Sprouting from Inequality: The Root of the Middle East Crises

“The origin of tyranny is iniquity, and springing from a poisonous root, it is a tree which grows and sprouts into a baleful pestilent growth, and to which the axe must by all means be laid.” As true as this was to John Salisbury in the twelfth century, it remains the same in the 21st century, and it forms the basis from which many of the crises in the Middle East have sprung.

The creation of the state of Israel after World War II was a tumultuous point in history. Jews fleeing from Europe after the Holocaust were given few choices in their quest for a new home. They longed for a Jewish country in which they could feel safe. Zionists had been advocating for a return of Jews to Israel after their long years of mistreatment at the hands of numerous governments. Creating an Israeli state satisfied both the governments that did not want to assimilate Jews into their countries as well as many Jews themselves.

In 1948, the area designated by the UN to be Israel contained both Arab Palestinians and Jews. The original inequity of the foundation of the state of Israel was based on land. The 1947 UN Partition Agreement (Resolution 181) allocated 55% of the land of historic Palestine to become a Jewish state — when Jews amounted to 30% of the population and owned 6% of the land. The Palestinian Arab state (that never was born) was allocated 45% of the land, when the Arab population was 70% of the people. And by the time the 1947-48 war ended (what the Israelis called the War of Independence and Palestinians call “al Nakba” or “the catastrophe”) the new State of Israel controlled 78% of the land, until the 1967 War when they occupied the rest. This was a combustible mixture of events and numbers.

This tumultuous time was further hindered by Israel’s limited resources, lack of recognition of Palestinian needs and mistrust of these neighbors who threatened their existence. As a result, this new nation grew without the full integration of the Palestinians into their flourishing economy. Those Palestinians who decided to stay in Israel and became Israeli-Arabs (now numbering 1.1 million) were treated as second class citizens. It was only as recently as 2002 that the Israeli Supreme Court decided that Israeli-Arabs should have the right to purchase homes in previously prohibited areas.

Most Israeli-Arabs lived in better conditions than many of their Arab brethren in surrounding countries. Yet this does not negate the perception of inequity and discrimination of a population living side-by-side with Israelis with their western technology, goods, and freedom while the economy, human rights and daily services of the Palestinians suffered from daily affronts. According to data from the CIA and the UN, Israel’s per capita income is $24,600 but is a paltry $600 in the Gaza Strip. Poverty among Palestinians is about 60-70% overall; in Gaza the rate is 80%. In Israel, the poverty rate is around 20%. Unemployment in the Palestinian population is 25%; in Israel it is around 9%. Half of Israel’s population uses the Internet; less than 5% of Palestinians use this technology.

While economic disparities are measurable, political disparities can hardly be adequately described. Israel has a robust democratic system with a fully formed state, a constitution, many political parties, and fair elections. The parliament (Knesset) and outstanding judiciary are well-developed. The Palestinians have a more fragile system. There are the beginnings of democratic infrastructure with a constitution, elections, parliament, newspapers and non-governmental organizations. Yet the recent Israeli detention of many of the members of parliament and cabinet members (recently released) and holding back tax receipts to the Palestinian government has severely weakened the government.

The politics and policies of Israel are dominated by fear. The need to defend themselves from being “wiped off the face of the map” is a primary facet of Israeli debate. While this may sound to non-Israelis like bombastic rhetoric, for the people of Israel, with the echo of the Holocaust ever present, the reality that this nightmare can be repeated all over again is real. Most of their neighbors do not recognize their right to exist as a state. Add to that the fear of being killed by bombs lobbed over its borders and the very real threat of suicide bombers.

Palestinian politics are driven by the despair of economic desperation, lack of hope, poor education and martyrdom. Palestinians have no state to recognize their existence. Their politics were born out of an underground movement in the Palestinian Diaspora focused on “defeating” the enemy, not on building democratic infrastructure. Corruption in these organizations, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), has often gone unchecked. Moreover, such movements evolve on mythical figures in order to attract young recruits.

It is clear to the outside observer that solving this conflict would benefit both sides tremendously. But first, the Israelis must shed fear as the dominant feature of their policies; the Palestinians must shed despair as the dominant feature of theirs. Both sides must recognize each other’s suffering, pain, and their legitimate and perceived concerns. Sane leadership must stop wasting time, resources, and its own people, and work toward an end to this conflict.

The inequities of this region should begin to be resolved with negotiations for the establishment of a Palestinian state. This will not only bring peace to the suffering peoples of Israel and Palestine; it will be the underpinning of stability within the entire Middle East. And with a more stable Middle East, one of the biggest flashpoints fueling global conflict will be eliminated.

Adil E. Shamoo born and raised in Baghdad is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy and can be reached at: ashamoo@umaryland.edu. Bonnie Bricker is a freelance writer. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.