Talk: War and Peace in the Holy Land, Sunday 29 September 2019

A very brief overview of the Arab Israeli conflict

Talk by: Major General Sir Michael Carleton-Smith, CBE, DL

I think an anonymous quote explains a lot of the attitude of the Israeli Hawks.   

If the Arabs put their weapons down, there would be peace’
‘If the Jews put their weapons down there would be no Israel’.

But that doesn’t solve the historic and current manifold problems of this complex and tragic situation.  If indeed anything does.

I am not an expert on this subject despite three visits, of which the last two were pilgrimages.  The first visit was thirty-nine years ago for the MOD.

The pilgrimages were wonderful Christian experiences, but there was little mention of the historical conflict still ravaging the country.   So I put together this briefing for our fellow pilgrims, of which this is an updated version. Evidence of the conflict you will see going on all around you all the time.

Of course, Jewish history in the region goes back about 4,000 years to the days of Abraham, then Moses and Joshua.   They actually became a unified Nation under Saul in about 1026 BC.  Then under David, the third King, they captured Jerusalem and made it their capital in about 1,000 BC.  Subsequently there were occupations successively by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and others before the Romans arrived in 63 BC.

In AD 70, the second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in crushing a Jewish Revolt against Rome, and only the Western Wall remains.   This was followed by the suicides at Masada.

In 135 AD, the Romans crushed a second Revolt, killing or forcing almost all the Jews out of Judea into exile and the Diaspora began.

Over the centuries there were minor migrations back but the majority of the Jews lived in exile in Europe, the Middle East and then America amazingly retaining their language, their identity, their culture, their religion and praying each year at the feast of the Passover  – ‘Next year in Jerusalem’.

In 638 the new Muslim Arabs conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines and built the Dome on the Rock and for the next 300 years the remaining Jews and Christians were treated with respect by the Arabs.   But in 1071 the Sunni Muslim Turks drove out the Shi’ite Arabs and closed the Holy places to Christians.

This was followed by the first Crusade, with the Christian Armies killing both Jews and Arabs.   The Crusades lasted over 200 years followed by Mameluke rule and then from 1500 the Turks.  The British defeated the Turks in the First World War and in 1923 the League of Nations allocated Mandates to the French for Syria and to the British for Iraq and Palestine. These national boundaries emerged from lines drawn on maps in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.

But in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 we had almost promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine and the previous year had encouraged the Arabs to support us against the Turks with the promise of independent States out of which emerged Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but nothing in Palestine to the west of the Jordan River.

What came to be called the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan to the east of the river was part of the British Mandate until 1946.

It may be worth hearing what the Balfour Declaration actually said:

‘HMG view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

It was notable for the omission of political rights for the non –Jewish communities of Palestine. Nor indeed was it an actual promise to the Jews, though it was taken to be so.

Jewish immigrants, particularly from Russia and Eastern Europe had been coming in from 1904 in response to the call for a Jewish homeland from the Zionist movement. There was mounting hostility and violence between the Palestinian Arabs deprived of the promised State and the Jewish immigrants denied a homeland. Much of this later immigration was illegal under the quotas imposed by the Mandate.

The British Army and the British Palestine Police struggled to keep the peace and were attacked by both sides. Nevertheless 30,000 Palestinian Jews fought in the British armed forces in WW2.    But in the post war years the mounting conflict became too much and the British sought the help of the new United Nations to solve the problem.

The UN plan of 1947, proposed dividing Palestine into separate Israeli and Arab States with Jerusalem and Bethlehem under the UN.   The Plan gave 56% of the Mandated Territory to the Jewish State despite the 614,000 Jews representing only a third of the population.

The plan was rejected by the Arabs – and a period of civil war followed in the territory of Mandated Palestine, between Jewish forces and Palestinian terrorist groups, orchestrated by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who had been a close ally with the Nazis.

But on the 14th May 1948, one month before the end of the British Mandate, Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel and the next day they were attacked by five Arab Armies:  Egypt, Jordan led ironically by the British General Glubb Pasha, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Ben Gurion, initially the Executive Chairman of the Jewish Agency and subsequently the Prime Minister, had in July 1945 sailed to New York and convened a meeting of 17 of the wealthiest Jews in America to persuade them to commit their resources to buying up ‘the soon to be redundant’ masses of US military hardware and shipping it to Palestine.   So the Jews were ready to fight.

Expecting a rapid victory, the Arab leaders encouraged the local Arabs to flee the fighting, which most of them did and so much for the second part of the Balfour Declaration.  Actually, and in reality, there were many cruel expulsions, before, during and after the war, and, in clearing the Arab town of Lydda, a horrifying massacre by the Israeli troops.

The Arabs were quickly defeated and left in control only of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both annexed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip occupied by Egypt with about 750,000 dispossessed Palestinian refugees – unwanted, unassimilated and deeply resentful – in camps in Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon.    Israel had gained over 50% more territory than it had accepted in the UN Plan.

But Israel was still only 9 miles deep at the narrowest and very hard to defend.  The overall population is now 9 million of which 21% are Arabs.  50% of the Jews are of Middle Eastern stock from Meknes in Morocco to Baghdad, and they represent an under privileged, and rather problematic, underclass in Israeli society and political spectrum.  So do the Arabs.   In 1897 Jews living in Palestine represented 0.4% of World Jewry – and now it is nearly 45% and anticipated to rise to include the majority of the world’s Jews by 2025.  The mass immigration of Jews to the land of Israel in the 20th century is Zionism’s greatest triumph.

The population of the West Bank is now 2.8m of which 391,000 are Jewish settlers in about 200 settlements.  There are another 200,000 Jewish Israelis living in East Jerusalem.  There are also 1.6m Arabs in the Gaza strip.

And how many of all these are Christians?     The answer seems to be that there are about 50,000 Christians in the occupied territories, with a further 154,000 in Israel, of which 80% are Arabs.  As a matter of interest when we say Christian, we include Melkites, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Maronite, Anglican, Lutheran, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopian, Coptic and others!  Those in the occupied territories have a very hard time, attacked, and their properties and churches vandalized by settlers and travel restricted with rare permits required to visit the Holy sites to which we international tourists flock en masse.

Driving through the checkpoints in our coaches it is hard fully to appreciate the reality they impose on the Palestinian citizens. Many Christians are now emigrating. 

So now the Palestinian Arabs with second and third generation refugee families deprived of their original land, homes and possessions, brought up to hate Israel and not assimilated in their reluctant host countries share the painful legacy and humiliation of losing the 1948 Israel War of Independence, losing the 1956 Suez War in which Israel occupied Sinai, losing the 1967 ‘Six Day War’ in which Israel successfully occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights and losing the 1973 Yom Kippur War which was a surprise attack on the Jews on their holiest day of the year.

Initially Israeli forces were swiftly overwhelmed and the situation looked dire.  But they turned the tide and finished the war with a UN brokered peace only 65 miles from Cairo and 35 miles from Damascus.

All these wars were defensive wars fought by Israel against actual or imminently threatened Arab attacks although the Suez and ‘Six Day War’ campaigns were initiated by pre-emptive Israeli attacks against superior forces. 

Now the scene is further complicated by Militant Islam, Jihadism and international terrorism.   All this leaves the Arab world anti-Israel in principle and in practice.

Iran, developing a nuclear potential, and an active supporter of Lebanon based Hezbollah’s anti-Israeli violence is the most virulently anti-Israeli State. Though Hassan Rouhani, the President, is using conciliatory language in his efforts to lift international sanctions, which have crippled his country’s economy.

Israel is in no mood for concessions and may well strike Iran’s nuclear facilities if they become even close to being nuclear capable.    Netanyahu has said, “the Iranian Regime has a mad ideology that is sugar coated with soft words”. 

Palestinian views are worsened by the Jewish State sponsored settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This started straight after the ‘Six Day War’ in ’67 – 52 years ago,   after which the UN in Resolution 242 confirmed the inadmissibility of the acquisition of land by force and called for Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.

And now there is the dreaded wall enclosing the West Bank with incursions from the original Green Line incorporating a number of Jewish Settlements and East Jerusalem.     Building started in 2002 and in 2004 the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that the barrier was illegal by the standards of International law and recommended its demolition. 

Building nevertheless carried on, dividing Palestinian communities, separating farmers from their fields, children from their schools, patients from their hospitals, Moslems from their Mosques and Christians from their churches and Holy sites, etc.

The Jewish occupation has been conducted with extreme harshness and not infrequent cruelty and many dead, with movement between Arab localities controlled by permits, road blocks, check points, searches, curfews and the requisitioning of Arab land and properties and frequent destruction of Arab homes – actually over 27,000 since 1967. 

None of this is a recipe for peace, good will or contentment. Rather it is a spur to continued hatred, fear and hostility.  So much for the Arab story and it would be a rare Arab, charming though many of them are, who did not feel anti-Israeli, at least to some degree.

But what of the Jews?    A Nation with an ancient proud religiously orientated history going back 4,000 years in the Promised Land.  But nearly two millennia of refugee stateless existence with persecution, pogroms, hostility, ghettoes and ultimately the Holocaust with 6m Jews murdered, two thirds of all the Jews in Europe and almost equating to the Jewish population of today’s Israel.

Like, doubtless others amongst our Group, I have been to Belsen and Auschwitz.  Horrifying and humbling and bound to leave a terrible legacy of powerful emotions in those left behind, which includes children of my vintage in the older Jews one sees amongst the Israeli population.

Then – the failed aspirations of the Balfour Declaration, and finally, a Jewish State, instantly attacked by five Arab Armies.   Four defensive wars fought against nations determined to ‘throw them into the sea’ and one against PLO terrorists in Lebanon, followed by another against Hezbollah terrorists determined to destroy or damage them. Two intifada terrorist campaigns, frequent attacks, shelling, rocket attacks, suicide bombings by terrorist organizations, notably Al Fatah founded by Yasser Arafat, and Hamas originally under the umbrella of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, dominated by Al Fatah.

– And – the refusal of most of the Arabs to recognize their State.  Indefensible narrow original borders, thus the need to occupy the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and securing East Jerusalem.

The impracticality of shifting 391,000 albeit illegal settlers back into the original pre-1967 Israeli borders, let alone settling with them what has now grown to be 5m Arab refugees, of whom 1.4m still live in refugee camps.

A Nation nurtured on the horrors of its past, its determination that ‘it shall never happen again’ and emboldened by its successes in all its wars.

A Nation backed by American Jewry and State support, with powerful, professional, well equipped, well trained armed forces and reserves all of whom, men and women, have had military service.  And assumed to be in possession of a nuclear capability. To quote an Israeli writer ‘We brought not only water to the Negev but heavy water’.

Little wonder they are mostly, but not all, a nation of Hawks.   But the Diaspora was not all persecution, and suffering:  much wonderful human talent, cultural and scientific, with countless successful Jewish business ventures at every level still flourishing throughout the western world.

However in settling the Arab–Israeli conflict there has only been limited progress and much remains to be done.

Serious talks go back 41 years to the Camp David Accords of 1978 with Carter, Sadat and Begin. This led to a Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt, and Israel withdrawing from Sinai in ’82, which they had occupied since the Suez War of ’56.    

Then there were the Oslo Accords secretly held in ’93 leading to a signed Agreement in Washington with Clinton, Arafat and Rabin.  Israel agreed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Jericho and other areas in the West Bank over a five-year period.  During this period the PLO would form a Palestinian Authority, with self-governing, ie municipal powers, in the areas from which Israel was withdrawing.    In ‘94 Jordan signed a Peace Treaty with Israel.

In ‘96 elections were held for a Palestinian Legislative Council, which was easily won by Arafat of Al Fatah and leading the PLO.  Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist, renounced terrorism, rescinded its call for Israel’s destruction and accepted the principle of ‘land for peace’. But this is not accepted by the PLO as formal recognition of Israel, which is being demanded by Netanyahu.

This gradually led to the West Bank being divided up into 24, or more, separated Arab localities, some of which are under full Palestinian control and others under partial Palestinian control, whilst 61% of the West Bank including its fenced borders remain under Israeli security and control.  Access to water is also a major problem for the Palestinians.

But the Gaza Strip, (4 to 8 miles wide and 25 long) as yet another separate entity, is controlled by the Hamas Party, who are still violently anti-Israel and hitherto have refused to accept the role of the Palestinian Authority and the Al Fatah Party.  Hamas actually won the last Palestinian Authority elections in ‘06, but Al Fatah remained in control.  Hamas in Gaza are cut off, isolated and surrounded and occasionally exchange hostile fire with Israel.

Actually two and a half thousand rockets were fired into Israel between January and November 2011.  There was another big flare up in 2014 with Israel conducting over 1,000 strikes.

But in the earlier years Israel gave Gaza a very hard time with border controls, vicious counter strokes resulting in 4,852 fatalities since 2000. 

The situation in the Gaza Strip is pretty desperate, blockaded by land and sea and no airfield.

In 2000 Clinton held the Camp David Summit to try and take the process forward and resolve the outstanding issues. The summit ended without agreement.

In 2005 Israel implemented a Disengagement Plan evicting the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and began to demolish some settlements on the West Bank.  But the West Bank is still a hotch-potch of controlled areas and the PA has no overall control. 

Israel is still very much in command and the wall, fence or barrier has been relatively successful in keeping terrorists out of Israel proper.  Last month Israel approved the construction of a further 6,000 new homes for settlers. The UN said that they violate international law.

Ironically the five Arab States against which Israel’s wars have been fought are now so caught up with the implications of the Arab Spring within their own borders that they currently have neither the will nor the means seriously to challenge Israel. Nor realistically does Iran.  None-the-less, the rhetoric continues. But the big non-state anti-Israel players are Hamas in Gaza and the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon now heavily engaged in supporting Assad in Syria. Hezbollah is powerful, well equipped by Iran, Syria and Russia and capable of manufacturing its own weapons. They are not even part of any talks or subject to international treaties, morals or principles.

In 2013, 134 of the 193 member states of the UN recognized the State of Palestine. The non-recogniser states include all the Nato, EU and Commonwealth major nations. Of its neighbouring states – only Egypt and Jordan recognize the state of Israel.

The main issues currently obstructing an agreement are borders; security; water rights; the status of Jerusalem;  freedom of access to religious sites;  ongoing Israeli settlement expansion and legalities concerning Palestinian refugees; including the right of return and political prisoners.

As Churchill said, “Jaw Jaw is better than War War”, which is about as good as it gets in this on-going saga, and now we don’t even have that which is tragic for both sides with a lot of unhappy and deprived people involved and the conflict a major source of justification and inspiration for militant Islamists around the world.

Having said that, there are many Jews and Arabs living in a generally secure environment within Israel today.   But the Arabs are subject to discrimination in many areas of daily life.   Significantly less government money is spent on social welfare, health care and schools in these Arab communities.

PM Netanyahu introduced a controversial basic law that ‘the expression of National self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’.  This led to Daniel Barenboim, the world famous conductor, pianist and campaigner for peace, to write in the Guardian:

‘We have a law which confirms the Arab population as second class citizens. It follows that this is a very clear form of Apartheid.   I don’t think the Jewish people lived for twenty centuries, mostly through persecution, and enduring endless cruelties, in order to become the oppressors inflicting cruelty on others. This new law does exactly that.   I am ashamed of being an Israeli today’.

On our first pilgrimage our Israeli–Arab-Christian guide told me that he was a second class citizen in his community and when I asked the same question of the outstanding priest, whose church we visited in Nazareth, he replied “No. I am a third class citizen, there are two levels of Jews above me” – implying western and Middle Eastern.

Currently, the Trump Administration, has had a big influence on the situation and extracts from the Times of 26 June, this year stated:

The US had killed hopes of a Palestinian State.  Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, publicly scrapped American Support for the Two-State solution.   That has been the basis of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades’.

‘Mr. Trump had already recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its annexation of the Golan Heights.  He also agreed with Putin that Iranian backed forces in Syria would not be allowed within 50 miles of Israel’s border and that Israel would continue to be allowed to strike Iranian targets there’.

And in August the Times stated ‘Israel launched strikes against Lebanon for the first time in thirteen years as it expands its air campaign against enemy militias over its borders. The bombing appeared to have been a warning to Palestinian allies in Iran and Syria and particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon.’

In practical terms neither a ‘Two-State solution’ or a ‘One State solution’ are realistic for either side.   The third non-solution is to carry on as they are – awful as it is.

The latest political development is the September election, which Netanyahu did not win. This week the situation is that Netanyahu is trying to form a government of National Unity, whilst he faces the prospect of criminal charges. He now has four weeks to form a government after which President Rivlin could turn to retired General Gantz. The pressure then on Israeli politicians to compromise will be immense as no-one wants a third election this year.

I think that the message we received from all the Arabs, Jews and Christians who spoke to us was that it will be a miracle if a peaceful, lasting, realistic solution emerges in the lifetime of the adults involved.

But many people are working for, and hoping for, and praying for a peaceful solution and miracles do happen.


                              But I wouldn’t put any money on it.

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