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June 26, 2021 Saturday 12:20:01 PM IST

Elusive Peace in West Asia

Expert Counsel

Till the troops of the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) moved into Afghanistan in December 1979, the most troubled spot in the globe was West Asia, especially the strip of land around the territories of the Jewish state of Israel. The post World War II United Nations (UN) sponsored division of the Mandate of British Palestine into Jewish and Arab halves, with the provision for neutral or internationalised Jerusalem, was accepted only by the Jews, who set up the state of Israel in May 1948. The Arabs launched an attack on this newly formed nation immediately thereafter, but they were too divided and unorganised and ended up surrendering even more territory to Israel. In the end, the proposed Arab state did not materialise with Egypt occupying Gaza Strip and Transjordan annexing West Bank to form Jordan.

Hence, it was not surprising that the relationship between Israel and its immediate neighbours was a strained one right from the beginning. However, the commitment and dedication of Jews all over the world and their unsurpassed enterprise and spirit of sacrifice ensured that the nascent state soon established itself as an important player in the region. Three wars were fought between Israel and their neighbours during the sixth, seventh and eighth decades of the twentieth century, which also stand as testimony to the tenuous nature of the peace that prevailed during the periods between the armed conflicts.

Early Conflicts

The brief armed conflict of 1956, which was launched by Israel to lift the blockade of the Straits of Tiran by Egypt, ended in the latter committing to keeping that passage open. In May 1967, Egypt announced a blockade of Israeli vessels through these Straits, prompting Israel to retaliate through a well planned military offensive in early June. Israel held the upper hand during this six-day war and crippled the militaries of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. They also annexed Gaza Strip, Sinai and Golan Heights and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during this war and made these part of their territory. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 was started by an Arab coalition, led by Egypt and Syria, with support from all other Arab states, except Iran, who was then an ally of the USA. Though the Arab forces enjoyed initial successes, Israelis were able to recover quickly and inflict losses on the aggressors. After nearly three weeks of fighting that raised fears of another World War, both sides agreed to a ceasefire.

A notable development during this period was the setting up of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964, with the objective of recovering the whole of the territory of the original Mandate, including those occupied by Israel. In early 1968, the leadership of this organisation passed on to Yasser Arafat, who, through his dynamism and vision, transformed this into a vibrant body. The periods from 1960’s till the end of 1980’s also saw many guerrilla attacks and acts of terrorism by each side on the other, the most infamous one being that launched by Black September, a militant group supporting Palestine cause, during the Munich Olympics of 1972.

Independent Palestine

However, the stalemate at the end of 1973 war forced all sides to rethink their options and work towards lasting solutions. While Israel realised that its military superiority could not win it a peaceful existence, others understood that they had to live with the reality of a Jewish state in their midst. This led to a thawing of ice, which was first demonstrated in the Camp David agreement of 1978, between Israel and Egypt, wherein the latter renounced all claims over the Gaza Strip. Jordan followed suit 10 years later and gave up territorial ambitions over West Bank. This paved the way for PLO to announce the setting up of an independent state of Palestine in 1988, which was recognised by many nations, including the Arab states in the region.

Thus, the Arab state that was visualised in the UN resolution of 1947 came into existence only four decades later. Meanwhile the many wars fought in this region had only served to increase the territory occupied by Israel, while bringing down what was originally earmarked for the Arabs. Thus, when the new state of Palestine came into existence, it could show borders based on position as existed on the ground following the war of 1967, as Israel had started setting up establishments of Jewish populations in the portions of Gaza Strip and West Bank occupied by them.

President Yasser Arafat

In April 1989, Arafat was elected as the President of the state of Palestine. While doing so, he repudiated terrorism and accepted the right of Israel to exist peacefully. This paved the way for commencement of secret negotiations with leaders of Israel, which led to the signing of Oslo accord of 1993. In terms with the clauses of this accord, a Palestinian National Authority (PNA) came into existence, with Arafat as the President. He set up his headquarters in Gaza strip and went about the task of establishing the apparatus of governance, including cabinet, various departments for administration and a police force, which was composed of former soldiers and exiled fighters. Israel, on their part, vacated many towns and cities and allowed Palestinians to move into them. For their efforts at mediating and finding a solution to this issue, Arafat, along with  Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of Israel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 1994.

However, the implementation of the peace accord met with hurdles from many sources. The Arab states, who were cut up with Arafat over his support to Saddam Hussain during the Kuwait war of 1990, stayed away from him since then. The accord was not accepted by the numerous Palestinian refugees in many countries and many intellectuals as well as a Rejectionist Front within the erstwhile PLO. Those who repudiated the agreement chose to team up with Islamist forces with the common goal of removing Israel from the area. The more militant political groups within Israel also repudiated the agreement and they created obstacles and pinpricks whenever they came to power in Tel Aviv.

Growth of HAMAS

Arafat passed away in a military hospital in France in November 2004. His last years saw allegations of financial impropriety being raised against him prompting an audit by International Monetary Fund (IMF). This was also the period when opposition to his leadership gained momentum with the growth of organisations like HAMAS, that nurse deep ties with fundamentalist  forces in the region. The internecine fighting within the Palestine groups peaked after his demise, with HAMAS capturing power over Gaza Strip in 2007 and Fatah, though acknowledged as Palestinian Authority, retaining control only over West Bank.

The tensions between Israel and the HAMAS lie at the root of the numerous crises that have erupted at regular intervals in this region since 2007. The real sufferers in this bitter fight between these two determined entities have been the ordinary people of Palestine, who are caught between the warring sides. The long years of struggle have not yielded this beleaguered population any fruits, either in the form of lasting peace or freedom. Even the territories over which the separate Palestinian groups claim authority are much smaller than what was envisaged in the original UN resolution.

Peace in West Asia

It is high time leaders of the warring sides sit around a table to find a solution to this vexed problem that has claimed far too many lives and led to terrible destruction and dreadful devastation. Israel should acknowledge the right of Palestinians to live in peace and the various groups claiming to represent the unfortunate occupants of Palestine should realise that it is not possible to wipe away any nation from the face of the earth by acts of terror or brute force. These basic truths are required to be accepted by both sides if they wish for peace in West Asia; otherwise all attempts and promises in this regard will remain a mere chimera. “Live and let live” should be the principle that guides the leaders of the region rather than “vanquish or perish”, if they wish for a peaceful life for their peoples.

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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