September 30, 2014

1954. Who's Entitled to the Holy Land?

Caught in the Center of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Israeli soldiers raise the handmade Ink Flag in during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Rome

May 14, 1954
In every arena of international conflict ranging from Geneva to Indo-China, the United States has tried to take a stand on the side of democracy, freedom, and justice. Whether our government has always succeeded is often open to debate.

However, there is one area of the world where America is squarely in the middle, facing a dilemma that is both dangerous and at times embarrassing.

This is the dilemma of the Middle East, where the Arabs and Jews claim with equal fervor that theirs is the cause of justice and demand that the United State use its influence to put down the other.

In fact, it is a double dilemma, if there is such a thing. The US policy is to provide security and strength to the area that is the hinge between Europe, Asia, and Africa. But for the past five years, Israel and the states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt have been in various stages of warfare—thus there is no security. The area, particularly the Arab states, is woefully weak and divided, and would be easy prey for its giant neighbor to the north if the Soviet Union chose to activate her armies.

However, all efforts by America to strengthen the area immediately provoke a chain reaction of protest. For example, the recent decision to provide Iraq with arms aid immediately drew protests from Israel, as expected, but also from Egypt. The decision to grant Iraq's request for arms also provoked a bloody riot, reportedly Communist-led, at the American University of Beirut. The students demonstrated against an unconfirmed report that Iraq was preparing to enter the Turkey-Pakistan alliance.

The United States, only hoping to provide the Middle East with the means of self-protection against possible Communist aggression, thus found itself mixed up in a four-way family quarrel. And unless this quarrel is settled, the Middle East will remain a prize ripe for plucking and an ever-present threat to world peace.

We have just returned from a swing around the Middle East that took us to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. The atmosphere is charged with a billion volts of patriotism, nationalism, resentment, and suspicion. A reporter trying to do an objective job is squarely on the spot, and one gets the feeling that it would take ten years and scores of hours of radio time to tell both sides of the story.

However, in the dispute between the Arabs and the Jews, two facts emerge which demand immediate attention if there is to be peace in the Holy Land.

Fact number one is that the creation of the state of Israel resulted in the flight of some seven-to-eight hundred thousand Arabs to the neighboring states of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.

Fact number two is Israeli military power, which as of this reading far out-strips the armed might of the weak and divided Arab states.

The difficulty in dealing with these facts are many. As a kind of conditioner, we have been reading the Koran. In it we discovered that the way the Muezzin determines when it is time to call the Moslem faithful to sunrise prayers—to mount the minaret and sing out the haunting, wavering praise of Allah—is at that moment when it is light enough to determine a white thread from a black thread.

In discussing the problems of the modern Middle East, the test of the Muezzin remains. Everything is black or it is white.
"Arab refugees from villages near Tulkarm," June 1948 (source)
It is perhaps over-simplification to say that the Israeli-Arab argument centers around "who was there first." The Zionists claim that Palestine is their ancient homeland dating from the pre-Christian days of the Old Testament. The Arabs claim that for the past 1800 years they have been the tenants of Palestine and it is their homeland.

The Jews maintain that, after centuries of persecution, climaxed in the spasm of inhumanity under Hitler, they have a right to a place of refuge and safety on this earth—that they are willing to work and fight for the ancient land and make it bloom again.

The Arabs counter that they have been living and working peacefully with the Jews for generations—that racial persecution is not solved if the Jews establish themselves in a separate state which the Arabs regard as illegal. And that, anyway, what benefits civilization if Jewish refugees establish themselves on Arab lands, which in turn creates an Arab refugee population of 800-thousand souls?

Thus do the arguments rage. And virtually every night on the silent hills of Palestine around the lonely borders of Israel, men are shot or killed, and daily the tension grows.

On both sides of the border, both Arabs and Jews bespeak of a yearning for peace and a settlement of the dispute. But national prides and ancient prejudices so cloud the arguments that the way to a settlement is obscured.

The Israeli people are intensely proud of their achievements since the establishment of their new state in 1948. She has more than doubled her population during the last five years. New towns have been created, industries established, and land cleared for cultivation. She prides herself in bringing the 20th century to that ancient area and stands as an example of a modern democracy among nations where the rule of the monarch, the dictator, or the sheik is the dominating method of government. Israeli leaders, after explaining that they did not start the war, insist that the nation is there to stay, and that the Arabs have no choice but to recognize this fact and make peace.

The Arab position is more complex. A Western diplomat and an old hand explained it this way. He said that back in 1947 and '48, the Arabs never really believed that the United Nations or the United States would allow their country to be taken over by the Zionists. They maintained, and still maintain, it was in violation of the United Nations charter guaranteeing national and ethnological sovereignty. The Arabs constantly point out that, in what is now Israel, the Moslem population outnumbered the Jewish by three to one.

This diplomat says one of the major problems of bringing the Arabs to settlement is the psychological question of pride or "face." He said the Arabs are now in a position somewhat like that of a father whose daughter has been violated by a foreign young man. The despoiled daughter returns in disgrace to her father's home. Then a few months later, friends of the young man come to father and say: "Let's sit down and talk this thing over. How much do you want?"

The position of the defeated Arab is that he simply is not ready to sit down and talk about settling such things. And this diplomat thinks it will be a long time before any serious talking will be done.

So is there a formula which can bring about a solution to the Israeli-Arab dispute? Another diplomat says it is possible, and again we come back to the two prime factors.

A solution must be found for the 800-thousand refugee Arabs, who for the past five years have been stagnating in their camps without permanent homes, work, and living on UN rations. Israel is willing to participate in an international resettlement and restitution program which would repay the Arabs for lost property. However Israel rejects mass repatriation of the Arabs to their former lands as threatening to the security of the new state. Israel also has offered to adjust her borders where the line separates families from their farm lands or dangerously bisects villages. All of these matters, however, would come within the framework of a peace treaty. And the Arabs simply are not ready to talk peace.

On the question of Israeli strength—which is the main diplomatic weapon of the Zionists—the Arabs fear that the Israeli army is preparing to explode over her borders and again precipitate large-scale fighting. The reasoning goes like this. The increasing tension on the borders and the resultant incidents undercut the position of the moderate Israeli leaders such as the present Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. Eventually, the extremists will take over and the Israeli army will march.

But still, the Arab leaders refuse to negotiate.

Meanwhile, the United States seeks a way to strengthen the area against Communist aggression. But it is impossible without offending either the Jews or the Arabs.

As we said, America is in the middle.

This is Bill Downs in Rome. I return you now to CBS Radio in New York.