete wall. Palestinian resistance has ranged from unarmed mob action (intifada) to small guerilla bands to outright terrorism against civilian targets.

Some of the ethical issues are debatable, but the legal ones seem clear enough. The Israeli occupation, per se, is not illegal under international law. This was territory occupied in a defensive war and need only be returned after a valid peace-treaty. (One problem is who to make the treaty with; Jordan was the last state with legitimate sovereign rights to the West Bank and they have since renounced it). However, and this is the crux of the whole problem, the way the Israelis have handled the occupation is totally illegal. Under international law, it is not permitted to introduce your own people as settlers into an occupied region. Furthermore, the occupying authority has responsibility to protect the indigenous inhabitants and look after their welfare, something Israel has manifestly not done.

It seems clear to me that in the overall long-term the number one cause of instability and tension in the region has been the introduction of the settlers into the West Bank. Had Israel not done this, a decent peace with the Palestinians could have been achieved long ago. While we're on the topic of legalities, it should be said that the Palestinian response has not always been legal either. Resistance to occupation, even armed resistance, is generally considered legal but terrorist acts against civilians is not.

But here is where the baneful effects of religion come in. Many Israelis would have been happy to negotiate a trade of the territories for peace, but the settler movement is religiously inspired. They called these lands Judea and Samaria and base their claim to them on the Torah. Many, probably most, of the settlers are religious extremists. Why else would someone want to go live in an armed camp surrounded by hostile neighbours?

As mentioned, other factors make it difficult to consider Israel/Palestine in the cold light of reason. The long shadow of the holocaust, the exaggerated hype about "Arab terror", the prevalent media bias (at least in America) towards Israel. But religion has to be the number one obstacle to honestly considering Israel and it's actions as if it were just another state.

The United States has a large measure of responsibility. By giving Israel unconditional support and huge subsidies they have let her get away with literally murder. However, in the United States, far more than in any other modern democracy, the text of the Bible is still a major factor in decision making.

PS (July 16) Thanks for the comment which pointed out a sloppy error on my part, now corrected. It was of course Anwar Sadat who negotiated a peace treaty with Israel and was subsequently assassinated, not Mubarak.


Reference - a good source for the religious war aspect is Karen Armstrong's Holy Wars.

Links - Tikkun Magazine - a progressive, sane and humane Jewish voice with good commentary on the Middle East.
Lebanese Bloggers - for an inside look at the current crisis


Anonymous said...

What is happening now is just the Hezbollah having a noisy party. In future it will be Egypt, Lybia, Morroco, Algeria, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, and a dozen other countries joing in, so I guess that Israel is only a temporary phenomenon.

As for what the West really thinks, stop the oil and they will bomb Israel too.

Anonymous said...

It was not Mubarak who was murdered, but Anuar Saadat.

Anonymous said...

Correct, Mubarak was not murdered, yet! Maybe Bhante knows something we don't know.

Anonymous said...

[Off topic:] Interesting to see contact between Buddhists and anarchists in this forum; there really isn't much mutual awareness between the two. Perhaps Bhante will, in future, write a column on "Buddhism and/or/as Anarchism"?

[On topic:] An interesting summation from the Bhante, but I would like to add a very crude and obvious point that underlies many of the finer points raised: the racialization of the conflict from outside perspectives.

Almost without exception, American Protestants identify Jews as "White Europeans", whereas Muslims are assumed to be both non-White and non-European. Both categories are flawed (especially as applied to the milieu in question), and, interestingly, in most of continental Europe the Jews are regarded as non-White and non-European (as are Persians, raising quizzical problems of the history of the word "Caucasian").

This is one instance where (from an American perspective) the sympathies of one white, colonial power seem to be identified with another white, colonial power --whereas even from (e.g.) a French or Russian perspective, the reasons for this alliance seem to be relatively thin.

The drama of the latest U.N. security council resolutions (vetoed by the U.S.) do, in small part, reflect the very crude (and inconsistent) racialization applied to the conflict by the U.S. --and, of course, many finer points (such as you have raised) besides.

I don't particularly presume that U.S. foreign policy in Israel follows any hard logic. Every president wants to play the old role of Jimmy Carter for a few days of the year, and speak polished prose on the value of peace and brotherhood among men, then return to their evangelical electorate and play the card of their compassionate Christianity to the full. "The New Jerusalem" is indeed a touchstone in American electoral politics --but for reasons that really have nothing to do with the peace process _per se_.

It is not America's war, but the press presents it as America's peace process: all credit accrues to figures like Clinton for "hosting" talks, and rarely do we digress into actual questions of what is being offered, what abrogated, etc., in the writ of the various agreements. To do so would be partizan!

To generalize: the U.S. has a remarkable capacity for taking a policy decision, identifying an ally, and then resolutely supporting that ally even when all the factors that defined the rationale for the original alliance have changed decades later (e.g., their alliances with the Taliban or Pol Pot!).

It may well be that the war will continue for a century, and huge tomes of Presidential addresses will accumulate on one side, and huge piles of vetoed U.N. resolutions will accumulate on the other, to be immortalized as a great melodrama of our times.


Anonymous said...

My perception has been that Dubya seems to take marching orders from Israel on Middle Eastern issues. I have rarely if ever seen him twist their arms to advance any "American" policy the way Carter through Clinton (including Papa Bush) had.

As an American, it has always disturbed me that the confict has been both lopsided (look at the Israeli casulty numbers versus the Palestinian numbers) and that while Israelis are being attacked with homemade and relatively crude weapons, the Palestinians are being retaliated against with state of the art US munitions.

Unfortunately, Israel's collective mindset has been formed by 60 years of a siege mentality. They have been beset by hostile neighbors on all sides (whether earned or not is a matter of personal reflection). This does not lead to the type of trust and respect needed to come to a peaceful settlement. Of course, their actions make it hard for the neighboring countries to do likewise.