By Dr. J Scott Younger
I first went to Israel in 1971 to present a paper at a Hydraulics Research Conference at the Institute in Tel Aviv in 1971, two years before the Yom Kippur war and four after the 6-day one. I spent a week there all told, and visited Jerusalem, of course, and visited a kibbutz, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem I visited the ‘Wailing Wall’, al Aqsa Mosque, the third most important place in the Moslem religion after Mecca and traced some of where Jesus Christ trod, before he was crucified. Jerusalem is very important to all three monotheistic religions. The people were very pleasant, wanted to be liked.
The next time I was in the Middle East area was in 1978 when a few months were spent in Saudi Arabia working on the Jubail project. I went to Riyadh to witness the signing of our contract and was kept waiting in the usual way by the Minister! I visited Jordan in 1998 to see ‘famous’ Petra and travelled up to Amman, stopping off at various sites, particularly if they had a Roman connection. My future son-in-law was on an archaeology project studying Roman military history. We also stopped for a while to look towards the West Bank, across the river Jordan, which is a key issue in today’s problem.
Much of the problem emanates from what is called the 1917 Balfour declaration. In this short document, the then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, promised Baron Lionel Rothschild, Head of the British Jewish community in Britain, land for the Jews in Palestine, which was then under British mandate. But in the text of the declaration, it was also clearly stated that the civic and religious rights of the existing people who lived in Palestine were to be honoured. The declaration took several, sometimes difficult meetings over a year for agreement to be reached. It was also a time when the centuries old Ottoman empire, which had exercised control over the area, was in its dying days. Meantime, come 1916, the Arabs had risen up against the Ottoman Turks helping to drive them back and lay the ground for the land of Palestine. The exploits of T E Lawrence in this context and who wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in 1926, are worth a read.
There was a steady movement of Jewish people from European countries in the two decades following the Balfour declaration, the migration accelerating as the intent of the Nazis in Germany became clearer. The Jewish community in Palestine which had been very small at the time of WWI grew to about 9% by the time of WWII. Before the British mandate ended in 1948, a two-state solution was agreed for implementation by a majority of members of the UN on 29 November 1947, and a partition of the land was to be effected. The Jewish homeland was to occupy some 56% of the area, the area being found to contain the better ground. There was some dissent naturally and arguments, and stronger, have continued to this day. Some salient points are summarized in the following discussion.
It would be trite to say that this complex issue, the roots of which go back many generations, can be covered in a few sentences. There have been a good number of attempts in the past 70 years to solve the dispute arising between the parties, some being stirred by outside influences as the present one is also. One has to only think of US Presidents that have tried to bring the Israeli and Palestinian factions together – e.g. Carter and Clinton. The first notable attempt to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together was by Jimmy Carter at Camp David in the US in 1978 which provided the groundwork for the Oslo Accords in 1993, when Bill Clintonwas President. This acknowledged the work of Carter, putting more substance on the earlier agreement. It was in two parts, first in Washington, DC, and then in Egypt in 1995. The Oslo Accords were arguably the most important with the two sides facing off and agreeing to work together towards a two-state solution where the Palestinians, represented by the PLO, would have responsibility for the Gaza strip and the West Bank.
A few matters followed which prevented the success of the Accords, which were to be finalised by 1999. The first concerned the Palestinians who did not have a democratically elected government yet and were weak and were thus subject to Islamic radicals. The second concerned the influence of the strongly religious Jewish faction on the Israeli side. A turning point came in 1995 when a Jewish extremist shot and killed Yitzhak Rabin at a rally. This brought the Benjamin Netanyahu party to prominence and he to becoming Prime Minister in 1996. Unfortunately, he had a distinctly jaundiced view of the Palestinians. He equates them with the terrorists who killed his elder brother, Jonathan, when leading a small detail of special forces who successfully rescued Jewish air hostages taken on a flight to Entebbe, Uganda in 1975. On the other hand, he has countered a not unreasonable fear of Israel’s neighbouring countries, whose attitude to Israel’s existence was unwarranted, particularly where they took on an Islamic fundamentalist view and harboured extremists, e.g. Iran.
Netanyahu has tried, in his over 20 odd years in charge, to strengthen the position of Israel, and he has done a satisfactory job. Unfortunately, he has done this mostly at the expense of the Palestinians, who he basically dislikes intensely. Quietly, little by little, he has taken land from the Palestinian West Bank, so that now Israel has extended 1 km eastwards and built homes for several hundred thousand people. Strictly this is illegal, but is hardly mentioned by today’s commentators.
In 2000, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, with 1000 far right settlers forced a visit into Al Aqsa Mosque, at a holy time in the Islamic calendar, causing outrage across the Arab world, with Saudi Arabia and Jordan protesting formally. It was his third incursion of the mosque that year.
The hands of the right on both sides
Meanwhile, in Gaza, the Palestinians in 2005 held elections with Hamas, the right- wing party, some would say extreme, were contesting with Fatah, the main moderate faction. This led to a year of strife, which led ultimately to Hamas taking over, the situation until today, even though Fatah is the majority party.
It was the time with Netanyahu leading the Israeli government and Hamas the Palestinians when matters worsened and each side, started normally by Hamas in Gaza, lobbing rockets into Israel and Israel responding robustly over the security cordon that the Israelis had put up to limit the incursions and cut off access to the West Bank. In addition, the Israelis had the whip hand controlling the power and water supply and gate ways for access to and out of Gaza. Gone was the hope of the 1990s when the moderates of both sides were trying to reach agreement. Regrettably control was in the hands of the right on both sides.
One can wonder how Hamas thought they could defeat the Israelis having lost every military exchange. One sees the hand of outside influences, e.g. Iran, as becoming more apparent. The Hamas ideology is extremist and in this manner their leaders are not afraid to die and believe in martyrdom. Netanyahu would like nothing better than for all the Palestinians to just go away and leave the land to the Israelis, as he was indicating on the map, he recently showed at the UN Headquarters. His policy over the years has been to squeeze the Palestinians in the West Bank, an illegal land grab, despite Palestinian protests, largely going unheard.
The events of just ten days ago shocked the Israelis and their Allies; their usually first-class intelligence caught napping, and Hamas militants being upgraded to terrorists. Israel is responding robustly and are geared to send in the whole military to ‘’wipe out Hamas’’. The US presidential message to Israel is one of full support, but is now qualified by adding that they expect that the ordinary Palestinian citizens, which include many children, should be allowed full humanitarian aid and quickly, backing up the UN, waiting with aid for the Israelis to open the Gaza southern border with Egypt. The UN in a note to Israel have firmly stated that the Gaza population must be treated as humanely as possibly, reminding them of the rules of war.
We don’t yet know the outcome of this war, but end it will. If Netanyahu, who is under investigation by the Israeli Supreme Court for financial irregularities, is allowed to keep his West Bank incursions and half the Gaza strip with a measure of control over the southern half, and Hamas is ruined, he will probably consider the war a victory albeit a painful one for thousands of people, mostly Palestinians. One feels for the Palestinian people, treated in a similar way like many indigenous peoples. We have to do better and desperately hope the war does not widen. For instance, with the west preoccupied with this conflict with his ‘allies’, Iran and Syria, on the touchline, Putin might feel emboldened with his war in Ukraine. What a world!
Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP. He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia and Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Glasgow University. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board. Lived and worked in Thailand from 1978 to 1983 and visited Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal for projects.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.