The Arab-Israel Conflict

I recently finished reading the book Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris. It’s a long read (more than 700 pages) with a comprehensive history of the conflict starting in 1881 and ending with the election of Sharon. Benny Morris gives a very balanced and nuanced account of the conflict.

I realized after reading him that both Arabs and Israel have committed atrocities and mistakes at various times. Some people who come off really badly in the book are Amin Al-Husseini (the Nazi supporting Palestinian leader), Arafat, Sharon (especially his actions during the war in Lebanon, where he comes off as undermining Israeli democracy as well) and to some extent Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s statements regarding transfer of Arabs out of Palestine (I’ll use Palestine when I refer to the British mandate) and his and some earlier Zionist leaders’ ideas about Greater Israel (encompassing at least all of Palestine) don’t really endear them to me.

It is also clear that both sides missed opportunities for peace. For example, Col. Zaim of Syria asked to meet Ben-Gurion to negotiate a peace settlement in 1949, but Ben-Gurion refused to even meet and kept his cabinet ignorant about the offer. Similarly, peace overtures by King Abdullah of Jordan in 1949 and Sadaat of Egypt in 1971 got nowhere with Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. However, the Palestinian leadership always took a very inflexible stance until the 1990s. This inflexibility meant they missed all opportunities for a state of their own. They could have gotten 80% of Palestine in 1937 (Peel Commission) and 44% in 1947 (UN partition plan), but they never even considered these plans.

In my opinion, the conflict between Jews and Arabs was inevitable. They both wanted the same piece of land. Jewish immigration to the land of Israel was necessary because of their persecution in Europe. And though they had historical ties going back millenia to the land of Israel and there had been a continuous Jewish presence there, the area was largely inhabited by Arabs in the 19th century. According to Benny Morris, in 1881 there were only about 15,000 Jews in a total population of 457,000 (about 3.3%). In 1918, it had changed to 59,000 out of 747,000 (7.9%). By 1931, they constituted 16.6% (175,000) of the population (1,055,000). By 1939, 30.1% of the population was Jewish (460,000 out of 1,530,000). The Peel Commission had suggested the population transfer of about 1,250 Jews and 225,000 Arabs to the Jewish and Arab states respectively in 1937. Similarly, Israel under the UN partition plan would have had a population of 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs (another 100,000 Jews lived in Jerusalam’s international zone.) From these figures, it seems to me that the Jewsih and Arab populations were very mixed and it would have been really difficult to draw borders to separate them. Transfer seems like an obvious solution but the only times peaceful population transfers have occured in recent world history is when the transfer is mutual or when the population being transferred is thoroughly defeated in war. Neither held true for the Palestinian Arabs until the defeat of the Arabs in the 1948 war. Looking at the population figures above, I can understand some of the Arab outrage at Jewish immigration. I don’t understand their use of violence or their rejection of all compromise however. Another striking thing from the pre-1948 period is that the Jewish population did not use violence except in retaliation to Arab attacks. They bought land from Arab landlords who were sometimes leaders pontificating against Jewish settlement.

Looking at the 1948 war, it is clear that the Arab states really were after a land grab rather than helping their Palestinian brothers. For example, Jordan never really attacked any area allocated to Israel in the UN plan. The real losers in 1948 were the Palestinians. They probably didn’t consider themselves a Palestinian nation at the time. Here, I would like to address the point of some critics that there has never been a Palestinian state or Palestinian people. That is true historically, however there were Arabs in Palestine and their sense of belonging to a nation was developed over time (crystallizing in the 1960s), just like any other nation. As an example, one can also say that there never was a Pakistani state or a Pakistani nation until 1947. True enough, but the separate identity of Muslims in India developed over time and led to the creation of Pakistan and hence Pakistani people as well.

I also had the feeling of deja vu while reading this book. Everything happens twice, first by one side then by the other. For example, the demolition of terrorists’ homes was started by the British in the 1936-39 Arab rebellion. The drive-by shooting and bombing of marketplaces originated with the LHI and IZL terrorist groups. And Arabs were the ones worried about the demographics in the 1930s and Israelis are now.

Unlike Aziz Poonawalla, I don’t think a binational state will work. There is too much hatred on both sides. It might have been possible in the 1930s-40s but a lot has happened in the meantime. Again, the example of Pakistan is instructive. Until about mid-1940s, a federation/confederation comprising the whole of India (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) was likely. But it did not happen and by 1946 most of the Muslim leadership wanted a separate state (which was created in 1947.) Later, in 1970 the Awami League political party won the elections in a unified Pakistan (East Pakistan is now Bangladesh.) It wanted a very loose federation of East and West Pakistan, but the military government did not transfer power to them and cracked down on the Awami League (which was based in East Pakistan.) A civil war ensued and Bangladesh was born. Even though there was widespread frustation in East Pakistan against West Pakistan’s domination, it was the military crackdown that ended all hope of reconciliation or compromise.

At present, I don’t see any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A Palestinian state is a necessary part of the solution, but the current Palestinian leadership does not have the vision or the will to pursue it and is hell-bent on terrorism. Also, popular opinion in Israel will not be conducive to negotiation and compromise until the terrorist attacks cease or at least become somewhat rare. Violence though has its own life. Once a conflict gets really violent, it is almost impossible to return to a peaceful state. There are too many thugs and criminals who make their living, so to speak, on that violence. The current crop of Israeli and Palestinian leaders look too much to the past. In my pessimistic opinion, they can’t make peace; and it will get worse before it gets better. The next crop of leaders will be more extremist and will thrive on mutual hatred. Hopefully, that’s as low as it will get and it will get better after that. Sometimes when I am optimistic, I think a solution could be found soon. The election of Amram Mitzna as the Israeli Labor party leader has provided some hope. Now, where is his Palestinian counterpart to replace Arafat?

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Zack:

    You seem like a decent guy so I’ll clue you in: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has very little to do with the Palestinians and the Israelis. They are the guys dieing, but that is about all. If you look at what they did and continue to do you will miss the point.

    Ask a member of the Saudi royal family who they hate in the region and they will tell you that they hate the Israelis. But if you ask them to except the Israelis, then they will answer the Palestinians. To them, as well as the Baathist regime in Iraq and the Khomeniites in Iran, the Palestinians are a reflection of the Israelis. For the most part, Palestinians are better educated and more desirous of democracy than their Arab neigbors. This is a threat to regimes that use ILLITERACY as a weapon of oppression against their own people. To other Arabs, the Palestinians are the infected people who may be sacrificed.

    Thus they foment through Hamas, Hizbollah and other groups the destruction you see on the news daily.

    While the Israelis are to be pityed, the Palestinians are in just an awful position. They have no government to speak of, only a mercinary thug who fools idiots in suits into believing he IS a government. They cannot speak their minds, and they are surrounded by murderers who have been trained by foreign powers NOT to care for their situation. Yet they themselves are aware. It is analogous to a paralyzed person watching himself be vivisected without being able to do anything about it.

    As soon as there is some semblance of democracy in the Middle east, things may change. Otherwise, pessimism is realism.

  2. Zack. I love your analyses and agree with you. What is amazing to me is the level of denial that both sides seem to believe in. A large number of Israelis seem to believe, or want to believe: 1) there is no such thing as Palestinian people they “just never existed and hence there should not be a Palestinian nation; 2) the Palestinians just picked up and left during the pre-emptive 1948 war on Israel and hence do not deserve to return; and 3) the solution for Israel to remain a Jewish State, the “Arab Israelis,” not Palestinians need to be “transferred” (I love that word, it sounds so much better than ethnic cleansing) out of Israel. On the Arab side, the Israelis just stole all the land from a country called Palestine and they do not deserve to live there. The only solution, the Arabs argue is to throw the Israelis in the sea.

    No one seems to think that a solution lies in compromise and in living together. Perhaps you are correct; the leaders on both sides have done very little in educating the public about tolerance and about the need to co-exist. I also agree, in as much as I would like to think otherwise, that a 2 state solution will never happen as each will strive to destroy the other. Both communities, in Israel and the West Bank live within a rock throw away from each other. They are physically hugging each other, but will never embrace each other as humans who have the right to a home. It will be at least another 100 years before the true solution will emerge: integration of both people who share the same race: both Arabs and Israelis are Semitic people whose religions, rituals and beliefs are similar, into one nation.

  3. Arab American: Thanks for your comment.

    I agree with most of your comment, though I am not at all hopeful about a single nation.

  4. Zack. Did you read the recent article by Tony Judt? If you have not, I am reprinting it here for you and others.

    Israel: The Alternative By Tony Judt

    [Edited by Zack to remove text of article and add a link instead]

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  6. The partition of Israel was done on demographic lines, as noted above – with about 500,000 Jews (and 100,000 more in Jerusalem) and about 370,000 (not 400) Arabs in what would have become Israel. The land was overwhelmingly either “state lands” or owned by Jews, with less than %20 Arab ownership.

    The Arabs rejected the partition, and invaded. As a result, like in any war, there were refugees – about 650,000 Arabs left lands either from Partition Israel or lands Israel conquered as a result of the Arab attempt to genocide the Jews in the Jewish state, in contravention of the UN. While there was some “ethnic cleansing” by the Jews against strategically placed villages, in response to a war thrust upon them because it frustrated Muslim claim of right on ALL of the land (no matter that the Jews had a majority in the Parition). In response, over the subsequent few years, over 800,000 Jews were forced out or fled Arab nations, their property appropriated by the Arab states. The “other” refugees.

    Attacks and terrorism continued from the Sinai into Israel. In 1956, as Nasser announced plans to nationalize the Suez, the UK and France enlisted Israel in a plan to stop the nationalization, with Israel taking the Sinai to stop terror from there, and to have it demiliterized. Israel, the UK and France attacked, Israel conquered the Sinai, but the US intervened and Israel withdrew in return for the promise that the US and UN would not allow a blockade and that the Sinai would be demilitarized.

    In 1965, the PLO was formed, which renounced claim to the WB and Gaza, but claimed all of Israel as an Arab Muslim state.

    In 1967, Egypt announced that it and Syria and Lybia and other Arab nations were going to push Israel into the sea. Egypt blockaded Israel’s oil port for a couple weeks, an act of war. The US and UN did nothing. Egypt also asked the UN to remove its peace keepers from the Sinai, which the UN did, and they mobilized their armies for war. Israel struck Egypt first, firing the first shot against Egypt in response to Egypt’s acts of war- and then Syria and Jordan fired upon Israel. As a result of this war, Israel gained the Sinai, Gaza and the WB. They finally had access to the Western Wall, but allowed Muslims to continue control Al-aqsa, in contrast to Muslim treatment of Jewish holy sites. They didn’t really have a plan for the WB and Gaza. Jordan and Egypt renounced claims. Israel left their administrations in place, though. They also allowed massive immigration from Jordan into the WB by not sealing off the border.

    UN resolution 242 asked Israel to withdraw from territories gained in the war, but specifically did not mean all of the territories, and it was to be as part of a peace deal. Israel offered to give back the lands for comprehensive peace with the Arabs, but was met with the 3 no’s of the Khartoom declaration.

    In 1973, the Arab nations (not Jordan this time) bravely attacked on the holiest day of the Jewish year, during the fast of Yom Kippur, the day of attonment, but Israel repulsed the Arab invasion.

    You then had the Lebanese civil war, which Israel involved itself in because of terrorism from the PLO based in Beirut (who were large instigators of the war), and then, in the late 1980’s, the first intifadah. Then Israel invited Arafat and the PLO into the WB and Gaza with Oslo, which Arafat described as a “Trojan Horse’” and part of the “plan of phases” to destroy Israel.

    Rabin meant for “Autonomy plus,” not a fully independent arab state – because it would be so militarily dangerous for Israel to allow, for example, uncontrolled train and air and boat shipments to lands literally a stones throw from Israel’s main population centers. I mean, would the US allow the Amerincan Indian tribes, were they commited to the destruction of the US, to freely import whatever? Or England do the same with a hostile Wales? Lets get real. But there are demographic realities… and that is what brings us to our situation here.

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