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Background of the Middle East Conflict, Part 1


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The modern-day Middle East centers on Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt — clustered close to the Mediterranean Sea. Lying near the juncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East has traditionally acted as a commercial, cultural, and military route between the worlds of East and West.

The British “poet of empire,” Rudyard Kipling, wrote, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” But, in the Middle East, the two have not only met, they have often collided because of overlapping or conflicting interests in the region. For one thing, the West’s demand for the abundant Middle East oil has risen dramatically in the last century, which makes the West vulnerable to price and other controls imposed by the Eastern powers. Moreover, the region gave birth to three of the world’s great religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Many of the world’s most sacred shrines and sites are located in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine, which is known as “the Holy Land.” Various factions have conflicted on issues of access and possession of such sacred sites as the city of Jerusalem, which is revered by all three religions.

Since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Europe has shown great commercial and colonial interest in Northern Africa and the Middle East. In 1830, the French officially occupied Algeria, which borders the Mediterranean. Unofficially, they seemed to consider most of the region — and especially Egypt — to be a French possession. In 1869, the French completed a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, thus linking two seas (the Mediterranean and the Red) in order to create the shortest route from Europe to India and Asia. The British government promptly purchased a substantial shareholding in the Suez Canal.

As the Industrial Revolution increased demands for markets and commodities, 19th-century Europe grew ever more eager for a piece of the Arab world. In 1878, Britain assumed the administration of the island of Cyprus to use as a naval base to guard the Turkish Straits and the Suez Canal, both of which were now vital to its access to India, the East Indies, and China. Britain was determined that the canal would remain open to its shipping and gunboats. Accordingly, in 1883, British forces occupied the Nile Valley to crush ongoing Arab rebellions. Meanwhile, France established a protectorate over Tunisia, thereby creating its own defensive base directly across the Mediterranean Sea from France.

To guard its control of the Suez, the British seized Aden on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and established the colony of British Somaliland on the African coast. As well, treaties were negotiated with various sheiks of the Persian Gulf states. Britain also moved to block the access of other European nations to the region. For example, a German railroad was proposed to link Berlin with Kuwait, a key harbor on the northern Persian Gulf; therefore, under an 1899 agreement, Britain assumed responsibility for Kuwait’s security and foreign relations.
The rise of Zionism

But the complexity of the region was not merely commercial and military; it was also religious. And, in the last days of the 19th century, a new factor emerged: Zionism.

Zionism is the international movement for a national Jewish homeland in Palestine, which developed in Europe as a response to a rising tide of anti-Semitism. Specifically, Zionism started in the mind of Theodor Herzl, a Paris correspondent for the Vienna newspaper Die Neue Freie Presse. In 1896, Herzl witnessed what history calls “the Dreyfus Affair.” The French general staff discovered that secret documents had been sold to the Germans. Alfred Dreyfus — an officer and an assimilated Jew — was arrested and charged. Although the evidence against him was flimsy and later proven to be forged, mobs screamed for his death … and for the death of all Jews. Herzl became convinced that the much-touted goal of Jewish assimilation into European culture had failed.

Meanwhile, Jews in Russia had been victimized by vicious pogroms in 1881 and 1882, which forced them to flee from villages into concentrated ghettoes where they lived in conditions that resembled those of the Middle Ages.

A new breed of Jewish intellectual was arising: the reform Jew who opposed orthodoxy and called on Jews to command their own destiny rather than wait for God’s will; some called for Jews to claim the Holy Land as their birthright.

Among the new intellectuals was a Russian doctor named Leo Pinsker. In his influential pamphlet Auto-Emancipation he wrote, “Far, very far, is the haven of rest towards which our souls are turning.” In Russia, groups called the Hoveve Zion, or Lovers of Zion, began plans to colonize Palestine.

But the fledgling colonies sparked Arab resentment. Throughout the late 19th century, the Ottoman government issued a series of decrees restricting Jewish settlement, making the flood of Russian Jewish migration turn instead to the United States.

Nevertheless, small groups of colonists still made their way to Palestine and, with donations from the immensely wealthy Jewish financier Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a handful of colonies were established.

The first World Zionist Congress was held in 1897 at Basle, Switzerland. Its program began with the sentence,

The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a publicly, legally assured home in Palestine.

But prominent voices within Zionism doubted the wisdom of merely importing Jews into Israel; they doubted Herzl’s famous saying,

The problem of Zionism is one of means of transport: there is a people [Jews] without a land, and a land without a people.

Nahum Goldman — long-time president of the World Zionist Congress — replied,

Herzl was ignorant of that subject and that enabled him to utter a double falsehood: first, Palestine was not a country without people, since there were hundreds of thousands of Arabs living there; and, second, the Jews were not a landless people, for the assimilated Jews were good Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen and so on.

In his defense, Herzl was not naive. He knew that Jewish immigration into Palestine would cause immense problems. He wrote,

An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless based on an assured supremacy.

The key to Zionist success lay in self-defense and in control. In 1907 a Jewish self-defense group, called the Hashomer, or the Guardian, was organized; its recruits stood guard over Jewish property in Palestine. In 1909 a secret defense organization was formed; later in the same year, a Jewish armed guard was formed. These militias were the forerunners of the Haganah, a Jewish military organization that, in turn, was the forerunner of the Israeli army.
World War I

Meanwhile, the discovery of vast oil deposits in the Middle East had sharpened Western appetites for the area. Rivalries grew intense and were complicated by the teetering instability of the Arab world.

The Ottoman Empire was breaking up. For centuries, it had been an extremely powerful civilization that extended Islamic traditions and culture into Europe through conquest.

Although the Empire peaked in the 16th century, it remained a force with which to be reckoned until it was torn apart by revolution, religious dispute, and the nationalistic aspirations of various Arab groups in the first decades of the 20th century.

Thus a barrier to the expansion of Western influence and Zionism into the Middle East dissolved.

The British believed they had little choice but to deal with the problems of that region. After all, the British fleet was running on oil from the Middle East and Britain needed its fleet. On August 4, 1914, the need for oil became imperative when Britain declared war on Germany; this was the beginning of World War I.

World War I brought about an alliance between the British, French, and Russians, who were called the Triple Entente. Opposing the Entente were the Central Powers — Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and what remained of the Ottoman Empire (the Turks).

Britain needed Arabs to spill their blood against the Turks. For their part, Arabs yearned for independence from the Turks, who still controlled many areas. Hussein Ali — the Grand Sherif of Mecca — was the Arab chieftain considered most likely to succeed in a military campaign. Indeed, Hussein and his sons had been planning rebellion for years. Therefore, the Allies promised Hussein dominion over whatever lands his forces liberated from the Ottoman Turks.

This was done through a series of negotiations. In July 1915, Hussein and Sir Henry McMahon — the British high commissioner in Egypt — began to correspond. In his first letter, Hussein clearly spelled out his goals:

England to acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries, bounded on the north by Mersina and Adana up to the 37 degree of latitude; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the south by the Indian Ocean, with the exception of the position of Aden to remain as it is; on the west by the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea up to Mersina. England to approve of the proclamation of an Arab Khalifate of Islam.

The area described is roughly bounded on the north by modern Turkey, and includes Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. Not willing to create a powerful Arab federation, McMahon hedged:

With regard to the questions of limits and boundaries it would appear to be premature to consume our time in discussing such details.

Hussein countered by speculating that “discussion of these at present is of no use and is a loss of time” which “might be taken to infer an estrangement.”

McMahon haggled. He granted most of Hussein’s territorial demands — including Palestine — but made the cessions subject to various conditions. One of the conditions was that French interests in the area would not be damaged. Since Hussein was being promised most of what he wanted, he compromised but one point was clearly stated; at the end of the war, he would not tolerate a Western power in his region. The Arabs may have cooperated with the Entente, but they were fighting for independence.

On June 5, 1916, Hussein’s sons led a revolt in Medina. Four days later, Sherif Hussein attacked the Turkish garrison at Mecca. One of the leaders of the Arabs was a British officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was the liaison officer between the Arabs and the British in Egypt, under General Allenby. Lawrence and one of Hussein’s sons, Faisal, became fast friends and jointly led the large Arab fighting force. Using brilliant guerilla tactics, the Arabs harassed the Turks. Pinning down the enemy — often through hand-to-hand combat — the Arabs allowed Allenby to capture Jerusalem. But, significantly, the ancient Arab city of Damascus was liberated by Arabs.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).