Historical Context of the Israeli-Arab Conflict

The Israeli-Arab issue is often misunderstood due to a lack of historical knowledge or ideological sectarianism. Regarding ideological sectarianism, little can be done because few people are capable of true ideologically independent and critical thinking. What people should be focusing on, is peace and consensus in order to end a conflict that has claimed so many lives. But in terms of historical context, it will be worth clarifying the framework of this conflict, which already counts 100 years of recent history.

The most ancestral Semitic peoples date from around 3500 B.C. and originate from the Fertile Crescent / Mesopotamia. The first Semitic empire was the Empire of Acadia, founded by Sargon the Great (2334 B.C. – 2154 B.C.) and which was contemporary with the Sumerian Empire (4500 B.C.-1900 B.C.) and the Egyptian Empire (3150 B.C.-525 B.C.). After the disintegration of the Akkadian Empire in 1154 B.C., the Semitic peoples returned to having neither a kingdom nor a state of their own.

Some of these peoples settled in the region of Canaan (Southern Levant), and were therefore called Canaanites. Some of these Canaanites emigrated in 1800 BC to the Nile Delta region, forming the Kingdom of the Hyksos, which came to dominate the Egyptian Empire until 1530 BC, the year in which the Egyptians expelled and annihilated the Kingdom of the Hyksos. In 1500 BC it was the Egyptian Empire that occupied the region of Canaan, until 1200 BC.

During the final phase of Egyptian occupation, some Canaanite peoples ended up organizing themselves into an ethnic confederation (not a state) of Semitic tribes – the Israelites. The remaining Canaanites became the Phoenicians and moved further north to present-day Lebanon.

The Israelites are mentioned for the first time in history, in Egyptian inscriptions from around 1200 BC as living in the region of Canaan.

From an early age, the Israelites wanted to claim the region of Canaan (present-day Israel) for themselves. It was more fertile than the surrounding desert. There was fruit, olives and honey. The way to legitimise their occupation of the region was to add the passages of Abraham and Exodus a posteriori to the Old Testament,, as if they had already been written millennia before.

In the book of Genesis 15: 18-21, God gives Abraham and his descendants the “Promised Land” (or the “Land of Milk and Honey”) in exchange for their unconditional faith. In the book of Exodus, God (Yahweh) then frees the Israelites (Abraham’s descendants) from alleged slavery in Egypt, with Moses finally leading them to the Promised Land. This myth presents the Israelites simultaneously as victims and as God’s chosen people, legitimising the Canaan region west of the Jordan River as their own, by divine decree.

There is no historical or archaeological support for these two myths of Abraham and the Exodus. Everything indicates that these passages were added to the Scriptures around 1200 BC, to claim the “Promised Land” at the time of the fall of the Egyptian Empire. But they were presented as if they had been written millennia before, to make it appear that the Israelites had been in that region for a long time. It’s also written in thse passages, that the Israelites would have annihilated the remaining Canaanites, but there is also no record or evidence of this and as it is known, the remaining Canaanites gave birth to the Phoenicians.

The Kingdom of Israel as a Nation State, was founded only in 1000 BC but, gets occupied less than 300 years later by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC and shortly after by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BC. The occupation of the Persian Empire in 539 BC then followed and soon after the Greek occupation of the region in 330 BC and it was only in 142 BC that Israel freed itself from the Greek occupation, joining the Kingdom of Judah (in the South) to form the Kingdom of Judea, which 79 years later will end up again occupied, this time by the Romans in 63 BC.

During the Roman occupation (63 BC – 324 AD), Israel came to be called Palestine in the year 135 and the Hebrew idiom disappears as a spoken language, except in liturgies. This is followed by the Byzantine occupation (324 – 638), which is nothing more than the continuation of the Roman occupation, followed by the Islamic occupation. (638 – 1099), subsequently to which the majority of the population becomes Muslim.

Then the Crusade occupation took place (1099 – 1291) and again the Islamic occupation (1291 – 1517) by Saladin, this time the Jewish people were integrated and authorized to practice their faith. Many Jews returned to Palestine, fleeing persecution in Europe during the Middle Ages. This is followed by the invasion by the Ottoman Empire (1517 – 1917) that lasts until the end of the First World War at the beginning of the 20th century. During this period, Jews made several attempts to return to Palestine due to persecution in Russia, but the idea was never well received by the Ottomans. The first of these large diasporas occurs in 1880 and the second in 1904, for a total of 85 thousand Jews. However, six times as many Arabs also return to Palestine for a total of 500 thousand. Hebrew is also beginning to be readopted as a common spoken language among Jews.

During the First World War, the British had help from the “Arab Revolt” to defeat the Ottomans and therefore promised to hand over the region of Palestine (among others like Syria) to Arab sovereignty, in a series of correspondence exchanged between the British Government and Hussein bin Ali, Sharif from Mecca. Between 1917 and 1948, the region was under British administration. In 1917 the British Government issues the Balfour Declaration, in which it also promises a sovereign nation for the Jewish people in Palestine, provided that nothing wrong is done to non-Jews who live there. This must have fallen very badly on the Arab world, as they were the ones who had helped the British to defeat the Ottomans and they were the ones who were actually there, before the Ottomans.

In the Sèvres treaty (1920) which both Arabs and Israelis signed, it was agreed that Israel would be located to the west of the Jordan River and the Arab nation to the east of it. Zionist migrations began on a large scale due to persecution of Jews in Russia, Ukraine and Germany which leads the British Administration to offer the Jewish immigrant newcomers, extensive properties leased to Arab farmers by Arab landlords who were absent and could not complain. This infuriates the Arabs. To make matters worse, the Jews later refuse to sell or rent land to the Arabs, in addition to refusing to hire them to work.

This led to the Arab uprisings against the Jews of Palestine in 1921, 1929 and 1936-1939, in which countless Jews were criminally slaughtered. The Peel commission proposed in 1937 to divide the region into two states (Israel and Palestine). The Israelis accepted, but the Arabs refused, and in 1939 it was proposed to create an Arab-only nation with quotas for Jewish emigration, which also imposed quotas on the purchase of Arab lands by Jews. This was temporarily in effect during World War II but, due to the Holocaust, hordes of Jewish immigrants kept arriving illegally in areas of Palestine under British administration, which increased tensions in the region. From the 2nd World War onwards, the United Kingdom was focused on war in Europe, so Palestine remained in this impasse, despite the pressure from Arabs and Jews for independence. By allowing these massive and illegal entries of Jews, the British Government was creating tensions in the region, probably with the aim of dividing and reigning.

Although most Arab nations fought the Nazi Germans in World War II and although the Nazis saw Arabs as an inferior race (they were also Semites), Hitler in 1941 was able to manipulate a small radical Islamic faction led by Amin al-Husayni, promising that he would eradicate the Jews from Palestine if Germany won the war. In return, Amin al-Husayni and his militias collaborated with the Nazis in battles in the Balkans. In response, the British collided with Jewish resistance Yishuv, in order to consolidate the Israeli presence in Palestine. Despite this, after the War, between 1945 and 1946, the Israeli resistance coordinated a series of attacks against the British presence in Palestine, which victimised countless military and civilians. Following this, the Jewish Resistance was disintegrated and Yishuv began to dedicate itself again only to facilitate the illegal emigration of hordes of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, to Palestine.

In 1947 the newly formed United Nations (UN) decided that in 1949 two sovereign nations would be formed in the territory of Palestine: An 11,000 km2 Arab nation with a Jewish ethnic minority, and a 15,000 km2 Jewish nation with an Arab ethnic minority. The areas of these nations would not be continuous, however, since Bethlehem and Jerusalem would be under UN administration. Neither the Arabs nor the Jews were very satisfied, but only the Jews agreed. The Arabs did not agree because in addition to disagreeing with the Jews’ right to a sovereign state, 67% of the population was Arab and they were left with less land. See map below:

The proposal was approved by a majority of countries at the United Nations in 1947 and soon, the first isolated and uncoordinated attacks by the Arabs began. The Israeli attacks in 1948 followed, including the Massacre of Deir Yassin, carried out by militias of 120 Jews (of whom 4 died) and which resulted in the death of 150 civilian Arabs including mutilations, rapes and the murder of prisoners previously displayed alive on the streets of Jerusalem. Between 1947 and 1948, the Israeli-Arab conflicts claimed more than 2000 lives.

On May 14, 1948, the British Administration officially withdraws and exactly the day before, David Ben-Gurion unilaterally proclaims the State of Israel, claiming for the Jewish people the entire area referred to in the Bible as the “Promised Land”, that is, the entire region of ancient Canaan. This includes not only the territory assigned by the United Nations resolution to Israel (in green), but also the entire area assigned to the Arabs (in yellow), Jerusalem and Bethlehem (in white) in addition to all Lebanon and territories belonging to Egypt and to Jordan.

Image 1: Palestine Partition as approved by UN.

The declaration was made as “by virtue of our natural and historic right and the strength of the United Nations General Assembly resolution“. By natural and historic right, Ben-Gurion refers to the Israelites’ self-proclamation as “God’s chosen people” added late by themselves to the Old Testament, and which has no historical or archaeological foundation. Let us remember that it was the Israelites who called themselves “the people of God” and who wrote in the Bible that God had “promised” them the Lands of Canaan. Despite this, in 3000 years of history, that territory was theirs only for 350 years. Then Ben-Gurion referred to the United Nations resolution, but it’s perfectly clear that, according to the said resolution, the territory of Israel should be limited to the green areas on the map above.

Contrastingly, in the figure below, we can see the much larger territory that Ben-Gurion’s self-proclamation, claims for Israel:

Image 2: The “Promised Land” – Blue and Red lines

Bounded by the red and/or blue lines, we can see what Ben-Gurion referred to as being Israel’s natural and historic right. This included the entire part destined for the Arabs by the UN, as well as the areas of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Lebanon and part of Egypt. In the days that followed immediately, the Arab League (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) attacked Israel in reaction to this declaration by Ben-Gurion, and justified this with the need to defend the various Arab nations from the occupation that this unilateral self-proclamation Israelite implied.

During the first Israeli-Arab war that followed (1948 – 1949), the Arab League never urged Arab populations to evacuate the area claimed by Israel, except in isolated areas for military purposes. The Arab peoples were forced to evacuate, as a result of attacks by Israeli para-military forces, such as Haganah, in urban centers like Haifa and Jaffa, or massacres such as the one already mentioned by Deir Yassin.

The war was won by Israel, who annexed more than was rightfully assigned to it by the United Nations. Above in green, we can see the area occupied by Israel after the war (compare with previous map). Egypt was in control of the Gaza Strip (in gray), and Jordan was in control of the so-called West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem (both in gray).

1950-1967: In total, thousands of Arabs fled or were expelled in a process they call “Nakba”, resulting in 750,000 refugees of which only 100,000 have been accepted by Israel and the rest by Jordan, on the West Bank. No other Arab country wanted to welcome them for fear that this would mean recognising the State of Israel. Since then, Palestinian Arab refugees have lived in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip or on the West Bank of Jordan River. Similarly, 850,000 Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries during the war, but 250,000 were promptly welcomed by Israel and the remaining 600,000, welcomed in 1972. Until 1966, Arab properties abandoned in Israel were annexed by the state and the Arabs who remained lived under Martial Law, having acquired normal citizenship rights from that date. Between 1949 (end of the 1st Israeli-Arab war) and 1967 (Six Day War – see below), there were constant and reciprocal isolated guerrilla or terrorist attacks between Israelis and Arabs (the latter supported by Egypt, via the Gaza Strip).

Six Day War: In response to Egypt’s continued miltar support for the Palestinians in Gaza and also due to Egyptian military movements in the Sinai Peninsula (border with Israel), in June 1967 Israel launched a “preemptive” attack against Egypt, resulting in in six days of war. Israel, which initiated the attack, occupied the Gaza Strip (Egypt), the West Bank (Jordan) and East Jerusalem, thus invading the rest of the territory that the United Nations resolution had destined for an Arab nation in Palestine.

The PLO and the Right to Return: In 1964 the PLO had been formed and, following this 1967 attack, it exhorted the “Right to Return” or the “Great March of Return” but which is not a return to the territories occupied by the War of the Six Days, since the Jews did not expel the Palestinian Arabs who had been living there. It is a return to the entire area of ​​Palestine previously administered by the British. In the same way that the Israelis occupied what they were not entitled to in the Six Day War, the PLO now was claiming the Arab’s right to do the same. If on the one hand Ben-Gurion bases the Israeli right to all Palestine on the basis of the Bible, on the other hand the PLO bases it on the Arabs 1000 years occupation of the region, which immediately preceded the 400 years of Ottoman occupation, which the Arabs themselves helped the British to defeat.

During the rest of the 1960s… (To be continued)


Author: Miguel Queiroz