Introduction / by Thomas-Xavier Christiane

Us and them. Over and over again.

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The Holy Land is located at the crossroads between Asia and Africa, not far from Europe on the banks of the Jordan River. It is bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. Geographically, the Holy Land is made of hills and deserts. There are also two water points on the territory: the Tiberias Lake and the Dead Sea. In the winter, the weather is tolerable in the day and cold in the evening. In the summer, it is extremely hot during the day and fresh in the evening. Politically, it’s more complicated.

The story starts in 1948. At that time, the Holy Land was called Palestine. It was ruled by the British through a mandate of the League of Nations and two major social groups lived there: the Arabs and the Jewish. 

The Arabs had been there since the Seventh Century. They were a people that extended beyond the borders of the Holy Land from North Africa to the Levant. During their golden age, the Arab Muslims had given the world a burst of creativity that contained some of the basics of today’s medicine and science. This period happened during the Caliphate, the biggest empire of this era (which was also the state with the smallest population density of this era). However, innovation is usually accompanied by a strengthening of authority due to the innovation itself and the Arab world did not make an exception to this rule. Therefore, the Arabs had become a conservative people with strong centralized traditions and rituals. After the invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon, the questions of nationalism and institutions had begun to enter the minds of the Arabs. In order to be able to defend themselves against further invaders, the Arabs needed to know who they were and who ruled them. This debate happened to be more complicated than it looked like. First of all, in terms of institutions, the choice between embracing the Westernization of institutions and the preservation of Islamic culture in the management of the common good was hard to settle. On the other side, the questions of who was going to rule what territory and under what terms was also subject to a lot of questions.

The Jewish were a forced-to-be-nomad people that originated from the Hebrews. The beginning of their history began when Moses, a Hebrew guy, went to the desert and discovered the Torah, the Holy book of Judaism (the religion of the Jewishs). This holy book considered the Holy Land to be the unquestionable home of the Jewish people. Between 1500 and 1300 the Jewish settled for the first time in the Holy Land as required by their religion. However, during the era of the Caliphate, they were forced to leave. Therefore, they moved to North Africa, Europe and what was known as Russia. There, they assimilated in societies while preserving their culture in the private sphere. Their international nature was an asset for all the civilizations in which they integrated. Their networks allowed them to establish communication beyond the borders of the places in which they lived, for the benefit of local innovations and politics. During an era of that period in the Jewish history, the center of their civilization was, in what was at that time, Muslim Spain. Their contribution to this society is known to be exceptional. Additionally, the international nature of the Jewish people allowed them to bring a great contribution to many historical events. But this inner-nature of the Jewish people was also subject to a lot of fantasies and imaginations by the local cultures that hosted them. Throughout their history, the Jewish were subject to terrible persecutions and massacres. The biggest example of this series of violence was the Holocaust, a Nazi bureaucratic organization of mass extermination that targeted and killed more than six million Jewish among others during the Second World War.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish people began to emigrate and settle in the Holy Land, that was at that time, ruled by the Ottoman Empire. During this period, the local people of the Holy Land, the Palestinian Arab Muslims, welcomed them warmly. Due, again, to their international nature, the Jewish were arriving on the land with foreign knowledge and technologies that improved the life of the people living there. The cohabitation between the Jewish and the Palestinian Muslim Arabs was mostly peaceful despite the usual tensions that occurs when communities have to live together. However, at the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered as a punishment for their collaboration with the Germans, the loosers of the war. The colonies of the Ottoman Empire, which included Palestine, were given to the British and French Empire. Palestine became therefore ruled by the British Army with Jerusalem as its capital. During this period, the Britishers tried to avoid further Jewish immigration but it didn’t really work and the locals were still welcoming the illegal Jewish immigrants because of their scientific and economic contribution. At the same time, Theodor Herzl, a Swiss Jewish guy, founded the Zionist organization with the purpose of founding a national home in the Holy Land. With the support of Jewish people from all over the world, he raised funds to accomplish this project. 

As time went by, the relationships between the communities evolved dramatically. Slowly slowly, tensions became the norm and, on the other hand, at the end of the Second World War, a change of paradigm recommended to former colonial empires to give up their colonies. Additionally, after experimenting the Holocaust, Jewish people massively emigrated to the Holy Land. As the Britishers were preparing their leave, officials from the Empire made empty promises to both the Palestinian Arab Muslims and the Jewish that they would be given the Holy Land to establish a nation. A little bit of time before the departure of the British, the newly-born, and not yet mature, United Nations Organizations proposed a partition plan for the Holy Land that would allow both the Palestinian Arab Muslims and the Jewish to establish a nation. The Jewish accepted it and the Palestinian Arab Muslims refused it.  

In May 1948, the British Mandate on Palestine expired and the Britishers left. Soon after, Ben Gurion, a Jewish guy, proclaimed the declaration of independence of Israel, a Jewish nation on the Holy Land. Soon after, and as a retaliation for the offense done to the Palestinian Arab Muslims; Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan tried to invade the Holy Land to get rid of the Jewish people living there. This war saw both sides of the conflicts committing atrocities. The Arab countries expelled the Jewish people living on their land. These were given citizenship by Israel. On the other side, the Jewish paramilitary forces fighting for Israel expelled up to seven hundred villages of Palestinian Arab Muslims. These became refugees and that curse has followed them through generations. In July 1949, the war ended and the borders of Israel were the armistice lines between the Jewish state and its neighbors. However, the armistice was not a peace treaty since the Arab states would not recognize the existence of the state of Israel. At the end of the bloodshed, four thousand Israeli and four thousand Arab families were mourning the loss of a dear one in the violence and many Palestinians had become refugees.

After the war, the state of Israel kept being a state in the family of state. On the other hand, the faith of the Palestinian people was more complicated. They were stateless people living in areas ruled by both Jordan (in the West Bank) and Egypt (in the Gaza strip) or in refugee camps spread across the Middle East. Some of them had also become citizens of Israel but they weren’t really granted the same rights as the regular Jewish Israeli citizens. As for the refugees, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross deployed huge efforts to give them support but, despite it, they were still stateless refugees. In addition to these efforts, the United Nations did also provide a resolution that included in its many demands to both the Arab countries and Israel the so called “Right of Return”. This was about asking to the State of Israel to give a financial compensation or to give the land back to the Palestinians the lands that they lost in the “War of Independence”. However, alike many other United Nations resolutions, it was never applied by both the Arab states and Israel. Since then, the 14th of May is celebrated as “Independence Day” by the Israeli and “Al Nakbah” (Arabic word for “The Disaster”) by the Palestinians.

Seven years after the war, in 1956, Nasser, the president of Egypt, nationalized the Canal of Suez. As a response to this decision, that was perceived as an offense, the French and the British coordinated with Israel to have the Hebrew state (a nickname of Israel) invading the Sinai Desert to gain control of the so precious asset that made the naval connection between the South of Europe and the Indian Ocean. This move created huge outrage in the international community and Israel withdrew from the Sinai in March of the next year. However, Israel received the right to use the Straight of Tiran in the South of the country with United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (the “Blue Helmets”) patrolling the Sinai Desert to monitor the military relationships between the Hebrew state and Egypt.

The same year, the Fatah was created under the leadership of Yasir Arafat. This movement had the purpose of giving a destiny to the Palestinian people. In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was created under the auspice of the Arab League. 

In the beginning of the sixties, Israel was alleged to have conducted nuclear tests. However, these were never officially confirmed but had a huge influence in the power balance of the Middle East in the years that followed and even today (July 2019).

In June 1967, Egypt, influenced by fake intelligence given by the Soviet Union, closed the Strait of Tiran to Israel and expelled the Peacekeeping forces from the Sinai. Israel considered it a casus bello and replied by destroying the Egyptian Air Force in less than six hours and a war that lasted only six days against Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. At the end of the war, Israel had gained the control of the Golan heights in the North near Syria; the Palestinian territory of the West Bank at the border with Jordan; and Gaza and the Sinai Desert at the border with Egypt. The United Nations, in another resolution, recommended Israel to give back the territory in exchange for the recognition of Israel by the belligerent Arab states. However, it didn’t happen because the Arab states refused and so, Israel kept the territory. As a result of the violence, approximately thirteen thousand family were mourning a lost one. Approximately nine hundred from Israel and twelve thousand from the Arab states. While Israel had clearly lost less people in terms of absolute numbers, the amount of youth who had died represented a big loss for the Israeli society in terms of proportion.

In February 1969, Yaser Arafat’s Fatah movement took control of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. However, the PLO that was operating from Jordan was a burden for the kingdom. Therefore, they were expelled and ended up operating from Lebanon and Algeria. At the same time, Israel and Egypt were fighting a war of attrition along the Suez Canal. In order to deter the Egyptian army to try to cross the canal to invade the Sinai Desert, Israel had built a hundred- and fifty-kilometers line of defense that had costed approximately three hundred million dollars with fortifications and trenches. Nonetheless, the sixth of October 1973, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiest day of Yom Kippur, the Egyptians armed forces crossed the canal and took the control of the Sinai Desert. Just like that… During this war, Egypt fought with the support of Iraqi, Algerian, Moroccan, Syrian, Cuban, Tunisian and Jordanian forces and logistics. Israel, on the other hand, was heavily supported by the United States. The war ended the twentieth second of October and an agreement was signed on the disengagement of forces with Egypt in January 1974 and with Syria in May 1974. After this war, eleven hundred thousand Arab families and two thousand seven and hundreds Israeli families had lost someone. In terms of proportion, it meant that nearly each Israeli family had lost someone in the conflict.

A few months after the treaties were signed, the Arab states recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Three years after, in 1977, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president traveled to Israel and gave a speech at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Nine months later, representatives of the Israeli and Egyptian government met at Camp David in the United States to negotiate an agreement that would framework the peace between the two countries. In March of the year 1979, Israel and Egypt signed an agreement. After four wars and many deaths, the two neighboring countries were finally at peace.

At that time, Israel was still considering the Palestinian Liberation Organization as just another “terrorist” organization. The militant organization itself was based in the South of Lebanon and it wasn’t really popular to the local authorities while Israel considered it as a threat to its national security. In 1982, Israel invaded South Lebanon to combat the Palestinian Liberation Organization with the support of the Lebanese government who wanted to get rid of the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the South of the country. However, Ariel Sharon, the minister of defense of Israel at that time, pushed the invasion further until Beirut, the capital of Lebanon because of his personal ambitions without the approval of the Lebanese government. As a consequence, the Israeli government faced a huge domestic and international opposition. One day, ten percent (four hundred thousand people) of the Israeli population gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the war. Ariel Sharon was forced to resign and the war ended with Israel promising to withdraw from South Lebanon in two phases. One in 1983 and another one in 1985. A peace treaty was even drafted but due to the heavy Syrian influence in Lebanon, it was never signed. The occupation of South Lebanon lasted decades and ended in 2000… Again, during the war, humanity had once more paid the price of war. As a retaliation for the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, Lebanese Christian militias had committed massacres in two Palestinain refugee camps killing between five hundred and three thousand five hundred people. In addition, six hundred and fifty-seven Israeli soldiers and three thousand two hundred Arab combatants had felt in combat. 

The 9th of December 1987, fed up by their situation, the Palestinian of the Holy Land initiated what is commonly known as the First Intifada. This consisted of violent confrontation between Palestinian and Israelis as it had never been seen before on a massive collective scale. The main weapons of Palestinians during this period were the stones that they were throwing on the Israeli security forces. Most of them were aware that they could not defeat the powerful Israel Defense Force (Israeli army) that way but they felt that, at least, they were relieving their frustrations against an occupant who demolished their houses, used terrible methods of interrogations and, mostly, didn’t respect their right of self-determination. In a way, this era restored a sense of pride for a people who had no control on its own destiny.  The First Intifada was also marked by the emergence of two radical groups within the Palestinian society: the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. One of the major events of this uprising were the publication of pictures (by an Israeli photographer) of Israeli soldiers molesting a group of unarmed Palestinian people. This triggered huge international outrage. During this period, hundred Israeli civilians and sixty Israeli soldiers were killed. On the Palestinian side, one thousand and eighty-seven civilians were killed by the Israel Defense Force, seventy-five Palestinians were killed by Israeli civilians and nearly nine hundred Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians.

The First intifada ended in September 1993 when both the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Israeli government exchanged letters of mutual recognition in a move that surprised the entire world. Both sides had met in secret in Oslo for a while and had agreed that it was time to live in peace on the Holy Land. In addition, both sides agreed to the “Declaration of Principles” that established a framework for a comprehensive peace that included Palestinian self-governance in the West Bank and Gaza. However, Israel would continue the occupation until the end of all negotiations. During what is known as the “Oslo era”, Israel was finally able to sign a peace treaty with their Jordanian neighbors. In May 1994, Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization signed the Gaza-Jericho agreements that gave control of Palestinian territories to the Palestinian Liberation Organization that became at that time the Palestinian Authority (PA). A few months later, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a second agreement that extended the powers of the Palestinian Authority. At the same time, radical organizations and people from both sides were trying to compromise the final settlement of this five decades long conflict.  The race between peace and violence ended up with a victory of violence in November 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, was assassinated by a man during a public event organized to promote peace. 

In May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the first time. He is still in office as I’m writing these lines (July 2019). The situation didn’t evolve in favor of peace during his rule. A second Intifada initiated the building of a wall between the West Bank and the Israeli territory by the Israeli government. Many attacks by Palestinians on Israeli and by Israeli on Palestinians took many lives away. The Israel Defense Force withdrew from the Gaza strip and since then, the Palestinian society is divided under the rule of the Fatah in the West Bank and the Hamas in Gaza. The Israel Defense force held a thirty-four-months siege against the headquarters of Yasir Arafat in the first years of the twenty-first century. Israel and the Hamas went to war several times. The list of violence committed by one side to the other after the Oslo agreements keep extending every day since the mutual recognition. Also, Israel wants to attracts visitors but is not even able to have the decency to welcome them without spitting at their face like vulgar thugs through their abusive humiliating and intimidating security checks at the airports while Palestinians have thought of nothing brighter than opening a gift shop and a hostel for tourists in a refugee camp. Finally, all over the world, people (who are most of the times not even able to locate the Holy Land on a map) argue and even violently fight each other to try to impose who is right and who is wrong in which situation and for what reasons using fancy academic, legal and historical references in order to defend their enlighten claims by throwing chairs at each other in the streets of Paris; endlessly arguing on internet; and systematically and consciously using giant biases to influence decision making in all fields of international and domestic affairs in the favor of the side that they are supporting like drunk hooligans at a soccer game.

Today, the wall keeps each side safely from the desire of attempting to destroy the other but such construction should belong to a museum.