Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Israeli - Palestinian Conflict, Part I, History

''Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth''

-Marcus Aurelius

How far back is far enough? You often hear claim and counter-claim by both Palestinians and Israelis that they have a 'right' to the strip of land which stretches from Lebanon and the Golan Heights in the north to the Gulf of Aqabah in the south, is sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt in the west and Jordan in the east. I don't want to dwell on this part of the debate for too long as I think it's a complete irrelevancy with regard to what's happening in the region the last few weeks, but seeing as it's at the crux of the issue for more extreme elements on both sides (and probably subconsciously for moderates) I'll briefly attempt to summarise both points of view.

In my own opinion, I think that we only need to deal with the time of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century up until today, but before we do, let's quickly go back as far as we can. From the Israeli perspective, the existence of Israel as a people and a place was recorded by the Egyptians as early as c.1209 BC, during the reign of Merneptah, son of Rameses II. Going further back again before Jerusalem even existed, there is a place known as the Ophel Hill, which has tombs dating to 3200 BC, but without any sign of habitation in the immediate area. 

Ophel Hill, 1925

There seems to be consensus among modern-day Palestinians and Israelis that the first settlers in the region were the Canaanites and the land was known as Canaan, historical sources refer to it as a colony of the New Kingdom of Egypt during the Bronze Age. In later times, c.500 BC, the Canaanites would be referred to by the Ancient Greeks as Phoenicians. Canaanites undoubtedly were a Semitic people (bear in mind the term Semitic, which has biblical origins, refers to a wide variety of peoples from the middle-east and Asian region, which later included Arabs themselves) and spoke Semitic languages, indeed the Phoenician language has clear similarities with Hebrew. The Phoenicians ancestors, the Canaanites, are thought to have originally been a nomadic people who eventually settled in various fortified cities around modern day Israel and Palestine. Interestingly, Jewish scripture describes the Canaanites as the enemy of the Israelites in the Book of Joshua, who stole the land promised to the Israelites by Yahweh. So, ultimately, there is no historical consensus on whether the original inhabitants of the territory we are concerned with were the ancestors of Israelis or Palestinians, only that they were the people first recorded to reside in the region from early historical sources. 

In The Templars: History & Myth, by historian Michael Haag, he describes the biblical description of The Promised Land;

'....the Israelites came from Mesopotamia and for a time settled in Canaan. But then in about 1750 BC famine drove the 12 tribes of Israel to Egypt where they were reduced to slavery. Their famous Exodus from Egypt began in about 1250 BC when under the leadership of Moses they escaped into the wilderness of Sinai, from where they were directed by their god Yahweh to the fertile lands of Canaan. Moses did not live to see his people enter The Promised Land, an event dated around 1200 BC; instead under Joshua, his successor, the tribes of Israel stormed into Canaan, taking the entire country by the sword (...)'. But modern scholarship is sceptical about the biblical account of the Exodus...In a stele dating to 1209 BC during the reign of Rames' son, Merneptah, there is a brief entry reading, 'Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.' This is the only non-biblical reference to Israel at this time and refers to Merneptah's successful campaign against the allied tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh and Gilead, collectively known as Israel...Nothing in these Egyptian records supports the story of an Exodus, which in any case was only written down sometime between the ninth and fifth centuries BC.'

Haag goes on to say that apart from a few fundamentalist scholars, the overwhelming consensus is that there was no Exodus from Egypt, and while a small number of Israelites may have fled Egypt to Canaan, their accounts of events appear to have been exaggerated greatly to add drama to a more banal reality. Historians are now mostly in agreement that the Israelites were a ragtag of mercenaries and bandits who descended from the mountainous areas of Canaan and gradually took over the whole of what they deemed to be their Promised Land.


The origins of the Palestinians is far more complex and not so clear cut, so I'll do my best to explain it as succinctly as possible. Between the Israelites conquest of Canaan c. 1250 BC, and up until the establishment of Islam in the 7th century AD, the geographical area known as Palestine was conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander The Great (333 BC), the Egyptians, the Syrians, and eventually the Romans up until the fall of their empire. Christianity spread in the region during the Byzantine era between 330-638 AD until Omar ibn al-Khattaab, a companion of Mohammed and extremely influential Muslim caliph, entered Jerusalem in 638 AD and ended Byzantine rule. From this time onwards the region of Palestine was administered by Muslim rulers, between 685-705 the Ummayad caliph 'Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque (where Mohammed is said to have ascended into heaven), this site is one of major contention between Israelis and Palestinians as it is also where the Temple Mount, the most holy site in Judaism is located, in the old city of Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa mosque is also the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. 

Islamic rule continued unbroken until The Crusades in 1099-1187 AD where they briefly established 'The Latin Kingdom of Israel', before Salah al-Diin al-Ayyoubi from Kurdistan drove the Europeans out and freed Jerusalem. For the next 360 years Palestine was governed from Cairo until the establishment of the Ottoman state in 1516. For the best part of the next 5 centuries, right up until the First World War, Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans from Istanbul. We're finally getting to the part which is most relevant to the modern day Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the British Mandate.

Crusader meets Moslem

During the First World War, the British promised the Arabs of the Palestinian region independence if they undertook an uprising against the Ottoman Turks and drive them out of the region. Following the revolt, the British reneged on their agreement, and along with the French, drew up the Sykes-Picot agreement, which essentially divided the region, this was viewed as a great betrayal by the Arabs. Around the same time the Balfour Declaration came out, a letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to the leader of the British Jewish Community, Baron Rothschild, essentially promising an independent Jewish State in Palestine on behalf of the British Government. Mandatory Palestine was effectively a British Civil Administration of the region between the years of 1922-1948, with the approval of the League of Nations. In 1922 the first census conducted by the new authorities resulted in the following figures - a population of 757,182 people, 78% of whom were Muslim Arabs, 9.6% Christian Arabs & 11% Jewish (mostly recent immigrants). The British, in 1925, then gave the first legal definition of what a Palestinian was with the Palestine Citizenship Order, defining a Palestinian as; "Turkish subject habitually resident in the territory of Palestine." Citizenship would be granted to an applicant, irrespective of their race, religion or language. 

By the time the British Mandate expired in 1948, the UN had drawn up a plan splitting Palestine into three regions, an Arab state, a Jewish state and a Special International Regime in the contentious city of Jerusalem, and ongoing tensions between Arabs and Israelis eventually erupted and led to a civil-war which led to the Arab-Israeli war encompassing surrounding states. A combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan and Syria lasted 10 months, culminating in victory for the new State of Israel who along with their original proposed UN territory, took 60% of proposed Arab territory, while Egypt held on to the Gaza Strip, and 700,000 Arab refugees became stateless and ended up as refugees in the Jordanian controlled West Bank. The next major event came in July 1952 when the State of Israel passed the Israeli Nationality Law, Israeli Courts announced that previous Palestinian citizenship as outlined by the British Mandate was now defunct and incompatible. The new law effectively denationalized Palestinians. It granted every "Jew" who immigrated to Israel, or, following the 1971 amendment, even expressed the desire to immigrate to Israel, "immediate" Israeli citizenship without taking any formal steps.

Palestinian Loss of Land, 1946-2000

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 much has happened, too much to summarise in a single post. Without being too coarse and simplistic, the Israeli government has continued to pursue policies which have supported the illegal settlement of ever dwindling Palestinian land, particularly in the West Bank, effectively turned Gaza, with a population of 1.6m, and one of the most densely populated areas in the world, into a ghetto, allowing Palestinians civil rights, access to courts, political rights, whilst at the same time denying them social and economic rights such as access to social security, education and welfare and they are denied access to land or water resources of the State. 

On the Palestinian side the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was founded in 1964, after the debacle of the 6 Day War between Israel and it's Arab neighbours in 1967, it was reformed and appointed Yasser Arafat as it's leader, the PLO claimed to be the sole representatives of the Palestinian people and vowed to reclaim Palestinian land and destroy the State of Israel. Israel had seized Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and old city of Jerusalem from Jordan during the 6 Day War and the existing borders before these seizures remain the basis for any settlement between the two sides. 

Various agreements with neighbours in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon took place amid minor wars and skirmishes which eventually resulted in the First Intifada (Uprising) in 1987 by the Palestinian forces in Gaza and the West Bank. Then along came the Oslo Accords in 1993 which gave limited autonomy to the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza as well as mutual recognition between them and the Israeli Government. For a variety of reasons such as a provocative trip to the Haram Al-Sharif mosque by Ariel Sharon, as well as his pursuit of his own 'war on terror' in the Occupied Territories following September 11th, 2001, violence was flamed across the West Bank and Gaza, and waves of suicide bombers began attacking Israeli towns and cities. The Israeli response was the beginning of the construction of the 'security fence' surrounding the West Bank, alongside the Wall around Gaza, which is now complete and has put a complete stop to suicide bombings along with tightened controls at border crossings. 

Hamas rally in Gaza, 2011

And last but not least in this awful story is Hamas ('Enthusiasm') who were also founded during the first Intifada in 1987. Hamas are a Palestinian Sunni Islamic organisation with a military wing known as the Al-Qassam Brigades. Designated a terrorist organisation by mostly western nations and blocs such as the U.S., E.U., Canada, Japan, but not so by Russia, Iran, China or Turkey, Hamas won democratic elections in Gaza in 2006, defeating rivals Fatah (whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is recognised leader of the Palestinian State - which is not itself recognised as of yet). Hamas have been responsible for the vast majority of suicide bombings in the past and actively launching rockets into Israel, although, up until the recent conflict they had ceased from doing so and kept a lid on fringe groups from doing the same. Hamas' stated goal is the establishment of pre-1967 borders, a right to return for Palestinian refugees, and East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state. A reading of the Hamas Charter unveils more unsavoury goals by the group who identify themselves as the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. The charter calls for the eventual establishment of an Islamic State in Palestine, and the obliteration or dissolution of Israel. Since victory in the 2006 elections Hamas have deemed the Charter to be a part of it's past and history, and it is no longer part of their programme for government, even so, the organisation claim they cannot amend or abandon it for 'internal reasons.'

This is where I will draw a close to what I can only describe as a whistle-stop tour of the history of the conflict, it is by no means exhaustive and neither does it contain the many, many intricacies of both sides and the events which have surrounded them. It is merely meant to be a starting point, or a guide, an introduction to the background to the conflict, and I have sincerely attempted to ensure it is 100% accurate and factual, rather than opinion-based, but at this point, I must refer you right back to the top, and the quote at the beginning of this post! I hope it helps in some way to help people develop a greater understanding of a conflict which will rear it's ugly head again and again in cycles of death and violence, more than likely for the rest of our own lives. In part 2, I will be going for a more opinion driven piece and analysis of the current Israeli invasion into Gaza which commenced earlier this month, until then رعاية and דואג.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Orange Is The New Orange

Fáilte roimh cách!

Every year the Twelfth comes around and every year it passes me by, over the years it has just become boring, Orangemen marching up to a barricade, tattooed, balding men hurling stones and insults at the PSNI, before shuffling off to the pub to enjoy the rest of the bank holiday weekend. When it's covered on the news I just think to myself, 'Bless, at least they got nice weather.'

It's easy to become detached though, driving through the Six Counties last week en route to Donegal was a reminder of the stark difference between North and South, it really is a different world, and it's instantly noticeable once you cross the border. Many a time when I was travelling with my family as a child in the 80's & 90's we were pulled over by British Army soldiers, sometimes guided into one of their corrugated sheds to check for suspicious devices, and I also recall in the early 90's on a school trip to the Planetarium in Armagh soldiers boarding our school coach and searching through our school bags, only to find hang-sandwiches and a few Yops. Thankfully, those days seem to be a thing of the past and you can travel freely throughout the North without feeling like a criminal. 

British Troops pose for a photo in front of a wall mural celebrating Loyalist terror gangs in the north-east of Ireland, 1990s

It did get me thinking though, when seeing all of the bunting and flags and archways especially erected for marching season, how it's still easy to feel unwelcome and a little intimidated only 70 miles from home, and how you subconsciously revert to 'us and them' all over again. It would be very difficult to explain to a tourist what it's all about, and not have them reaching conclusions of bigotry and exclusivity masked as culture. 

It's hard to see things changing any time soon, when you have a situation (sorry!) like in the North, or Israel-Palastine, there constantly has to be a bogey man, the other, and a perceived injustice, without which there is no fight. Your safety or culture has to be under constant attack, real or imagined, and the leaders realise their role of riling up the masses is critical if they are to retain their positions of power. Just watch The Nolan Show on BBC whenever it's on and you'll see all of these on display, sometimes at a jaw-dropping level that would leave you depressed trying to think of a brighter future for our fellow islanders. 

The still, intensely strong, attachment to all things British has become more and more of a curio over the last 20 years or so as a sizeable chunk of the British (mainland) public seem indifferent to Northern Ireland, though some (see below clip) do have quite strong feelings about it! On the other hand, from a nationalist perspective, a 2013 poll conducted by The Belfast Telegraph provides an uncomfortable truth for Sinn Féin with only 3.8% of Northern Irish people wanting a united Ireland, unionists fretting over the Scottish Independence referendum needn't be worried at all it would seem. 

For me, a comment on The Irish Times website yesterday under an excellent article by Donald Clarke sums the present day situation (!) up perfectly;

'The answer, in my view is relatively straightforward - the erosion of barriers is anathema to the vast majority of loyalists and to many unionists. In order to nurture sectarian division they must raise sectarian tensions on a seasonal basis. 

That's why they display such a mania for triumphalist marching. Just imagine Northern Ireland without 3,000 annual displays of militant loyalism. Far better for so many people, but a hellish loss of the lifeblood that keeps mainly working class protestants from engaging with their non-protestant neighbours, or, horror of horrors, falling in love with and marrying them. 

The strategy is to keep the pot boiling, year in, year out, fanning the flames of conflict, while working unceasingly to bring an end to the Good Friday Agreement and its out-workings, such as the hated Parades Commission. 

A return to protestant domination is the goal, and nobody should underestimate the willingness of the DUP and the UUP to out-do each other in mimicking the TUV. Nor should anyone underestimate the willingness of British Tories to play the old Orange Card if the need arises following the next UK election in less than a year.'

NextGen in Belfast

And so the cycle continues, again and again, every year. Although by all accounts yesterday's parades appear to have passed off without incident, we've still had the unsavoury issue of antagonistic effigies hanging from bonfires along with election posters of Sinn Féin candidates and Alliance Party MLA, Anna Lo, as well as racist comments on tricolours and rumours of photos of dead 5-year-old cancer victim Oscar Knox. 

When a society is so segregated, especially in education, it only requires one side to be entrenched in their views of hatred, persecution and suspicion. The fear of a world changing around you merely makes you beat your Lambeg harder and louder, but the greater fear is that one day, nobody will be listening.