torsdag 11 oktober 2007

Poor Palestinians

The subject came up over coffee this morning. Someone said that we would not have had Al Quaida and terrorism if it were not for Palestine.

Now I do not support what the Israelis are doing these days. However, the Palestinians have no-one to blame but themselves for their predicament. People seem not to be aware of the recent history of this conflict.

Jews began to settle in the country then known as Palestine from the 1880s when it was part of the Ottoman empire on land they had purchased. At that time the population was small.

About a year before the end of the First World War, the British Government issued the following statement known as the Balfour Declaration.

"His Majesty's Government 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"

In the post war settlement, Britain was given what was called a "Mandate" to govern the country. Jewish settlement continued on land that had been purchased. Opposition from Arabs developed, with incitement from Moslem religious leaders, principally Haj Amin el-Husseini. There were pogroms in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1929 and 1936.

During the Nazi period in the years before the Second World War, and again, immediately afterwards, Jewish immigration to Palestine continued, and after the war, inter-communal violence grew. In 1947, a United Nations Commission advocated partition, with the predominantly Jewish areas to become part of a Jewish state. On the withdrawal of the British, a state of Israel was declared and was immediately attacked by five Arab countries whose aim was to eliminate Israel. Fighting continued for about a year and ended with a cease-fire but no agreement, on borders which were determined by the armistice line; this resulted in Israel having more land than originally allocated, and with large numbers of Arabs becoming refugees. Arab leaders would not negotiate with the Israelis as they did not recognise its existence; thus, a formal state of war remained.

In the immediate aftermath, large numbers of Jews took the opportunity to escape persecution in Arab countries and to leave for Israel, so that about 40% of the present population of Israel consists of Jews whose ancestors lived in places like Morocco, Algeria, Iraq and Yemen. In the meantime, the Arab countries made no attempt to settle their refugees but kept them confined in camps in places such as Ramallah and Gaza. Neighbouring Egypt and Jordan absorbed those areas of Palestine which remained. Parts of Jerusalem, including the old Jewish quarter and the holy sites, ended up under Jordanian occupation and Jews were denied access.

Sporadic attacks from Arabs continued in the 1950s, with occasional punitive retaliation from the Israelis.

The next major event was the war of November 1956, carried out with British and French co-operation, the latter two countries wishing to regain control of the Suez Canal which had been nationalised by Egypt under Nasser. This ended with Israel being made to withdraw to the previous armistice line, and with a United Nations peacekeeping force being placed in Gaze between Egypt and Israel.

Over the next decade, with Soviet support, Egypt built up its army with the intention of attacking Israel from its postion in Gaza. By June 1967 it was ready, the UN force was asked to leave and the army brought up to the border. The situation became increasingly tense and the Israelis appear to have made the first move with an air strike on Egyptian air fields. The Egyptian campaign ended with the Israelis in occupation of land all the way to the Suez Canal and in the Sinai desert as far as Sharm-al-Sheik. Jordan and Syria joined in and these two interventions also resulted in land being lost to the Israelis. Thus Israel came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, with large Palestinian populations.

This was entirely unexpected. Nearly everyone, including the Israelis themselves, had expected that the better armed Arabs would lose the conflict. Israel ended up with a large population of Arabs under its control. Its first initiative was to try give up this land in exchange for recognition, but no Arab leaders would talk to them. Rather than go into a conference room with the Israelis, the Palestinian response was to form the Palestine Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat and adopt guerilla tactics instead.

Eventually, after the 1973 War, the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israelis and the Israelis withdrew from all Egyptian territory. But Sadat was assassinated for his efforts.

In the 40 years since the 1967 War, the Israelis have changed. Their leaders are no longer the kind of social democratic moderates like those who run countries such as the Netherlands. Palestinians are now having to deal with Israeli leaders of a tougher and less compromising cast of mind. They missed their big opportunity.

Other opportunities have presented themselves subsequently but time and time again the same thing has happened. And a conciliatory Israeli prime minister also fell to an Israeli assassain.

It is a hopeless situation. If there are people to feel sorry for, how about the Tibetans, the Kurds and the people of Darfur? Or the continuing Russian occupation of parts of Finland? Who protested about the brutal occupation of the Baltic states by Soviet Russia until 1991? Given the selectiveness of the sympathy, I cannot help suspecting that those who affect support for the Palestinians are either naive or motivated by anti-semitism.

And what of the link to Muslim terrorism today? If Israel vanished into thin air, it would continue. After all, there is Muslim terrorism in countries like Thailand and the Phillipines. What has that to do with Palestine? If one wants to look for a cause, surely it is the US involvement in Saudi Arabia which has gone on since the 1920s?

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Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Bishop of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for 23 years ...