They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Are conflicts read differently as time passes?

Are conflicts read differently as time passes?

By Sara Plaza

Sometimes, it is curious to observe how different readings of conflicts –both resolved and unresolved– have developed through time. On some occasions it is not even necessary to wait for centuries to go by, for just a few years are enough to talk in a different way of the same problem that, as time passes, will undoubtedly suffer a lot of changes in order to remain unsolved or end in agreement.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence declaration. This State was created in the territories of Ancient Palestine, a region whose names and boundaries have varied throughout history

Allow me to bring back some memories and look through a little piece of the history surrounding this geographical area.

First human remains date back as early as 500.000 years ago. Twelve thousand years BCE. Natufian culture elaborated wood, stone and animal bone tools, and the agricultural communities were established between 10000 and 5000 BCE. New migrant groups, marked by the use of copper, were brought to the region from a culture originated in Syria, and between 3000 and 2200 BCE the first independent Canaanite city–states were settled. Civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria and Phoenicia had a great influence over Canaan due to commercial and diplomatic ties, and in 1190 BCE the Philistines arrived at this region and mingled with the local population introducing iron weapons and chariots to them.

It is said –though some historians do not even believe in his existence– that between 2000 and 1000 BCE, Abraham moved from the old city of Ur (ancient Mesopotamia) to Arum (modern Turkey) and once there he parted from his tribe and abandoned idolatry. Then he set off with his family and flocks to Canaan, the land promised to him, by God, as their homeland, where he should establish a monotheistic people. Canaanite people called Abraham Ibri and those who came with him became known as ibrim ('from the other side'), term that gave birth to the word 'Hebrew'. It is told that Isaac, Abraham's son, went on to the south of this 'Promised Land', the Negev Desert, and that his younger son, Jacob, after deceiving his older brother, Esau, fled back to Mesopotamia, were he was renamed Israel (after successfully wrestling with an angel of God). It is also believed that Israel had 12 children. Joseph, his favorite, was the first brother who moved to Egypt. A few years later, hunger in Canaan forced the rest together with their father to follow Joseph's steps.

In Ramesses II's reign, Jews were treated as slaves and they could only leave Egypt after Moses appeared –apparently called by God to endorse the agreement made with Abraham and guide Israelites towards the Promised Land– and announced the famous seven plagues of Egypt. It is said that Moses waited 40 years in the Desert before coming back to Canaan. Then his disciple, Joshua, followed the Jordan River and captured Jericho in the first place and immediately afterwards took place the conquest of Canaan, which was divided among the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

At the beginning, the tribes of Israel were governed by successive judges, of whom Samson, betrayed by philistine Dalila, became very famous. According to Biblical tradition Saul, a peasant warrior, was the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel in 1020 BCE. His son–in–law, David –who won the Philistine giant Goliath–, came to the throne after his death. It is believed that David seized a small village on a hill and Jerusalem was made the capital of his kingdom there. During the reign of his son, Solomon, these peoples gained their greatest splendor, but after his death internal disputes caused the united kingdom to split and two new kingdoms were formed: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (origin of the word 'Jew'). Both kingdoms coexisted in this region together with many others, including Philistine city–states.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire two hundred years later and those 10 Israelite tribes –thereafter known as the Lost Tribes– were exiled. In 587 BCE, Judah was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, and surviving Jews together with much of the other local population were deported to Babylonia.

After the Persian Empire was established in 538 BCE, king Ciro allowed Jews to return to what their holy books had termed the Land of Israel. The Persian Empire fell to Greek forces of the Macedonian general Alexander the Great and the Jewish population in Judah saw their autonomy in religion and administration limited. Fascination in Jerusalem for Greek culture resulted in an internal divide between reformist and orthodox Jews that ended in a sort of civil war, which allowed the intervention of Syrian Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In 167 BCE the Syrians will be expelled from Jerusalem by Judas Maccabeus and it is said that the Jews will progress under Maccabean. However, a century of independence disputes led to control of the kingdom by the Romans in 63 BCE. Judah was renamed Judea and became a Roman client kingdom. Roman rule was solidified when Herod was appointed as "king of the Jews". As a result of the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73), Titus sacked Jerusalem. Surviving Jews were forced into exile following the fall of a Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba in 132–135, and the Romans joined the province of Judea (which already included Samaria) together with Galilee to form a new province, called Syria Palestine (to honor the Philistines) administered by the governor of Syria.

The Land of Israel fell under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Sassanian, and Byzantine rule, between the time of the Jewish kingdoms and the 7th–century. Over the next centuries this region was captured by Arabs in 636, Crusaders in 1099, Tartars in 1244 and the Ottoman Empire in 1517, before falling in British hands in 1922.

The British had defeated Turkish forces in Palestine in September 1918 with the help of Arabs –who thought possible the creation of a new independent Arab State– and in July 1920, the French drove Faisal bin Husayn from Damascus. The British gave priority to their agreements with the French and broke the promise made to Arabs. In April 1920 the Allied Supreme Council (the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan) met at Sanremo and The United Kingdom accepted a mandate for Palestine. However, the boundaries of the mandate and the conditions under which it was to be held were not decided. On 24 July, 1922 the League of Nations approved the terms of the British Mandate over Palestine to secure the establishment of the Jewish national home. The population of the area at that time was predominantly Muslim Arabs while Jerusalem was predominantly Jewish. Five years before, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour had issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration, which acknowledged the historical connection between the Jewish people and Palestine territories. Under the administration of the mandate Britain favored Jewish population while the Jews maintained a policy of native population negation.

In the years following World War II, Britain's control over Palestine became increasingly uncertain. Finally in early 1947 the British Government announced their desire to terminate the Mandate, stating it was unable to arrive at a solution acceptable to both Arabs and Jews, and passed the responsibility over Palestine to the United Nations, which approved the partition of the Mandate over Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Greater Jerusalem area coming under international control. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it. Regardless, the State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, and the neighboring Arab states and armies immediately attacked Israel following its declaration of independence and 1948 Arab–Israeli War broke out. During the war, according to UN estimates, about 80% of the previous Arab population, fled the country. Israel was established in three–quarters of this territory by the end of the war, and the remaining quarter, comprising the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was occupied by Egypt and by Jordan, and later conquered by Israel during the 1967 war.

Up to here the memory exercise and the rough draft of the history that I wanted to check before the creation of the New State of Israel.

Now I would like to share with you two moments of the most recent history that I found while reading two different texts on the very same subject. One of them is the article 'El sufrimiento como identidad' (The sufferings as identity) written by the journalist, expert in international policy, Andrés Criscaut, for the international Argentinean edition of the journal Le Monde diplomatique, 'el Dipló' in May, 2008. The other is a book titled 'Israel' by Robert St. John that was published in 1962 and belongs to the collection 'Biblioteca Universal de LIFE en Español' (LIFE Universal Library in Spanish).

This is the way Andrés Criscaut describes what happened between 1936 and 1939:

'The Palestine Arabs both urban and country men, found themselves alone and facing a Jewish colonization that raised from 12500 people in 1932 to 66000 in 1935, when refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany increased their numbers. Between 1936 and 1939 a spontaneous revolt took place –similar to the one staged during the last decade with both Intifadas– basically by ordinary people of the country and people living in the fringes of urban centers, and it was known as the Great Arab Revolt in Palestine, which took by surprise the small elite of Palestine leaders (only 9% participated and less than 5% directed operations or guerrillas).

The uprising, although started off by challenges and inequities due to the growing Jewish enclave during the mandate, had a clear anti–British orientation, for the Crown was immediately responsible for this imbalance.

Nevertheless, at its late stage it ended up being a real civil war between Palestinians. The revolt put the mandate administration in an awkward position, and there were more troops deployed in the small territory of Palestine than in the whole Indian subcontinent'. (p. 33)

And these are the lines of Robert St. John explaining the same conflict:

'In the middle 1930s, anti–Semitism in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, and reluctance on the part of Australia and under populated American countries to open their doors to Jews fleeing from Central Europe to save their lives caused many of them to seek refuge in Palestine. Now, the Arabs, as a gesture of protest, organized a rebellion on a large scale that sparked off in the spring of 1936. What caused it to start was first in Jaffa and later spread to every place with Arabs and Jews population. Many people died and everywhere the normal life was disrupted by the general strike declared by the Arabs. The British sent military forces from Egypt, Malta and Great Britain, and order was restored in the end'. (pp. 39–40)

One might carefully check a lot of things, but what attracted my attention first was that Criscaut calls 'revolt' what St. John considers a 'rebellion', and the spontaneity attributed to the former contrast with the organization of the latter. Only the methods used by the British seem to be quite clear to both authors.

Forty four years separate St. John's book from Criscaut's article, which seem to have been of great importance according to the different names given to the armed conflict in 1948.

Criscaut writes:

'For the Israelis, 1948 was the year when the Jews won the "Independence War" and created the State of Israel. For the Palestinians, it was the year of the Nakba (the Disaster), the year when they lost Palestine and their society was devastated'. (p. 33)

St. John states:

'However, during the war that followed after the British forces withdrawal in 1948, [Jerusalem] was the scene of bloody combats between Israelis and Arabs ... since they defeated the Arab army ... [the Israelis] proudly call this conflict "Liberation War"'. (pp. 12–14)

In the excerpts shown above, both texts talk about the same facts, how can they look like so different in the eyes of each author? Could it be said that it has been time the only cause for their different gazes? What about our own analysis? Has it also changed during the last years? I believe that time plays a key role, of course; however, maybe authors and readers' prejudices are the ones to blame. On many occasions, mostly when we do not have enough experience or information of something –or we are deliberately misinformed about it–, we start from preconceived notions to reach preconcluded conclusions.

Before finishing this post, I invite you to look for and do everything possible to find and sit down in front of your TV or your PC to watch the great film 'Private' (Italy, 2004, 35mm, AM13, 90'), directed by Severino Costanzo. It was awarded in a number of Cinema Festivals and Costanzo won the 'David di Donatello' prize in 2005. You will be able to put yourself in the place of a Palestinian family whose house has been confiscated by Israeli army. You will have the opportunity to make yourself many questions and, probably, won't be able to answer most of them, however, is worth the effort to be left with some doubts in order to keep on thinking about it.