Israel and the Palestinians: two wolves–one steak?
Arguments over the disputed territories are generally phrased in terms of whether or not to go back to the status quo ante bellum—in other words as the borders existed before the Six Day War, in 1967. Quite simply put, Palestinians want all of the lands that Jordan held prior to the Six-Day War, including control over the Old City with its religious sites, as well as land from Israel for a corridor to Gaza, and Israel wants adjustments to the pre ’67 borders.
These adjustments, Israel argues, must account for Israeli West Bank settlements, many of which have been well developed and populated for near a half-century now, Israeli security needs, as well as Palestinian needs for pre-’67 Israeli land–for access and travel to and from Gaza. Both want control over holy sites in the “Old City” of Jerusalem. In terms of practical numbers, there are now 750,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements. These are divided almost equally between the areas of East Jerusalem and those of the rest of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Some exchange of land is part of most realistic discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinian Arabs are not all Muslim, it should be noted, but Hamas, which has effective control over Gaza, is–and they are Suni and militant. Hamas is opposed to Abbas’ negotiations.
It is important to remember than in 1967 there was no Palestinian Authority in existence, no Hamas, and Jordan controlled all of the West Bank territories including the old city of Jerusalem. And those 1967 borders reflected only the lines of demarcation at the time of the armistice of 1949 that were never legally established by a peace treaty or otherwise. When the U.N. established Israel in 1948, they called for a Jewish State and an Arab State, with the Old City internationalized. All of the Arab countries rejected this and invaded Palestine, vowing to “drive the Jews into the sea.”. The armistice that ended the fighting had Jordan in control of the Old City and East Jerusalem. And so things stood until 1967.
How did Israel come to occupy the West Bank including, most importantly, East Jerusalem including the Old City? As the Six-Day War began, Israel sent word to Jordan’s King Hussein that if he stayed out of the conflict, Israel wouldn’t take any of the land under his control. This message was carried by Norwegian General Odd Bull, who was then Chief of Staff of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization. Hussein, who was caught between his desire for peace and loyalty to his Arab brethren in Egypt and Syria, responded by sending in tanks and planes. Israel prevailed in most of the region, in the now legendarily six days. But fighting for the Old City was extremely difficult and costly. It was hand-to-hand out of respect for the ancient and holy area. Finally, Jordan surrendered and Israel was in control of all of the West Bank. The Old City was “liberated” and thousands of Jews danced and celebrated, as they once again could pray at the Wailing Wall. The Jewish Quarter of the old city had been razed by Jordan as had the most ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. As part of the Israeli expansion, they rebuilt the Jewish Quarter, just up and across from the Wailing Wall. They also re-opened the three thousand year-old cemetery for Jewish burial. Israelis are quick to note that under Jordan’s occupation, Jews were not allowed to pray at the Wall, and under Jewish control Arab Muslims had free access to the Dome of the Rock and the adjacent mosque. The Muslim waqf (a religious authority overseeing land in trust) was given authority over both of them.
Both sides claim historic and continuous settlement in Palestine, and both are correct–but nowhere near the over ten million souls who now live in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, from journals and books written by visitors to the Holy Land in the mid 19th century, as well as Ottoman records, it is estimated that the total population, at that time, Arabs and Jews was approximately 120,000. The Arab population, who considered themselves living in part of Arabia (recall this was before the kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia were established.), outnumbered the Jewish population by about two to one. Thus, despite high fertility rates for both populations, it seems clear that the vast majority of people now living there emigrated from elsewhere. Most claims to the contrary are not supported by the data available.
Although many aspects of this conflict remind one of the story of two wolves fighting for one steak that would keep only one of them alive for another day. Sharing in the story was impossible. Many feel that there is no solution that can be found for the Palestinians and Israelis. I’m considerably more sanguine about possibilities. Next time, I will present my ideas for a workable two-state solution.