Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Roots of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

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Benchmarks

Biblical Period

 
World War I and Aftermath
Husayn-McMahon Correspondence, 1915
Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1916
Balfour Declaration, 1917
King-Crane Commission, 1919

 

The Arab-Israeli Wars
Roots
1948
1956
1967
1973

Palestinian Intifadas:  1987, 2000

War: Summer, 2006

BBC Maps on the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Peace Initiatives

BBC Guide to Jerusalem's Holy Sites

BACKGROUND:  The first Zionist Conference was convened in Basel by Theodor Herzl in 1897, one year after he had published his book, The Jewish State.  The conference took place in a climate of Western feelings of moral and cultural superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the world, the product in no small measure of nearly a century of European colonialism in the Middle East and Africa.  It also took place during yet another wave of anti-Semitism throughout Europe.  (see Christian Persecution of Jews in Europe and especially the Dreyfus Affair)

Arabs did not regard the emergence of Zionism on the one hand and European colonialism on the other as coincidental. The mix of European Jews and Middle Eastern Arabs could not have been anything but volatile despite the Arabs' initial willingness to trust British promises of independence made during World War I.  The new nation of Israel that came about in 1948 was seen as a colonial outpost of the West, as the Sheikh of al-Azhar Gad al-Haq put it in a 1986 newspaper interview, "a foreign body in the eye of the Middle East."  Fundamentally, Muslims had regarded Jerusalem as the third holiest pilgrimage shrine in all of Islam since the building of the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of al-Aqsa in Islam's first century, and therefore held that Palestine should be under Islamic rule.

Arabs began seeing themselves on the losing side of their encounter with the West at least as far back as Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798.  History seems to support their perception. G.H. Jansen in his book, Militant Islam (Harper and Row: New York, 1979, 65), points out that from 1798 until 1956, scarcely five years went by when the Muslim world did not suffer a major assault or encroachment by the West. Indeed, that chronology can be extended with little effort to the present.  Westerners, often unmindful of this history and bewildered by the deep Arab anger they see, should perhaps heed Albert Hourani's admonition, that "defeat goes deeper into the human soul than victory" (A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1991), 300).

To make matters even more difficult, as European colonialism and Zionism advanced, Arab nationalism did, too, and this included the Palestinians.  Rashid Khalidi (Palestinian Identity:  The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999)) demonstrates that Palestinian self-awareness as a national entity is detectable as early as 1701. It arises as a defense against hostile European Christian interests that were contending with indigenous Palestinian Muslims for influence in Jerusalem.  Similarly, opposition to Zionism began to define Palestinian nationalist interests as early as 1900. Conflicts between Palestinians and Jewish settlers occurred as early as 1886 in Petah Tikva, in the region around Tiberias between 1901 and 1904, and in al-Fula between 1910 and 1911.   (Go to  new Ottoman land and tax reform measure for more.)

As for the Arab-Israeli conflict itself, while some Jews initially refused to acknowledge that Palestinian Arabs even existed (former Prime Minister Golda Meir, for example), other Zionists such as Chaim Weizman, former president of Israel, said, "The conflict in Palestine is not a conflict between a right and a wrong but between two rights." Columbia Professor Arthur Hertzberg, noting this irony, went on to say that "both Zionism and the Palestinian cause are absolutely right on their own terms just as long as one doesn't have to deal with the other."  By the time of the intifadas (1987 and 2000) some wondered whether Israel had set itself on a course similar to that of ancient Sparta, another highly militarized society that had effectively declared war on its main source of menial labor (the Helots). 

At the end of the twentieth century, it was possible to speculate that when it was finally all over, Palestinians and Israelis (if any were left to do so) might look back and discover that all along, each had been the other's best friend and best hope in the region.  Israelis needed peace with the Palestinians in order to gain political and moral legitimacy in the eyes of their Arab neighbors (by meeting the Arab condition of "land-for-peace" agreed to at the 1991 Madrid Conference).  And, Palestinians needed peace with Israel because, without a militarily strong Israel there to protect them, especially from Syria and Jordan whose ambitions to control Palestine were of long standing, there would never be a Palestinian state and perhaps no Palestinian people worth mentioning either, except as a quaint curio of cultural interest in the Arab world at large (see Abdullah I's dream of "Greater Syria" , also) and Jordan's annexation of West Bank in 1950).  The best guarantor of Palestinian national aspirations all along may turn out to have been none other than the very Zionism so many Palestinians despised. 

The Arab-Israeli Wars
Roots
1948
1956
1967
1973

Palestinian Intifadas:  1987, 2000

War: Summer, 2006

(See also Colonialism in Africa and the Middle East. Click here for a note on religious Zionism. For the role of water in the conflict, see Golan Heights and Water Wars.) 

See also Israel and Palestinians.

Islamic Middle East Course Study Guide for The Arab-Israeli Conflict

 

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email: tthornton@nmhschool.org

Last Revised: February 9 , 2007