The Middle East conflict—a brief background

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, July 30, 2006

On this page:

  1. 1800s to World War II
  2. Post World War II to 2000
  3. 2000 to Present

1800s to World War II

Map of IsraelMap of West BankMap of Gaza Strip

Towards the end of the 1800s questions arose as to how the Jewish people could overcome increasing persecution and anti-Semitism in Europe. The biblical Promised Land led to a political movement, Zionism, to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, in the Middle East.

From 1920 to 1947, the British Empire had a mandate over Palestine. At that time, Palestine included all of Israel and today’s Occupied Territories, of Gaza, West Bank, etc. The increasing number of Jewish people immigrating to the Holy Land increased tensions in the region.

European geopolitics in the earlier half of the 20th century in the wider Middle East region contributed to a lot of instability overall. The British Empire, especially, played a major role in the region.

During World War I, in 1916, it convinced Arab leaders to revolt against the Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany). In return, the British government would support the establishment of an independent Arab state in the region, including Palestine.

Yet, in contradiction to this, and to also get support of Jewish people, in 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, then British Foreign Minister, issued a declaration (the Balfour Declaration). This announced the British Empire’s support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

As a further complication, there was a deal between Imperial Britain and France to carve up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and divide control of the region. The spoils of war were to be shared. As with the 1885 Berlin Conference where Africa was carved up amongst the various European empires, parts of the Middle East were also to be carved up, which would require artificial borders, support of monarchies, dictators and other leaders that could be regarded as puppets or at least could be influenced by these external powers.

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Post World War II to 2000

After World War II, the newly formed United Nations (which then had less developing countries as members) recommended the partition of Palestine into two states and the internationalization of Jerusalem. The minority Jewish people received the majority of the land.

US support for the Israel state was driven by internal politics as the CATO Institute notes (quoted at length):

In November 1947 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recommend partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The two states were to be joined in an economic union, and Jerusalem would be administered by the United Nations. The Arabs would get 43 percent of the land, the Jews 57 percent. The proposed apportionment should be assessed in light of the following facts: The Jewish portion was better land; by the end of 1947 the percentage of Palestine purchased by Jews was less than 7 percent; Jewish land purchases accounted for only 10 percent of the proposed Jewish state; and Jews made up less than one-third of the population of Palestine. Moreover, the Jewish state was to include 497,000 Arabs, who would constitute just under 50 percent of the new state's population.

The United States not only accepted the UN plan, it aggressively promoted it among the other members of the United Nations. [US President, Harry] Truman had been personally moved by the tragedy of the Jews and by the condition of the refugees. That response and his earlier studies of the Bible made him open to the argument that emigration to Palestine was the proper remedy for the surviving Jews of Europe. Yet he acknowledged later, in his memoirs, that he was fully aware of the Arabs’ hostility to Jewish settlement in Palestine. He, like his predecessor, had promised he would take no action without fully consulting the Arabs, and he reneged.

Truman’s decision to support establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was made against the advice of most of the State Department and other foreign policy experts, who were concerned about U.S. relations with the Arabs and possible Soviet penetration of the region. Secretary James Forrestal of the Defense Department and Loy Henderson, at that time the State Department’s chief of Near Eastern affairs, pressed those points most vigorously. Henderson warned that partition would not only create anti-Americanism but would also require U.S. troops to enforce it, and he stated his belief that partition violated both U.S. and UN principles of self-determination.

But Truman was concerned about the domestic political implications as well as the foreign policy implications of the partition issue. As he himself put it during a meeting with U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East, according to William A. Eddy, the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, I’m sorry gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents. Later, in a 1953 article in the American Zionist, Emmanuel Neumann, president of the Zionist Organization of America, conceded that Truman would not have worked so hard for the creation of Israel but for the prospect of wholesale defections from the Democratic Party. Truman’s decision to support the Zionist cause was also influenced by Samuel I. Rosenman, David K. Niles, and Clark Clifford, all members of his staff, and Eddie Jacobson, his close friend and former business partner. Truman later wrote:

The White House, too, was subjected to a constant barrage. I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders—actuated by political motives and engaging in political threats—disturbed and annoyed me.

Pressure on Truman also came from non-Jewish fundamentalists and politicians.

In some cases, support for Jewish admission to and statehood in Palestine may have had another domestic political angle. That support sidestepped the sensitive issue of U.S. immigration quotas, which had kept European Jews out of the United States since the 1920s and had left them at the mercy of the Nazis. In other words, support for Zionism may have been a convenient way for people who did not want Jews to come to the United States to avoid appearing anti-Semitic. American classical liberals and others, including the American Council for Judaism, opposed the quotas, and it is probable that many of the refugees, given the option, would have preferred to come to the United States.

By mid-November 1947 the Truman administration was firmly in the Zionist camp. When the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations agreed that the partition resolution should be changed to shift the Negev from the Jewish to the Palestinian state, Truman sided with the Jewish Agency, the main Zionist organization, against them. The United States also voted against a UN resolution calling on member states to accept Jewish refugees who could not be repatriated.

Senior Editor Sheldon L. Richman, Ancient History: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War Il and the Folly Of Intervention1, Cato Policy Analysis No. 159, CATO Institute, August 16, 1991

(Also see this background for more information on how the UN Security Council initially rejected the General Assembly partition plan and why the UN Security Council initially favored UN trusteeship over partition2.)

The State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14 1948, but the Arab states rejected the partition of Palestine and the existence of Israel. The armies of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt attacked but were defeated by the Israeli army.

While the Jewish people were successful in creating their homeland, there was no Palestine and no internationalization of Jerusalem, either. In 1948 for example, Palestinians were driven out of the new Israel into refugee camps in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and other regions. At least 750,000 people are said to have been driven out (or ethnically cleansed, as some have described it). It should be noted that many Jews were also expelled from surrounding Arab countries. Zionist organizations and even some Arab nations also encouraged many Jews to immigrate to Israel. As with Palestinians, expelled Jews often had their land and/or bank accounts and other property seized.

In 1956, Britain, France and Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula after Egypt nationalized the Suez canal because these waning empires feared further loss of power, this time of a major economic trading route entry point for the West to the rest of the Middle East. While Egypt was defeated, international (US, really) pressure forced their withdrawal.

In 1967, Israel simultaneously attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a pre-emptive strike against the Arab troops along its borders. Israel captured key pieces of land, such as the strategic Golan Heights to the north on the border with Syria, to the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza strip from Egypt. In fact, Israel more than doubled its size in the six days that this war took place. Since then, negotiations have been around returning land to pre-1967 states, as required by international law and UN resolutions.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur to attempt to regain their lost land, but failed.

In 1978, the Camp David accords was signed between Israel, Egypt and the US, and Israel returned Sinai back to Egypt in return for peace between them. To many in the Arab world, Egypt had sold out to US pressure. To the US and Israel, this was a great achievement; Egypt was obviously not to be underestimated in its capabilities, so the best thing would be to ensure it is an ally, not an adversary.

In 1978, due to rising Hezbollah attacks from South Lebanon, where many Palestinian refugees still were, Israel attacked and invaded Lebanon. In 1982, Israel went as far up Lebanon as Beirut, as bloody exchanges followed between Israeli attempts to bomb Yasser Arafat’s PLO locations, and Hezbollah retaliations. In 1985, Israel declared a strip of South Lebanon to be a Security Zone (never recognized by the UN, and hence Israel was always occupying this other nation.) Many civilians were killed on both sides. Israeli forces were accused of massacres on many occasions. After 22 years, Israel withdrew in May 2000. One of the leading Israeli military personnel was the future Israel Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

In the late 1980s came the Palestinian uprising—the Intifada. While there was much of a non-violence movement initially, the mainstream media concentrated on the violence. Young Palestinians confronted Israeli troops with nothing more than sling shots and stones. Thousands were killed by the Israeli military. Many suicide activists killed Israeli soldiers and caused other damage. Many innocent civilians were killed on both sides.

1993 saw the Oslo Peace Accord, whereby Israel recognized the PLO and gave them limited autonomy in return for peace and an end to Palestinian claims on Israeli territory. This has been largely criticized as a one-sided accord, that benefits only Israel, not the Palestinian people. It resulted in Israeli control of land, water, roads and other resources.

In 1994, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, ending twenty seven years of occupation. A Palestinian police force replaced them.

In 1995, then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who had been involved in the latest peace processes, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

In April 1996, Israeli forces bombed Lebanon for 17 days, with Hezbollah retaliating by firing upon populated areas of Northern Israel. Israel also shelled a UN shelter killing about 100 out of 800 civilians sheltering there. The UN claimed it was intentional.

October 1998 saw the Wye River Memorandum outlining some Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank but Israel suspended it in January 1999 due to internal disagreements on its implementation.

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2000 to Present

Further attempts through to the beginning of 2000 were made at continuing the Wye River accord, but kept breaking down due to Palestinian protests of continued new Israeli settlements.

The Camp David summit in 2000 also failed to come up with solutions on Jerusalem.

In late 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Mount Temple sparks of the current round of protests and violence.

Towards the end of September, 2000, former Israeli military general, and now Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by 1000 soldiers, visited a holy Muslim site, called the Temple Mount by the Israelis, and Haram al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) by the Muslims and proclaimed it as eternal Israeli territory. Sharon has long been accused of massacres in his military days was seen as generally being against the peace process at that time. This proclamation infuriated Palestinians, and led to a series of protests and violence and another major uprising, or intifada.

The Palestinian National Authority, which Arafat headed with a police force armed by the Israelis was itself criticized for not serving the full interests of