Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.*
*I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this. I do not know, but I feel it happen and I am torn apart.
Reconstructing the history of the conflict between the Arab nations and the neighboring State of Israel needs a big jump in the past, despite the latter being a relatively new geopolitical player, with its foundation dating back to little less than a century ago.
The premises are to be found 474 years after the so-called ‘Babylonian Captivity’, in 132 AD, when the Jewish population living in ancient Israel turned against the then Roman emperor Hadrian due to two unpopular measures, namely a ban on circumcision, which the Jews considered a discriminatory ad hoc measure, and the much more serious project to build a new city dedicated to the cult of Roman god Jupiter on the ruins of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of self-proclaimed messiah Simon Bar Kokheba, the Jews of Judea unleashed the Bar Kokhba revolt, the third Jewish uprising against Rome after those which had provoked the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the permanent expulsion of Jewish communities of Cyprus and Cyrene from Judea. It goes without saying, the counteroffensive by the Roman troops was to be merciless, causing about 580,000 deaths (including Simon himself), the dissolution of Judea and, the most important aspect of all, the ban from residing in Jerusalem imposed on the Jewish population. It was the beginning of the Great Diaspora, or the mass migration to Europe and North Africa.
During the Middle Ages and early modern history, the history of the Jews was a two-sided history of a people part of whom, on the one hand, used to hold key positions in a number of countries (for instance Spain, where Hebrews enjoyed the protection of the monarchs of Aragon and Castile until 1492, when the former were obliged to convert to Catholicism), and, on the other, was subject to segregation in the European ghettos and to the so-called pogroms, the cyclical massacres of Jews in Tsarist Russia.
In the mid 19th century, in conjunction with the rise of nationalism in the ‘Romantic century’, the cult of ‘Volksgeist’ and its ethnic-based chauvinist extremism degenerated into ‘anti-Semitism’ (a famous example of which is the ‘Dreyfus Affair’, set in the French Third Republic), a word not surprisingly coined in 1879.
It was under such circumstances, especially after the 1882 anti-Jewish pogrom in Odessa, that Hebrew communities decided to give themselves a common roof. Therefore, in 1897, Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl organized the first congress of the World Zionist Organization (named after the mountain on which lies Jerusalem’s original core) in Basel, during which the delegates set the primary purpose of founding a state in Palestine, in the Ottoman-administered Middle Eastern land strip formerly part of the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Quite obviously, the Sublime Porte refused to provide them with an authorization, but nevertheless the ‘aliyah’ (‘ascent to the land of Israel’) was already in place, with agricultural colonies and kibbutzim (that is, farms managed under communism) being established.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire as a result of the Great War as well as the endogenous thrust of the Young Turks (1912-1922), the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), in which Britain and France defined their areas of influence in Asia Minor, and Britain’s Balfour Declaration (1917), did the rest.
The clash between Israeli settlers and Arab autochthons exploded in all its virulence after the Second World War and the infamous Holocaust, from 1947, the year of the controversial, unilaterally proclaimed birth of the State of Israel by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. One year later, in 1948, the newly formed UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, aiming to divide the disputed territory into a Jewish state and an Arab state and put Jerusalem under international control. However, the withdrawal of British troops, in May 1948, coincided with the transformation of the conflict from guerrilla to conventional war, with Israel facing Palestinian paramilitary formations and troops sent by the Arab League, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. After 16 months of hostilities, the bloodshed finally came to an ‘end’ with the signing of the 1949 Armistice Agreements in Rhodes, which sanctioned the Israeli authority on 78% of Mandatory Palestine, while the rest was taken by Egypt (Gaza Strip) and Transjordan (West Bank and East Jerusalem).
So ceased the first Arab-Israeli conflict, provoking tens of thousands of victims and the ‘nakba‘ (‘disaster’), or the forced/voluntary (?) exodus of more than 700,000 Arabs from Israel.
Less than 10 years later, a second war broke out in 1956, when Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, after driving out the Egyptian monarch, made the Western governments panic following his decision to give up Egypt’s accommodating policy and nationalize the Suez Canal Company, owned by the French and the British. Inevitably, such a stance provided London, Paris and Jerusalem with a ‘casus belli‘. A joint intervention on the part of the USSR and the USA, almost an ‘unicum‘ in the history of the twentieth century, managed to put an end to the ambitions of the two European nations. Yet, it didn’t avoid Israeli General Moshe Dayan conquering the Sinai, notwithstanding the total disagreement coming from the White House.
The flame of war flared again on May 23, 1967, i.e. two days after the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping forces from Gaza and Sharm el-Sheikh. On that day, Nasser ratified a resolution denying Israeli ships navigation right through the Straits of Tiran, in the Gulf of Aqaba between Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. The Jewish government considered the above mentioned an unacceptable condition and waged a massive offensive (the Six-Day War) that was to end up destroying much of the air forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Having no effective air defenses, the Egyptian infantry lost the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, while the Syrians had to witness Israeli occupation of the West Bank (including Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights. A ‘ceasefire’ came with the UN Resolution no. 242, which warmly supported the withdrawal from the occupied areas in exchange for formal recognition of Israel by the neighboring Arab states. Only on paper.
What it is considered the last of the four major conflicts is the Yom Kippur War, broken out in 1973, when the Jewish population was celebrating the ‘Yom Kippur’ (Day of Atonement). Egypt and Syria, eager to regain the territories which had been lost in previous conflicts, launched an unexpected joint attack on the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Despite losing control of the Suez Canal, Israeli military organized an effective counter-offensive led by General Ariel Sharon, rejecting the Syrians from the Golan and encircling the Egyptian Third Army near Suez.
UN peacekeepers’s intervention, followed by the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (advocated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter), marked a normalization in the relationship between the two countries, with Cairo becoming the first Arab capital to recognize Jerusalem in 1979 (and the only, along with Amman and Ramallah/East Jerusalem).
The process of normalization of relations between Israel and neighboring countries has undergone hard braking during the last 40 years, with the explosion of sporadic crises, especially in relation to Lebanon.
Nowadays, however, it would be far more etymologically correct to speak of a specific Israeli-Palestinian conflict (whose story deserves a separate chapter), given that the greatest external threat to Israel seems to be the Islamic Republic of Iran, which formed in 1979 after the Khomeini revolution and is deeply averse to the Sunni Arab galaxy, to say the least.
Paradoxically, for reasons of realpolitik, Netanyahu’s government maintains cooperative relations with several Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia (although both do not officially recognize the other’s existence) and Egypt, while opposes Shiite Iranian satellites, namely the Assad-led Alawite regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the al-Abadi cabinet in Iraq (not coincidentally, Hamas is closer to the ayatollahs than Riyadh).
“The reality of today is meant to discover the illusion tomorrow”, once said Nobel Prize in Literature winner Luigi Pirandello. The diplomatic relativism of this region would prove him right.