The Real 'Root Cause' of the Conflict in the Middle East

Defeat in war is often accompanied by the wholesale transfer of populations via expulsion and resettlement. Brutal and inhumane, but with one notable exception, the agony usually ends in one generation.

The First World War famously shattered four empires.  By the end of 1944, the Germans had lost a second empire, seized during World War II, but the Allied victory turned out to be a pyrrhic one for Britain, France, and the Netherlands.  Each lost its empire within two decades of the war’s end.  Then, in 1989, the second Russian empire collapsed.  It had replaced that of the Germans in a third of Europe. 

In their treatment of the people they ruled, the nine empires were in no way comparable.  But when each fell, genocidal massacres followed.  Within the new nations that emerged from the ruins of the empires of the former Great Powers, and the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state, were populations of minorities that the new majorities and their rulers wished to eradicate.

In nearly every case, though, there was a homeland to which the refugees could return.  Their ancestors may have left hundreds of years earlier, or even thousands, but they shared its language and culture.

There were often transfers of populations.  An ethnic or religious group fleeing a new country was replaced by individuals who had been ousted in turn from a neighboring country.  The dusty columns of refugees, the packed trains, the crammed ferries passed each other.  It’s worth taking a look at three of these exchanges of populations (out of some 50), because what happened in the Middle East in the years after 1948 was a failed population transfer.  Or, rather, a thwarted one.  For the first and only time in the 20th century, a people turned their backs on their own kinsmen.  That decision is at the root of the crisis Israel faces today.

1.  Greeks had lived on both sides of the Aegean Sea for at least 3,000 years.  Western Anatolia was called Ionia, and its cities were the birthplace of Western poetry, philosophy, and art.  Homer was supposed to have been an Ionian.  So was Heraclitus, the greatest pre-Socratic philosopher.

When the Ottoman Empire was divided by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, the Greeks were given control of this coastal region, pending a plebiscite in five years.   They had already invaded Anatolia the previous May, following the surrender of the Ottoman Empire to the British.  After initial successes, the Greeks suffered a crushing defeat in August 1921.  Their lines were over-extended, the French switched sides, joining the Soviet Union and Italy in supporting the Turks, the army was demoralized by purges, and it faced a formidable opponent in Ataturk.  The Greeks had committed atrocities against Muslim villages both as they advanced and retreated, and the Turks upped the ante when they retaliated.  Some 440,000 Armenians and 260,000 Greek civilians were killed as Ataturk’s army swept westward.  In the exchange of population that followed, over 1.2 million Greeks crossed the Aegean, while about 350,000 Muslims were expelled from Greece.

The refugees were welcomed into their new homelands.  But, not surprisingly, the persecution of Christians continued in Turkey.  After a pogrom in September 1955 in Istanbul, only 2,500 Greeks remained in the country.  Over 200,000 had lived in the former capital of the Byzantine Empire during the 1920s.  Meanwhile, the Muslim population in Greece increased to about 150,000.

2.  In the closing months of World War II, Germans fled en masse ahead of the Soviet Army.  After the war, ethnic Germans were expelled from the Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Ukraine, and Romania.  Some 12 to 14 million people trekked west or south.  An estimated 500,000 to 2.25 million refugees were killed.  The totals are hotly contested.

Some were colonists of the Third Reich, but the overwhelming majority were descended from ancestors who began settling in Central Europe in the 13th century.  East of the Oder-Neisse Line, the new border, were Prussian, Pomeranian, and Silesian lands regarded as German for centuries, and famous medieval cities like Danzig, Stettin, Breslau, and Königsberg.   But Germany, like Greece in 1922, had lost the war, and civilians were paying the price for the unspeakable atrocities of the National Socialist occupation and for the activities of German minorities in the inter-war period.

This was the largest mass-movement of human beings in history.  The record, however, lasted only one year.

3.  In July 1947, India was granted independence.  Much to the amazement of Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah, who imagined that the hostility between Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs was the result of the machinations of the British, pursuing a strategy of divide and rule, members of the three religious communities immediately began slaughtering each other.  Not surprisingly, it was the Muslims who began the killings, just as Direct Action Day in Calcutta in 1946, the great Muslim League rally on behalf of an independent Pakistan, kicked off with a massacre of Hindus.  The violence after partition was all the more brutal as most of the victims were clubbed, hacked, or stabbed to death rather than shot.  The death toll, contested as always, was probably somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million.

Hindus and Sikhs from the Pubjab and Hindus from East Bengal were welcomed by the new government in Delhi.  So were the Muslims who’d moved to what had become West Pakistan and East Pakistan.  Under far more difficult conditions the previous year, ethnic Germans from Central Europe were welcomed into the new Federal Republic of Germany.  Its cities were in ruins, its economy moribund, but the refugees were provided with food and shelter, and, eventually, housing and jobs.  The Greeks, earlier, had also faced a daunting task in providing for the influx of their Anatolian cousins.  The refugees increased the population by 20% -- as if 63 million Americans had been driven out of Canada and crossed the border.  The Greek economy was weak.  The drachma was twice devaluated by 50% during the ‘20s.  But the newcomers were provided with land and over 50,000 homes were constructed for them.

In 1948, there was still another population transfer.  Again, it followed a war.  But whereas in 1922, 1945-6, and 1947, those on the losing side were brutally slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands, their homes pillaged, their neighborhoods destroyed, this time there were occasions when the victors pleaded with the vanquished to remain.  And the numbers were miniscule compared to the millions displaced earlier in the decade, and in the ‘20s.

In the population exchange that followed the war for Israel’s independence, some 583,000 to 633,000 Arabs fled the new state.  (Figures range from about 475,000 to 850,000; the official Israeli total is 550,000.  Efraim Karsh provides a detailed summary.)  About 146,000 to 160,000 chose to remain.  The Arab population of Israel today is 1,660,000.  This thriving community, which enjoys rights no other Arabs do in the Middle East, took a pass on the Arab Spring in 2011.

There is an endless and contentious debate about what motivated the Arabs to flee.  The inhabitants of some villages in strategic zones and along roads were expelled by Haganah; there were attacks on civilians in a few other villages during military operations, famously and controversially, Deir Yassin and Lydda.  Many others fled at the urging of the leaders of the five Arab nations invading the territory of the new state, so as not to impede the attacking armies.  They would, after all, soon be returning to their homes, and local Arab leaders had already decamped for Beirut and Damascus.  In some areas, Jews urged the Arabs to remain, dispatching trucks with loudspeakers -- something that certainly did not happen in Anatolia, in the Punjab and Bengal, in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, etc.

Meanwhile, around 820,000 Sephardic Jews were expelled from their homelands in the Middle East.  The immediate causes of the flood of refugees also varied, but it was nearly always violence against Jews, with government complicity -- pogroms, riots, attacks.  Sometimes it was the arrest and trial of leading Jews on trumped up charges, the confiscation of property, legislation directed against Jews, etc. -- actions taken directly by governments.  Of the total fleeing Arab lands and Iran, about 586,000 emigrated to Israel. 

We know the rest of the story all too well.  The Jewish refugees were settled in Israel and quickly absorbed.  The Arabs, eventually to be called “Palestinians,” were for the most part housed in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Unlike India and Pakistan in 1947, unlike Germany in 1945, unlike Greece in 1923, the Arab states and Iran were flush with money.  This was not the result of any ingenuity or enterprise on their part.  British and Americans, at great expense, explored for oil, and then built rigs and refineries when it was discovered.  Since the middle of the 19th century, liberals have railed against landlords who “got rich in their sleep.”  Targeted in particular in Britain were the owners of coalmines.  But no one on the left has called for the “internationalization” of oil, so that the wealth this essential resource generates could be equitably redistributed to all the world’s inhabitants, and not just the lucky few who had herded their sheep and goats over the reserves for centuries. 

The Arab states pay a pittance to maintain the Palestinians.  The refugees instead are provided for by the 30,000-employee-strong UNRWA, with a budget of over $900,000,000 -- 71% of which is contributed by Americans, Europeans, and the Japanese.  Saudi Arabia, with a GDP of $750 billion, pays less than half of what the Netherlands contributes.  UNRWA, by the way, is the only refugee agency that defines “refugee” as an individual who has lived in an area for only two years, that recognizes the descendants of refugees as refugees, and that insists on their “right of return” unto the generations.  Under this definition, there are now over 4.8 million, with 1.4 million still in camps.

It’s important to recall that the Arabs living in what became Israel were no more different from Arabs outside the former Mandate territory than were the Germans who lived east of the Oder different from those on the other side, or Greeks in Anatolia from Greeks on the peninsula.  And they are much more like each other than are Punjabi Hindus like those of Kerala, Maharashtra, and other regions.  There is no “Palestinian” language or culture.  Had the Arab armies triumphed in 1948, “Palestinians” would have become Egyptians, Syrians, and Jordanians.  When Gaza and the West Bank were occupied by Egypt and Jordan between 1948 and 1966, the natives did not agitate for autonomy or independence, any more than they had against the Ottoman Turks. 

The Germans, destitute and starving in 1945, did not create refugee camps along the Oder and Niesse.  The beleaguered Greeks did not house the 1.2 million Ionians fleeing the Turks in tents on Lemnos, Lesbos, and other Aegean islands across from the cities they had been forced to abandon.  Nor did Indians and Pakistanis maintain displaced Hindus and Muslims in camps on the borders of the new states.

In the 19th century, Europeans, English in particular, celebrated the generosity of the noble Arab.  Strangers, if male, were never turned away, but always invited to dinner.  However, in the treatment of their own people displaced by the 1948 war of independence, there has been little honor, decency, or humanity.  For three generations, the refugees have been maintained in deplorable conditions on Israel’s borders as pawns in a political campaign.

Behind this callousness is the Quranic injunction that not an inch of dar al Islam must be surrendered to the infidel.  Not even the one-sixth of one percent of the Middle East that is Israeli territory.

The German Ambassador to London in 1914 wrote bitterly that with a little bit of good will, the disagreement between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that resulted in the First World War could have been settled in one day by a conference of ambassadors.  With a little bit of good will, the population transfer that took place in 1948 would no more concern the world today than the population transfers of 1923, 1945, and 1947. 

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