Israel and the Middle East
Zionism is based on the recognition that Jews are a people who share a common origin, religion, culture, and history, and that the Jewish people, like other peoples, have a right to a homeland. Zionists believe the need for a Jewish homeland is crucial in order to end the historical persecution perpetuated at the whim of the non-Jewish majority in all parts of the world, including the Middle East.
European Jews began to immigrate to Palestine in the late 1880s, largely to escape pogroms and discrimination in Europe, where Jews were not viewed as native. Jews from the Middle East also began immigrating to Palestine at this time, particularly from Iran and Yemen, both to escape discrimination and to fulfill their Zionist vision. In the late 1880s, there were fewer than 350,000 Arabs living in the entire region called Palestine, which then included the area now called Jordan. Arabs immigrated en masse to the desolate region to take advantage of the economic development created by the Zionists. Arabs constituted 37 percent of the total immigration to pre-state Israel. In leftist terminology, the descendants of Arabs who immigrated in pursuit of jobs and economic opportunity are “indigenous,” while the descendants of Jewish immigrants who fled discrimination, violence, and genocide are “colonizers.”
After World War I, Britain gained control over the much of the Middle East, which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. From this position, Britain severely restricted immigration of the Jews to Palestine, dooming hundreds of thousands of European Jews to Nazi death camps. In addition, Britain captured tens of thousands of Jews trying to “illegally” immigrate to Palestine, and imprisoned them in Cyprus. An average of 16,000 Jews successfully immigrated to Palestine each year from 1919 to 1941. By contrast, Britain allowed Arabs to immigrate virtually unregulated to the region.
After World War II ended, Britain continued to deny Holocaust survivors refuge in Palestine. Between August 1945 and May 1948, when Israel declared independence, Britain caught 65 “illegal” immigrant ships carrying 69,878 survivors of the Holocaust. Britain interned approximately 50,000 survivors in new concentration camps. Of these, 28,000 were still imprisoned when Israel declared independence. After May 1948, Britain refused to release 9,000 “able bodied” men so they wouldn’t be able to fight on behalf of Israel during the Arab-Israel War.
In 1921, Britain severed nearly four-fifths of Palestine to create Transjordan, and barred Jews from settling there. Britain then placed restrictions on Jewish land purchases in the one fifth of the land that remained of Palestine. By 1949, the British had allotted 87,000 acres of cultivable land to Arabs and only 4,200 to Jews.
The British established the notion of an independent Palestine for the first time under a League of Nations mandate, and delineated its boundaries. The proposed boundaries of the two states, Israel and Palestine, were based on demographics, and took an almost checkerboard appearance. Arabs were the majority in western Palestine as a whole (1.2 million Arabs and 600,000 Jews), but the Jews were a majority in the area allotted to them by the resolution. Jews were also the majority in Jerusalem, which was to be under international control. In 1948, the year Israel declared independence, Jews privately owned 8.6 percent of the land, and Arabs privately owned 6.8 percent. The rest had been state-owned under Ottoman and British rule. Most of the Jewish-owned land had been purchased from wealthy Arabs, among them the well-known Nashashibi, el-Husseini, and el-Alami families.
During the Arab-Israel war of 1948-49, Britain supplied the attacking Arab states with weapons, and technical and strategic advice. Britain continued to use the small military enclave it still kept in Haifa to prevent the landing of Jewish immigrants. Britain also maintained a tight naval blockade aimed at preventing the arrival of weapons for the Jews. The U.S. participated in the arms embargo to the area, but became increasingly critical of Britain’s extension of aid to Arab armies, and eventually proposed to investigate whether the funds the U.S. advanced to Britain, and the equipment loaned under the European Recovery Programme, were being used to assist the Arab invasion of Israel. This threat made Britain somewhat more conciliatory toward Israel’s existence, in order to avoid what one British official wrote in a memo would be an “embarrassing” investigation.
Anti-Zionists claim that Jews expelled the Palestinians from their “native” land in 1948. However, they have never produced any evidence of a Zionist “master plan” to expel Arabs. In fact, the new Jewish state immediately recognized the Arab population as an official ethnic and religious minority. The Jewish leadership had made detailed plans for the establishment of an Arabic-language press, the improvement of health in the Arab sector, the incorporation of Arab officials in the government, and the integration of Arabs within the police and the ministry of education. In 1947, David Ben-Gurion, who would soon become prime minister, told his Labor Party, “In our state there will be non-Jews as well -- and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is: the state will be their state as well.” Today -- unique to Israel and in contrast to the most advanced democracies -- the Jewish state gives the languages and religions of its various minorities official status. Thus, Arabic is an official language alongside Hebrew, and Muslim and Christian holidays are considered official holidays.
Arab leaders rejected the UN resolution creating a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one. Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former mufti of Jerusalem and then head of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), told an Egyptian newspaper that “we would rather die than accept minority rights” in a prospective Jewish state. The secretary-general of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, declared to a Zionist peace delegation, “For us there is only one test, the test of strength ... We will try to rout you. I am not sure we will succeed, but we will try. We succeeded in expelling the Crusaders, but lost Spain and Persia, and may lose Palestine. But it is too late for a peaceable solution.” The Arab leaders aimed not for an undivided Palestinian state, but to parcel out and rule the region as their own.
The wealthiest Arabs, approximately 30,000, were the first to flee their homes in response to these threats of war. Many less affluent Arabs fled in panic as war got closer to their doorstep. Others were ordered to leave their homes by Arab leaders and military forces. There were instances in which Israeli forces expelled Arabs, but this accounted for a small fraction -- 5 to 10 percent -- of the total exodus. These expulsions were not part of a premeditated plan, but the result of ad-hoc military decisions during war.
There have been many admissions in the Arab world to its “encouragement” of Arab residents to flee. The Jordanian paper Filastin wrote in 1949, “The Arab States encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies.” Likewise, refugee Habib Issa recalled in Al-Hoda, June 8, 1951, “The Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade ... He pointed out that they were already on the frontiers and that all the millions that Jews had spent on land and economic development would be easy booty, for it would be a simple matter to throw Jews into the Mediterranean.”
Jews also fled their homes in fear of violence, and others were expelled. Jews fled from mixed neighborhoods such as the border areas between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, as well as from Jaffa itself. Gush Etzion, on the road between Bethlehem and Hebron, was
captured by the Arab Legion and local Palestinian forces: the inhabitants were killed or taken prisoner and carried across the Jordan. Their settlements were completely demolished. The settlements Neveh Ya'akov and Atarot north of Jerusalem, also captured, were totally obliterated. All the residents of the Jewish quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem, conquered by local forces with the aid of the Arab Legion, were taken captive. No Jew was allowed to return to the Old City -- not even the ultra-Orthodox who detested Zionism and were prepared to live under Arab rule.
Israelis, poorly armed and outnumbered by the surrounding Arab armies, knew the alternative to winning the war against them was annihilation. (Jews did not have the option of fleeing to surrounding countries for safety.) As Secretary-General of the Arab League Azzam Pasha said in an interview with the BBC on the eve of the war, May 15, 1948, “The Arabs intend to conduct a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
During the 1948 - 49 war, Egypt conquered Gaza, and Jordan conquered the West Bank. Neither country ever allowed Palestinian self-determination. Egypt kept the Arab residents of Gaza under tight control, denied them Egyptian citizenship, and subjected them to curfew and severe restrictions on travel. Jordan controlled Jerusalem from 1949 - 1967, and forcibly expelled all the Jews. Jews were not allowed to visit or pray at their holy sites during this time. All but one of 58 Jewish synagogues in the Old City were destroyed.
In 1951, Israel passed the Equal Rights Act, giving all Israeli women -- Jewish, Arab and others -- the status of equality before the law. Bigamy and child marriages were prohibited, and a woman could not be married without her consent (i.e., sold). Despite the ideal of equality for women during the creation of the state, women today are discriminated against in the workplace, are put at a disadvantage in divorce proceedings (which continue to be controlled by religious authorities), and the harassment of women is ubiquitous. The militarization of Israeli society, made necessary by the genocidal hostility to the Jewish country, takes its toll on the status of women, and consumes financial resources that might otherwise go toward enhancing social services. In the past, many military professions and all combat units were closed to women. In 2000, Israel’s Parliament opened all military professions to women, and women are now allowed to serve in combat. As in much of the world, illegal sex trafficking in women continues to be a serious problem. It is estimated that 2,500 - 3,000 women have been “imported” into Israel and are compelled to become prostitutes. In 2000, the penal code was amended to treat trafficking as a serious crime, with severe punishment for the traffickers.
Almost a million Jews were expelled from Arab countries, their property confiscated, during the late 1940s and early 1950s. 600,000 of these refugees fled to Israel, where they were made citizens and integrated into Israeli society at great expense, with no international assistance. 300,000 of the refugees fled to Europe and the U.S. The expelled Jews of the Middle East were never compensated for their stolen property -- their homes, businesses, savings -- which is valued in the billions of dollars. Today, more than half of Israel’s Jewish citizenry is made up of these Middle Eastern Jewish refugees and their descendants.
Palestinian refugees, by contrast, continue to be denied citizenship by all Arab countries except Jordan. (Jordan granted citizenship as part of its efforts to absorb the West Bank, which it had conquered, occupied, and annexed.) Today, many Arab countries exclude Palestinians from access to jobs, housing and land, even while they offer such benefits to non-Palestinian Arabs and non-Arabs. In Lebanon, for instance, it is currently illegal to employ Palestinians. Ralph Garroway, former director of UNRWA, said in 1958: “The Arab States do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.” The Palestinian refugees have received millions of dollars in assistance from the UNRWA, which is funded largely by the U.S.
UN resolution 194 was passed by the General Assembly in 1948 to create a commission to engender peace between Israel and the Arab countries. Only one of the fifteen paragraphs of the resolution alludes to “refugees,” in language that is as applicable to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were expelled from Arab countries as to Arab refugees. The resolution (which is a recommendation, not a legal requirement, since it was passed by the General Assembly rather than the Security Council) suggested several possible solutions for the refugees, including resettlement and compensation for lost property. The return of refugees who are “willing to live in peace with their neighbors” is one of the recommendations. All the Arab states voted against Resolution 194 because it did not establish a “right of return” for Palestinians, and because it implicitly recognized Israel.
About 60,000 Palestinian refugees have returned over the decades under the terms of Israel’s family-reunification program. Arabs who lost property in Israel are eligible to file for compensation from Israel's Custodian of Absentee Property. Millions of dollars have already been paid by Israel in settlement of individual claims of lost property.
Arab leaders down the line have viewed a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel (wrongly identified in years to come as a legal demand of UN Resolution 194) as the alternative means of destroying the Jewish country. In October 1949, the Egyptian politician Muhammad Salah al-Din, soon to become his country’s foreign minister, wrote in the Egyptian daily al-Misri that “in demanding the restoration of the refugees to Palestine, the Arabs intend that they shall return as the masters of the homeland and not as slaves. More specifically, they intend to annihilate the state of Israel.” In March of last year, Faisal al-Husseini, the “moderate” minister for Jerusalem affairs in Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, said that “our eyes will continue to aspire to the strategic goal, namely, to Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.” He added, “Whatever we get now cannot make us forget this supreme truth.” In their political discourse with one another in Arabic, and excluded from addresses to Western audiences, Arab leaders have made no secret of their perception of the “right of return” as a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic subversion.
Though Israel is depicted internationally as the oppressor of Palestinians, in fact far more Palestinians were killed in the single month of September 1970 by King Hussein of Jordan than were killed in three decades of conflict with Israel. King Hussein, who was fighting off an attempt by Yasser Arafat's PLO to destroy his monarchy, killed between 3,000 and 5,000 Palestinians, including 1,500 to 3,500 civilians. The number of innocent Palestinians killed by Kuwait in the winter of 1991, in revenge for the PLO's support for Saddam Hussein, far exceeds the number of Palestinian rioters and terrorists who lost their lives in the first intifada against Israel during the late 1980’s. Kuwait also expelled 300,000 Palestinians from the country at that time. “If people pose a security threat, as a sovereign country we have the right to exclude anyone we don’t want,” explained Saud Nasir Al-Sabah, Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S.
The Arab League created the Palestine Liberation Organization in Cairo in 1964 as a weapon against Israel. The PLO engaged in terrorist attacks well before the Six-Day War in 1967 and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO’s charter, Palestinian National Covenant, calls for the destruction of Israel in many of its articles. There is no evidence that these articles have been removed. In April 1996—three years after the signing of the Oslo Declaration—Arafat's Fatah publication “In Our View” carried an article declaring that “the Rulers of Israel demanded that the summons of the National Council would be specifically made for amending the Charter and for the cancellation of those articles which deny Israel's right to exist. However, these are the same articles that proclaim the goal of liberating Palestine. Consequently, the cancellation thereof means the cancellation of the goal for which the PLO had been established.” In 1996, the Palestine National Council did vote to change the Covenant to abide by the principles of Oslo, but the amended version has never been published or shown to outsiders.
A few days before the outbreak of hostilities in June 1967, Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the foremost leader of pan-Arabism, predicted that "the battle will be total and our basic aim will be the destruction of Israel.” Israel’s surprise victory in the Six-Day war forced some Arab leaders to confront the reality of Jewish statehood. The next war, launched in October 1973 by Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, had the much narrower objective of triggering a political process that would allow Egypt to regain the territories lost in 1967. Israel’s military recovery in October 1973, after having been caught off-guard by the attack, further reinforced Sadat's determination to abandon the path of outright violence, and this culminated in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979.
In exchange for Egypt’s promise of peace and increased U.S. aid, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, the region which Egypt had used to launch attacks against Israel. In doing so, Israel relinquished its shipping lanes, 1,000 miles of roadways, homes, factories, health facilities and agricultural villages. Because Egypt insisted that Jews leave the Sinai, 7,000 Israelis were uprooted from their homes and business. The residents of Yamit had to be forcibly removed by Israeli soldiers from their homes. The Alma oil field in the southern Sinai, discovered and developed by Israel, was transferred to Egypt, though it had become Israel’s largest single source of energy. The untapped reserves of the Alma field were estimated at that time to be worth $100 billion -- far more than the foreign aid Israel currently receives from the U.S.
Anwar Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, has since minimized interaction with Israel to the lowest possible level, transformed the Egyptian army into a modern force, and fostered a culture of virulent anti-Semitism in Egypt. For example, Egypt has banned Schindler’s List, but in the name of free speech, recently broadcast on state-owned television “Knight Without a Horse”, which includes a subplot based on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the anti-Semitic tract used to incite pogroms in Czarist Russia.
After its victory in the 1967 war, Israel carried out its occupation of the Palestinian territories with a combination of economic inducements and minimized intervention. The local populace was allowed to administer itself with relatively little interference, and have regular contact with the Arab world via the Jordan River bridges. In sharp contrast with, for example, the U.S. occupation of postwar Japan, which imposed a general censorship over all Japanese media and a comprehensive revision of school curricula, Israel made no attempt to reshape the culture. It limited its oversight of the Arabic press in the territories to military and security matters, and allowed the continued use in local schools of Jordanian textbooks filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda.
Before the Israeli occupation, fewer than 60 percent of all male Palestinian adults (then under Jordanian or Egyptian occupation) had been employed, with unemployment among refugees running as high as 83 percent. Soon after the Israeli occupation began, there were dramatic improvements in the health and the social and economic status of Palestinians, placing them well ahead of most of their Arab neighbors. The number of Palestinians working in Israel rose from zero in 1967 to 66,000 in 1975 and 109,000 by 1986, accounting for 35 percent of the employed population of the West Bank and 45 percent in Gaza.
During the 1970’s, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world -- ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. The per-capita GNP expanded tenfold between 1968 and 1991 from $165 to $1,715 (compared with Jordan's $1,050, Egypt’s $600, Turkey's $1,630, and Tunisia's $1,440). By 1999, Palestinian per-capita income was nearly double Syria’s, more than four times Yemen’s, and 10 percent higher than Jordan’s. Only the oil-rich Gulf states and Lebanon were more affluent.
Under Israel's occupation of the territories, the Palestinians also experienced vast progress in health and social welfare. Mortality rates in the West Bank and Gaza fell by more than two-thirds between 1970 and 1990, while life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared with an average of 68 years for all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa). Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000 (in Egypt the rate is 40, in Jordan 23, in Syria 22). Under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were eradicated. Women and non-landowners were for the first time given the right to vote.
Palestinian standard of living also vastly improved under Israeli occupation. By 1986, 92.8 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza had electricity around the clock, as compared to 20.5 percent in 1967; 85 percent had running water in dwellings, as compared to 16 percent in 1967; 83.5 percent had electric or gas ranges for cooking, as compared to 4 percent in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions, and cars.
Water resources for the West Bank improved considerably during the Israeli occupation. The water system in the Hebron region was expanded. New wells were drilled near Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm. More than 60 towns in the West Bank were given new water supply systems, or had old ones upgraded by the Israeli administration. During the droughts of the late 70’s and 80’s, well drilling was restricted. However, even when water tables were at dangerously low levels, the Palestinian territories (as well as dry towns in Southern Lebanon and Jordan) have continued to receive water from wells and springs that surface inside the 1967 borders of Israel. In the period from 1967 to 1995 West Bank Palestinians increased their domestic water use by 640 percent.
During the first two decades of the occupation, the number of Palestinian children attending school grew by 102 percent, and the number of classes by 99 percent, though the population itself had grown by only 28 percent. Even more progress was made in higher education. At the inception of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not a single university existed in these territories. By the early 1990’s, there were seven such institutions, with 16,500 students. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14 percent of adults over age 15, compared with 69 percent in Morocco, 61 percent in Egypt, 45 percent in Tunisia, and 44 percent in Syria.
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“Yet it is precisely this historic dismissal of the Other and the legitimacy of its national cause that stands at the root of Palestinian statelessness and dispersal.” -- Efraim Karsh
- Jews have lived in the Middle East continuously for thousands of years. After the seventh century Arab invasions and forced conversions of pagans to Islam, Jews continued to maintain their culture, language, and religion. In the Islamic Middle East, Jews were officially treated as an inferior class (called dhimmis) and were at times -- into the twentieth century -- subjected to apartheid-like conditions, massacre, and expulsion.