Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 14, 2002
Historical roots of Middle East crisis
One news item that appeared around Christmas was that Ariel Sharon had declared Yasser Arafat irrelevant. Under virtual house arrest, his helicopters bombed into a pile of scrap iron, the Palestinian leader was forbidden to join his people in the annual celebration at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Sharon, encouraged by the military success against the war on terrorism, felt justified to up the ante in his own war on terrorism.
What were the historical circumstances leading to this latest crisis in the Middle East?
In a previous column (WCR, Dec. 10) I mentioned that at the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire ruled most of the Arab world. After the First World War, the area came under control of the British who made contradictory promises to Arab and Zionist leaders about how and by whom the Mandate of Palestine was to be governed.
At that time, 90 per cent of the population was Arab. The Jewish community included long-time residents and new immigrants fleeing persecution from Russia and other parts of Europe.
A few years before the Second World War, with Jewish immigration increasing and Arab opposition to British rule resulting in uprisings, Britain proposed the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. After the war, this partition was confirmed in 1947 by a UN General Assembly resolution.
The victorious Allied Forces, who had determined the borders of many states in the region, had decided, and that was supposed to be the end of it. However the post-war era was also marked by widespread decolonization, including a wave of Arab nationalism.
The creation of Israel was seen as a betrayal of the Arab cause for self-determination. Over a million Palestinians were driven from their homes and land in a brutal civil war to make room for more Jewish settlers who conquered part of the area designated for the Palestinian state.
In 1954, Gamul Abdul Nasser dethroned the British-backed King Farouk of Egypt. With reference to 25 centuries of occupation by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Albanians, British and French, Nasser exclaimed, "Egypt has always been a tomb for invaders. If the Crusades were for Europe the dawn of a renaissance; they were for our people the beginning of the dark ages, leaving us weak and impoverished.
"Most of us are still unable to rid ourselves of the hereditary feeling that the country does not belong to us and that we are only temporary guests."
To emphasize ownership of the country and improve its economic base, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. This prompted the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain and France. So here is the irony - Israel's right to sovereignty was protected while Egypt's was denied.
To our credit it should be mentioned here that Lester Pearson of Canada distinguished himself by proposing a UN peacekeeping force as a means of easing the British and French out of Egypt, but the tension did not wane.
In 1967, Israel gained control of the rest of the former Mandate of Palestine, the Egyptian Sinai and the Syrian Golan Heights. The UN called upon Israel to withdraw from occupied land and affirmed the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war."
The Sinai was returned to Egypt, but Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip sit on Palestinian land occupied in 1967. Successive Israeli administrations have expanded these settlements in the name of ideology and security.
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