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If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her skill. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. Psalm 137:5-6
When I was a boy, I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and saw a diorama on the great battle that took place there, one of the decisive battles of the Civil War. I wasn't terribly impressed with the exhibit at the time, though; because, I thought, the battle had taken place so long ago. Who cares about something that happened a hundred years in the past? That's ancient history!
Many years later, when I was in Iraq, I was taken to a similar diorama commemorating the Battle of Qadisiyah. This battle depicted in the diorama, which celebrated the Arab Muslim victory over the Persians, took place in the seventh century (A.D. 637)-yet to the Muslim mind, it was still very real.
A while back there was a best-selling book titled Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. The title, pulled from a line in a 1960s rock song, described what is true of so many Americans: We don't know much about the past, and we don't really care. America excels at looking forward, not backward. But we forget the past at our peril. The Muslims of the Middle East have developed a far greater appreciation of history. They remember the glories. They also remember the injustices and the losses.
So before we reflect on "what's next" for the Middle East, it's helpful to think about how we got to where we are right now.
Toward a Jewish Homeland
The late nineteenth century saw a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, exemplified by the famed trial of French army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus, a Jew, was accused in 1894 of spying for Germany. He was convicted of the charges, partly on evidence forged by anti-Semitic officers, and sentenced to life imprisonment on the infamous Devil's Island. Eventually, he was exonerated of the charges ... twelve years after the trial.
Theodor Herzl was a reporter for a Vienna newspaper who covered the Dreyfus trial. Herzl, who was Jewish, was troubled by the pervasive anti-Semitism he witnessed. He wrote a pamphlet in 1896 entitled The Jewish State, in which he argued for a homeland for the Jewish people. The first Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland in 1897 to promote the formation of a Jewish state. (In biblical times Zion referred to the city of Jerusalem captured by David, who established it as the civil and religious center for the nation of Israel [Psalm 132:13-18].)
There was some debate over where the homeland should be established. Various options, including Uganda in Africa, were considered, but the heart of the Jewish people always returned to their ancestral homeland. Unfortunately, at the time, the area that is now the State of Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire and was under Turkish control. Though there had always been a Jewish presence in the land throughout the entire two thousand years of the Diaspora-and though by the turn of the century the majority population in Jerusalem was Jewish-much of the rest of the land was populated by Arabs. Still, the 1905 Zionist Congress decided that Palestine, the ancient cradle of the Jewish people, would once again be home to the people of the Diaspora, who had for centuries wandered stateless, forced to move from place to place in search of a welcome.
Religious persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe aided the Zionist cause. Thousands of Jews heeded the call to flee the pogroms of the czars and to return to the land of their forefathers. "Next year in Jerusalem!" became a rallying cry for increasing numbers of Jews seeking to make the journey to Palestine.
But this return was not without struggle. As the number of Jews living in Palestine rose, so did the level of opposition from the Arabs already living in the land. Though most of the new Jewish settlements were started on land purchased from Arab owners-uninhabited land that was often nothing more than mosquito-infested wetlands-the local natives still viewed the new settlements, and their advanced farming practices, with suspicion. A clash of cultures became inevitable.
Of course, had the movement to return to the land only been the vision of a small number of disenfranchised Jewish pioneers, the cultural clash might have resulted in nothing more than the destruction of these small communities at the hands of the local Turkish authorities. It was not enough for a group of Zionists simply to choose a country and move there. For the dream to succeed they needed the assistance of the major world powers. The "war to end all wars" provided the opportunity to obtain that assistance.
Dividing Up the Pie
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the Middle East, allied itself with the Central Powers-Germany and Austria. The strategic location of the Middle East-and the newly discovered oil wealth that fueled the automobiles, airplanes, and ships of the industrialized West-made the region crucial to the success of the war effort for both sides. If you've seen the film Lawrence of Arabia, you have an idea of how the British marshaled Arab support in the fight against the Turks. In that process, the British high commissioner in Egypt in 1916, Sir Henry McMahen, promised the Arab leadership postwar independence for all former Ottoman Arab provinces. "Help Britain defeat the Turks, and we will grant you independence and control over all Arab land."
In the meantime, Britain was working with chemist Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist, on developing a replacement for acetone, a substance critical to the war effort. In 1917 a grateful Arthur Balfour, the British foreign minister, committed Britain to work for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" in a letter that became known as the Balfour Declaration. To complicate matters further, in 1916 the British and French had signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which basically said, "When this is all over, here's how we're going to divide the Middle East between us."
Look at a map of the modern Middle East and you can see, in part, how the British and French carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, balancing their strategic interests against the various promises they made to different groups. They literally laid out a map, took a ruler, and said, "Here, your sphere of influence will extend over this area ... but we want to control that area." And as they parceled out land to the different clans, those not receiving control over the Arabian Peninsula (with Mecca and Medina) were awarded Transjordan or Iraq. In large measure that was how several of the countries in the modern Middle East came to be.
Unfortunately, with the insensitivity the West can sometimes be guilty of, they often neglected natural tribal and clan divisions and created highly arbitrary boundaries. Those boundaries have created some lasting problems-including, eventually, the Gulf War, which was fought, in part, over territory between Iraq and Kuwait called "the disputed land," where a line on a map literally got smudged. That smudge happens to sit over an area awash in oil, so a mile in either direction could mean billions of dollars.
Back to the Land
Immediately after World War I, the flow of Jews into Palestine continued unabated, igniting even greater strife with the local Arabs. This strife played into the hands of despots like Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Most of the surrounding Arab countries were granted independence, but the land of Palestine remained under British control. As they administered this "Mandate," the British government tried to balance their competing promises to the Jews and the Arabs-allowing continued Jewish immigration but never following through on their promise to create a Jewish state. Husseini used the fear of a Jewish state to whip up the masses. They rioted against the Jews living in the land and against the British who were trying to administer the land. The flow of Jewish immigrants to Palestine dropped to a mere trickle, and it looked as if the dream of a homeland for the Jews would be but another of the broken promises from World War I.
The closing of Palestine to Jewish immigration moved from being a minor concern to a major catastrophe when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Just when the Jewish people most needed a safe haven from a fanatical madman, the door for their escape was barred shut. Nearly six million Jews perished in Europe during the Holocaust. We will never know how many hundreds of thousands could have been saved had the British followed through on their pledge to create a homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people. Only after World War II did the world realize the enormity of this error.
The horrors of Hitler's program of genocide forced the world to acknowledge the need to provide a haven for the Jewish people. In 1947 the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition the former British Mandate into two states, Palestine and Israel. The plan was immediately rejected by the Arab nations. Then, on May 14, 1948, the Jewish leadership voted to establish the State of Israel. The declaration came into effect the following day as the last British troops withdrew. Palestinians remember May 15 as al-Nakba, or "the Catastrophe."
That's the key: "Palestinians remember." Imagine, for example, if in the year 2051 Americans still nursed bitter memories of September 11, 2001-memories so sharp and painful that all our foreign policy was built around avenging those attacks. As I write this, it is a mere two years after that dark day, yet the American people are already divided about how to pursue the "war on terror," how to balance national security with personal liberty, and to what extent we should commit to the rebuilding of Iraq. (Although, as we shall see, according to the Bible the rebuilding is a foregone conclusion-regardless of what the United States does or does not do.) The point simply is that we do not understand such grievances, such long memories. And we are paying the price.
The Arab world did not wait long to retaliate against the new State of Israel, even if it had the blessing of the United Nations. The day after the State of Israel came into being, five Arab armies from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq attacked the fledgling nation but were repulsed. An armistice was eventually reached that established Israel's borders, which were larger than those initially agreed to by the Jewish people. Egypt kept the Gaza Strip, and Jordan annexed the West Bank.
War Without End
By 1967, tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors had reached a boiling point, culminating in June's Six-Day War. Israel and her smaller but better trained military force captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Israel's stunning military victory gave the country borders that were easier to defend and a much larger geographical "buffer" where it could position its military hardware. Unfortunately, the war also placed Israel in control of the large Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip-cities like Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Gaza City. Eventually these would prove to be hotbeds of deep hostility and conflict.
One of the other unexpected consequences of Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 was the creation of a great refugee problem. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled their homes during these periods of crisis. After Israel proved victorious in battle, many were unable to return home. What this meant in human terms was that upwards of eight hundred thousand Palestinians, a number comparable to a good-sized American city, lost their homes. Some had been told by the Arab nations, "Come away. When the battle's over you can go back and take the Jewish homes." Some fled out of fear; some were forced out by Israel, afraid of having enemies in its midst. Few ever returned.
A little-known sidelight to the conflict is the story of the nearly equal number of Jews who were forced to flee such Muslim countries as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, and Iran, some with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The difference, however, is that Israel absorbed these refugees, who found homes and jobs and became productive members of Israeli society. The Arab nations, despite their overtures to the Palestinians, isolated most of them in refugee camps where they lived in squalor for decades.
And so the "Palestinian problem," and its corollary, terrorism, has stymied and continues to stymie efforts on behalf of peace. In 1987 a mass uprising, or Intifada, swept Gaza and quickly spread to the West Bank-these are the familiar images of youths throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers on patrol and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled across the iron doors of shuttered shops in the Old City of Jerusalem.
In 1991, the Gulf War opened a door for talks of peace. Following the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, Yasser Ararat lost the backing of the wealthy Gulf States because of his support for Saddam Hussein. The loss of financial support paved the way for secret negotiations to find a "final resolution" to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Those negotiations climaxed in the famous handshake on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, between President Clinton, PLO Chairman Yasser Ararat, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Unfortunately, Rabin was assassinated in 1995, terrorist assaults increased, and the talks stalled.
In 2000 President Bill Clinton sought to push the talks forward to reach a final settlement on all remaining issues. At a marathon summit at Camp David the president presented a blueprint for resolution that included the establishment of a Palestinian state, the return of virtually all territory in the West Bank captured by Israel in 1967, and the complete recognition of Israel by the Palestinians. Though both sides initially agreed with the proposal, Yasser Arafat came back with additional demands related to the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Israel could not accept these additional demands, and the negotiations ended without agreement.
The familiar cycle of violence had already resumed as the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians grew ever more acrimonious. They escalated further when Ariel Sharon, leader of the Likud Party in Israel, toured the Hadam es-Sharif (the Temple Mount complex) in Jerusalem in September 2000. Sharon's critics saw it as a highly provocative move.
Excerpted from What's Next? by Charles H. Dyer Copyright © 2O04 by Charles H. Dyer. Excerpted by permission.
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2. Unraveling the Matrix
3. After the Statue Fell
4. The Land, the People, the Puzzle
5. Israel: Right or Wrong?
6. The Last Act
7. Two Friends of Mine
8. What's Next. . . for You?