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.

Taking the Cross

My last post provided some theological and historical background to the crusades of the early medieval period, concerning the rise of

Islam and the theological debates of the time concerning the concept of a just war (there were also a few other reasons, such as the Byzantine Empire appealing for help after a long and tiring series of wars against the Turks and a general bout of religious mania that collectively gripped the Catholic world at the time, but these kinds of things are boring and can be summarised in an overlong clause-laden sentence.). Today is going to cover history in a more conventional manner: specifically, the early history of the crusades themselves.

The triggering act of the First Crusade was the Council of Clermont in July 1095, when Pope Urban II (in response to the Byzantine Emperor Alexios the First’s call for aid) made an impassioned speech to a large crowd of French nobles and clergymen. After beginning with the predictable rabble rousing stuff, detailing the atrocities performed by the Muslims on Christian pilgrims and other such bits of religious fervour, Urban moved on to propose a new type of ‘armed pilgrimage’ aiming to take back the Holy Land (although he didn’t specifically mention Jerusalem) from the Saracen infidels. And, like any good salesman, he ended with a special offer to nail down the deal; remission of sins (ie direct route to heaven) for all crusaders who either died in the attempt or successfully completed the crusade’s objective.

Whilst he had hoped for a big response, Urban never quite anticipated the sheer scale of what his crusade would become. Whilst he had anticipated (and got) a good number of knights and nobles making up his crusading army (mostly from France where he toured, but also from the Holy Roman Empire and Italy where local priests were encouraged to preach), what was not expected was the popular response. Thousands upon thousands of common people across Europe pledged to ‘take the cross’, armed with little more than religious fervour and a near-total lack of fighting ability, despite Urban’s attempts to make some of them (such as the women) stay home. Indeed, some 20,000 such pilgrims led by a successful Crusading preacher named Peter the Hermit were so wrapped up in zealotry that they set off for the Holy Land six months before anyone else (the disorganised mob were ambushed halfway through Turkey and only 3,000 escaped with their lives).

When the official crusade of some 30,000 relatively organised men finally kicked off in August 1096 and, despite nearly precipitating war with the Byzantines they had gone to help with regards to sourcing supplies, was reasonably successful. They took back Nicaea, a city a little way to the south east of Constantinople, for the Byzantines, defeated a large Turkish army in the Battle of Dorylaeum, before laying siege to the large, historic Muslim city of Antioch (close to the border between modern-day Turkey and Syria). The siege lasted for nearly a year and the crusading army had to deal with an Islamic relief army shortly after capturing it, but the area was eventually subdued (read; the entire Muslim population were slaughtered) and the first European Prince of Antioch put in power. The remaining troops then marched to Jerusalem, dealing with plague, cannibalism and more enemies than you could shake a stick at on the way, but managed to force their way into the city, massacred the local Muslims and Jews who had fought against them in one of the most horrific acts of genocide in human history (the persecution of the Jews in Europe following Urban’s Christian, anti-semitic rabble rousing has been referred to as ‘the first Holocaust’), sacked every non-Christian building they could find and installed Godfrey of Bouillon as the first King of Jerusalem. Thus he became head of the most powerful and significant of the four ‘crusader states’ that the First Crusade founded in this region of the world. There was the landlocked County of Edessa in modern-day south-east Turkey, the Principality of Antioch in western Syria (on the mediterranean coast), the somewhat confusingly named County of Tripoli that covers modern-day Lebanon and is nowhere near Libya, and the largest and greatest of the lot: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, stretching from the County of Tripoli to the Sinai desert, taking in the Lebanese city of Tyre to the north, the walled city of Acre further south, and of course the city of Jerusalem itself.

That should have been that, and a new Christian land should probably have entered the world; but we must remember that most of those on the crusade had plenty of responsibility and property waiting at home for them. This meant the entire army pretty much dissipated in a few years, leaving Godfrey (who died a year later) and a small group of a few hundred knights to their fate in Jerusalem. Thanks to infighting amongst the Muslims however, there was initially no organised attempt to conquer the new Christian states, so the crusaders were able to survive and prosper. Indeed, even when some of them finally united (after a fashion) under Imad ad-Din Zengi, efforts to recapture the Holy Land were slow. Aleppo fell in 1128, but it wasn’t until 1144 that he caused the European world to sit up and take notice, when he conquered the County of Edessa (by far the weakest of the crusader states both militarily and financially). This prompted a second crusade, ordered by Pope Eugenius III, that completely failed to take it back; French and German troops were harassed by Muslim forces throughout their march through Turkey, arriving in Jerusalem with only enough men to launch a failed siege of Damascus (although one does have to wonder why they bothered, given that Damascus is miles away from Edessa). This failure, on it’s own, still wasn’t a massive issue, with the Kingdom of Jerusalem still together prosperous. Indeed, other aspects of the crusade were a resounding success: perhaps emboldened by the success of the first crusade, the powers that be decided that the second one would attempt to push back the Moors in Spain, and the men who arrived to do that job managed to make significant territorial gains in both Cataluña and Portugal. However, by the 1180s there was real trouble brewing in the Middle East. The great Muslim leader Salah al-Din, best known by his western name Saladin, had united much of the Muslim world behind him, using his not inconsiderable military nous to great effect. As well as building a sultanate so large and powerful that it spanned Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, he brought the full might of the Islamic world to bear on the crusader states. The Principality of Antioch and County of Tripoli were both reduced to slivers of their former selves, and in September of 1187 Jerusalem was overrun and the Kingdom of Jerusalem destroyed, prompting Pope Gregory VIII to prompt a third crusade. And we will pick up the story of that next time (which will be the last one of these, promise).

Syria

Most of you reading this will probably be aware of the conflict going on in Syria- at least vaguely, anyway. It has not, over the past year, garnered the same press coverage as Libya or Egypt, and it’s main mention in the news has been ‘Meanwhile, a fresh wave of protests erupted this week in Syria as…’ etc. etc., with a 10 second video bite running in the background. As such, the proverbial image of the conflict (for me at least) has basically been one massive, year-long protest- the entire population decamping at weekends to shout at government buildings. My image is of a repeat of Egypt- some government violence here, the odd crowd running away from soldiers there, the odd outbreak of machine-gun fire, but no organised conflict.

Then I did a bit of research on the subject. This image could not be more wrong.

As a quick FYI, the modern state of Syria was founded in the post-WW2 carving up of territories, in 1946. No less than 8 coups have since occurred, the most recent (in 1970), bringing President Hafez al-Assad to power. The Ba’ath Party is the only real party within Syria- Syrians vote to approve a president, but not to select a party. He oversaw the crushing of several uprisings against his regime, including an infamous massacre in the town of Hama against an Islamist insurgency, before his death in 2000. The current President, Bashar al-Assad (Hafez’ son) has ruled since then (after the constitution was altered to reduce the minimum age for Presidency from 40 to 34), and he has also had to face many opponents to his regime. His country also has an appalling human rights record (mainly due to the ’emergency state’ brought on by its permanent state of war with Israel that lasted from 1963-2011), high unemployment and few political freedom’s.

The current state of protests began in the the first waves of the Arab Spring last January, when Hasan Ali Akleh set himself on fire in a protest against the government. The scale of protests grew throughout February, but it wasn’t until March that things began to get serious. By April, borders were being closed and the state police were getting more violent in their oposition to the increasingly aggressive protests, resulting in around 250 deaths. In May, the army was deployed, including extensive use of tanks and snipers. The government opposition began to arm itself- 11 soldiers were reported shot on 6th May.

I won’t go into the rest of the details, but suffice it to say that the situation has now degenerated into an all-out civil war. Large sections of the population (at least partly for religious reasons) support al-Assad and the government, and multiple opposition cities are under siege. The Syrian National Council (the opposition) and the government are in a full-on blame game, continually pointing fingers at one another and arguing over event causes. The official Syrian Army are engaged in a bloody guerilla war with the Free Syrian Army, made up of army deserters, and have employed snipers, air strikes and artillery against besieged cities.

This is not another Eypt. This is Libya gone mad.

I could argue over the politics of the situation all day if I so wished (even Al-Qaeda have thrown their lot in and picked a side (opposition, for the record)), but only one statistic really matters.  Depending on who you believe, between 5,000 and over 8,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, and the majority have been in cities which are under siege and being attacked by government forces. The army is attacking cities such as Homs completely indiscriminately, attacking normal civilian buildings containing normal civilian Syrians. The level of destruction is appalling, as is some of the content coming out of the country- videos of young children refusing to let go of their dead father amid gut-wrenching cries of anguish are not to be forgotten in a hurry.

And the worst thing? The world is sitting around and, by and large, doing nothing. While many countries have declared their abhorrence of the violence, and most their support for the rebel fighters, they have all rejected the idea of intervention, in a country where thousands of ordinary people are being slaughtered every day. Much of the footage coming out of Syria has not come from news agencies, few of whom are in the besieged cities, but from normal Syrians. One such man, a young British-born Homs resident, said the reason that countries don’t want to get involved is simply due to oil “we don’t have oil, so our blood is not worth the same as Libyan blood”

A cynic’s perspective maybe, but if there is even a shred of truth in it, then the very idea is absolutely appalling. The whole point of having an international community, the whole point of having ARMIES in the developed world, is to defend those in need. Right now the Syrian people are in more need of help than any other group on planet Earth, and the world is not responding.

My voice may mean nothing in this matter, but it should not go unsaid. This is wrong. This must end. This is inhuman. Humanity is failing. Something needs to be done.

Adieu, 2011…

Well, this looks set to be my last post of 2011, so before anyone makes the annual decision that the best way to greet the new year is to go and get paralytically drunk and loudly forget the words to Auld Lang Syne, I thought I might take a look back over the year (as an fyi, it’s just “For Auuuld Laang Syne” rather than “For the sake of Auld Lang Syne”- since Auld Lang Syne translates as Old Times’ Sake, the latter doesn’t really make sense). However, just about every TV channel and newspaper will be doing roughly the same thing whilst sitting behind desks wearing serious expressions and posh suits and complaining about Charlie Sheen and Syria, and if you wanted that kind of analysis the you probably wouldn’t be here. So instead, here is the world’s 2011 round robin letter*:

Hello all!

Well, what a year it has been! Our big happy family has got that bit bigger and happier and a few of the little ones have grown up really amazingly. The bigger ones have been having a few problems, but they should be old enough to sort out their own problems,
In JANUARY, our little Arabian adoptees started teething, and I must admit it was a difficult time for us all. Luckily our darling Tunisia went through her phase quickly, and her brother Egypt followed soon after in FEBRUARY- now they’ve cut their new Democracy teeth I think it will be easier for us all. Little Libya took a while longer to follow her siblings, but we saw the doctor about it and he identified a Gaddafi that was causing a major blockage. Unfortunately, two of the other boys, Bahrain and Syria, have had less luck- the doctor doesn’t think he should remove a similar blockage that’s afflicting Syria, but it’s a terrible burden for her and she’s been halfway for almost a year- I may seek a second opinion in 2012. In MARCH our daughters New Zealand and Japan both encountered some difficulties while at university; New Zealand struggled to get over the near-loss of her friend Christchurch, currently recovering from a nasty case of Earthquake, but when Japan found out she too had been afflicted she had to appeal to the family for support. The illness unfortunately lead to her losing her job at the nuclear power plant, which for a while looked as though it could turn into a catastrophic legal meltdown, and it may be a while before she can find a replacement post. Still, both are recovering nicely from their ideals- we breed ’em strong here! Big news for Great Britain in APRIL, as her eldest son William got  married! The whole family (well, about a third of everyone at least) turned out to watch it, and it was a lovely ceremony- they are now the darlings of the family! MAY, and America finally began to get over his feud with little brother Afghanistan. The rumours are that the whole business was somewhat orchestrated by one of Afgha’s friends (Osoma or something like that), but he moved away around this time- some say America may have even had a hand in this?! Can you believe some people?! It was Europe’s children (am I glad I left that man!) who had problems to deal with in JUNE- after the initial success of their family money sharing plan, they discovered that Greece was having some problems paying back his debts, and after they agreed to help both him and brother Portugal out, the pot was running dangerously low, especially after that incident with Ireland last year (that girl and her cheese…)- hopefully they can start getting things back on track soon, and maybe even get Britain back into the fold! JULY was a joyous month for our family, as we welcomed another little one into our lives. He was baptised South-Sudan (he looks so like his older brother that we had to link their names, although they don’t seem to get along for some reason), and we look forward to him growing up in the coming months and years. We got some more peace in AUGUST as Libya had her first Gaddafi operation and we began to see her first smiles and less teething tears- here’s hoping the other boys soon follow! SEPTEMBER was a quite month for most of us, but OCTOBER was far more exciting- not only was Libya’s Gaddafi finally got rid of, but ‘the Eurozone’ (as we like to call them- catchy, we think!) finally got their financial affairs in order, Spain finally had an operation to pacify her ETA (Expanded Tumour, Abdominal for those who don’t know!) after all the pain it’s caused her over the years. NOVEMBER and DECEMBER proved quite quiet and relaxing, perhaps to make up for all the excitement- even Christmas was quieter than usual! The only major family even being America finally making it up with Iraq- here’s hoping they stay close throughout the New Year and beyond. Happy New Year to all of you, I hope it treats you well
Yours,

Planet Earth

*I do not advocate the sending of real round robin letters, as they are a scourge on humanity and serve only to light fires. Please can anyone reading this who sends them regularly please go and find a bucket of hyena offal to hang upside down in. Other than that, I wish you a happy new year