Several weeks ago I was approached by a national publication and asked to write a piece explaining the Israeli-Arab conflict for the anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin -- which is today. The editors asked me to focus on the causes of the conflict and the situation of Catholics in the Middle East (my piece was going to be part of a larger feature on Christians in the Middle East). They supplied the questions below. However, they didn't like my answers, which they found "too edgy."
So here, on the day it would have appeared, is my "edgy" piece:
Ten years ago, on November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated; his successor, Shimon Peres, immediately pledged to continue Israel’s efforts to secure a lasting peace with Palestinian Arabs and the neighboring Arab states. Succeeding Israeli Prime Ministers have repeated that pledge, culminating in the current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent dramatic withdrawal from Gaza and forcing of Israeli residents there to leave the area. Yet peace seems more elusive than ever.
A brief overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Why are they fighting in Israel?
The present conflict can be traced back to the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in World War I. The League of Nations mandated to Britain the formerly Ottoman domains of what today comprise Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. Inspired by the Zionist movement, thousands of Jews began moving to these areas and revitalizing them, attracting Arabs also to move to what had been a particularly desolate land. The British encouraged this Jewish immigration. In 1923, the British split their “Palestine” mandate into two sections: Palestine (west of the Jordan river) and Transjordan (east of the Jordan). Transjordan (renamed Jordan in 1946) was awarded to the Hashemite dynasty from the Hejaz in what is now Saudi Arabia, and Jews were forbidden to settle there; Palestine was slated to be a new Jewish homeland.
Stoked by the anti-Semitism in the Qur’an (cf. 2:62-65; 5:59-60; 7:166; 9:30) and the traditional Islamic dictum that non-Muslims can never legitimately rule over land that has once belonged to the House of Islam, Arab Muslims began to attack Jews in Palestine. In 1947 the British referred the increasingly violence-ridden area to the United Nations, which drew up a plan to carve a Jewish state and an Arab Muslim state out of Palestine. The Arabs, however, rejected this proposal; any Jewish state, no matter how small, did not square with their Islamic supremacist ideology.
On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was founded. Armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen initiated hostilities against Israel the next day. At that point these Arab states encouraged any Arabs remaining within Israel — around 400,000 — to leave. The refugee status of these unfortunates was prolonged by the Arab states’ general refusal to allow them to settle in their countries, despite the absence of any serious ethnic or linguistic differences between them and the people of Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. (Jordan did grant Jordanian citizenship to the Arabs of the West Bank when it annexed this territory in 1950.) The Arab states wanted to use the refugee problem as a propaganda weapon against Israel, and thus had no interest in seeing these refugees settled in new homes.
The war ended in 1949 with Israel’s independence secured. Egypt (Gaza) and Jordan (the West Bank) annexed much of the territory of what had been slated by the UN to become a Palestinian Arab Muslim state. Neither Egypt nor Jordan, however, ever made any effort to establish such a state on those territories. Their pressure on Israel, however, continued. In 1964, Yasir Arafat founded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was dedicated to the total destruction of Israel. He set out to create the notion of a Palestinian nationality, distinct from the nationalities of the surrounding states, to buttress his claim that the Palestinian Arabs deserved a nation-state of their own. In 1967, Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six-Day War and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria, as well as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israeli General Moshe Dayan pleaded with the Muslim Arabs in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip not to leave those areas; he hoped to persuade them that the Israelis weren’t so bad after all, and thereby put an end to the conflict. This goodwill gesture, however, only exacerbated the ongoing conflict when the Palestinian Arabs in those areas proved themselves to be unable or unwilling to discard the supremacist Islamic ideology that led them to dedicate their efforts to destroy Israel altogether.
In 1982, as part of the Camp David Peace Accord brokered by Jimmy Carter, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt. Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Gaza — which ultimately led Arafat to launch two intifadas, or uprisings. The first began in 1987 and continued until 1993; the second began in 2000 and essentially continued until the Gaza withdrawal of 2005.
Who is fighting?
On one side are the Israelis. On the other is the Palestinian Authority, the successor group to the PLO and the recognized governing organization for the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA is supported by the neighboring Arab states, which have never relented in their hostility toward Israel. Even Egypt, which is nominally at peace with Israel since the Camp David Accord, continues to tolerate extreme and vicious anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment (along with anti-Americanism) in its mainstream media.
There are also two principal Islamic jihadist groups, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Islamic Jihad. Both are listed as terrorist groups by the State Department. Hamas has set itself up as the chief exponent of the jihad ideology and roadblock to peace in the Middle East, declaring in its charter of August 1988 that “nothing is loftier or deeper in Nationalism than waging Jihad against the enemy and confronting him when he sets foot on the land of the Muslims.” Hamas criticized the PLO for adopting secular principles, and insisted that only an Islamic state could be established in Palestine: “In spite of our appreciation for the PLO and its possible transformation in the future, and despite the fact that we do not denigrate its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we cannot substitute it for the Islamic nature of Palestine by adopting secular thought. For the Islamic nature of Palestine is part of our religion, and anyone who neglects his religion is bound to lose.” The Palestinian Authority has in part come around to this point of view: Islam is its official religion and the Sharia, traditional Islamic law, is a heavy influence in its legal code.
Hamas identifies itself in the Charter as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brothers in Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement is a world organization, the largest Islamic Movement in the modern era. It is characterized by a profound understanding, by precise notions and by a complete comprehensiveness of all concepts of Islam in all domains of life: views and beliefs, politics and economics, education and society, jurisprudence and rule, indoctrination and teaching, the arts and publications, the hidden and the evident, and all the other domains of life.” The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928; besides Hamas, it is also the forerunner of Al-Qaeda.
Who are the major players?
The principal figures currently include Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, the main force behind the withdrawal from Gaza; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the successor of Yasir Arafat. The Hamas leadership has been shadowy ever since Israeli forces killed Sheikh Yassin, one of the foremost leaders of the organization. Presidents Assad of Syria and Mubarak of Egypt, as well as Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, are also key players.
What role has the West played in the situation (good & bad)?
The West has been intertwined in the entire conflict since World War I. First Britain and then the United States, as well as the United Nations, have attempted on numerous occasions to negotiate a settlement acceptable to both sides. This has proved impossible because of the intransigence of the jihadist element among the Palestinian Arabs and neighboring Muslim states.
The Hamas Charter expresses it this way: “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement. For renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion; the nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its faith, the movement educates its members to adhere to its principles and to raise the banner of Allah over their homeland as they fight their Jihad: ‘Allah is the all-powerful, but most people are not aware [Qur’an 12:21].’”
Where do Catholics fit into all of this? Where are they today?
There was and is a significant number of Catholics among the Palestinian Arabs. Today there are around 50,000 Christian Arabs in the Palestinian Authority; most are Eastern Orthodox, while many are Roman and Eastern Catholics. Christians in general comprise less than three percent of the total Arab population — down from nearly twenty percent in 1948. Christians have seized every opportunity they could to leave the strife-ridden Middle East. To take one notorious example, Bethlehem was 80% Christian in 1948; now it is 80% Muslim. In March 2000, Pope John Paul told the Christians of Bethlehem: “Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian heritage and Christian presence in Bethlehem.”
Palestinian Christians have, according to Lebanese scholar Habib Malik, tended to fall back upon “the myth that everything was fine between Christians and Muslims until Israel came along.” Having largely identified with the Muslim majority, many of these Christians have been hostile to Israel; however, the Islamic supremacism of the Muslims is no more welcoming to them than it is to the Jews. Also, belying the claims of many (including some Christian Arabs) that Israel has made life more difficult for Christians than the neighboring Arab states, the Christian population in Israel has actually quadrupled since 1948, while it has plummeted in the Arab nations.
Israel is, of course, a Western-style secular republic that guarantees freedom of religion; by contrast, in the Arab states, discrimination against Christians is deeply culturally ingrained. This ultimately stems, of course, from the stipulation in Islamic law that Christians — classified in Islamic law as dhimmis, or “protected people” — must in exchange for this protection “feel themselves subdued” (Qur’an 9:29) in the Islamic state, paying a special tax (jizya) and submitting to an elaboration of discriminatory measures.
In accord with this, Christians today face a great deal of discrimination and harassment in the Palestinian Authority. Christianity is not infrequently denounced as a renegade, heretical religion by Islamic preachers on official PA television and radio. Muslim radicals have manifested the other side of the same dynamic by consistently mistreating the Christian population of the Middle East, particularly Palestinian Christians. Palestinian jihad fighters have even used Christian sites and people as shields against the Israelis. In Spring 2002 they appropriated Bethlehem’s Manger Square as a base of operations, knowing that Israeli forces would not attack them there and would face international opprobrium if they did. This activity precipitated the siege of the Church of the Nativity in April and May of that year. After launching attacks against the Israelis from Manger Square, a group of jihadists fled into the church, where they remained for 39 days — secure in the knowledge that Israel would not attack a Christian holy site. Meanwhile, they desecrated the church.
This notorious episode epitomizes the plight of Palestinian Christians. Malik observes that because of the supremacist character of the jihad ideology, “removing Israel from the equation and satisfying the Palestinians beyond their wildest dreams would not eliminate the violence against non–Muslims inherent in political Islam.” He points out that “were Israel not in the picture the problem of dhimmi subservience would still exist for Palestinian Christians.”
Mindful of this plight, Patriarch Gregory III Laham of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church asked at the Synod of Bishops in Rome last month that the Christian world not forget its Arab brethren. According to Catholic World News, “in light of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, Arabic Christians urgently need support, the Melkite Patriarch said. He argued that if universal Church showed support for the Christian minority in the Arabic world, that support would encourage and embolden the Christians who are now living under extremely difficult circumstances.”
Let us then remember the embattled Christians of the Middle East — and offer them every kind of support as well. The jihad against them is the same jihad that confronts Israel, the United States, and the rest of the free world.