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THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE BIBLE

 

 

Reflections

on the Crises in the Middle East

and the Plan of God Revealed in the Scriptures

 

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI )

 

VI.  Jews and Arabs

Two Peoples Destined to Live Together

 

Part Two of the Twentieth Century

 

After World War I  the situation in Syria-Palestine (as it was usually called) was fragile.  The British found out it was easier to conquer the area than to maintain what had been conquered.  The population comprised a diminished Protestant population, an impoverished Jewish population, a large Armenian refugee population, and an impoverished and volatile Arab (especially Islamic) population.  Health was a problem: malarial mosquitoes had to be taken care of, cisterns had to be cleansed, delousing and disinfecting was needed almost everywhere.  And, of course, security was a top priority.

 

The Rise of Arab Nationalism

 

An Arab national consciousness had been growing for fifty years or more, wanting the historic Arab lands as their homeland.  Now that Turks had been driven out, it looked like this would be a reality: the Treaty of Versailles declared that non-Turkish areas of the Turkish Empire would be taken from Turkey.  This opened a precarious situation: an Islamic Empire was dismantled; but there was the promise of an Arab Empire, still Islamic, to take its place in the Middle East. 

The Emir Faisal actually supported the Zionist movement because he thought this would garner European support for both causes: he said there was room for them both in the land. But tensions increased between Arab nationalists, the British, and the French, over land and water.  France wanted control of all of northern Galilee (the water); they gave up that to the British in exchange for Britain’s preventing Faisel from having Syria.  Thus the betrayal started.  Arab nationalists were greatly upset when they saw the promised Arab empire was not going to materialize; and opposition to the French in Syria began to mount. Jewish settlers in the land were almost defenseless in the middle of this.

The treaties at the end of the war also included a homeland for the Kurds (estimated to be about 20-30 million people today).  Most came from the mountains of Kurdistan and settled in northern parts of what is today Iraq and Iran, and the south eastern part of Turkey and eastern Syria.  Today Turkey today does not view them as a separate ethnic group, only as mountain Turks.  Although the Kurds were granted a state, when it was realized how much oil was there in the region, the treaty was never ratified.  The Kurds await their land, sometimes impatiently.  

Arab nationalism and Jewish immigration led to violence in the land; in 1920 many Arabs and fanatical Islamic fighters converged on Jerusalem.  The riots failed; but the outcome was that Britain was now awarded a Mandate for Mesopotamia and Palestine, and France was given the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon.  Their presence was thus formalized with authority. 

Under the British Mandate, missions were safeguarded in the land, for the time being.  As a result, a plethora of “missions” from every religious point of view was established during the Mandate, giving the word “mission” some very different meanings.   But the Jewish leaders threatened to deal drastically with any Jews who associated with missionaries.

 

Islamic and Christian Opposition to Zionism

 

The French army promptly ousted Faisel from Damascus when the Arabs declared him king of Syria and his brother king of Iraq.  To do this easily, the French split their mandate into two, Syria (largely Muslim) and Lebanon (largely Christian). The Arabs were humiliated and angry; they moved their headquarters to the southern area of the province of Syria.  There, in Haifa, the Arab Congress met to organize their opposition to the powers controlling them and to the growing Jewish presence.  They dropped the word Syria, and used “Filastin” or Palestine.

In Syria the Arabs tried to hammer out a constitution, but it was unacceptable to the French.

In 1921 the Arab population was 600,000 and the Jewish population less than 80,000.  But if there was to be any success, Arab unity was essential: the council set up Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini as the grand Mufti (supreme Muslim ruler).

Colonel Winston Churchill was sent to the area in 1921 to help sort out the trouble.  He first visited Egypt and then Palestine.  He was the one that proposed that Abdullah, the eldest son of King Hussein of Arabia, remain east of the Jordan River where he would rule over a protected (by the British) Arab state.  Thus, Transjordan was born (note: it did not include Jerusalem or the West Bank). 

Further complications arose when a rival tribe, the Sauds, ousted Hussein from Arabia.  To compensate for this the British offered him control over the region of Mesopotamia, and Faisal would become king of Iraq, also under British protection.

Missionary activity, it was decided, should not be overt for that would cause friction; it was to work on a social level--education and public health.

As Jewish immigration increased again in 1927, Arab opposition flared up again.  Groups of armed Muslims gathered on the Temple Mount and listened to vehemently anti-Jewish speeches.  They then poured into the undefended Jewish areas and rioted.  Over three days 133 Jews were killed and 399 wounded; 87 Arabs were killed and 97 wounded.  The British had their hands full, largely because they were unprepared for this.

 

Worldwide Anti-Semitism

 

By 1929 anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany as well as Eastern Europe. More and more persecuted Jews fled to the land, and this in turn led to violent uprisings opposed to it.  A new government in Britain tried to curtail Jewish immigration and land purchases.   Nevertheless,  during the years 1933-1935, the fifth aliyah, about 160,000 Jews entered the land. 

In Syria violent clashes occurred throughout the 30's.  And when France fell to Germany in 1940, the French puppet government made moves toward Syria’s independence--but the uprisings against the French became so frequent that the British had to step in and keep peace.

Large numbers of Arabs also came to the land.  Britain and France had relinquished to the Arabs Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon and Syria.  Supporting Arab Nationalism were Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany; and supporting Germany’s radical approach to the Jews was the leader of the Islamic council, the Mufti.  German anti-Jewish slogans were adopted by Arabs, and the Nuremburg Laws (de-nationalizing German Jews) brought praise for Hitler throughout the Arab world.  At the same time, anti-British feeling intensified among the militant Arabs:  the Arab High Committee called for an end to Jewish immigration, prohibited the sale of land to Jews, and demanded the formation of an Arab government. They believed that a British-sponsored Jewish state was against their interests, and the violent uprisings that occurred in 1936 and 1938 gave expression to that view.

In World War II Germany launched two offensives aimed at taking possession of the British territories in the Middle East--one via North Africa, and the other via Russia.  They tried to box the territory in from the south and from the north.  The North Africa campaign failed in the battle of al-Alamein in 1942.  And the effort against Russia was a disaster for Germany.  In the land of Palestine itself, although there was a truce of sorts during the war, there were violent outbreaks.

 

Statehood after the War

 

When the British pulled out of Syria in 1946, Syria declared its independence; but its new civilian rule lasted only 3 years and had to be changed.  Lebanon also became independent at that time, having been separated from Syria by the French.

The postwar government in Britain came to the conclusion that it must not antagonize the Arabs or they would rise up against British interests in the region.  In 1945 the British government actually said that it had started something in the land without perceiving its consequences.  Their problem was increased when President Truman of the United States insisted that 100,000 holocaust survivors be allowed to settle in the land.  In the land itself the more militant Jewish groups began to attack British interests, showing their unhappiness over England’s about face and backing down from the Arab threat.

The Arab league organized against the Jews.  Many of its members were former pro-axis members who had been educated at St George’s in Jerusalem, the Anglican cathedral school.  They all feared the threat of a Jewish state in the area.   In 1946 the Anglo-American delegation opposed the Jewish state but favored letting the 100,000  enter at least.  The militant Jewish groups increased their offensive against the British efforts to prevent immigration.  In Britain anti-Semiticism escalated (there had always been Nazi sympathizers there)--and the churches by and large blamed it all on the Jewish actions in the land.

In 1947 the matter was taken up by the United Nations for a solution.  UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) went to the land to study the situation.  The Mufti and the Arab League organized anti-Zionist demonstrations and opposed any partition plan.  However, the UN committee proposed by a majority vote the partitioning of the land; Britain abstained from the vote, while France and the USSR favored it--to safeguard their own interests in the area.   In November 29, 1947, the motion passed.

Britain’s total abandonment of their plan to help the Jews was painful for Israelis, and baffling to the Church.  Even more painful and baffling was the fact that the British now hindered Jewish defence, turned a blind eye to the Arab mercenaries flooding in, and continued to arm Iraq and Jordan.

The UN decision was followed by the war.  Arab forces surrounded Jerusalem and cut the vital highway link to Tel Aviv, the main road west from Jerusalem.  The war was messy, and by today’s standards primitive.  In the middle of it a bus bomb by someone in a British military uniform raised the tension even more, with the Jews threatening to kill anyone they saw in a British uniform. The British evacuated their security forces.  The Israelis won the war, and were able to declare their independence on the 14th of May, 1948.   There was now an independent state of Israel in the land once again.

The British contribution to the entire project of Jewish restoration to the land deserved a better finish for them than what they did; but their shift to a pro-Arab stance has been largely retained, and anti-Jewish sentiment in England is strong.

In 1949 the UN also voted to make Jerusalem an internationalized city.  But Israel moved its parliament there in 1950; and King Abdullah granted the Arabs living there Jordanian citizenship.

 

Changing Borders

 

When the United Nations voted for partitioning the land, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was formed.  Abdullah, the brother of Faisal, had been made the  king.  After the war was over and Israel became a state, Abdullah tried to extend his control in 1950 by annexing the Gaza strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem--these had been part of the cis-Jordan territory, not the eastern kingdom form for Jordan.  The king was assassinated at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem; his grandson, King Hussein, was to succeed him (his son was not fit).

In Egypt in 1952 there was a coup:  King Farouk was out, and Nasser took over with a Republic.  Nasser envisioned an Arab empire throughout the region, with no place for Jews in it. There followed a Suez crisis for the British that was connected to the Egyptian leader’s vision.  Even Jordan was forced to sever its ties with Britain in 1956.

The dream of an Arab empire began to materialize in the later 50's.  The Ba‘ath Socialist Party had been formed in 1940 by a Christian Arab, Michael Aflaq; it had a pan-Arabism vision, that is, making a totally Arab controlled Middle East. Through it Syria and Egypt united in 1958, Syria becoming the northern province of the United Arab Republic. In 1959 Jordan joined a federation with Iraq to counter the power of Egypt and Syria.  But in 1960 the Iraqi government was overthrown, and the Palestinians with Egypt’s backing tried to overthrow King Hussein--he offered the Palestinians citizenship, and they tried to assassinate him.  Then in 1961 when Egypt treated the Syrians as subordinates in their alliance, as less important to the plan, Syria pulled out, and became a sovereign state in 1961.

Syria tried to establish an alliance with Iraq.  But in 1963 when the Ba‘ath party in Iraq was overthrown, Syria was by itself again.  But the problem was that there were Ba‘ath party members in other countries who had a say in Syrian politics.  This was devisive.  Eventually, Assad of the radical wing of the party, seized power in 1966.

Then in 1967 Egypt, Jordan and Syria mounted an all-out war on Israel.  Nassar’s desire was to annihilate the Jews and so he prepared for an invasion.  But the Jews pre-empted their attack by destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground.  The destruction of their air force took them completely by surprise.  King Hussein was warned by Golda Meir to stay out of the war with Egypt; but he foolishly (as he later admitted) got into it.  Israel defeated Egypt, and seized the Sinai; but they also  defeated Jordan, and took over the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, the areas that Jordan had simply annexed.  The capture of East Jerusalem and the unification of the city caught the world by surprise. 

In the north Syria had been shelling Israelite settlements from the Golan Heights at will, and so decided to invade.  The Israelis drove them back and seized the Golan Heights.  Syria has been at war with Israel now for over fifty years, but there is no fighting going on; three times they fought, and three times they not only lost to the Israelies but lost more land from the heights.

But something very strange happened in the Anglican Church in Jerusalem: an Arab Christian was made Bishop of Jerusalem.  This in itself was not surprising; what was amazing was that he had been part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and therefore a militant anti-Israeli.

The famous Yom Kipper war was begun on the “Day of Atonement,” October 6, 1973.  The Arab nations tried to catch Israel off guard by attacking on their holiest day; but after a few days of victories, they were driven back by the Israelis who seized even more of the Arab territory.  These defeats have not stopped the Arab regimes from claiming success.  In Cairo the government set up a monument to the victory over Israel in the six day war.

In 1980 war broke out between Iraq and Iran, probably in large part due to the ambition of Saddam Hussein to be the ruler over all these lands.  Jordan backed Iraq in the war (after all, their location next to Iraq always put them in that precarious position).  Syria backed Iran. The war lasted eight years with nearly a million lives lost.   So there is no love in Iran for the Iraqi regime and people.

In 1988 King Hussein gave up his territory claims to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.  Therefore, the PLO, organized in the late 1960's, took up the fight under the leadership of Yasar Arafat, who was not Palestinian, but Lybian.

 

Ongoing Tensions over the Land

 

The crisis in the Middle East between the Jews and the Palestinians is held up to be the major cause of all the violence.  But it is a much more complex picture than that.  The militant Arabs will not rest until the land is fully theirs; and the Jews have no intent of leaving and turning the land over.  Neither group can go anywhere else in the world, and they know this.  Israel is a strong military power; and so the Palestinians resort to bombings and other forms of disruption of life.  The militant Arabs have nothing to lose, so they will fight to the death.  None of this softens the parties; if anything, it makes them more resistant.

The last great opportunity for a breakthrough came with Barak’s attempt to broker a deal to form a Palestinian state and let it have its capital in East Jerusalem.  At that time the Jews had abandoned their position in Lebanon, growing tired of the constant deaths from small rockets, and trying to ferret out terrorists the hard way.  Arafat miscalculated this to mean the Jews could be worn down; thus, he refused Barak, and started greater pressure through terrorism.  Arafat sooner or later could be counted on to show he truly believes that terrorism is the only way to win this fight.  But Israel elected Ariel Sharon, a strongly militant man.                          

The powers of the world, especially the United States, will have to bring pressure on both sides to work out an arrangement that gives the Palestinians dignity as a people, and the Israelis security in their places.  Most of the population on both sides want peace; the militants on both sides do not yet see the need to negotiate in seriousness.      

The Christians, especially Bible-believing Christians, need to have a better understanding of the history of the tensions in the region, and must take a realistic and just position.  The Christian worldview must be focused on the kingdom of our Lord, and not only on political earthly strategies.  Christians must champion justice and righteousness for all people, as they make it their goal to bring all of them, Jews and Arabs alike, into the kingdom.   To take one side, and not care about the other (whether as liberals who are pro-Arab and anti-Semitic, or conservatives who are pro-Israelies and anti-Arab) is the wrong approach to any progress in the land.   And to take such a position based on a shallow reading of Scripture (again on neither side) is to lean on a bruised reed.

But everyone is going to have to realize that there is no easy and quick solution to the problems of the Middle East, problems that have been festering for hundreds of years.  A military attack on a country in the region may seem to delight some people, but quickly they will turn on the invading infidels--after all, these are Islamic lands.  And any kind of political control, or influence in the region will be met with violent opposition for the same reason.   And Christian witness in an Islamic land is bound to bring even greater persecution than before.   What is difficult for the west to understand is the complete double standard to be found here: Islamic “mission” to turn other countries into Islamic states must not be opposed, or it will bring calls for holy war against the oppressing nations.   There is no listening to reason or factual history.  As far as the Arabs are concerned, there never was an Old Testament Israel, for the Jews are Europeans who have invaded their land to take it over.  It is a struggle with ideology that makes all communication difficult.  And it is because of that struggle over truth that calls for prayer for the problems, a Christian witness that extols love and grace, and personal (and hopefully) international dealings that are just and fair.