For many of us, the Middle East makes no sense at all.
We read a headline like
“Erdogan accuses Israel of seeking ‘systematic genocide’ in Gaza”
and wonder why he would turn on a natural ally.
That’s because our western thinking is quite alien to the Middle East and it is we who need to turn our heads around if we are ever to understand what drives the people and the leaders there.
The first question we need to ask ourselves, perhaps, is why people choose to support despots as leaders, why Hamas for example? Why, Assad, who is killing his own people in their hundreds of thousands?
If we understand just two things, it will take us a long way in understanding. The first is that the Middle East is entirely based in perceptions of power. If you have a ruthless powerful leader, others will back off. The more ruthless, the more he offers protection.
Power is respected and lived, weakness is condemned and contemptible. This explains how Gaddafi went from the most beloved leader Libya ever had, to a person shot in the streets like a dog, virtually overnight. He did the unforgivable, and proved to be weak.
Two things define your strength as a leader, powerful allies and powerful enemies, with the emphasis on the latter, as that defines the size of your balls. In the Middle East, the two most powerful enemies to have are Israel and the US … particularly so because neither shares these Middle Eastern values that would sweep away any challenge … both can be attack with impunity if you stick to limits. The first Gulf War came from misreading American limits.
It is no accident that every emerging terrorist group has consolidated power by attacking either Israel or the US. When Hezbollah sought to establish itself it did so with 4 major attacks, the first on the US Embassy in Beirut, then the US Marines killing 241, then the UN multinational force killing 58 French soldiers (the French had ruled Lebanon for a long time and were seen as powerful), and lastly the US Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Today they are the power in Lebanon. When an unknown terrorist group in Algeria wanted to establish itself, it tried to sink the USS Cole, a battleship representative of US power. And when the unknown Al Qaeda wanted to gain traction, it twice attacked the Twin Towers, it’s success in 2001 making it a dominant power in the Arab world. Now it’s the turn of ISIS, and if I was America or Europe I would be extremely cautious at this point.
Looking at Erdogan through these eyes, he has never forgiven Israel for the Mavi Marmara, not because Turks were killed, but for weakening his prestige. He sought to re-establish it with compensation from Israel, but Israel wouldn’t play ball. Now that he faces an election in August it is time to take on powerful enemies, at least verbally. So, he lashed out at Israel, the UN, the US and the Arab leadership. I doubt that the details are all that relevant …. only to us in the west.
Closer to home, Hamas doesn’t expect to annihilate Israel with a few rockets, but I’m sure that if you check each attack, they will undoubtedly correspond to flagging support. Want to understand why Arafat launched the murderous Intifada 2 in the wake of Camp David? He could feel it all slipping away, as people applauded a peace deal he could never stomach.
This may help explain why everybody, Egypt or Hamas, it really doesn’t matter, always claimed victory against Israel, even though they had just had their backsides served to them on a platter. It’s all about the perception of power, the only thing that can stop annihilation in that particular neck of the woods.
So where does Israel fit into this picture?
I think you would have to be very blind not to notice how this plays out for Israel. Israel was attacked in 1947 because it was seen as weak and easily destroyed. Its survival, coupled with support from around the world, meant that it took another twenty years before the next major attempt in 1967.
Israel wasn’t simply left alone, though. Few realise that in almost a century, from the Nebi Musa massacres of helpless Jews in 1920, until this day, there have been four years only in which no Jews/Israelis were killed by terrorists, and not a single year passed in all that time without attacks.
In 1967 Israel appeared vulnerable, and the global consensus was that it was all over for the Jewish state. The turnaround, where three Arab armies were trounced in six days, should have meant a long period of peace. But here another aspect of Arab culture comes into play, “Honour”. Honour had to be restored. And so we got the Yom Kippur War. Despite being again trounced, the Egyptians declared it a victory and went ahead and made peace on that basis (the story is undoubtedly fascinating, but I doubt it will ever fully be known).
But terrorist attacks continued unabated. The 70s and 80s were the decades the terrorists targeted the children with such horrific “actions” as the bazooka attack of a school bus at Avivim in 1974 (PFLP-GC), the attack on the High School at Maalot (DFLP) and the attack on the baby house on Kibbutz Misgav Am (PLO), are some of the attacks worth noting.
At the time of these attacks, the borders between Israel, Judea, Samaria and Gaza were open and free to cross, with many Arabs freely commuting to work. Israeli policy at the time worked on the principle that if the Arab standard of living was high, and their lives were good they would cease all terrorist activity, and indeed, all the terrorism came from the north, with the PLO, Fatah, PFLP, DFLP attacking mostly from Lebanon, but sometimes from Syria.
Much like today, the shelling and missiles in the north from what had become known as Fatahland, in southern Lebanon, became intolerable, with all of northern Israel paralysed in lockdown, and people living in shelters. And so Israel launched what it termed “Mivtzah Shlom HaGalil”, the Campaign for Peace in the Galilee, which the world termed “The First Lebanon War”. Here was Israel’s first blunder. The PLO were trapped, and Israel was determined to end their reign of terror once and for all. But in stepped the Americans and the Europeans, and brokered a deal in which they were sent into exile in Tunisia instead.
This was not a bad time for Israel, and perhaps that false sense of security lulled Rabin into thinking he could bring peace. And so came the Oslo Accords. In my opinion there has never been a more disastrous move Israel could have made. Oslo brought the PLO and Fatah out of exile and into the Palestinian heartland. Arafat instantly invited every terrorist group that had ever killed Israelis to form the new PA, and the PFLP, DFLP and so many others in the business of killing Israelis were provided with control the biggest military base in history, not to mention the ability to brainwash a new generation of “martyrs”.
The previous decades of terrorism paled into insignificance as suicide bombers utilised the open borders in a killing spree that left over 1,000 Israelis dead in a short 4 years. Borders were closed, a fence built, and yes, it stopped the killing, but today we have terrorists enmeshed with a civilian population making the battle against terrorism a logistical nightmare.
And here we are. The terrorists, Hamas at this moment, hold the civilian population hostage, use them as human shields and the endless battle rages. Hopefully the current actions, as I write this, will continue until Hamas is no more. In Middle Eastern terms, showing that they are weak is enough to finish them, but it needs to be “weak” in Middle Eastern terms, not in ours, and that involves decimating them.
Israel’s greatest problem, its rock and its hard place, is that Israeli values mean that its natural policy is peace and cooperation to build, but it has learnt that this translates to “weakness”. The region expects a massacre, something Israeli ethics won’t allow … so Israel walk a line not of its choosing, enough stick to keep terrorist heads down, and enough carrot to mollify the Israeli public.
The only path to peace is a strong well supported Israel that nobody will be tempted to mess with. The current rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionism around the world, and the way Israel is held to uniquely impossible standards that no other nation has to face, makes peace unlikely at the moment.
Hopefully, decimating Hamas will send the message loud and clear “don’t pin hopes on the global criticism of Israel”. As for us, we can only hope that with ISIS about to make the west vert miserable, the bigotry will abate, the world will reach out to Israel, and with that kind of support, an absence of hostilities can be generated in an area that has never ever known peace. I think that is the most that can be asked for.