An American middle school student had to write a paper on the subject “Who is at Fault in the Middle East”? One can imagine that he would have been somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of material available, and the widely varying points of view. Our contributor Naomi Leitner gave him her take. It’s long for a blog post, but short for a history of the Jewish state! Ms. Leitner is an attorney in Israel.
A friend of mine passed your e-mail along to me and I’ll try to answer, in the way that I and many Israelis see our history.
This part of the world has not been free or ruled by its own inhabitants for 2000 years – since the days of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus. The Romans expelled the Jews from their kingdom, Judea, because they rebelled against the Empire. But some Jews always lived here – as a matter of fact Jerusalem had a Jewish majority most of the time.
Over the years one empire after another came and went: Rome, Byzantium, the Crusades, etc, etc. By the end of the 1800’s this was a backwater province of a very much weakened and degenerate Turkish Empire that did absolutely nothing to develop the region. Would you believe that at a time when Europe was very industrialized and America was connecting an entire continent together, the Turkish provinces had almost no roads, no postal services – no government services at all. Obviously there was very little business or industry under such conditions.
But this was a time when people were on the move: millions of Europeans left Europe for the USA, Canada, South America, etc. to seek a better life. The Jews, too, started to move, driven by endless antisemitism and repeated attacks throughout their whole history in Europe. Many tried their luck in the USA. Others, fearing that antisemitism would make them unsafe anywhere in the world, decided it was time to reclaim their own land. You have to understand that Jews have always prayed for the return to the Holy Land and that all Jewish prayer services are held facing Jerusalem, our ancient capital. Open a traditional Jewish prayer book and you will see Jerusalem mentioned over and over.
There had always been individual Jews who made their way to Israel and there had always been Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Safed (in Hebrew, pronounced “Tzfat”) and a number of other towns. But now Jews started organizing and coming in groups. This was the beginning of modern Zionism. Zionism is the Jewish liberation movement that aims to give Jews what other nations have: a place to call their own and a place where they will be safe. Jews coming to Israel built up industry and agriculture at a level never before seen in this region.
A strange thing happened then: Arabs from surrounding countries in the Turkish Empire migrated into Israel, looking for work. You can hardly blame them – everybody wants to earn a living. The majority of the Palestinians are descended from these migrants, though some have lived here for uncounted generations, just like some Jews.
The Holy Land changed hands again after World War One. Now Israel was ruled by the British under a “mandate” from the League of Nations, which included what are now Jordan, the Palestine Authority and Israel. 70% of the British colony of Palestine was broken off to create the kingdom of Jordan (then called “Transjordan”). The people of Jordan are mostly Arabs who consider themselves Palestinian but the ruling family is Bedouin. This was to reward the Bedouin for their support of the Allies in World War I. Churchill said: By the stroke of the pen I have created the Kingdom of Jordan! That left only 30% of the original mandate under British rule during World War II. The British wanted to help the Jews get their own homeland but didn’t want to make enemies of the Arab leaders, so their policies went back and forth.
By now WWII was approaching. I assume you know what happened to the Jews during WWII. Terrified Jews were desperately trying to get out of Europe, no country would agree to take them, and the British closed the gates of Palestine to Jews and didn’t let them in. The bottom line: 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated. Don’t let anyone tell you this is a hoax or an exaggeration. The Germans kept excellent records of what they did. Besides, everybody in this county knows people who were there, including some of my own relatives.
After WWII, the British were exhausted and ready to part with their empire. They asked the United Nations to find a solution to the “Palestine Question”.
The UN passed a resolution to divide the Palestinian Mandate (the 30% that was left of it) into two parts – one for the Jews, one for the Arabs. The Jews immediately accepted.
This is when the great catastrophe of the Palestinians occurred: The surrounding Arab nations rejected the concept of having a non-Arab neighbor. As the British withdrew, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq all sent troops in to the fledgling State of Israel, promising to destroy it and “throw the Jews into the sea”. Many of the Palestinian residents of Israel left their homes. It’s true that a small number were forced from their villages by the Jewish army, but most left from fear of fighting or were encouraged to do so by the Arab nations who told them to leave and return in victory. But victory went the other way and Israel won. What happened to the Arab half of the UN Partition plan? Most of it was snatched up by the Arab states that promised to save the Palestinians! Jordan took the whole West Bank.
All over the Arab world, Palestinian exiles were stuck in all sorts of temporary camps. Now many Palestinians say they were brutally driven out by the Jews. We know there were some cases of this but the records show that most ran away of their own accord – influenced by Arab governments that turned out not to be friends at all. You want proof? Look at the Arab minority in Israel, the ones who stayed. These people vote, can work in every profession, serve in the Israeli Parliament (there is now even a cabinet minister), are doctors, lawyers and judges. They run schools in their own language, which is an official language of the State of Israel. They have more freedom than any Arab citizen of any Arab country. That doesn’t mean everything here is perfect, I am just saying there is no pattern of atrocities and massacres.
Another strange thing happened after Israel became independent in 1948. Until now I have been talking about Jews getting out of Europe. Now is the time to mention the other half of the Jewish people: the Jews who lived in the Muslim lands. After 1948, it became very dangerous for these Jews in Syria, Iraq and the other Arab lands. Jews had lived in Iraq since the Babylonian Exile, long before Rome. But now they had to get out, and get out fast. They left everything behind and have never seen their homes or possessions again. As many (probably more) Jews escaped from Arab countries as Arabs left what is now Israel. It was an exchange of populations.
But the Jews who came here were only refugees for a short time. In the 1950’s, half of Israel lived in tin huts or tents. But these refugees were citizens with equal rights and have become part of every walk of life in Israel. The Minister of Defense, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was born in Iraq and is known by his Arab name, Fouad. The President of the State was born in another Muslim country, Iran.
You probably want to know how Israel came to be occupying the West Bank and Gaza. In 1967 the Arab nations again threatened to destroy Israel, again promising to throw the Jews into the sea. People took the threat very seriously and prepared for hand to hand combat in every town. People dug trenches in their back yards and the rabbis consecrated ground to bury the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties that were expected. But the Israeli Army again proved to be more able than those of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The fighting stopped with Israel holding large tracts of land. At the time, the Prime Minister of Israel made a decision to keep these lands as bargaining chips, to have a card to play and something to offer the Arab nations in exchange for peace. In fact, this is exactly what happened with Egypt, which got back the Sinai Peninsula, a piece of land larger than Israel itself.
Now came the next catastrophe of the Palestinian people. Their leaders, people like Yasser Arafat, who established the Palestinian Liberation Organization before 1967 (When the West Bank was still held by the Arabs, by Jordan) made a policy of “NO Negotiation with Israel, NO Recognition of Israel’s right to exist, NO peace with Israel”. These are called the three No’s of Khartoum (in the Sudan), where the Arab leaders met.
This was a very big catastrophe since after years of fighting, Israelis began to give up. Holding onto the extra land and not touching it was just not viable – no nation on earth would stand the temptation. So Jews stated settling in the West Bank, which has a large Arab population but many holy and historical sites which are very precious to the Jews.
In the 1990’s Yasser Arafat said he recognized that Israel was here to stay and signed a peace treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Israel started to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace. There was a lot of trade with the Palestinians and many Palestinians commuted to jobs in Israel. Later, Israel elected a Prime Minister called Ehud Barak who promised to give up almost all the disputed territories in the West Bank and Gaza and let the Palestinians have their own little state at last. He made a very serious offer, which may even have gone farther than most Israelis would have liked. But Yasser Arafat simply rejected this offer and never bothered to make a counter-offer. Instead he launched a war of terror against Israel.
Now Israelis lost faith in Arafat. We know he paid to support suicide bombers and other terrorists. We think he made a very great error in turning down Barak’s offer, which was supported by President Clinton. Or maybe he just was not made for being at peace. He was a terrorist all his life. His organization invented plane hijackings and other kinds of terrorist activities. If you read the official newspapers and web sites of his government – all they talk about is destroying Israel.
So who is at fault? Mostly the Arab governments who always made war and never helped the Palestinians at all. Countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Syria never gave the Palestinian refugees citizenship or any rights or freedoms. None are democracies and none treat the people very well. Secondly, the United Nations, which has been running refugee camps for 59 years and has never attempted to resettle anyone or even build permanent housing. Thirdly, Yasser Arafat who ran his Palestinian Authority like a dictatorship, got very rich but gave nothing to his people. Israel comes in last: probably the disputed territories should have been dumped in the 1970’s when it became obvious that there was no peace partner.
So why is the Israeli Army in the West Bank now? Israel at its narrowest spot is only 9 miles wide. Can you imagine living in a country that is 9 miles wide and having enemies that want to destroy you so close by? When Israel is in the West Bank there is less terror, when the army withdraws, the suicide bombs start again. In March 2002, before Operation Defensive Shield, there were 125 civilian casualties in Israel – all on purpose. If you want to know how that feels multiply by 50, since the USA is 50 times bigger than Israel. What would you expect the government of the US to do if 6,250 American civilians had been killed by suicide bombers from a neighboring country in just one month?
I would be happy to hear from you.