01-09-2006 - Traces, n.8


The State of Israel
and the Arab World

by Roberto Fontolan

One day early in the last century, returning from a journey in the British possessions in black Africa, Lord Chamberlain received Theodore Herzl and, sipping tea, told him, “I have just returned from Western Africa, and I saw a country for you: Uganda, where there is an excellent climate for Europeans… and I thought to myself, here is a place for Dr. Herzl.” In that period, the founder of Zionism was knocking on the doors of the Great Powers in search of a land for the Jews of Eastern Europe, Russians especially, weary of the continual pogroms and spasms of anti-Semitism that racked the life of those communities. The English proposal did not displease him, and he referred it to the Zionist Congress of 1903 as an interesting “provisional solution.”
But the Congress was distrustful and in that and following sessions rejected the Ugandan option–the only land for the Jews was and had to be the land of their Fathers, Palestine.
History did not change: in 1917, the First World War still underway, and while Colonel Lawrence was promising the Arabs the creation of a great kingdom in return for their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, Lord Balfour acknowledged that the Jews should have the right to “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestinian land. The idea of homeland seemed quite equivocal: Does it mean a nation? A land? A property? With what borders, what structure? In those years, the problem seemed (to the British) still containable. The historian Benny Morris meticulously documented (in his book, Vittime [Victims], published by Rizzoli), the beginning and the development of the history of the relationships between Jews and Arabs in the land of Palestine. The first settlements, the economic exchanges, the reciprocal observation of two peoples who were returning to being contiguous after centuries of separation, like two unwieldy families who unexpectedly find themselves neighbors or, more to the point, in the same semi-detached home, maybe sharing the backyard. For a while, there are mixed feelings: interest and suspicion; desire to collaborate and pressure for separation. And, in the meantime, the whole neighborhood meddles, giving advice or even claiming to dictate the right solutions for coexistence or for one side’s victory over the other. Well, we know how things went. After the Second World War, Great Britain, by now hated by the Arabs and unpopular with the Jews, abandoned the “mandate” for the region, and the newborn organization of the United Nations attempted a division of the land into two nations. The project (which for the Palestinians would have been more advantageous in light of the possible solutions discussed today) was scornfully rejected by the Arabs, the Jews declared the birth of the state of Israel, and the first Arab–Israeli war broke out. Repeatedly attacked and systematically threatened with extinction, the state of Israel erected a barrier of strength. There would be a second war in 1967 and a third in 1973, along with the Israeli invasions of Lebanon (1978, 1982, and the present one) and the first and second Palestinian Intifadas (1987 and 2000).
For a long time, the conflict was essentially national and political. Not Jews and Muslims, but Israelis and Arabs. The Palestinian organizations were rigorously laicist and Marxist in a few cases, as were the Arab governments. The first religious characterization came precisely from Lebanon, though it concerned the Christians: in the course of a very protracted, atrocious “civil” war (it was partially civil), they found themselves opposed to the Palestinians and the Lebanese Muslims. They felt the existence of Lebanon threatened, and with it the possibility of their existence as Lebanese Christians. But with the advent of Iran’s 1979 Khomenian revolution and the anti-Soviet revolution of the Afghan mujahiddin, the “Islamization” of the Middle-Eastern wars began. In 1982, in southern Lebanon, the Shiite militia Hezbollah was born, and in the following years spread in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, while slowly but tenaciously the Sunni organization Hamas replaced the laicist PLO.
In recent years, the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism has exploded on the scene, and words like martyr and kamikaze have become sadly familiar. Today it seems that nothing and nobody can disentangle the incandescent bundle of knots–neither military force, nor the politics of the protagonists, much less the international community, called nonetheless to a new test of multinational strength. With nostalgia and regret, innumerable ecclesial and papal documents can be consulted, a wisdom that is not just human and moral, but also political.