The Most Contentious Patch of Land In Human History

“The situation in Palestine” has become something of a cliche; the definitive example of terribly serious discussion taking place during a dinner party talked about by middle class men with glasses and a humanities degree. It also happens to be about the single most politically delicate and contentious issue in the world today, and indeed concerns a patch of earth that could be said to have spilt more blood and caused more destruction in fighting over it than any other. Palestine’s is a long and bloody history, but it is a story often presumed rather than explained in full: so here is my effort to explain, in about as much fullness as a blog post will allow, what ‘the situation in Palestine’ actually is.

Palestine is an old geographical term that originally referred to a Roman province in the area in and around what is now the country of Israel (although that statement is contentious enough on its own, for reasons that will become clear later). However, included within its borders is the city of Jerusalem and many of the holiest sites of the religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and having three conflicting and very… forceful ideologies trying to share the same space was just never going to work. When Islam began to realise the potential of several hundred zealots and a lot of swords put together, the Holy Land (which included Palestine) came under Islamic rule and, as my previous posts on the Crusades explained, two thousand years of throwing the military might of Christendom against it failed to make any long-term difference. In time, Palestine was to come under the control of the mighty Ottoman Empire that would come to dominate the Middle East right up until the end of the nineteenth century. However, prior to the First World War¬†what was left of the Empire, by that time a relatively technologically backward state compared to the industrialised powers of western Europe, threw its lot in with the Triple Alliance (ie the Germans), and during the war itself Palestine was invaded by the British. Post-war, the British were given a mandate to manage the region by the short-lived League of Nations as it attempted to organise the remnants of the Empire, and thus the territory effectively became part of the British Empire.

Prior to that, and with Muslims proving difficult opponents for Christianity to fight, successions of Christian rulers turned on a far easier target: Jews. The New Testament forbade moneylending, but it was such an economically useful practice that Jews were often able to make a good living out of providing the service to Christians. This meant the Jewish population was rich and sinful by Christian ruling, and combining that with their ethnic differences and the fact that they had no distinct nations or military power made them very, very easy for the Christian world to hate and persecute. During the Norman period (and probably quite a while since then), the main entertainment for residents of London appears to have been trashing the Jewish quarter every time a significant effect of some sort occured/they got bored on a Friday evening. People have come up with all sorts of regions for why Hitler and his ilk had such a vehement hatred of Jewish people, but the simplest explanation is also the most likely; that anti-Semitism was just, very, very common at the time and Hitler was just one Jew-hater of many.

However, it was actually prior to the Second World War that tensions in the region of Palestine began to intensify. The British had promised the Jewish population of the world in general a homeland in the area, perhaps as a retroactive apology for the years of persecution they’d suffered at the hands of the British and others, and hoped that the Jews and Arabs could live side-by-side with one another. This didn’t really work, mostly since the Muslim population in the area was (at the time) ten times that of the Jewish one, and tensions in the region escalated; there were three rebellions against British rule whilst they governed, partly in response to this Jewish repatriation policy. By the time the Second World War ended the western world was justifiably shocked at the sheer scale of genocide perpetuated by the Nazis, but a collective look back over their own history ended in cringes of guilt as they realised they had very little in the way of moral high ground. This guilt, combined with the very liberal, democratic and anti-imperialist sentiments gripping Britain at the time (its first labour government had, after all, just been installed), led Britain and the new United Nations, successor to the League of Nations who’d created the mandate in the first place, to push forwards with their plan to give the Jews a homeland. In 1947, the UN decided that having the two groups living alongside each other was just asking for even more trouble than was already present, and proposed a new, partitioned state of Palestine.¬†Palestine would be divided, into one area governed by the Jews and three separate areas within the country’s borders that would be Muslim-controlled. Jerusalem was to be under the UN’s jurisdiction (this was back when this was something the UN would do) and would be a free city, available to everyone. Which all sounds great in theory, but the thought of giving up yet more of their land to the Jewish occupiers was the final straw for the Arabs. This new border lasted less than a week before war was in full swing.

The Arab Higher Commitee rejected the UN’s partition proposal, and civil war erupted in the new country, mostly thanks to disorganised groups of unofficial Arabic soldiers and snipers (there was no organised Israeli army and the politicians from other countries were still arguing in the UN). Thousands were killed, and thousands more left the country in search of pastures less violent (mostly Arabs, who at least had other homelands to go to). The British were supposed to be keeping order in the region during the transition phase, but were mainly interested in covering themselves whilst they evacuated as many troops as possible. By May 1948, the Jewish population in the region had got themselves sufficiently organised to declare the new, Jewish state of Israel over the entirety of Palestine, and the civil war segued into a more official conflict as the newly formed Israeli army began squaring up against the local Arab countries (mainly Jordan and Egypt). Supplied and trained by the USA (whose population have historically supported the state of Israel for an apparently bizarre reason concerning the Biblical prediction of Jesus’ second coming- I’m not even joking), the Jewish forces took control of much of the area originally allotted to the Palestinian Muslims (including most of Jerusalem) and left them only with the areas we now call the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Since the Arabs wouldn’t accept having control over only part of the country they considered theirs, and did not recognise the state of Israel anyway, no official Muslim state of Palestine was declared (since the Arabs believed the old one had never actually ended), hence why these different areas don’t show up separately on maps.

With the new Jewish state formed and many Arabs driven from their land (in total nearly one and a half million Arabs were displaced or left the area of their own volition as a result of the two-part war, a refugee crisis that has yet to fully resolve itself), a sizeable chunk of the Jewish population in the Arabian peninsula immigrated to Israel, with the consequence that over three quarters of the current population of Israel are Jewish. This did not help the smouldering tensions along the borders Israel had with its Arab neighbours, and for nearly two decades open hostility and sporadic outbreaks of fighting were the norm. On June 5 1967, the Israelis (in the latest of what was becoming a long series of aggressive political manoeuvres) launched a pre-emptive strike against their key enemies of Syria, Egypt and Jordan, using their US-made aircraft to annihilate the air forces of all three nations whilst they were still on the ground in what became known as the Six Day War (some people wonder how they ever got away with this. These people forget that this was the Cold War, and you did not go telling the USA’s allies what they could or couldn’t do). With control of the air now theirs, Israeli ground troops took full control of the city of Jerusalem, drove back Arab attempts at a counter-attack, took the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai desert from Egypt, increased fivefold in size (now it also had control of the West Bank and Gaza strip) and eventually destroyed around 80% of Egypt’s military capacity and killed around 30,000 Arab troops. In six days. It was one of the bloodiest, and militarily most impressive, weeks in modern history.

Now the Arab world was doubly furious, but there was little they, in their weakened state, could do about it. Israel hoped this would draw the Arabs to the negotiating table in pursuit of peace and prosperity, but (perhaps understandably), they still wouldn’t have anything to do with them, not even recognising the existence of the state of Israel. After six years of brooding and rebuilding their military strength, the Arab world launched an invasion of their own, called the Yom Kippur war after its timing to coincide with the holiest day of the Jewish Calendar and backed by the Soviet Union, and the Egyptian army* crossed the psychologically significant Suez Canal that had marked the border. Although the war eventually cost over 18,000 Arab lives to around 8,000 Israeli ones, with Israeli air power eventually winning them the day and forcing a UN-backed ceasefire (and nearly precipitating nuclear war, but that’s another story), it deeply damaged the Israeli’s confidence that their military might could be used to bully their Arab neighbours. In November 1977, Egypt recognised the state of Israel and in 1982, Israel gave back the Sinai desert.

On the map, very little has changed since then; but the fundamental argument as to who the land of Israel/Palestine belongs to has yet to be settled, and probably never will be. Indeed, the situation has only intensified as great barriers have been built by the Israelis and they have attacked Muslim communities (both, they say, in an effort to combat terrorism). Indeed, to this day, Israel and Syria are still technically at war, even though there is an Islamic . Some blame the Isrealis gung-ho attitude, whilst others claim they are only acting in response to Muslim aggression (and anyone who’s ever travelled into Israel via their national airline can tell you how stringent their security policy is). The only things that can safely be said without picking sides is that ‘the situation in Palestine’ has claimed thousands of lives, ruined countless others, has no side who are clearly on the ‘right’ side and doesn’t look like it will be ending any time soon. It is a sad state of affairs.

*The key instigator for the invasion was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who would be assassinated in 1981 by militants opposed to his peace treaty. His replacement was welcomed by the western world for bringing stability to Egypt; and Hosni Mubarak was still ‘bringing stability’ to his nation right up until the Arab Spring of two years ago. Another key ally was president Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who kept office from 1971 to 2000 when his son Bashar took over. This is the same Bashar al-Assad currently accused of using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. I don’t know that this is relevant, just thought it was… interesting.

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A History of Justified Violence

The Crusades rank among the most controversial wars in the history of mankind, and they go up against some pretty stiff competitors (WWI, the Boer War, and every time the English have fought their Celtic neighbours to name but a few). Spanning two hundred years, the historical view of the Crusades has changed slowly at the time; at the time they were thought a holy mission from God, at a later date a noble but ultimately flawed idea, and now many historians take the view that crusaders were little more than a bunch of murdering rapists plundering their way across the holy land. In fact, throughout history only one thing has been agreed on; that they were an abject failure.

The story of how the crusades came to be is a rather twisted one. During the early years of the second millennia AD, Christianity and Islam were spoiling for a fight that has, in some respects, yet to end. Christianity had a head start and had taken firm root in Europe, but over the last few centuries Islam had been founded and spread across the world like wildfire. Zealots, often with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other had spread the word of Allah and Muhammed across the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and pretty much all of Spain & Portugal south of Barcelona. Indeed, they probably would have gone further (given their immense technological, financial and military clout), had Islam as a religion not descended into infighting with the creation of the Sunni and Shia denominations and the collapse of the unified caliphate. Nevertheless, many Islamic empires were vast and incredibly powerful, and a serious force to be reckoned with.

The rise of Islam was an interesting phenomenon, unique to the world at the time, because of the way it is backed by the principle of jihad. Nowadays, the word tends to be taken to mean ‘holy war’, which is misleading- jihad refers to a Muslim’s attempts to struggle (‘struggle’ being the literal meaning of the word) against non-Muslims, both in a spiritual and worldly capacity. This can be taken to refer to a literal physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, and it was under this guidance that Muslim armies swept across the world under the banner of their religion. This was a strange concept to Christian nations, for whilst they had certainly fought before they had never done so for religious reasons. The Bible’s main messages are, after all, of peace and love for thy neighbour, and the Ten Commandments even state explicitly that ‘You shall not kill’. War was many things, but Christian was not, up until this point, among them.

However, the success of the Islamic approach, demonstrating just how powerful war and faith could be when they went hand-in-hand, lead the Church to reconsider, and added fuel to the fire of an already heated debate regarding whether the use of violence was ever justifiable to a Christian. There was already enough material to provoke argument; particularly in the Old Testament, God is frequently seen dispensing his wrath upon sinners (including one apparent count of genocide and a systematic cleansing of pretty much the entire world, among other things) in direct contravention of his son’s teachings. Then there were the questions of how one was otherwise meant to fight back against an invading force; ‘turn the other cheek’ is all very well, but loses its attractiveness when one is faced with someone attempting to kill you. Other schools of thought held that sin could be justified if it prevented a greater evil from occurring; but others stuck to the old view, claiming that violence could never be justified and only begat, or was begotten by, other violent acts.

It should also be remembered that the medieval Church was a distinctly political entity, and knew perfectly well that to attempt to tell, say, the vastly powerful Holy Roman Empire that it couldn’t declare war was just asking for trouble. Indeed, in later years the HRE even set up its own puppet papacy of ‘antipopes’, allowing them to excommunicate whoever they wanted and thus claim their wars were righteous.

However, the real trump card for the ‘just war camp’ was Jerusalem. The city of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the capital of Israel under the rule of King David (it is worth remembering that Mary’s spouse Joseph was of the House of David, hence why he returned to Bethlehem, the city of David when the Roman census was called), thought by many to be the place of Christ’s hidden tomb, it was the holiest city in the Christian (and Jewish) world, as even the Vatican would admit. However, it was also where, according to Islamic scripture, Muhammed undertook ‘the Night Journey’, in which he travelled to Jerusalem on a winged mule, and met with several prophets before ascending to speak directly with God (apparently the main source of discussion was an argument between God and the prophet Musa concerning how many prayers per day were required, with poor Muhammed acting as a messenger between the two. I would stress, however, that I am not especially knowledgeable with regards to Muslim scripture; if anyone wants to correct me on this, feel free to do so in the comments). This made it one of the holiest cities in the Muslim world, and Islamic forces had captured it (and the rest of Palestine to boot) in 636. The city had changed hands several times since then, but it had remained Muslim. For a long time this hadn’t been too much of a problem, but come the 11th century the Muslim rulers started acting against the Christian population. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, the Byzantine Empire (which, although Orthodox, was still technically on Catholic Europe’s side) was getting worn down by near-constant war against its Muslim neighbours, and Christian pilgrims started being harassed on their way to Jerusalem.

It was this that really tipped the Catholic Church’s ‘just war’ debate over the edge, and the Church eventually adopted the stance that war could be justified in the eyes of God if it was pursued in His name (a concept similar in nature to the jihad principle of justified warfare in fighting against the enemies of one’s religion). This was a decision made with one thing in mind; to win back the Holy Land from the Saracen infidels (Saracen being the coverall name given by Catholics to the Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem). To do that, the church needed an army. To get an army, they called a crusade…