Sunday, May 12, 2002
The endless wars
Modern strife in the Holy Land
In following these epic struggles over the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, it is easy to forget how small an area is involved. Modern-day Israel and the occupied territories comprise about 10,500 square miles, an area some 10 percent smaller than Vancouver Island.
THE CREATION OF ISRAEL AND THE 1948 WAR
To the Arab world, the war was a humiliating defeat, another instance of pan-Arab unity proving unequal to the power of outsiders. It remains a source of bitterness to this day, with the story of how the war drove Palestinians off their lands referred to as al-Nakba, "the disaster."
At the same time, a similar number of Jewish refugees fled their homes in neighboring areas and other Arab countries because of the turmoil.
U.N. Resolution 194, passed in December 1948, endorsed the right of refugees "wanting to live at peace with their neighbors" to return to their homes or receive compensation for lost land and property. Palestinian refugees were neither compensated nor allowed to return. Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan, refused to absorb them, preferring to maintain the refugee camps for more than half a century as a way of keeping the issue from fading away.
Jewish refugees were eagerly absorbed by Israel.
After the 1948 war, Israel possessed approximately 8,000 square miles of Palestine — reducing the Arab lands set up in the 1947 U.N. partition by some 50 percent. Jerusalem was divided, with Arabs on the east side of the armistice line — the Green Line — and the Jews on the west.
In 1956, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which had been run by a private British-French consortium, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, cutting off the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's only link to the Red Sea.
Nasser also had recently made the West uncomfortable by making a $320 million arms deal with the Soviet Union (via Czechoslovakia).
And, Nasser had been supporting violent guerrilla raids from the Sinai into Israel.
Britain and France, fearful of losing their oil-shipping lane, plotted with Israel to wrest control of the canal from Nasser.
On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula, driving the Egyptians all the way to the west side of the canal. The plan was for Britain and France to then drop troops into Egypt to "defend" the canal.
But the plan unfolded differently. The United States intervened. President Eisenhower threatened to withhold a $1 billion loan to Britain, and on Nov. 2, the United States sponsored a U.N. resolution demanding Israel's immediate withdrawal from Egypt. It was overwhelmingly approved.
Within a year, the borders had returned to their previous arrangement and Egypt regained the canal.
The incident was the first direct U.S. involvement in the affairs of the region.
THE SIX-DAY WAR, 1967
The fighting stopped June 10. U.N. Resolution 242, which dealt with the new boundaries, has become the basis for negotiations between Israel, the Arab states and the Palestinians. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza now would result in the creation of a Palestinian state, not a return of the lands to Jordan and Egypt.
Resolution 242 called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." To the Arabs, this has always meant that Israel must return to its pre-1967 borders.
Israel, on the other hand, saw great importance in the absence of the word "the" before the word "territories" in the U.N. resolution. For Israelis, "withdrawal ... from territories occupied in the recent conflict" meant something less than a full withdrawal.
In deliberations over Resolution 242, there was specific debate over the word "the." The Arab states demanded that it be included, but it was left out, indicating that the parties recognized its significance.
Resolution 242 also called for the "... acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.... " In other words, it reaffirmed the right of Israel to exist peacefully amid its Arab neighbors.
THE YOM KIPPUR WAR, 1973
What came, instead, was another war.
On Oct. 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The attack caught Israel off guard. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and most of Israel was shut down for the holiday.
After suffering heavy losses — more than 2,500 Israelis would die and some 3,000 would be wounded in the 18 days of fighting that followed — Israel appealed for help from the United States.
At first, the U.S. was reluctant to aid Israel. It did not want to upset Arab states on which it had become increasingly dependent for oil. And it did not want to raise tensions with the Soviet Union, its Cold War adversary and patron of Syria and Egypt.
But after learning that the Soviets were airlifting huge amounts of weaponry to Egypt and Syria, President Nixon decided the U.S. had to act.
Six days into the fighting, the U.S. began a massive, $2.2 billion airlift of fighter planes, tanks, helicopters and munitions to Israel. It was worth it, Nixon said, "to maintain a balance of forces and achieve stability in the Middle East."
Eventually, Israel was able to turn back the Syrian and Egyptian armies and even pursue them into their own territories. In the end, Egypt lost about 7,700 soldiers; the Syrians, 3,500.
The battle between the Israelis and the Arabs raised the tensions between the superpowers considerably, and on Oct. 22 the U.S. and Russia moved to halt the hostilities by proposing U.N. Resolution 338, which called for an immediate end to the fighting and the resumption of efforts toward peace under the guidelines set out in Resolution 242. The resolution passed unanimously.
The war left Israel as the Mideast's dominant military power once again, but it also established the Arab states' ability to inflict heavy damage on Israel.
It also inaugurated the tradition of huge U.S. military aid to Israel, which continues to this day — in recent years, about two-thirds of the roughly $3 billion a year in U.S. aid to Israel has gone to the Israeli military.
RISE OF THE PLO AND INVASIONS OF LEBANON: 1970s AND 1980s
Not a key player in the region at first, the organization gained strength with the failure of Egypt in the Six Day War in 1967.
Though the PLO's stated aims were to change radically with the 1993 Oslo accords, for nearly 30 years the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat, supported guerrilla warfare and terrorism as a primary means of promoting the Palestinian cause.
Kicked out of Jordan in 1970 because of its destabilizing effect, the PLO soon became ensconced in Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees lived in generally miserable conditions.
The PLO came to control the network of Lebanese refugee camps, essentially creating a PLO state within Lebanon.
From its new position just north of Israel, the PLO supported guerrilla attacks on Israeli territory — attacks that in 1978 provoked an Israeli response.
Israel invaded Lebanon in March 1978 in an attempt to crush the PLO guerrillas. The operation was brief and of limited success. Four days into it, the U.N. issued Resolution 425, which demanded Israeli withdrawal and established a U.N. monitoring force in southern Lebanon to discourage fighting between Israel and the PLO.
In 1982, Israel again invaded Lebanon, this time with the intent of fully crushing the PLO. The invasion reached all the way to Beirut and succeeded in crippling the PLO and exiling Arafat to Tunisia. But the operation also turned into a quagmire for Israel that lasted three years, cost the lives of more than 650 Israeli soldiers and wounded almost 4,000 others.
The Sabra and Shatila massacres — during which Ariel Sharon, then Israeli defense minister, failed to prevent Lebanese militiamen from killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians in the two refugee camps — occurred in 1982. News of the massacres helped dampen the Israeli public's support of the war.
In 1985, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres approved the withdrawal of Israeli forces to a "security zone" in southern Lebanon. But Israeli soldiers enforcing the security zone were still targets, largely of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah (Party of God) guerrilla organization.
THE INTIFADAS: 1987 AND 2000
The first major Palestinian intifada began in 1987 in Gaza with Palestinian youths disillusioned by two decades of Israeli occupation. The tactics were far less violent than those seen in confrontations these days; Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails, and Israelis fired rubber bullets in response. Strikes and boycotts were also used.
The fierceness and widespread participation of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians in the first intifada caught Israel by surprise. The intifada ended in 1993 with the Oslo accords, and Palestinians believe the power of the intifada, along with the worldwide attention it generated, pressured Israel to begin negotiating seriously with the PLO.
The second intifada began in September 2000 after years of failed peace negotiations and a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, an area known as the Temple Mount to Jews and as Haram al-Sharif to Arabs.
Continuing to this day, the second intifada is far more violent and bloody than the first, with Palestinians employing suicide bombers and guns.
Israel contends the autonomy granted Palestinians after the Oslo accords requires the Palestinian Authority to put down the current uprising.
Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, condemns violence against Israeli civilians but claims to be unable to control it. Sharon, dissatisfied with this response, in March ordered a prolonged Israeli invasion of the West Bank in an effort to dismantle its "terrorist infrastructure."
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company
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