Telling it like it is: The Israeli-Arab conflict and the story of David and Goliath

The Israeli-Arab conflict, when told out of historical and geographical context, reads a lot like the story of the Jewish king David and Goliath the Philistine, with their roles reversed. But that’s not what’s going on here.

 The story of the Jewish King David, who as a boy, single handedly and armed only with a slingshot, fought and defeated a Philistine giant armed to the teeth, is often used by Israel’s opponents to portray the Israeli-Arab conflict. Only, in their version of the story, King David is Palestinian, and Goliath is the Jewish state. It even makes sense when you take single events and isolate them from the historic chain of events. Thus, the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, in which the IDF invaded Gaza in order to put an end to years of rocket fire on Israeli civilian population centers, is portrayed as a massacre, because Israel suffered only 13 casualties, while the Palestinian side suffered over 1100 casualties, at least 700 of which were members of armed terrorist organizations (the exact numbers are, naturally, disputed. In contrast, current events in Syria have claimed the lives of over 20,000 people and sent over 100,000 refugees into Turkey). An isolated view of this one event draws a picture of a big and bad Israel, with far superior strength, attacking a small and weak strip of land. Time (history) and space (geography) don’t matter in this view. But they mean everything if we are to understand what’s going on.

 History and geography- time and space- mean a lot to both sides. The entire conflict is based on two conflicting historic claims on a specific geographic area, which is part of a much larger geographic area. When the camera zooms out, you realize that big bad Israel is actually quite tiny, surrounded by a sea of Arab and Muslim states.

Rewind to 1920. Israel doesn’t exist yet. Instead, there is a strip of land, known at the time as Palestine. “Palestinian” is an adjective used to describe both Jews and Arabs who live in this strip of land. In 1917, Lord Balfour of Great Britain promised this piece of land to the Jewish people, in recognition of the fact that this is their historic homeland. At the time, the land was mostly wasteland populated by a small community of Arabs and an even smaller community of Jews, both of whom had been there for hundreds of years. Many of the Jews currently living in Palestine had escaped the horrors of pogroms in Eastern Europe, hoping to build a new life in the Holy land, the land of their forefathers. They purchased land, either with their own means or with the help of Jewish philanthropists such as Lord Rothschild and began developing the land. Both communities were living under British rule, and before that, they had lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. There had been growing tensions between the communities and on Passover, the Palestinian Jews experienced their first pogrom in the Holy Land.

 Chaim Weitzman, who later became the first President of Israel, wrote in his autobiography (Trial and Error, 1949, p. 320):

 “It might seem, to a dispassionate British observer, that we were making too much of this pogrom. (Only six Jews were killed, though there were many serious injuries.) But it is almost impossible to convey to the outside world the sense of horror and bewilderment which it aroused in our people, both in Palestine and outside. Pogroms in Russia had excited horror and pity, but little surprise; there were ‘seasonal disturbances,’ more or less to be expected round about the Easter and Passover festivals. That such a thing could happen in Palestine, two years after the Balfour Declaration, under British rule (‘the town is stiff with troops!’), was incomprehensible to the Jews, and dreadful beyond belief.”

 At that point in time, the Jews were few and defenseless; the Arabs were many and strong. This was to be the first in a series of barabaric attacks by Palestinian Arabs against Palestinian Jews over the years, in which hundreds of Jews were murdered. Eventually, the Jews learned to defend themselves.

Years passed. The British and French mandates handed over pieces of land to local Arab leaders and warlords in exchange for their favors and support during WWI and WWII. Despite the British promises, Palestine was also split in two and the larger half was given to King Abdullah (great grandfather of the current King Abdullah) of the Hashemite tribe after he was ousted from Saudi-Arabia, and became the kingdom of Trans-Jordan, now known simply as Jordan. Over 80% of the country’s population is made up of “Palestinian Arabs”.

 Fast forward to 1947. The Jewish population has been preparing for statehood for some time now. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust are attempting to get in by any means possible, despite a British ban on Jewish immigration in order to appease the Arab population. In the north, France has granted independence to two new Arab countries: Syria and Lebanon. To the east and south lie the newly independent Arab countries of Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Egypt. A UN commission proposed dividing the remaining 27,000 square KM of Palestine (similar in size to the state of Massachusetts) in such a way that would leave 15,000 square KM for a Jewish state and 12,000 for yet another Arab state. The Jewish community was willing to accept any stretch of land they could receive in order to create a safe haven for the survivors of European Jewry. The Arab leadership, on the other hand, declared that the partition border will be a “border of fire and blood”.

Map of the partition plan. Green for the Jewish state, Orange- the Arab state. Most of the southern section of the proposed Jewish state is desert.
Source: Wikipedia

Nevertheless, the partition plan was accepted by the UN and the 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs went to war against 600 thousand Palestinian Jews. When the British mandate ended on May 14th 1948 and the State of Israel was declared, the five armies of Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Egypt joined the militant bands of Arabs in Palestine, supported by the armies of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to finish what Hitler had started (their words, not mine. See for instance the words of Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League: “this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades”).

Rewind to 70 CE. The Roman Empire ransacks Jerusalem, destroys the Jewish Temple and sends most of the Jews into exile, thus terminating a 1000 year-old kingdom. You can read about it in the Bible and the Talmud. The Romans renamed the territory captured from the kingdom of Judea “Provincia Palestina” after the extinct civilization of the Phillistines, who gave the world Goliath. The Phillistines were a seafaring nation, who, according to archaeologists, originated in the vicinity of Crete and have nothing whatsoever to do with today’s Palestinians. And the Arabs? They only showed up here 500 years later.

 My bottom line is this-

This conflict has been going on for a lot longer than 45 years. Sometimes the Jews are on top, sometimes the Arabs are. Both sides have made mistakes, and both sides have done things they regret, or should regret, anyway.

You can’t look at the Israeli-Arab conflict like this:


Or even like this:


But more like this:

And you can’t talk about the conflict in 2012, without looking back at 3000 years of history.


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One comment

  1. Here is a relevant article written by Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian-Jordanian, on the subject of Israel, Jordan and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria):

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