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The following remarks are an effort to make sense of the crazy conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What I have to say is neither pro-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian. To the best of my ability I have tried to keep the report factual. Some of the information comes from a book entitled "The Middle East for Complete Idiots," some comes a variety of internet resources. (See the list of links at the bottom of this page.) Some of the information comes from various Israeli and Arab students I have known over the years. And, of course, some of the information is taken from daily television and radio news reports.

In the area we today know as Israel the crazy enmity between Arab and Jew has been simmering for several thousand years. And that simmering pot has boiled over so many times in the past that it is no surprise to learn that Israeli troops and tanks are on the move again, that suicide bombers are blowing themselves up on Israeli buses and in Tel Aviv nightclubs, that American newspapers and magazines are chock full of stories about Arafat, Sharon, and the latest suicide bombing, and that American diplomats are once again trying to promote peace in the area by trying to stop the current fighting and trying to force the two sides to develop a long-range peace plan. Well, good luck to the diplomats! We hope they are successful, but we also know there are many reasons why no plan for peace is likely to end that conflict. Even as I was typing this on May 1, 2002, a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity had left that famous site in Bethlehem in flames, and when I was editing this site on May 8, 2002, the news was all about a suicide bomber who killed himself and 15 Israelis.

Yes, there are many reasons, but in these remarks I will concentrate on the only most important ones. Some of these reasons are religious; some of the reasons are historical; some of the reasons have to do with the personal attitudes of such leaders as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat; and some of the reasons have to do with future issues that will cause conflict between the two sides. The details of the struggle are enormously bewildering, but in the following paragraphs I will try to give you enough information to understand what is going on in the area and to understand why we should not be too quick to believe that there will ever be peace in that part of the world. (As Christians we believe that all problems can be resolved by God, and it may be that we will have to trust God on this one; for as you will see below the obstacles to a human solution to this conflict are many.)

So let's try to shed a little light on some of those reasons why bringing peace to that part of the world is apparently impossible. . .at least, nobody has yet succeeded over the past several thousand years and it seems unlikely that anyone will succeed in the near future. . .unless, of course, there is a Divine intervention.

To begin with some religious issues, it is important to understand that Palestinian Arabs and Israelis are like two rival heirs to Abraham's estate. That is, both sides claim to be descended from Abraham; and both sides believe they themselves are the "true" and "legal" descendants of Abraham. The Arabs are descended from Abraham through his first son, Ishmael the traditional figure alleged to have founded the Arab ethnic group. According to the Arab view of things, Abraham had officially named his first-born son Ishmael as heir to his estate. Therefore, the land that God promised to Abraham should have been inherited by Ishmael and his descendants. But the Jewish interpretation is quite different. Because the first-born son Ishmael was the son of a maidservant to whom Abraham was not married, the Jews view Abraham's second son Isaac as the legitimate heir to the promised land. In other words, the Jews feel that the true son of the true marriage of Abraham and Sara has the right to inherit over the older boy even though the older boy was legally recognized as Abraham's heir. As a legal problem, it's impossible for either side to see any justice on the other side, and attempts to resolve differences on this basis end up in angry arguments just as often happens when siblings fall to arguing over matters of inheritance.

Even if such legal wrangling over ancient Biblical laws of inheritance does not carry much weight in the modern world, the religious differences between the two sides complicate matters in very practical ways. The mostly Islamic Arabs claim some of the same holy places as the mostly Jewish Israelis. Here's an example: in 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the site of the original Temple at Jerusalem -- a very holy place to the Jews and for different reasons a very holy place to the Moslems. Seeing their dedicated enemy Ariel Sharon at such a sensitive place inflamed the Palestinians. Rioting broke out among the Arabs in the neighborhood because that same site is also considered to be the spot where Mohammed ascended into Heaven at the end of his life. Dozens were seriously injured in the rioting. In other words, as long as Jews take their religious heritage seriously and as long as Moslems take their religious heritage seriously. . . well, the conclusion is obvious. Religious differences that come from claiming the same holy places are part of the reason why there is not much hope of solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Also under the heading of religious reasons is the fact that there has always been some degree of anti-Semitism in the world at large; and that means that no matter what the Israeli Jews suffer and no matter how justified their reactions to attacks on them, they will still be seen by anti-Semitic people as the "bad guys." There is also anti-Islamic prejudice in the world at large. Anti-Islamic people will always see the Muslim Palestinians as the "bad guys." The result is that both sides at one time or another are demonized by many people in the world at large. As a Syrian-American who grew up near the Golan Heights told me recently, "Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have dipped their arms up to the elbows in the blood of innocents. It is really time for peace, not the deadly violence preached by the politicians, the generals, and the clergy on both sides." As you can see, it is psychologically easier for the prejudiced people of the world to say "a plague on both your houses" than it is to take meaningful steps toward resolving the problems of that chaotic part of the world.

There are also historical reasons why it appears unlikely that a long-term peaceful solution can be found. But we obviously cannot summarize the entire story, so quite arbitrarily I have decided to begin the story about the time that World War One ended. By then there were Jews scattered all over the world who held Zionist beliefs, that is, they believed that Palestine should be a Jewish state. A tiny trickle of these Zionists found their way to Palestine and began to agitate for an independent Jewish nation. Naturally their Arab neighbors were uncomfortable with these new arrivals.

As World War One ended, England found itself responsible for administering the Palestinian territory. It was called the Palestinian Mandate, but that area is roughly the same area that we know as Israel today. About 80 percent of the population of Palestine around 1920 were the Arabs who called themselves Palestinians; somewhat less than 20 percent of the people were Jews. Although they hated each other and had frequent violent clashes, both the Palestinians and the Jews wanted the British to leave.

But the British rulers did not want the population to be unbalanced. That only made it more tempting for Arabs to try to attack the Jewish minority. So around 1920, a British politician named Lord Balfour published a declaration inviting Jews from all over the world to come to Palestine and establish a homeland there. At first, not many Jews took advantage of this invitation; only the most extreme Zionists continued to trickle into the country. European and American Jews were living comfortable life styles in their adopted countries and so had little incentive to immigrate to a harsh land like Palestine. The Jews who wanted to come to Palestine were mostly small settlements of Jews scattered about the Islamic world in such places as Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and so forth. But these Jews from the Arab countries were not allowed to leave. Arab leaders did not want a large number of Jews congregating in Palestine. The Arab leaders believed quite correctly that the more the Jewish population grew, the more trouble there would be for Palestinian Arabs who themselves wanted to possess the whole nation of Palestine.

Nevertheless, by one means or another, a steady stream of Jews came into Palestine (especially after World War Two when there were thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe seeking a new life). By 1947 the Jewish population had come to be about 40 percent of Palestine. It was inevitable that the two rival groups inside Palestine would continue to feel mutually threatened, to harden their hearts against one another, to attack each other verbally, to build up secret supplies of small arms and ammunition, and to conduct terrorist attacks on their rivals. Only the presence of the British in Palestine prevented a full-scale civil war between these two groups.

But the British did leave after World War Two. And now thousands of Jews began to make their way into Palestine as the new United Nations tried to decide what to do with Palestine. In 1947 fighting broke out between the two factions, and the UN finally decided in 1948 to partition Palestine into two states -- a Palestinian Arab area on the west bank of the Jordan river and a little strip of land along the southern Mediterranean coast were designated as Palestinian territory, and the rest of Palestine was designated as Jewish territory. (See map above.) Obviously neither the Jews nor the Palestinians were satisfied with receiving only part of Palestine as a place to establish their new nations. (By the way, it is a common misunderstanding that all of Palestine was given to the Jews by the UN.)

So we have reviewed some religious reasons and some historical reasons why the conflict is so hard to resolve. But equally important is the intense personal hatred that exists between the leaders of the two factions. Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Arafat, the head of the Palestinians, have been personal, mortal enemies for over 50 years. Now in their early 70's, they have been fighting each other since they were both teen-agers back in the late 1940's.

Sharon has been responsible for a number of assassination attempts against Arafat, and Arafat has been responsible for a number of assassination attempts on Sharon. Each man thinks the other is a terrorist murderer of children and other innocent civilians. Arafat, for example, blames Sharon for the massacre of about 600 Palestinians in Lebanon during the early 1980's, and Arafat has not forgotten that Sharon was the commander of Unit 101 during the 1950's. Unit 101 was an Israeli secret commando group that conducted terrorist type raids in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank during the early years of the new Israeli state. Obviously Sharon has the same low opinion of Arafat. Sharon knows Arafat as the founder of Al-Fatah, one of the most dangerous Palestinian terrorist groups, and as the head of the PLO, the umbrella under which several terrorist groups have collected. The chances of these two men having a meaningful discussion about peace is practically non-existent.

Past and present religious and historical differences as well as the Sharon-Arafat clash of purposes and wills are all factors in why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, but there are even other problems that lie in the future. One problem in this region of the world is fresh water for both agriculture and for human consumption. As the population of the area increases over the next few decades, water may become more valuable than oil, and the ability to control the fresh water supply may turn out to be a more effective weapon in this ongoing struggle than atomic bombs. Another problem that lies ahead is that outside forces have always exploited or meddled in the troubles in Palestine for their own purposes. Osama Bin Laden, for example, claims that he acts in sympathy with and on the behalf of his Palestinian brothers while in actual fact he and most other Arab leaders have never tried to help the Palestinians in meaningful ways. Or, to look at another example, consider that the U.S. frequently applies pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to scale down the violence. (This seems very strange to the Israelis who have seen our own war against terrorism and who think that they are fighting the same kind of war against terrorism.) At various points Russia, England, and France have all also tried to manipulate the situation. (Don't forget that it was France who helped Israel develop the technology that led to Israel developing atomic weapons.) Most recently (May 6, 2002), the U.S. has insisted that Israel accept Yasser Arafat as the person with whom they must negotiate. Just as outsiders have gummed up the works in the past, it seems unavoidable that outsiders will continue to interfere in ways that are not always helpful. Also we can count on Israeli distrust of the Arabs to continue on indefinitely because of the Arab tradition of verbal deception when negotiating. Indeed, Arabs themselves tell stories about the advantages and disadvantages that grow out of this cultural trait. (See "The Imaginary Oranges" below.) So, as crazy as it is for these people to continue to slaughter one another, it seems they will continue to do so even though they risk destruction along with their enemies. As I said earlier, perhaps the only hope we have for solving this conflict is Divine intervention.