By Alexandros Zachariades
The latest escalation of conflict in the Middle East marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing Arab-Israeli dispute. The fundamental question we face is, "How did we reach this point?" This article aims to delve into the root causes, with an initial focus on specific historical events shaping the backdrop of the Palestinian issue, followed by an examination of more recent developments.
To comprehend the intricacies of the Palestinian question, we must journey back to the aftermath of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. During this period, the British pledged support for Arab independence to Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Bin Ali, through their high commissioner to Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, in letters dating back to 1915-1916. Simultaneously, they committed to the creation of a Jewish state in historic Palestine with the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. It's worth noting that Edwin Montague, the sole Jewish member of the British cabinet, voiced his disagreement, highlighting that the area promised to the Jewish Zionists was predominantly populated by Arab Muslims. He presciently predicted that this move would trigger tensions between the two communities, a prediction that tragically came true.
Following World War I, Palestine came under British protection. During this period, the British facilitated the immigration of Jews from Europe to Palestine, intensifying the rivalry between the two communities. When Britain withdrew from Palestine in 1947, the region descended into war, and the better-equipped Jewish forces emerged victorious. Historian Ilan Pappe estimates that around 500 villages and 11 Arab towns were eradicated from the map, displacing over 750,000 Arab Palestinians in what can be described as a policy of ethnic cleansing. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and other neighboring nations became embroiled in the conflict, but their involvement did little to shift the balance in favor of the Palestinians.
Subsequently, Jewish emigration from Europe surged, leading to the founding of Fatah in 1958, a key component of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Six-Day War in 1967 marked Israel's occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, and territories allocated to the state of Palestine under the 1947 UN peace plan. Although the 1973 War returned Sinai to Egypt, the overall situation remained largely unchanged, with the PLO continuing its armed resistance against Israel.
In the following years, significant developments unfolded within the Palestinian landscape. In 1987, Hamas emerged as an Islamist organization committed to Israel's destruction, opposing Fatah, and resorting to tactics such as suicide attacks and targeting civilians. Concurrently, the PLO, primarily through Fatah, shifted its strategy in the late 1980s, leading to the Oslo process, which saw a departure from military struggle and an acknowledgment of the state of Israel in exchange for recognition of the Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. Regrettably, this process unraveled with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by Kahanist terrorists who advocated for a theocratic regime in Israel.
Fatah's defeat and Hamas's victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections further exacerbated the geographical divide in the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah retaining authority in the West Bank. This division culminated in the blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, effectively turning it into a "virtual prison" for its two million inhabitants. These dire living conditions provided fertile ground for radicalization among Gaza's youth. Meanwhile, Israel, under increasingly authoritarian leadership in the past decade, continued to reject the two-state solution, expanded settlements in the West Bank, and passed legislative measures in 2018 that defined Israel as a purely Jewish state. It's worth noting that Netanyahu's previous coalition partners aimed to establish a theocratic Zionist regime.
Another critical element in the Middle East equation is the international context. In the wake of Trump's presidency, U.S. efforts shifted toward normalizing relations between Arab states and Israel, effectively sidelining the Palestinian issue. These developments aimed to create a unified front against Iran and its proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Assad regime. The 2020 Abraham Accords paved the way, with Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco formally recognizing Israel. Notably, Israel and Lebanon, despite being de jure at war, engaged in discussions for the demarcation of livestock trading. However, the most consequential step would be the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia, the leader of Sunni Islam, and Israel. These international developments, coupled with the situation on the ground in Gaza, serve as direct catalysts for the actions of Hamas.
In summary, without addressing the underlying conditions that fuel terrorist organizations like Hamas and the influence of theocratic political forces such as Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox partners, it's unlikely that the cycle of violence will be broken. The writer's perspective underscores that the long-term security of Israel hinges on recognizing this reality and returning to the fundamental principle of a two-state solution. Any alternative course may lead to a state that, in its pursuit of maintaining its Zionist and Jewish character, could resort to practices akin to apartheid South Africa or, even worse, ethnic cleansing. Regrettably, the latter scenario currently appears to be the most probable outcome.
Alexandros Zachariades, a former Middle Eastern relations professor at the London School of Economics, provides a comprehensive analysis of the complex history shaping the Middle East conflict.