Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Herbert F. Murray

Editorial Associate

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    With world attention centered on the conflict in the Middle East and the efforts of the United Nations to deal with the competing claims of Arabs and Israelis, the issues are becoming increasingly difficult to resolve. While the origins of the controversy lie deep in the social, religious, and political history of both groups, it is clear that a few basic issues are preventing a peaceful settlement and may even be driving the current hostilities toward another world war.

    For Latter-day Saints who have strong feelings about the literal gathering of Israel and the eventual return of Judah to Jerusalem, the turmoil in the Middle East presents some interesting problems. The obvious difficulty, of course, is in deciding whether the current situation is in direct fulfillment of prophecy or merely part of the early stages. What follows is not an attempt to resolve nor even discuss that fulfillment-of-prophecy dilemma. This article is an effort to put this serious world problem into historical perspective.

    These classical protagonists move in a part of the world that has been in conflict often through the centuries. Even before Abraham, the patriarchal father of both the Jews and the Arabs, brought his people west from Chaldea to Canaan in about 1800 B.C., there were tribal clashes for supremacy of the region, later to be called Palestine.

    Astride the Fertile Crescent, at the crossroads of ancient trade, this strip of land was a tremendous asset to those who possessed it and an irresistible target for those who would conquer it.

    In the scriptures, Jehovah promised to Abraham’s “seed” the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18), and the promise is valid for Jew and Arab alike, through Isaac and Ishmael. Since the reign of early Hebrew kings, prior to 1000 B.C., the land has been a battleground for a succession of conquests by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Ptolemies, Syrians, Romans, Moslems, Crusaders, Seljuk Turks, Mameluke Egyptians, Ottoman Turks, and even the British, who ruled for twenty-five years following World War I.

    Through it all, the Arab and the Jew have survived in relative peace, and they have maintained a cultural and religious attachment to their ancestral home.

    Beginning in the 1860s, however, there were groups of European Jews who promoted migration to the Holy Land. In 1897, a Central European journalist, Theodor Herzl, challenged the First World Zionist Congress to develop a program for creating a Jewish homeland.

    The Balfour Declaration of 1917 bolstered the Zionist concept; this one-page letter from Britain’s Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild expressed British sentiments: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a home for the Jewish people.” A gesture for the Arabs was included to the effect that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The Arabs, who outnumbered the Jews ten-to-one at that time, considered the proposed arrangement extremely unfair. The debates concerning the possibility of a Jewish state became even more bitter.

    Prior to this, in 1916, the British and the French had secretly negotiated the “Sykes-Picot” agreement, which provided supervisory roles over various areas of the Arab world. The British were given responsibility for Palestine.

    The struggle between Arab and Jew intensified in the years between the end of World War I and 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Jews moved into Palestine without Arab consent. This was territory occupied by Arabs for two thousand years.

    In 1923, British administrators and occupation forces were installed in Palestine and became immediately aware of an emerging conflict between groups of immigrant Jews who were claiming the Holy Land as theirs and the long-settled Arab majority, who resented the intrusion.

    When the British mandate ended in 1948, the problems between the Arabs and the Jews were reaching fever pitch. Unfortunately, the international community had paid little serious attention prior to 1948 to what was happening, although there were endless series of study commissions that provided little light and less direction.

    Hitler’s drive to exterminate the German Jews in the 1930s and the 1940s gave further impetus to Palestine’s growth, and Zionism became a worldwide force encouraging Jews to migrate to the Holy Land. The Arabs saw themselves as being forced to give up much of their lands to Jewish settlers as part of an international effort to compensate the Jews for the suffering they had endured.

    The situation grew even more intense at the end of World War II, when both peoples in their drives for nationalism were in direct opposition to one another. Both struggles surfaced at about the same time in the same territory. Peaceful coexistence began to erode on the political level when the Arabs sensed that the growing Jewish settlements would eventually unite in some kind of political entity and the Arabs would become a minority in their own homeland.

    With the end of World War II, the United Nations moved officially to create a Jewish state. The 1947 partition of Palestine, which gave 54 percent of the land area to the Jews—who represented but one-third of the population and owned only ten percent of the land—was like a bone in the craw of the Arab world. Neither the Palestinian Arabs nor neighboring Arab states found the plan acceptable.

    The Jews, however, accepted partition and on May 14, 1948, proclaimed the state of Israel. With British forces gone, the civil war that had been smoldering between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine erupted in a violent conflict. Nearly half a million Palestinian Arabs fled the war zone into adjacent Arab states, expecting to return to their homes following an Arab victory. That victory did not materialize, and the vast majority of those Arab refugees were forced to remain together outside of the newly created state of Israel. Some twenty-two years later the refugees are still one of the major sources of conflict in the Middle East.

    The United Nations brought about an armistice in 1949, but this did not bring real peace. A propaganda war developed and sporadic border incidents and terrorism continued. The Palestinian Arabs did not form a state, and neither the Israelis nor the United Nations could bring them to the peace table. Meanwhile, the Israelis asserted their military superiority and drove the Arabs into deeper bitterness and frustration.

    A new crisis arose in 1956, when Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel saw this action as an opportunity to move things off center, to retaliate for border raids, and to force the Arabs to recognize Israel as a state. With British support, Israeli forces invaded the Sinai and under French air cover rolled their tanks swiftly across the peninsula to the Canal and into the southern tip of the Sinai at Sharm el Sheikh. Under pressure from the United Nations, the British and French pulled out and the Israelis retreated from the Sinai with the assurance that the United States would prevent Egypt from interfering with Israeli shipping through the Strait of Tiran.

    The only consistent element in the uneasy truce between the 1956 Sinai campaign and a 1967 war was Arab opposition to Israel. The Arab states often disagreed with each other on many matters, but their one point of unity was the destruction of Israel, even though they could not agree on the best means of accomplishing this.

    In the early months of 1967, the frequency and intensity of border incidents increased. The New York Times reported from Tel Aviv that “some Israeli leaders have decided that the use of force against Syria may be the only way to curtail terrorism.” United Nations Secretary-General U Thant issued a statement in which he said, “Intemperate and bellicose utterances … are unfortunately more or less routine on both sides of the line in the Near East. In recent weeks, however, reports emanating from Israel have attributed to some high officials in that state statements so threatening as to be particularly inflammatory in the sense that they could only heighten emotions and thereby increase tensions on the other side of the line.” The Egyptians concluded that a massive troop buildup by them on the Sinai-Israeli border would deter the Israelis from attacking. Nasser requested the removal of the U.N. emergency forces from the border, moved his troops into the area, and again took control of Sharm el Sheikh at the Strait of Tiran.

    The combination of the strait blockade and the movement of Arab troops to the Sinai-Israeli border encouraged the Arabs to proclaim even more loudly their objective of driving the Israelis into the sea.

    The Israeli cabinet concluded that debate was no longer effective and that the only course was war. Israeli forces under Moshe Dayan, minister of defense, made a predawn strike on June 6, 1967. The Arabs still insist that they were only preparing for a possible Israeli strike, and that this war, like the others in which they were defeated, was just another step in the Israeli plans for conquest of the Arab people. The late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, said, “War between us and Israel is inevitable,” but evidently he could not predict that, in the early stages, the war would cost the Arabs 15,000 soldiers, two billion dollars worth of material, and 26,000 square miles of Arab land.

    Again the war did not bring peace. Palestinian Arab guerillas became a recognized force in Middle East affairs. Disillusioned by the repeated failures of established leaders, their hope centered on Yasser Arafat, the leader of Al Fatah, the largest and most active guerilla group, and head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The commandos continued to harass Israeli border settlements and defied the Jordanian government when troops opposed their terrorist tactics.

    During 1970 a long accumulation of border incidents, commando raids, airplane hijacks, massive Israeli reprisals, and the involvement of the U.S. and the Soviets has added a great deal of heat to an already explosive situation.

    Nasser, who died of a heart attack in 1970, left a legacy of dreams of Arab unity but realities of Arab instability. His successor, Anwar Sadat, assumed both elements when he was elected Egypt’s president. He continues to promote the Egyptian objective of completely eliminating the state of Israel, which forms a geographical and psychological wedge in that dream of a contiguous Arab world. Commenting on U.S. involvement, Sadat declared, “The United States will not intimidate us even if it gives everybody in Israel a tank.”

    While the Israelis seek to consolidate the frontiers bordering the land they seized in the 1967 war, the Arabs clamor for the return of all captured Arab territory. Sadat vows, “We shall not surrender or yield even a handful of dust from Arabian soil.”

    Chances for peaceful resolution of the problems do not seem bright, but there is a wide range of views by knowledgeable persons.

    Dr. J. Bruce Mayfield, a University of Utah professor of political science, spent several years in the Middle East. He sees the situation this way: “The Arab-Israeli conflict can best be understood in terms of conflicting images projected by both the Arabs and the Israelis. Each image is strongly tinged with misunderstanding and fear, but because each is based on a measure of truth, it is not likely that these perceptions will change in the near future. … Frustrated by a failure to persuade the Arabs to accept the de facto situation and sit down to a rational resolution of outstanding issues, many Israelis often explain the continued resistance of the Arabs to settlement by suggesting that Arab politicians must necessarily be deceitful, fanatical, and unwilling to compromise. … Thus both the Israeli image and the Arab image create a state of mind in which a settlement seems out of the question.”

    Dr. O. Preston Robinson, author of Biblical Sites in the Holy Land, comments on Arab theology in relation to Soviet influence:

    “Most of the Arab people are Moslem in their religious beliefs. The Moslem faith, based upon the teachings of Mohammed, is firmly grounded in a belief in one God, their Allah. In our meetings with these peoples, this fact was strongly emphasized. They recognize the atheism of Communism. The Arabs’ natural instincts drive a firm wedge between their religious concepts and the atheism of the Communists. Unfortunately, partially due to our own diplomatic errors, the Soviets have gained a strong foothold among the more radical of these peoples. Nevertheless, with the application of sound Christian principles, this trend can still be reversed.”

    Rulers of Palestinettt

    1967–1971

    Israelis

    1948–1967

    Arabs-Jews

    1923–1948

    British

    1517–1918

    Ottoman Turks

    1291–1517

    Egyptians

    1099–1291

    Arabs-Crusaders

    1085–1099

    Seljuk Turks

    A.D. 628–1085

    Arabs

    B.C. 63–638

    Romans

    70–63

    Armenians

    142–70

    Jews

    200–142

    Syrians

    323–200

    Ptolemies

    330–323

    Greeks

    538–330

    Persians

    586–538

    Babylonians (Judea)

    722–538

    Assyrians (Israel)

    1000–586

    Jews

    –1000

    Jews, Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, Hittites, Hyskos

    The Israelis place their hope for peace on direct negotiations with the Arabs, with cooperative efforts for the development of the entire Middle East.

    Perhaps the solution lies in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, adopted on November 22, 1967. It remains a possible plan for achieving a settlement that will result in peace and a return to sanity in Middle Eastern affairs. Under its terms, the Israelis would withdraw forces from territories seized in the 1967 war and the Arabs would recognize Israel as a state. It calls for a just settlement of the refugee problem, but these are the things that the fighting is all about; these are the real issues that have hardened positions on both sides.

    Behind the centuries of conflict, the changes in ownership, broken treaties, promises, and subjugation, the basic problem is simply that two peoples want the same land.

    The most important element of the standoff is the human element—the strong emotion brought about by the Jews’ need for a homeland where they can feel secure from persecution, which was taken to such incredible extremes by Hitler. Equally emotional about their plight, the Palestinian Arabs are consumed with hatred because they have not been permitted to return to their homes. The tragedy of both sides, the passion with which each side regards his position, is understandable, but it makes peace all the more difficult to achieve.

    Israeli anti-air raid trenches in kibbutz near Jordanian border provide protection against Arab attacks. (Israel Information Service.)

    Arab Ahmad Abdullah Ra’ash is a Palestinian refugee from occupied Jordan. (Arab Information Center.)