In the noise surrounding the Middle East conflict, and the entire Middle East - for one reason or another, not least being the despotic, sexist and anachronistic nature of its various regimes - is mired in conflict, it is easy to forget the historical origins of the region formerly known as Palestine and how it came to be divided between two groups of people with an equally valid claim to some part of it.
A Palestinian of my acquaintance, no friend to Israel since his family left Haifa in 1948, who grew up a Christian in Lebanon said, "We were all Jews once, you know. We are the same people".
The accursed legacy of the process that began during the Second World War was the removal and relocation of entire populations, voluntary sometimes but mostly forced, thanks to the racist ideology which divides people along ethnic, cultural and religious lines and conflates all with "nationalism". Nationalism, not to be confused with a natural love of one's place of birth and upbringing, is the wretched doctrine in the name of which unparalleled atrocities were committed in Europe and elsewhere in comparatively recent times.
Although the forces of nationalism began stirring in the 19th Century, most European nations prior to 1914 were polyglot, multicultural and multinational. People other than those who emigrated to the new world tended to live their lives close to where they were born, irrespective of who happened to be ruling that territory at that time. For the most part linguistic and cultural differences were tolerated, although there might be tension between catholic and protestant, Jew and gentile. People were defined by occupation and religion rather than language and culture per se. The evolution of nationalism was a two-edged sword: useful and positive in pursuit of liberty and democracy; unspeakably evil when wielded in the cause of avarice and power.
The geographical expression that is Palestine has become one of those areas of conflict in which evil is done in the name of good, and murder is committed in the name of justice. There is a belief that the former Turkish subjects of Palestine should have become independent after 1917, something on which most agree; but no consensus concerning who the rightful owners of the land, if any, truly are. Paramount for those of the Jewish faith was the need to have absolute control over their affairs in a land where, for the first time since the Roman invasion, they were once again a majority. It was felt, with considerable justification, that nowhere in the world where Jews had been in a minority since the Diaspora had they been able to live in peace and security.
The defeat of the Turks in 1917 meant that once again people of the Jewish faith might aspire to living in a home of their own, for many their ancestral homeland; for many more their spiritual home. That was, and still is, a problem for those Palestinians who were Islamic, or Christian. It was not a problem for their former Turkish rulers who practised their own form of multiculturalism and tolerated all who did not challenge their overlordship at a time when nationalism was not the divisive force it has since become.
Our knowledge of the ancient land which the Romans called Palestine begins with the Old Testament. In the centuries before the birth of the Jewish sage whom so-called Christians have taken to be their own, a number of Greek colonies shared the land with the Kingdom of the Hebrews. Large numbers of Greeks settled in Palestine and Greek was a common language alongside Aramaic and Hebrew. In time the Greek cities states, for there was no Greece, and their respective colonies fell to the Romans. Palestine became a Roman province with a Jewish puppet king. Most of what followed has been the subject of generations of scripture lessons.
About seven centuries after the birth of Christ, Islam began to expand in all directions from its birthplace in the sands of the Arabian peninsula, a land formerly populated by pagans, Jews of the Diaspora and Jewish converts from among the indigenous people. Although Judaism is not a missionary religion, Jews were tolerated in Arabia and Judaism was the first monotheistic religion to take root in the region.
At the time of Mahomet's rise to power Judaism was gaining ground in Arabia and had spread as far as India. It would not be drawing too long a bow to say that this was where the struggle between Islam and its progenitors began, for the early followers of Mahomet did not tolerate other religions or beliefs and were part of a nomadic culture that thrived on conflict.
Mahomet built on the teachings of Moses and Jesus, added his own take on things and claimed to be the last and greatest prophet of the God of Abraham. His followers set about the conversion of pagan, Jew and Christian, by the sword if necessary. The peoples of Arabia were not politically united by this process and remained a collection of independent, nomadic and often feuding tribes, ripe for military conquest by a more co-ordinated and focused nation. Such a people were the Turks, themselves former nomads of Caucasian origin who had embraced Islam, although at least one Turkic tribe became Jews and moved north-west into what is now the Russian Federation.
By the end of the first millenium Palestine, which had survived as part of the Graeco-Christian Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of Rome to Alaric's Goths in 410 AD, had been overrun by the Seljuk Turks, about to become a battleground between predominantly Norman knights of the 'barbaric' Christian west and its Turkish overlords. Palestine was a polyglot territory of former citizens of the Greek and Roman Empires, Turks from the Caucasus and the many Hebrews who had not joined the Diaspora after the revolt against Rome. Some had converted to Islam under Turkish rule. Although there were desert nomads, predominantly Bedouin in the south, Palestine was never what might be described in purely ethnic terms as Arab.
Turkish imperial rule lasted in the former Roman province and Hebrew Kingdom of Palestine until 1917, a period of about eight centuries. The Turks were tolerant of other religions and nationalities, profited from taxing pilgrims and visitors to the Holy Land but otherwise neglected the territory which, by the later 19th Century, enjoyed the reputation of being the poorest regions in the imperium, a waste of malarial coastal swamps, semi-desert and degraded farmland barely fit for goats. When European Jews seeking to escape persecution and periodic murderous pogroms in Imperial Russia sought to return to Palestine, the Turks welcomed and encouraged them as a valuable addition to the flagging local economy. That is not to say that the province did not already have a Jewish character in the persons of the many descendants of the original Hebrews who had survived successive waves of invasion, the fall of the Temple, the Crusades to flourish under relatively benign Turkish rule.
During World War I the Allies, principally the British and the French, fanned the flames of nascent Arab nationalism in what is now Saudi Arabia and sought to unite the desert tribes against the Turks. Islamists in Palestine saw this as an opportunity to take control of that territory once the Turks, inevitably, were defeated and driven out, the rump of Turkey surviving in what was formerly the hub of the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire. The British, seeking to enlist the aid of Christians, Jews and Muslims, indeed any residents of Palestine not ethnically Turkish, secretly promised a 'free' Palestine to both Jew and Muslim, Christians throwing their lot in with whomever they chose. How this was to be achieved was never spelt out in detail.
In 1919 the fate of territories forfeited by Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Turkey was decided by the League of Nations. Areas such as German New Guinea, Palestine and German South-West Africa, deemed too backward and undeveloped, as well as ethnically diverse, to achieve independence were placed in the care of one or another of the allied nations. Palestine became Britain's responsibility, and an embarrassment, as it had been promised to two groups of people divided by religion if only partly by their ethnic origin.
Most people accept that there is no such thing as a Jewish race. Semitic people originated in the Middle East and followers of all religions are found among them, predominantly Judaism and Islam with large Christian minorities, not surprising in view of the common Old Testament heritage of all three. Thanks to the Diaspora, there are also Asian Jews, African Jews, Turkic Jews and so-called European Jews who themselves fall into two distinct ethnic groups. Much research has gone into unravelling whether there is in fact a Jewish gene. That need not concern us here. Strictly speaking there are no significant biological differences between people and the concept of race is seen as a nonsense by most scientists. What truly differentiates people is culture and social and political development.
The problem, for the British, of what to do about Palestine was overtaken by events in the 1930s. Islamic separatists, thinking that they correctly read the portents, threw their lot in with the Nazis against the Jews not only of Palestine but of Europe and the world. That was their first mistake, one of many leading to the polarisation in Palestine that exists to this day. For strategic reasons, if no other, while engaged in a war to the death with Hitler the British elected to stand fast in Palestine.
During the war years Palestine became a beacon of hope for the surviving Jews of Europe and their supporters in all parts of what remained of a once civilized world. Even Russia, which had its share of Jewish blood, Russian, Ukrainian, Baltic and Polish on its hands, threw its weight in behind the long cherished dream of the restoration of Palestine and voted in favour of a Jewish national homeland in the United Nations.
Once Britain saw that the United Nations, apparently, had the matter in hand it wasted no time in withdrawing from Palestine. The UN had partitioned Palestine along ethnic lines with Jerusalem to be an open city. Israel occupied two islands of land joined by a narrow corridor with only limited access to the sea. It comprised those areas in which a majority of inhabitants professed to be Jewish. It was a land of few resources other than agriculture which had flourished thanks to the introduction by 19th Century immigrants of European and North American technology. In strictly economic terms, the lands allocated to Islamic and other non-Jewish peoples were even poorer, having developed little during the centuries of the Turkish imperium. They did, however, enjoy the advantage of powerful, well disposed neighbours like Egypt and greater access to the sea.
The peoples of Jewish Palestine accepted the decision of the United Nations. They had achieved independence in their homeland for the first time since the Roman invasion more than 1500-years earlier. Their borders were, militarily, indefensible and defended by a home guard armed with little more than obsolete rifles. There were no armoured brigades, machine gun regiments or artillery battalions. There was no air force, and the only naval protection had been provided by the now departed British. All this might have been of no consequence, but for the resolution of Israel's "Arab" neighbours to take control of the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard and destroy the fledgling Jewish state. Whatever their motives, it had nothing to do with the well being and future prosperity of those Palestinian residents who had chosen not to become citizens of Israel.
The forces of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan were trained and equipped by the British, those of Syria by the French, although not for the express purpose of demolishing Israel. In 1948 the poorly armed and equipped Israeli Defence Force received no aid from the Western allies who were preoccupied with the Cold War and the necessity of not offending the oil producing nations of the Middle East. As in the Spanish Civil War, military assistance arrived in the form of volunteers, many World War II veterans, from all parts of the world. Material, much of it captured from the defeated Germans in the closing months of the war, was largely sourced from Eastern Europe with - for reasons best known to themselves at the time - the tacit support of the Soviets. Much of it, including former Luftwaffe aircraft, came from Czechoslovakia.
There is a delicious irony in a ruined Germany and a Stalinist Russia atoning in some small way for the millions of Jews who died at their hands. Decades later it emerged that anti-Jewish sentiment was alive and well in Poland and Russia. Israel was seen as the humane solution to their Jewish problem and South-Eastern Europe had itself at various times in its history suffered at the hands of Islamic invaders. As more recent events in the Balkans have tragically demonstrated, the Europeans have long memories.
In 1948, a then puny Israel was invaded from all sides by Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi forces. The result seemed a foregone conclusion and, in retrospect, it is surprising that at least some nations were not standing by to assist in the evacuation of Israel. What happened next is the stuff of legend, and also the genesis of the some of the current problems in the Middle East.
Initially a defensive war and a struggle for survival in the face of overwhelming odds, an Israeli defence force on the offensive took control of areas necessary for the future defence of Israel. This was regrettably, but necessarily, at the expense of the territory formerly allocated by the 1947 partition to its non-Jewish majority. Many, who had sided with the Egyptian and Arab invaders, fled. Their hosts and former allies rewarded them by settling them in camps and discouraging assimilation and immigration to other parts of the world on the grounds that they would one day return, the day when Israel was finally destroyed.
It was to be another 20-years before an attempt, again involving members of the former United Arab Republic, was made to destroy Israel. This time the invaders faced an army of native Israelis, conscripts trained, armed and motivated in a way that made them the envy of professional soldiers the world over. The invaders, notably the Egyptian forces, also largely conscripts but without the same resolve, were routed and Israel looked to further consolidate its natural defences at the expense of its neighbours. Such is the fortune of war.
The real losers in all this were, of course, the so-called Palestinians. Perhaps the majority of non-Jewish peoples in those lands awarded them by the United Nations in 1947 would have been content with their lot, become part of an inevitable economic union with Israel and even opted, in some cases, to move to Israel and take up citizenship, as many Christians, Muslims and assorted unbelievers have done.
Their neighbours, in a strange melange of religious fanaticism and territorial avarice, made this impossible in the short term. Egypt eventually reached an accord with Israel, but not before a third war in 1973. Iraq, Syria and Iran after 1979 have continued to underwrite assaults on Israeli civilians and to fuel conflict in the regime. Iraq began falling apart after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and was occupied by NATO forces, for better or worse, in 2003; not before Saddam Hussein succeeded in slaughtering thousands of Persians, marsh Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic minorities. Had the League of Nations been prescient in 1919 there probably would never have been an Iraq, an ethnic patchwork which found a shaky unity under the rule of oligarchs and dictators.
Rapprochement between Israel and the so-called Palestinian territories is within reach, but only when nations like Iran and Syria recognise Israel's right to exist as a multicultural nation state and all involved eschew violence against, particularly, civilians as a means to an end which can never be achieved: the elimination of Israel and the creation of a pan-Arab hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ironically, a strong, secure and prosperous Israel is the best hope for an autonomous non-Jewish Palestinian state. Iran and Syria, however, have other fish to fry, and the region will remain at risk until such time as both nations embrace secular social democracy and renounce war, territorial ambitions and support for international terrorism.