Back in January 2009 the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan, made international headlines by publicly confronting his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres. The stage was a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Among other things, Mr Erdoğan accused the Israeli regime of murdering children, referring to the 6th commandment of the ‘Ten’ sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians – ‘Thou shalt not kill.’
Mr Erdoğan was mocked in some circles in his home country for his limited English, and his insistence on his right to speak by repeating the phrase ‘One minute!’ Subsequent events in the Middle East might suggest, however, that world opinion is moving towards support of his position. Most recently, in the last few weeks, events in Jerusalem, particularly focusing on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, have highlighted the injustices perpetrated against Palestinian Arabs by the state of Israel, supported by the United States of America.
Jerusalem is, and has long been, a major focus of conflict among the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims all ascribe enormous significance to the city. For Jews the Temple Mount is ‘one of the places where God’s divine presence was manifested . . . from here the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust used to create the first human, Adam’. It is the site of the legendary Temple of Solomon, though archaeologists have as yet found no signs of that building’s existence. It is known,however, that a ‘second temple’ was constructed in 516 BCE and survived until destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish rebellion in 70 CE. The Romans finally razed the Jewish city in 135 CE, since when, until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, no Jewish political entity existed in the region.
When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as a state religion, the Emperor Constantine had Jerusalem rebuilt as a Christian centre in 335 CE, and had erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His mother Helena, while on a pilgrimage to the city, claimed to have discovered the very cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Jews were banned from the city under the rule of the Christian Graeco-Romans.
From 638 CE Jerusalem was under the governance of Muslim Arabs, in the course of which the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were built. During this time Christians and Jews were both permitted to live and worship in the city. The oldest synagogue dates from this period, having been built in the 10th century. This period of tolerance, however, came to an end with the Crusader conquest in 1099, when, in the spirit of brotherly love, most of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants were massacred and the mosques converted for use as shrines of Christian worship.
The holy city was reconquered by the Muslim leader Saladin in 1199, and tolerance of religious worship was reinstated – but for the rest of the 13th century Jerusalem passed through many hands, ending up with the Egyptian Mamluks, who also allowed Christians to visit, restore their churches, and even construct a Franciscan monastery. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I added Jerusalem to his dominions in 1519, and freedom was granted to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Ottoman rule continued until the dissolution of that empire after the First World War, when, one might say, most of the current problems began.
So, from a purely mathematical point-of-view, if we consider the 2,464 years up to 1948 for which there is conclusive evidence, Jewish occupation counts for 651 years (ending 1,813 years previously), Christians maybe 400 years, leaving the remaining, and most recent 1,313 years to the Muslims. And if you wanted to award a prize for the religion that accorded most tolerance to others, Muslims would win it without a contest.
But life and history aren’t always fair. I’ve been reading a book on the recent history of Palestine called ‘The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict’. The author is Michael J Cohen, professor of history at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, credentials which must give him some claim to objectivity, if not to pro-Israeli bias.
Professor Cohen suggests that Arab nationalism began with the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798, but made little headway until the First World War. At that time much of today’s Middle East was ruled by the Ottomans and there was no political entity corresponding to Palestine. The British Government, motivated by stalemate on the Western Front and the imminent failure of the Gallipoli Campaign, began to see merit in encouraging the Arabs to rise up against their co-religionist rulers. Despite the widely disseminated myth of Lawrence of Arabia, Cohen gives little credit to TE Lawrence, and suggests that the British used Arab forces as propagandist window-dressing to encourage further revolt, with the aim of transferring control of the region to themselves. According to Cohen, the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Henry McMahon, acting with the authority of the Foreign Secretary, wrote a letter dated 24 October 1915, admittedly a little ambiguous in its wording, to Husayn, one of the most prominent Arab leaders, which the latter understood as containing a British promise to support Arab self-governance in an area that included Palestine.
Emerging around the same time towards the end of the 18th century, however, Europe witnessed the political emancipation of the Jews and the rise of Zionism, whose main aim was the return of Jews to their ancient homeland in Palestine. Without getting bogged down in detail, we can say that there was a trickle of Jewish migration into Palestine in the latter half of the 19th century, but a British census taken in 1922 recorded an overwhelming majority of Arabs in proportion to Jews (about 9:1). By that time, however, control of the region had passed from the now defunct Ottoman Empire into the hands of the French and the British. The Sykes-Picot agreement, signed between those two allies in secret in May 1916 had divided the ‘Near East’ into mandated territories and spheres of influence, which goes to explain why the British were conducting that census.
Subsequently it began to occur to the British Government that the establishment of a Jewish state in the southeast Mediterranean would serve the useful purpose of providing extra security for the Suez Canal, the all-important imperial link to India. There was the additional advantage that encouragement of Zionist aims could be presented as enlightened idealistic support for the dispossessed Jewish community. Furthermore, there was the not inconsiderable influence of a rather muddled religious belief which saw merit in returning Jews to the Holy Land. The result was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 in which among other things, the British Government would ‘Favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.’
Wikipedia informs me that the use of the word ‘perfidious’ to describe England dates back at least to the 13th century. It was apparently particularly popular with the French over the centuries, and the actual phrase ‘Perfidious Albion’ is said to have been coined by a French poet in 1793. It is not known whether Palestinian Arabs ever employed the term, but it seems they may have had good cause for doing so. The precedent set by the British Government back then in 1917 set the stage for the Arab-Zionist conflict that bedevils all attempts to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.
In those days, the First World War and afterwards, Great Britain and the United States were by no means of one mind in their ‘Near East’ policies. Britain had come to support Zionist aims (largely for their own strategic reasons) while the USA was, at least at first, keen to come to an arrangement with the Ottoman Empire – who for their part had begun to oppose unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Later, as US power increased and Britain’s influence declined, further conflicts of interest occurred, as for instance in 1956 when President Eisenhower forced Prime Minister Anthony Eden, with his allies, Israel and France, to back down over the ‘Suez Crisis’ in Egypt.
Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of these conflicts, leaders of the Zionist movement have, since 1948, been able to increase the area under the control of Israel. The issue is particularly sensitive because Jewish leaders, with the support of the United States and Great Britain, have argued successfully for the creation/existence of a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine on the grounds that:
- It is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, and
- Jews have suffered so much persecution over the centuries that they need/deserve a haven of safety to call their own. This motive was particularly strong after the Nazi Holocaust came to light.
They have the useful additional argument that opponents are ‘anti-Semitic’ – a term with very unpleasant connotations. Opponents argue, however, with some credibility, that Palestine was not unoccupied territory when the state of Israel was established; the establishment required displacement of existing inhabitants; and the real Zionist aim is to create a homogeneous Jewish state.
Long before the actual foundation of Israel, Zionist leaders at least, and some pragmatic British politicians, were well aware that such a state could never be the peaceful refuge for Jewish people envisaged by idealistic Christians. Future problems were exacerbated by the British policy of dealing with and rewarding one or two influential Arab families, thereby perpetuating a situation where Palestinian Arabs had no political cohesion of their own to oppose the rise of Israel.
As an aside, this policy has been continued in the wider region by the United States, whose government, in spite of pious protestations to the contrary, clearly prefers to deal with autocratic dictators, hereditary monarchs if possible, rather than democratically elected leaders – in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Egypt, for example.
The modern state of Israel was born in violence. The United Nations drew up a partition plan in 1947 dividing the region of Palestine into almost equal areas to be administered respectively by Jewish Israel and Arab Palestinians. The city of Jerusalem, in recognition of its importance to both peoples, would exist as an independent internationally administered enclave within one of the majority Arab areas. The UN plan was passed by a vote of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions. Interestingly Turkey was one of the ten opposing votes, and the United Kingdom was among those abstaining.
As soon as the British gave up their ‘Mandate’ and withdrew, however, violence broke out which rapidly escalated into war. Exactly what happened is a little clouded by differences of interpretation, but some facts seem clear. Arab leaders rejected the UN-proposed partition and a strike was called with some violent incidents. ‘Yishuv’ occupied areas that had been granted by the UN to Palestinian Arabs. Troops from four Arab countries, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq moved into the area and the 1948 ‘Arab-Israeli War’ broke out. Exactly how the ‘Israelis’ managed to prevail is not easy to ascertain. No state of Israel existed as this time, yet the ‘Yishuv’ apparently had sufficient trained soldiers, organisation and military hardware to defeat the armies of four neighbouring countries. Arab incompetence seems to me an inadequate explanation. American sources claim that they placed an arms embargo on both sides – which may deepen the mystery or merely dodge the issue.
Whatever the reason, the result was the creation of an unofficial state of Israel occupying a much larger area than had been envisaged by the UN plan. Egypt and Jordan managed to retain the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively for the displaced Arab refugees. Despite the failure of its partition plan, the United Nations, in May 1949, accepted the new country of Israel as a member, fait accompli. Interestingly, again, in the Security Council vote, Great Britain abstained.
In the years since, wars of greater and lesser scale have broken out, and Israel has gradually increased the size of its territory, again, in defiance of United Nations warnings. Israel took full control of Jerusalem after the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, and claims that city as its capital – a claim which the international community does not recognise.
So the cycle of violence continues, with no end in sight. Last Tuesday ‘five people were killed in a bloody attack on a West Jerusalem synagogue by two Palestinians from East Jerusalem’. Israeli spokespersons label it terrorism – and of course no one can condone the killing of innocent people in this way. One man’s terrorist, however, is another man’s freedom fighter, We may understand how the frustration of Palestinian Arabs can burst out into acts of apparently senseless violence because:
- The very existence of Israel is perceived by many Arabs as having been imposed by outsiders for the benefit of outsiders.
- Modern Israel is perceived by some as an exclusive ‘apartheid’ state bent on extending its borders and removing Arabs and Muslims. They see the United Nations powerless to enforce its resolutions on Israel, and eventually recognizing the fait accompli.
- Palestinian Arabs consider that they have been prevented from establishing a state of their own, and consequently have no political leadership able to fight for their rights on the international stage. They find themselves faced with an effectively invulnerable enemy whose military superiority is largely financed by the United States of America.
In a disturbing recent development, the President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan warned the international community that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem, especially with respect to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, could lead to a ‘new Intifada’ – an uprising of Muslims that could have worldwide implications. Mr Erdoğan has long been suspected by some of having Neo-Ottoman aspirations for his country. If he does indeed harbour such ambitions, failure of the international community to heed his warning could be playing into his hands. Turkey has shown itself capable in the past of taking unilateral action when such failure occurs – as in the case of Cyprus. Constant failure to stand up for justice, and weak acceptance of a status quo established by right of might creates dangerous precedents whereby rogue states get a clear message: We have carte blanche to do what we want. Terrorist activity thrives where injustice prevails.
Further reading: ifamericansknew.org
 University of California Press, 1987
 treacherous, untrustworthy, two-faced
 A term used to refer to the Jewish residents of Palestine before the establishment of the modern state of Israel