Thursday, August 25, 2011

Israel, Part V, Refugees and 1967 War

Today is Part V of (at least) a six-part series on Israel. After a week break, you may want to review. Starting August 11th, Part I was on ancient history, Part II was on Zionism (the return of Jews to their ancient homeland), Part III was on conflict and violence, and Part IV was on the Holocaust and statehood.  

As I wrote today’s piece, I realized it would have been wise to split it. Again it is long. But we’ve been waiting long enough for this section to move toward the current day. I hope the information is worth the additional length today.

Palestinian Refugees

The refugee problem began at the time of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. To review, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s statehood from Tel-Aviv, May 14, 1948. Immediately the new state of Israel faced enemy armies from surrounding Arab nations: Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, as well as smaller portions of a number of other Arab nations. 

The new Israel was not comprised only of immigrant Jews, but also many Arab Palestinians. The new Jewish government promised all rights would extend to Arabs. They promised safety and no hostility to any Arabs living among them. But the attacking armies, totally confident in their goal of “driving the Jews into the Mediterranean,” pressed the resident Arabs to get out of the way. The Jews encouraged them to stay; they had no reason to make their fellow Israeli citizens their enemies. These residents hesitated and didn’t know what to do. 

Those who chose to get out of the way fled their homes and awaited their Arab brothers’ victory—which, against all odds, didn’t come. Israel miraculously prevailed. Arabs that had remained in their homes had promises kept with them (about 100,000 near Nazareth, mainly), and they retained the rights of Israeli citizenship including their own representatives elected to parliament. But those who had fled became known as the Palestinian refugees. They fled to neighboring states of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.  

The neighbors who had urged them to get out of the way had not expected to have to deal with them long term. Suddenly, here were these former Israeli Arabs, homeless. They had declared their allegiance with Israel’s enemies and renounced their citizenship rights. One of the most difficult problems was that among them were the terrorists who had been antagonizing the Jews for decades. So, among innocent, confused refugees were dangerous militants; the other Arab countries didn’t want them.  

Unlike refugee problems just about anywhere else in the world, these refugees did not become part of the countries they fled to. The relatively peaceful (in recent decades) country of Jordan could have easily solved the refugee problem by inviting the refugees to leave their camps and join in the economy. They did not. No one else did either. So, these unwelcome refugees became wards of the United Nations. 

Traditionally, these refugees have become a political tool. The blame for their existence has been placed on Israel, even though Israel neither created them nor forced the surrounding countries to enclose the refugees in permanent camps. The only thing you can say against Israel is that they chose not to welcome declared enemies back in as full citizens, and they have protected themselves against attack.  

One thing you might not be aware of is that, in surrounding countries Jews were forced to flee to Israel, many of them in poverty. Israel solved the issue by training the refugees and putting them to work. If the Arab nations that pressed the Palestinian people to become refugees had behaved similarly, these refugees would have been a short-term problem that would have disappeared about 60 years ago.

Up to and through the 1967 War

One of the biggest problems perpetually facing the new state of Israel has been trying to broker peace with the surrounding Arab countries. But some of the hostility was related to countries far beyond the Middle East itself. 

Britain’s retreat from protecting Israel at the end of WWII was a signal of its retreat as a world empire. Wherever it retreated, there was left a power vacuum, and at that point the prime candidate vying for that power was the Soviet Union 

The US approach was to encourage individual nations to fulfill their own national destinies, urging Greece, Italy, and Turkey to be responsible for their portions of the Mediterranean. And the US urged individual Arab countries to stabilize politically and economically. The US offered protection for these purposes, but did not impose authority over them. 

The Soviets, on the other hand, used subtle methods to incite violence and revolution. The US recognized what its Cold War enemy was up to, and in 1955 encouraged Arab nations to sign the Bagdad Pact, with the intent of communicating to the USSR: “You are welcome to trade and visit and so forth in peace, but not in war—not with espionage and sabotage and subversion.” Unfortunately, the US did not gain full cooperation of the Arab nations. Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Great Britain joined the US in signing the pact. But Jordan, Lebanon, and a conflicted Saudi Arabia leaned toward the Communists. And while Iran wavered and came our way, Iraq wavered and went to the enemy.  

Egypt, with Nassar new to power, signed an arms pact with the USSR. But the US countered with help building the Aswan Dam, plus wheat, food, and other aid to show friendship. For a while Egypt tried to balance friendship with both, but eventually leaned toward the Soviets. The US then withdrew help on the Aswan Dam under construction, so Nassar seized the Suez Canal and used resources from that acquisition to finish the dam. At that point Britain and France held interests in the Suez Canal, so they did what they thought was necessary to maintain trade there. 

In 1956 Nassar attempted to unite the Arab world by attacking tiny Israel. Israel, under the direction of a young General Moshe Dayan, launched a defensive attack, and Egypt retreated, in the fashion of Old Testament battles where the God of Israel went before them. Israel expanded beyond their original 1948 borders as a result of their defensive 1956 War, to cover the Sinai Peninsula. 

It was the US, threatening sanctions against Israel, in support of Nassar despite his affronts, that caused Israel to return to her original borders. The deal was, if Israel would remain within the original borders, the Aqaba Gulf would become international waters and would never again be closed.

As soon as Israel consented to this arrangement, the Soviets staged more power moves. They participated in murdering Iraq’s king, so that they could place their chosen people in power. And they attempted to take over Lebanon and Jordan. US Marines and Air Force, along with British forces, saved those two countries.

Back to the refugees. These Palestinian refugees, some of them previously successful and well-educated, were held as prisoners in the UN-sponsored camps. They were not allowed to get jobs; they lived in poverty. So it’s not surprising that from these hotbeds came a lot of violence. Attacks against Israel were continual. Ben-Gurion spent a long time urging his people not to retaliate, and he went through the UN to have grievances addressed. Finally, he gave the UN an ultimatum: either put a stop to the violence against us, or we will stop it. 

Since the UN continued ineffectual, Israel began to retaliate—hard. Jewish planes and tanks struck in the Golan Heights, north of the Sea of Galilee, both causing and suffering heavy casualties. Now, at last, the UN acted—by immediately condemning Israel. This became the pattern in and around Israel: Palestinian refugees and others attack Israel; Israel suffers in patience and then strikes back; and international condemnation of Israel ensues. 

During building-to-building fighting on the ground, one of the Arab tactics on the verge of defeat was to rip off their uniforms, down to pajamas, and hide under beds, saying “Shalom” to Israeli soldiers as they came. This led to confusion, causing a number of civilian, even Christian, casualties. Finding ways to make Israel look savage, and feed such images to the media, continues to be a basic tactic. 

In 1967, this ongoing fighting became a full assault. Israelis raced across the desert with the specific goal of destroying or capturing tanks and artillery provided by the Soviets to their enemies. There was no intention to capture and take over Egypt; there were certainly no additional resources for such an offensive strategy. The speed of the Israelis did allow them to seal off the Suez Canal, keeping the tanks from making an escape. Then Israeli aircraft bombed one of the lead tanks—with a guided missile that made a direct hit. The other tanks stopped, their hatches opened, and their crews made a run for it across the desert—leaving their boots behind, as the story goes, because running barefoot was easier in the desert. 

So, the Israelis captured over 350 tanks for their own future use, some of them so new they hadn’t even been painted with camouflage yet. 

Here’s an interesting detail. Unlike David Ben-Gurion, who was religious, most Israeli soldiers were not. They were Jewish ethnically, but mostly non-religious. Some believed in the destiny of Israel, but not Biblically, more patriotically. Following their amazing victory in the desert, however, these hardened soldiers returned to the city and joined their religious countrymen in tears and prayers at the Western Wall.  

During a religious service held at the wall, following the brief June 1967 War, a chaplain named Rabbi Gorin said this: “We have taken the City of God! We are entering the Messianic era for the Jewish people! And I promise the Christian world that we are responsible for, we will take care of, all the holy places of all religions here for all people! I promise them, we will take care of your holy places.” 

Prior to the war, Jordan had held all the land east of the Jordan River, plus some land on the west side. But their efforts to take more were thwarted. Israel held not only Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, Hebron (south), Nablus (north), and all the way to the Jordan River. The Jews fought in the north up to the Golan Heights and headed toward Damascus, which they could have taken at will. The Jews had suddenly increased their territory four-fold, without ever having been the aggressors. By the end of that week of fighting, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria had all retreated. 

Within a year, rather than wield authority over new territories, Israel ceded the entire Sinai Peninsula, keeping only the additional portions west of the Jordan River. The borders of Israel have continued to change over the decades since 1967, usually with Israel ceding land in an attempt to make peace with never satisfied neighbors.  

Tomorrow we’ll finally get to the current situation.

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