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A layman's guide to Middle East's conflicts

By Sudhir Bisht
August 23, 2006 15:26 IST
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The recent conflict in Lebanon was the most recent in a series of wars and battles in the region known as the Middle East. We bring you a special guide to the region, explaining who is fighting who, and why.

Which countries comprise the 'Middle East'?

The Middle East is a term used to define a cluster of nations that include the Arab nations of South-West Asia, Israel and Egypt (geographically in Africa). Traditionally, the countries include Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE and Yemen.

But different interest groups use the term 'Middle East' differently. Some, like Britain, include other Islam-dominated African countries of the Sahara region like Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia while referring to the Middle-East. But in a true geographical sense, it is best to include only Egypt from the African continent in the volatile region of Middle East, and perhaps Libya too for the sake of its open support to Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.

Islam is the common factor among all these countries with the singular exception of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world. Lebanon also is a multi-ethnic country, though the Hezbollah would like to transform it into an Islamic nation.

Not just Israel vs the rest of the Arabs

The Middle East region is in news recently because of the violent conflict between Israel's military and Lebanon's Shia militia, Hezbollah.

The region has a history of skirmishes, conflicts and major wars. The common perception is that the whole of the Middle East conflict revolves around Israel and the Arab world. This may be partly true, but it can't be denied that the Arab nations have a history of conflicts among the professed brothers who are bound by the common thread of religion –Islam.

Though, and perhaps because, the region is extremely rich and strategic in terms of the proven high-reserves it holds of crude oil, it has become the most conflict and war-prone region in the world. Let us go down memory lane a bit to revisit the various conflicts that have plagued this region.

Iran-Iraq war

The region has witnessed many wars, the biggest being the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq (September 1980 to August 1988). The battle of attrition was fought on the ground and in the air, and Iraq even used chemical weapons.  

Iraq started the war by claiming the Shatt al-Arab (a 200 km river formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris in the town of al-Qurnah in southern Iraq. The southern end of the river constitutes the border between Iraq and Iran down to the mouth of the river on the Persian Gulf) and was supported by the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait. Iran was backed by Syria and Libya.

There were no clear losers or gainers in the war, though both sides gutted many of one another's oil facilities.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait – The Gulf War

Iraq invaded the Kuwait (both were friends in the Iran-Iraq war) in August 1990 on a very flimsy ground. It alleged that Kuwait was drilling oil in manner that sucked oil from under Iraqi territory!

The war however was a short-lived after the US-led coalition backed Kuwait. The war was shown live on the CNN and I still remember images of Scud missiles that flew from the Iraq's camps and the American scud-busters which destroyed them in the mid-air. Another interesting thing about this war was that the troops of many nations, from far and wide fought along side to defeat the Iraqi forces. Among them was the Islamic state of Pakistan.

Most Middle East Arab nations fought against Iraq. These included Iraq's allies during the Iran-Iraq war, namely Saudi Arabia and UAE. Others like Syria, Turkey, Oman also were the part of the coalition that helped in driving the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Many non-Arab nations like France, Italy, Libya, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand also fought against the Iraq.

India didn't take part in the war; perhaps thinking that staying neutral was the best option, but it did extend to the USA refueling facilities for its aircrafts.

Iraq was rebuffed within a 100 days.

Lebanon and Syria conflict

Lebanon was home to some of the worst conflicts between the Muslims and Christians since it gained independence from France. The problem was severely aggravated with the continuous influx of Palestinian refugees from Israel.

Lebanon faced a bitter civil war when in 1976 it invited an Arab peacekeeping force, led largely by the Syrians, to help maintain peace and harmony in the region. At that time the Christians were at the receiving end of the internal ethnic battle with the Muslims, who were supported by the PLO.

In June 1967, Syria, Egypt and Iraq attacked Israel but Israel proved more than a match for them. Jordan lost the West Bank region to Israel. Many Palestinians living in Israel started migrating to Jordan, until the radical Palestinians became a threat to Jordan itself. In September 1970, when Jordan expelled all PLO militants from its country, they moved to other neighbouring countries, including Lebanon)

Syrian forces entered Lebanon with the primary purpose of safeguarding the interests of Christians, but soon aligned itself with the PLO. Israel stepped in later by aiding the anti-Muslim forces with weapons and other assistance. The Syrian forces have only recently left Lebanon after intense international pressure. During their stay they held considerable clout over the Lebanese government.

Israel Vs The Arab World

Israel seems to be locked in an eternal bloody battle with the rest of the Arab world.

At the heart of all this is religious bigotry and extreme intolerance.

Jews have always claimed that Israel was their homeland dating back to thousands of years. But recent history reveals that Jews from all over the world began buying large farmlands from the Arabs in the last decade of 19th century. Israel then was ruled by the Turkish Ottoman empire but the area was won by Britain after World War 1. Jews facing persecution in Germany, Russia and other parts of Europe began settling in Israel (then known as Palestine) in large numbers.

Trouble between the Jews and the Muslims were a routine affair but with the passage of time as the Jews pressed their claim for a homeland, the rivalry turned into bitter enmity.

After World War II, Britain decided to quit the region and the United Nations suggested the division of Palestine into two states- one state for the Jews and the other for the Arabs.

The Jews grabbed the offer while the Arabs turned it down, and the state of Israel came into being in 1948.

Since then the Arabs have been plotting the downfall of Israel while the Palestinians who remain there have been battling with Israel for a separate independent Palestinian homeland.

Israel has been at war with the Arab world a number of times and survived due to its own doggedness and the support it gets from the United States.

It fought a war with the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in 1948.

Many Arabs (Palestinians) fled Israel during the period and felt that they would return once the combined forces had defeated Israel, but that didn't happen. Instead, more than half-a-million Jews from other parts of the world settled in Israel. During the war, Jordan took control of the West Bank while Egypt captured the Gaza Strip.

In 1967 Syria, Jordan and Egypt attacked Israel. This time around Israel inflicted heavy defeat on its enemies and occupied important the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.

The situation today

The Palestinians meanwhile had been waging a relentless battle against the state of Israel. They have been involved in intense fighting with the Israeli soldiers and have been canvassing for support all over the world. The PLO has attacked Israel from within Israel and from South Lebanon, where its support base has been growing exponentially.

In 1993, the two sides signed a historic agreement called the Oslo Accords, with the then US President Bill Clinton.

A Palestinian government was created, called the Palestinian Authority, to govern Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel agreed to withdraw its soldiers from most of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, giving control of these areas to the new Palestinian government.

There have been times when it looked like Israel and the PLO were tired of fighting and wanted to give peace a chance, but they turned out be more like the lull before the storm!

The fragile and short-lived peace in Israel was disturbed when a militant group in Lebanon called Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and captured another two. The Hezbollah claim that they wanted to pressurize Israel into releasing hundreds of Palestinian and Arab Muslims languishing in Israel jails.

Hezbollah is a militant Islamic group that aims at transforming Lebanon into an Islamic republic. Lebanon happens to a multi-ethnic country but Hezbollah militants occupy important place in its political landscape. Hezbollah claims to the representative of the largest religious bloc of Lebanon, the Shias and draws inspiration from the Ayatollah Khomeni, the Islamic leader in Iran.

Its avowed aim is to make Israel extinct. In March 1982, Israel had invaded Lebanon because it wanted to drive away from South Lebanon the PLO extremists. Israel was frequently attacked from South Lebanon and it suffered heavy casualties in its Northern parts as a result of these attacks. Israel's offensive inflicted heavy casualties among the Lebanese but unfortunately the PLO extremists escaped, largely unscratched.

The arrival of Hezbollah changed the complexion of the warfare. Hezbollah are the most determined and motivated fighters who were the first to introduce the concept of suicide bombing. The battle between Israel and Hezbollah has been an extremely bloody affair with heavy bombarding by rocket launched bombs killing several innocent civilians on both sides.

Will there ever be any peace for Israel?

Though peace looks doubtful at the moment, it can't be ruled out in the long term. Israel has demonstrated that it can maintain peace as it has signed peace accords with Egypt and Jordan in the past.

Its beta noire seems to be the PLO and if Israel withdraws completely from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving it for the Palestinians, it can buy peace for itself. But this looks unlikely in the near future.

Israel's other sworn enemy, the Hezbollah, is the other thorn in Israel's eye and it is this force which looks deadlier at the moment. Its members have only one aim, the complete destruction of the state of Israel. With such bigots it is difficult to think of permanent peace in the region.

Israel's survival despite being surrounded by sworn enemies is noteworthy. Israel has made rapid progress in the fields of agriculture, high technology and software. Its economy is fundamentally sound and its Gross National Income per capita is US $ 18,000 plus. Compare this with India's GNI per capita of $ 720.

Whether the Middle East will ever be peaceful depends on how the Arabs treat Israel and how the Israelis treat the Palestine issue.

And of course it would also depend upon how the other Arab nations can influence Hezbollah to keep away from Israel.

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Sudhir Bisht