With the war in Kosovo over, the world’s attention is shifting to a tiny strip of land soaked with the blood of a thousand wars—the most prized piece of real-estate on this earth: Palestine.
In May Israel elected a new prime minister, Ehud Barak. Everyone is talking of how he will jump start the stalled peace process between Jews and Arabs and, the hope is, lead the region to a final settlement where everyone can co-exist happily.
The world should keep its eyes fixed on that region, because the final settlement is coming soon!
But there is no possibility that Ehud Barak will bring it about—despite all the arsenal in his portfolio as a peacemaker. The passions of the peoples for that land run much deeper, the contest for its possession is much hotter, than anything he can solve of himself.
Do you know why? This article will help you understand this age-old question—and why you need to watch the Middle East in the coming months and beyond.
To begin, some ancient history.
The Middle East is called “the Cradle of Civilization”—the birthplace of nations. In some of its earliest days, it was the home of Abraham—one the Bible says God would make “a father of many nations” (that’s what Abraham means—Gen. 17:5-6). Many peoples today claim Abraham as their father. (In truth, he is also the father of some nations who do not claim him.) Abraham is considered “the father of the faithful,” praised for his righteousness. But it took a lifetime to develop that faith. His first son—the beginning of his huge extended family—was actually the product of a severe lack of faith!
Abraham was growing old, with no children. Rather than trusting God to give him children by his aging wife, Sarah, the 86-year-old Abraham rushed things by having a son with their Egyptian servant Hagar. Despite Abraham’s mistake, God blessed the child, even naming it Himself: Ishmael, meaning “God shall hear.” To Hagar God promised, “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.” Ishmael was destined to become a great nation. Over the generations, he did multiply exceedingly. He is the father of the Arab peoples—estimated to number 300 million citizens worldwide by the year 2000, residing in over 25 countries!
But this illegitimate child caused deep resentment between Sarah and Hagar.
When Abraham was 100 years old, his aged wife miraculously conceived and gave birth to Isaac. God promised to make a special agreement with Isaac, and gave him the family’s birthright blessings—including the rights to the “Promised Land,” where the city of Jerusalem is today. This aroused Ishmael’s jealousy, and he mocked the newborn. Angered, Sarah banished Hagar and her son.
As God promised, many nations emerged from Isaac’s offspring, including, most important for our purposes here, the Jews.
Now stop and consider these facts. The most intense conflict this century in the Mideast is between the Arabs and the Jews. And we see the origins of this rivalry in the very first book of the Bible! It plainly shows that Ishmael was the elder half-brother of Isaac, whose son Jacob fathered the Jews (Judah) and other tribes of Israel. Thus, the Jews and the Arabs are actually cousins!
Time has not softened the jealous spirit between these two. Attitudes are often transmitted from father to son, generation to generation. The effects of this bitter family rivalry are seen today, as the Arabs and Jews still fight over rights and precedence in the Mideast.
Over 40 centuries, the glory of these two peoples faded and they slipped into obscurity. In 716 b.c. the Arabs were squashed by the Assyrians. In a.d. 70 the Jews were overthrown and scattered from the area, becoming a race of wanderers, with no true home of their own. However, they always maintained their love for the Promised Land, which for the 1900 years that followed was ruled by foreign governments.
Over this period, the sons of Ishmael grew in numbers and strength. Muslim belief says that, beginning in a.d. 610, the archangel Gabriel gave revelations to a descendant of Ishmael, a man named Muhammad. These revelations form the basis of Islam, a religion based on belief in a single, all-powerful god, Allah. Muhammad’s teachings united the Arab world. Soon after he died, the Muslims (believers in Islam) stormed out of the deserts of Arabia and conquered a great portion of Mideast land from the ruling Byzantium and Persian empires—including, in 638, Jerusalem. There followed six centuries of Islamic domination in the region, which expanded into a huge empire through Europe, Northern Africa and Central Asia. This “golden age of Islam” lasted until the leaders grew soft, glutted on their wealth, and were sacked by the Mongols in 1258.
Meanwhile, another conflict was happening in a parallel arena. Previous to the fall of the Islamic empire, in a.d. 1099 Christian-professing crusaders from Europe captured Jerusalem. Thus began 200 years of the Crusades, where control of the Holy City was wrestled over between “Christians” and Muslims. Two million were killed. The Muslims were ultimately victorious in retaining Jerusalem.
In the 15th century, however, a new power burst onto the world scene: the Ottoman Turks. Their empire engulfed areas to the north and finally swallowed up Jerusalem. Turkish rule in Jerusalem would last 400 years (1517-1917), during which there was no independent Arab state. The sons of Ishmael chafed under the Turkish yoke, longing to break free.
All this time, the scattered Jews had never abandoned hope of returning to their ancient homeland. “Next year in Jerusalem” was a common saying. They were generally a persecuted people, living precariously among the strange religions of other lands, yearning for a peaceful, secure society of their own. The persecution eventually gave birth in the 1890s to a movement known as Zionism (Zion being the biblical name for the Holy Land), which intended to achieve for the Jews a publically recognized, legal home in their historic homeland. They pleaded for help from Britain, while private financiers helped Jews buy tracts of land in the region from the Turks.
This brings us up to the troubled 20th century, where the players in today’s Middle East drama really emerge. The stage was set for a showdown, a revival of an ancient family dispute.
During World War I (1914-1918), Turkey sided with the Axis powers of Germany against the British and French-led Allies. This suddenly presented the Arabs with the chance they needed to free themselves from the Turks!
Forming an alliance with Britain, the Arabs agreed to rally all their forces against the Turks. In exchange, Britain promised to recognize Arab independence in much of the region. In 1917, Allied forces stormed Palestine, putting to flight the occupying Turks. The next year they also conquered Damascus, effectively freeing the Arabs. The Arabs had helped immensely in the victory over Turkey.
At war’s end, the Arabs received much of the Mideast, but Britain revealed an agreement they had made to keep the area under British and French rulership (the Sykes-Picot agreement). The Arabs would live on the land, but without the full dominion they had sought. Also made public was another agreement, the Balfour Declaration, revealing Britain’s support of Zionism and working to establish a home for Jews in Palestine. (However, this too would operate under British control.)
Huge numbers of Jews began migrating to the area. Nervous Arabs mounted a resistance movement. To appease the Arabs, Britain sought to restrict Jewish immigration. The Zionists protested. An Arab terror campaign against the Jews ensued. Violence increased. Clearly, British policy had set up incompatible expectations among Jews and Arabs over their claims to Palestine, creating a head-on collision between the two.
Britain finally gave up trying to solve tensions within Palestine and turned control in 1947 over to the United Nations. The UN created two independent states, one Jewish and one Arab, with international control over Jerusalem (see 1947 map, right). When British forces pulled out of the area on May 14, 1948, the Jews held a celebration of their dream come true: a nation of their own!
The Arabs, too, would have had their independent state. But what did they do? Determined to squelch any Jewish state, the very next day they invaded Israel! Arabs and Jews were at war! (Perhaps, as we hope for a peaceful resolution in the Mideast today, we should remember just how “peaceful” things were the last time Jews and Arabs were to share Palestine as equals. Peace didn’t even last one day!)
Now notice what followed. These events weigh heavily in today’s disputes.
Over several months the Jews successfully struck back. By the time fighting ceased in early 1949 and an armistice was declared, Israel had enlarged its borders to nearly 50 percent beyond the UN-allotted territory. But they still only had control of half of Jerusalem (the eastern half was ruled by Jordan). They declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel nevertheless.
Despite Israel’s admission into the United Nations in 1949, the Arabs never gave up their avowed aim of “throwing Israel into the sea.” Smatterings of violence persisted, flaring up in 1956 (to no lasting effect) and finally exploding in 1967: the “Six-Day War.” At that time, Egypt threatened to destroy Israel, massing a huge offensive in the Sinai desert. Syria joined, and even Jordan launched an artillery barrage on Israeli Jerusalem. Note this carefully: Defending themselves against these attacks, in a lightning strike the Jews captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank of the Jordan River, Syria’s Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Israel also captured further territory into Syria in 1973 after a surprise Arab attack.
These were all stunning military victories for Israel. In the Arabs’ repeated failures, they surrendered the land granted them by the UN in 1948. Israel won dominion over the region, displacing the Arab population.
The argument over rights to this small slice of land is in the news almost daily. Here are the terms of the dispute.
The Arab Palestinians, currently led by Yasser Arafat, are adamant in their wishes for the independent state long denied them. They want the land Israel won from them in 1967. And they continue to use violence as a means to pressure Israel to give it to them. Their message to Israel is, You may have the land, or you may have peace—but not both. Give us our land, and we will stop our violent protests.
The Jewish Israelis are split right down the middle. Many say with increasing vehemence, Give the Arabs their land—that is what will make them happy and bring us peace. But others are ever firmer in their belief that any concessions will only increase Arab appetite for land, not appease it; and further, that anything Israel gives up will make their own state less defensible against hostile Palestinians. They maintain their right to defend their territory—the need to keep a land buffer between themselves and their enemies to maintain peace and security, for their own survival as a nation.
And from almost every direction—Russia, China, now Europe, even the United States (historically Israel’s friend)—the international community is taking the side of the Palestinians and their right to their own state. Land for peace. That is the deal Israel is being pressured to make in what is called the “peace process.” Give away territory in exchange for a piece of paper on which the Arabs agree to leave you alone—a promise. Now, unlike Israel itself, the international community considers Tel Aviv to be Israel’s capital, not Jerusalem. They consider the land taken after the 1949 armistice to be “occupied,” meaning it does not belong to them: the West Bank (which includes East Jerusalem), the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip (Israel gave Sinai back to Egypt in the U.S.-brokered Camp David accords in 1978.)
Israel’s new prime minister, Barak, seems willing to make the territorial concessions the Arabs seek. So the whole world will see very soon if they are correct in assuming there will be peace if the Arabs have their own state. Keep this in mind as you watch the Middle East in the news.
Will the Mideast peace process work? You can know in advance! The Bible foretells that this region will soon be engulfed in the bloodiest wars ever witnessed on this earth. Many prophecies apply specifically; let’s look at just one of them. “Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city” (Zech. 14:1-2).
The “peace process” will notsucceed, despite mankind’s best efforts!
But, notice the very next verse: “Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle…. And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one” (vv. 3, 9). The same God who fulfilled His promise to Abraham to make him “the father of many nations” has promised to send His Son Jesus Christ to the earth to stop the wars—with force—before mankind annihilates himself. He will use the Holy City, Jerusalem, as His headquarters, firmly but kindly governing Jews, Arabs and every other race earthwide in a world of peace and plenty! This is where the present struggles in the Middle East are leading to—when the world you live in will become a peaceful World Tomorrow!