The late President Emeritus Professor Guido de Marco (right) gave the opening speech at he seminar.

What is the conflict between Arabs and Israelis about?

Closing comments by British High Commissioner to Malta, Nick Archer (podium), Former Maltese Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona, President Emeritus Professor Guido de Marco, Ambassador George Salibaand A Bishtawi.

Closing comments by British High Commissioner to Malta, Nick Archer (podium), Former Maltese Foreign Minister Alex Sceberras Trigona, President Emeritus Professor Guido de Marco, Ambassador George Salibaand A Bishtawi.


Understanding the Middle East Crisis:

What is the conflict between Arabs and Israelis about?

[Full text of the speech on ‘The Arab-Muslim / Israeli conflict – tension before and after the 1948 declaration of Israeli independence’ given by historian and novelist A.S. Bishtawi at the Chevening Seminar, held at the University of Malta on Saturday 16th September 2006]


Ladies and gentlemen, honourable guests, good morning to you all;

A couple of years ago I was asked by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai, to help him write a book about his vision for the future development of Dubai. During one of the many interviews he gave me over several months, he told me how he was invited by some of his top aides to begin a program of educating government officials by giving a presentation on the topic of leadership.

With good intention, he told me, he accepted the invitation. After all, he said, leadership was a subject he knew very well. He practices leadership every day, and nobody in Dubai knows more about it than he did. As the time approached to deliver on his promise, he was puzzled to discover that although he was very familiar with leadership, writing about it and defining it were extremely difficult.

I remembered this story as I was preparing some notes for today’s talk. I’m Palestinian by birth, having been born in Nazareth, and I have been a journalist and writer most of my adult life. I can’t recall the number of articles, interviews, and discussions of the Palestinian and other Middle Eastern issues I have undertaken, but almost every time I have been invited to share my thoughts with an audience on these issues I don’t find it easier, not in a way that provides sufficient clarity and scope. One of the reasons is that I feel I am burned with the task of explaining some very complex and multi-dimensional themes which are difficult to put into context. There is another problem, and that is although I am Palestinian I am also British and Maltese, so my scope is necessarily wider and takes into consideration points and aspect that are not held by many Arabs and Palestinians.

Arabs say that the gravest problems are the ones that force you to laugh in the face of their magnitude. When we look at the Middle East today, we are bound to realize that it is facing problems dangers of grave proportion, so let’s try to begin on a light note.   

Once, there was this genie who had been inadvertently released from his lamp by a man curious to see what lay hidden inside. The genie, materializing in the air above the man, expressed his gratitude and rewarded him with the granting of a single wish. The man’s first request was the construction of a bridge linking Malta to Britain, as he liked to take his holidays there. The genie screamed in horror: ‘Can you imagine,’ he cried, ‘How manydevelopment permits I would need to complete this project? Can you imagine the politicians I would have to deal with? I just can’t do it, please choose something else.’ The man thought for a while and said: ‘OK, please help me to understand the Middle East problem.’ The genie suddenly fell silent. ‘Hmm,’ he enquired, ‘This bridge you are talking about, do you want it with one lane or two?’

There can be infinite versions of a narrative. One could concern understanding a wife, another understanding George W. Bush, a third understanding taxation laws, and that’s natural. Most narratives can also be told in many different versions. I, as a historian, view history as such- a narrative. This is probably why I find it difficult to discuss Middle Eastern issues the way I really want to, because other people have their own versions of the narratives of history that is interesting to listen to and that includes the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Of all the conflicts which have raged incessantly for decades throughout the world, there is perhaps none more complicated, more subject to different opinions, more divisive and more relevant for the entire population of the world than that of the Middle East. Its causes are as diverse as could be, and the passions of its protagonists so strong, that the reverberations of each explosion literally ring out across oceans and continents.

If one wants to trace the present situation to its root and develop a tangible understanding of the conflict, then one would have to begin with the Crusades, a series no less than nine gruesome wars which dominated the Eastern Mediterranean between 1095 and 1291. Neither Christianity nor Islam emerged out of the smoking rubble and scarred battlefields of the Holy Land the same.

The conflict was bloody and destructive, but it was not conclusive. The impact of these wars left an everlasting impression on the mindsets of Europeans and accelerated development throughout their bitterly disunited continent. However, the Muslim world also changed forever. The cruelty of the invaders, often reciprocated, was felt more so by Muslims whose lands were under attack. They grew bitter and far more radical. Scholarly historian and expert on the Crusades, Steven Runciman, states in his book The Kingdom Of Acre: “…Islam was not intolerant in its early days…The savage intolerance shown by the Crusades was answered by growing intolerance amongst the Muslims…the Muslims enclosed themselves behind the curtain of their faith; and an intolerant faith is incapable of progress.”

There is another reason why one should begin with the Crusades, and that is because the Crusaders were Europeans- the founders of what we know today as the West. Israel, undoubtedly, is a Western creation. But it is not entirely that. To understand the long-established Jewish dream of a free and independent homeland, one must consider the centuries-old pogroms and persecution which have afflicted those of Jewish faith and blood wherever they have settled.

While the Crusades were largely a campaign of conquest against the distant and little-understood Islamic lands of the East, Jewry intertwined within the fragmented and chaotic heartlands of European Christianity also suffered extensive and unrelenting cruelty and discrimination.

Following the capture of Jerusalem by Crusading armies in 1096, the population of the ethically-diverse city, Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox Christian, were slaughtered alike. Jews were expelled and had their property seized in present-day France, Germany and England, the latter of which expelled its entire Jewish population in 1189 with massacres at London and York. Re-admission was granted only in return for ransom, which was used to fund the Crusades.

The violence only intensified, and the so-called Shepherds’ Crusades in 1251 and 1320 resulted in widespread, murderous rampages in Spain, Eastern and Northern France, and Germany during which mobs often annihilated Jewish towns and slaughtered thousands. In most of these countries and others Jews were accused of spreading the plague and many thousands were either killed or forced to convert to Christianity. In the second half of the 15th century, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain gave their Christianised Jewish population a choice: leave, convert to Christianity, or face torture and death and confiscation of rights and property.

This was followed by extortive taxes, restrictions on marriage and on numbers of children, and temporary expulsions in Prussia between 1744 and 1782. Jews in Imperial Russia were forcibly confined to urban areas in the south-western region of the country in 1792, and were barred from certain professions and higher education.

The false accusation of sedition and treason placed upon the shoulders of Jews inspired several pogroms against Jewish communities from 1881 to 1884, 1903 to 1906 and 1914 to 1921, which were simply ignored by the Russian authorities. By 1920, two million Russian Jews had fled the country, mainly to the United States but several thousands to Palestine. Stalin’s campaign of discrediting and imprisoning many of Russia’s most prominent Jewish figures between 1948 and 1953 completed their alienation and exclusion from society.

It is believed that in 1880, Arab Palestinians- both Muslim and Christian- constituted 95% of the total population (450,000) in the land we know as Palestine. 40,000 Russian Jews, like tens of thousands European Jews before them who found refuge in the Arab world, emigrated to the Holy Land between 1882 and 1903. Palestine, like much of the Eastern Mediterranean, was at the time a province of the Ottoman Empire and administrated largely by native Arabs. However, Christians and Jews enjoyed a large degree of social and commercial autonomy. A further wave of immigration occurred between 1904 and 1914, resulting in the establishment of the first of many armed Jewish organisations, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting newly-claimed territory. This intensified the frustration of the native inhabitants, including pre-Zionist Jews, who feared confrontation with their Arab neighbours and countrymen.

it must be remembered that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 by then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild guaranteed the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,’ and not the national home. It further stipulated that ‘nothing shall be done which many prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ This, combined with the British conquest of Palestine from Ottoman Turkey the following year and the subsequent creation of the British Mandate, resulted in another large wave of immigration that lasted until 1923. The embers of conflict between native Arabs and newly-settled Jews were only fanned by the establishment of increasingly extreme Jewish militant groups, such as the Stern Gang. These advocated forcible expansion and multiplication of Jewish settlements and violent confrontation with the surrounding Arab population, rather than the pre-existing objective of protection. The arrival between 1924 and 1929 of another 80,000 Jews, many of whom had been barred from entering their preferred place of refuge, the United States due to its strict immigration quotas, was merely a sample of what was to come within two decades.

Oxford historian Elizabeth Monroe’s study, Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, remarks on the results of the Balfour Declaration: “Measured by British interests alone, the Balfour Declaration was one of the greatest mistakes in our imperial history.”

It should be remembered that some of Her Majesty’s officials were sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as early as 1906. However, the Declaration itself was a reward for the help of prominent Jewish officials within the German government during the First World War, who had been instrumental in convincing the Americans to join Britain and France against their German foes. In the winter of 1916, Great Britain came to realise that defeating Germany amidst the incessant slaughter, mud and disease of static trench warfare would be impossible without the involvement of the United States. The Zimmerman Telegram was the proof that anglophile U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had waited for. The telegram, named after the German Foreign Minister who sent it, instructed the German Ambassador in Mexico City to offer the Mexicans help against the United States to re-conquer the land lost during the 1846-1848 war between the two countries but only if the United States declared war on Germany.

Forests have been felled to accommodate books written about the origins of the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is one passage which I find sufficient to describe what happened during the British Mandate (1919-1948), and it is the one provided by British historian and delegate to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Sir Arnold Toynbee. The reason why there are Palestinian refugees, he said, because: “Jewish immigration was imposed on the Palestinian Arabs by British military power…The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the World, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the World’s peace. Britain’s guilt is not diminished by the humiliating fact that she is now impotent to redress the wrong that has been done.” (Written in his foreword to ‘The Palestine Diary’ by Sami Hendawi.)

One Man’s Terrorist…
As if the influx of long-persecuted Russian Jewry was not enough, a quarter of a million German Jews were allowed into Palestine by British authorities in the aftermath of World War One. These numbers alarmed the Mandate authorities because the original intention of the Balfour Declaration was to grant the Jews a limited national homeland in Palestine, not to turn Palestine into an exclusively Jewish homeland at the expense of the Arabs.

To regulate the overwhelming flood of Jewish immigrants, the British in 1933 imposed quotas of 75,000 entrants during every five years. Obviously, this was not acceptable to the Jews either within or those outside Palestine who sought to join their brethren, thus a campaign of intimidation and retribution against the British authorities ensued. One of the best known atrocities committed by Jewish terrorists targeted the King David Hotel.

When one talks about terrorism in the Middle East, one has to be aware of several important points. The first is exemplified in the popular saying that ones man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The second is that the attack on the King David Hotel on 22nd July 1946, in which 91 people were killed, is considered by many as the first terrorist attack in the Middle East.  

In July 2006, some Israelis including former Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu, attended a 60th anniversary celebration of the bombing, which was organized by the Menachem Begin Centre. The British Ambassador in Tel Aviv and the Consul-General in Jerusalem said: “We do not think that it is right for an act of terrorism, which led to the loss of many lives, to be commemorated.”

During the 1940s, wave after was of hundreds of thousands of Jews swept over Palestine. This time, collective Western guilt and pity in the aftermath of the Holocaust led them many Western governments to turn a blind eye to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were either forced to flee or deported from their homeland. I was unfortunate enough to be one of those exiles. The many massacres committed by rampaging Jewish terrorists, such as those at the villages of Deir Yassin, Sharafat, Kufar Kasem and Qibya, were drowned out by the tides of sorrow and horror that accompanied endless streams of Jewish refugees. The many massacres perpetuated against the Jews in Europe were replicated in Palestine less than three years later, this time by Jews themselves. The same shocking barbarism, reports of mutilation and rape and cold-blooded, unprovoked slaughter disappeared along with the lives and hopes and dreams of the dead and expelled. New Jewish settlements took root upon the ruins of Arab villages, and overnight land and property that had been owned by families became Jewish, a process that was assisted by a distinctly callous ‘Abandoned Property’ law. One of the thousands of victims that fell to this law was my father. The wealth accumulated during a lifetime of work was suddenly confiscated for no crime or sin committed.

We will talk a bit more about terrorism shortly, but now I’ll attempt to characterise the essential aspects of the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

Is it a religious war? Is it a war launched by Muslims against Jews?

Let’s try to answer by suggesting another question: Was there ever an Islamic war waged against Judaism? The answer, clearly, is no. Judaism, like Christianity, is respected by Islam. I haven’t counted how many times the words Jew or Jewish appear in the Quran, but it must be in the hundreds. When Mohammed ascends to Heaven, he was met by Moses. Many Arabs have Hebrew names: Yussef (Joseph), Mariam (Mary), Ibrahim (Abraham), Sarah, etc. Even in Arab folklore, there is a large space reserved for interesting stories narrated by Jews. The story of the Jewish doctor in the Arabian Nights is one example. Saladin’s doctor was Jewish. Jewish doctors were at hand to treat Andalusian Kings and Jews were employed in many Arab countries as financial advisers and chief tax collectors.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews left Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, and many other Arab countries to settle in the newly-declared State of Israel. One of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet members is a Moroccan Jew- Amir Peretz, and so were many Jewish ministers and senior officials in previous Israeli governments. What does this tell us? That Jews who were expelled and persecuted in Europe and Russia have always found a home in the Arab world or how could we explain the presence of tens of Jewish quarters in many parts of the Arab World? Even Jewish culture, which was systematically eradicated from German society in the years leading up to and during the Holocaust, remains and always has been a valued element of Arab and Islamic culture and history. It is true that some Jews who found refuge in the Middle East over the centuries were poor and lived in slums, but after 400 years of Ottoman occupation, most Arabs did not fare any better.

When we think of the present conflict between Arabs and Israelis let’s not forget that the greatest achievements of the Andalusians are not Alhambra Palace or Grenada, nor the Mezquita of Cordoba, nor Al-Medina Al-Zahra but the fact that followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam combined their creativity and scientific knowledge to create one of the greatest civilisations the world had ever known. Even Jews have said that those times in Andalusia were sent from Heaven.

This brings us to another question: if the Arab-Israeli conflict is not about religion or ethnicity or any kind of ideology, then what is it about?

It is about Palestinian land. A large number of Israelis seem to be suffering from an acute obsession to grab Palestinian land. The killing and maiming, the traumatisation of every new generation, the destruction of homes and schools, the 58-year long occupation, the swarms of refugees, the cruel denial of rights and independence and most unforgivableable of all, the deliberate theft of hope and happiness, and the hundreds of other symptoms of this horrific conflict are the by-products of almost six decades of incessant Israeli land-grabbing. Even when meting punishment for God know what, the preferred punishment if the demolition of Palestinian homes.

Where in the world people are punished by destroying their homes? How could it be tolerated let alone justified or even defended?

For almost 60 years we’ve been fooled but let’s be fooled no more. Israel is not a bastion of Western democracy fighting terrorism- Israel is fighting Palestine. The Palestinians are not fighting the Israelis because they are Jews, but because they are stealing their land and killing their relatives and doing everything possible to ensure that they and their children have no future and yes, with the assistance of Americans who supply and maintain their war machine, fund their colonies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and grant them total immunity to international law at the UN Security Council in 99% of cases brought to the attention of the Security Council.

None of this needs to happen, but unfortunately it does, because Israel’s thirst for Palestinian land is unquenchable. Too much has been said about Israel’s nuclear weapons but these, if indeed they do exist, have never been a source of worry for the Palestinians. The real worry is another type of WMD that Israel has deployed against the Palestinians for the last 58 years:


Israeli governments, left, right and centre, have been deploying gigantic, ugly bulldozers alongside artillery, tanks and soldiers for years. The excuses usually centre around vague and abstract references to the need for buffer zones between eternally innocent Israelis and the perpetual Palestinian terrorist, but the prime aim is simply to obtain more free real estate.

Those eager to own an apartment in Manhattan must be prepared to dish out $1 million or more but for tens of thousands of Israeli settlers Palestinian land is free and it comes complete with beautiful surrounding countryside consisting of confiscated Palestinian orchards and olive groves.

One Israeli report estimates that two-fifths of the land used to build settlements in the West Bank is owned by Palestinians. In the case of the settlement of Maaleh Adumim the proportion of Palestinian-owned land is more than double the estimate but still one has to ask oneself where did the other portion of land come from? Some Israelis claim not all land claimed by Palestinians is Palestinian but if not Palestinian whose?

It look a full mobilisation of the police and some units of the army to move the settlers outside Gaza but they were not going to be thrown on the street like Palestinian. Their residences were given to them free but when they left Gaza they received $300,000 or more of government compensation. Palestinians don’t just have their land taken away by force but are sometimes beaten half to death when they resist. Some are even killed by bullets, shells, missiles or bombs of any imaginable payload and deadly configuration. They die in their homes, on the streets, in classrooms or in offices, and when they go out to buy bread or ice cream; both male and female, young and old, and sometimes in most days of most months of most years.

The Palestinians are part of a much larger nation, so the occupation of Palestine in a way is not just the occupation of a single country, but the loss of a historically and culturally important part of each and every son and daughter of the 330 million Arabs. Most Arabs share their sense of frustration and anger as if their own country was under occupation, be they Moroccan to the extreme West of the Middle East or Omani to the East, and anywhere else in between. More than 330 million Arabs have more in common than many provinces and regions of long-established countries such as the United States. They speak, basically, one language (albeit with various accents and dialects), and are mostly Muslim. They eat similar food, share centuries of history, and have the same culture. Above all, they do feel for one another’s suffering.

It is therefore natural that the plight of the Palestinians has been, is, and will be a major source of Arab anger and frustration at the daily suffering they are receiving at the hands of the Israelis. The Israelis have vacated Gaza and large parts of the West Bank but both areas have not been liberated from the ills and consequences of occupation.

Here is one description of vacated Gaza: ‘In large parts of Gaza nowadays, there is no electricity. Israel bombed the only power station in Gaza, and more than half the electricity supply will be cut off for at least another year. There’s hardly any water. Since there is no electricity, supplying homes with water is nearly impossible. Gaza is filthier and smellier than ever: Because of the embargo Israel and the world have imposed on the elected authority, no salaries are being paid and the street cleaners have been on strike for the past few weeks. Piles of garbage and obnoxious clouds of stink strangle the coastal strip, turning it into Calcutta.’

Before any of my respected audience hastens to say I am being biased, let me remind her or him that these words are those of Gideon Levi, an Israeli commentator writing for Ha’aretz newspaper on 4th September 2006.

In addition to 58 years of almost continual suffering inflicted on the Palestinians, Israel has been involved in no less than six wars against Arabs- 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978, 1982-2000, and 2006. The result of each of these wars was either more occupation, widespread destruction of property and infrastructure, systematic imprisonment and killing, but usually a combination of these. Israel gained more land, but each mile of additional territory is a hundred miles further away from peace.

And aside from Palestine, successive Israeli governments have longed for Lebanese territory and even more importantly, billions of gallons of precious water from the River Litani. Ariel Sharon attacked Lebanon in 1982, and his proclaimed aim then was to expel the PLO. From amongst the rubble and death of Southern Lebanon that resulted from his invasion, a far more dangerous foe arose. That was Hezbollah.

Originally a religious school which was inspired to take up arms and fight back amid a brutal occupation, Hezbollah liberated Southern Lebanon following its nightmarish 22-year-long Israeli occupation between 1982 and 2000. Since the beginning of Israeli hostilities in this latest conflict, the group (which does everything from collecting rubbish to running hospitals in certain parts of the Israeli-devastated country) has won broad support among all sections of Lebanese society, 40 per cent of which is Christian.

Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms region has been under Israeli occupation for 18 years, while Lebanese prisoners have spent as many as 18 years in torture-ridden Israeli prisons, and Israel continually refuses to hand over maps revealing the positions of their landmines which frequently maim innocent people, including children.

Viewed so close in time, the war against Hezbollah is probably the most important war in the Middle East thus far, and here is the reason provided by the leading historian of modern warfare, Gabriel Kolko: ‘Weapons-poor fighters will have far more sophisticated guerrilla tactics as well as far more lethal equipment, which deprives the heavily equipped and armed nations of the advantages of their overwhelming firepower, as demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. The battle between a few thousand Hezbollah fighters and a massive, ultra-modern Israeli army backed and financed by the US proves this. Among many things, the war in Lebanon is a window of the future. The outcome suggests that either the Israelis cease their policy of destruction and intimidation and accept the political prerequisites of peace with the Arab world, or they too will eventually be devastated by cheaper and more accurate missiles and nuclear weapons in the hands of at least two Arab nations and Iran.’ (Gabriel Kolko’s latest book is The Age of War. He wrote this article for Japan Focus, republished in Asia Times 30th August 2006).

Some 130,000 apartments damaged or destroyed cannot be ‘collateral damage’. In Lebanon, during the recent conflict, the destruction of entire towns and villages in Southern Lebanon was neither a mistake nor over-enthusiasm on the part of Israeli pilots. One wonders whether power plants were bombed because hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, armed to the teeth, hid beneath floorboards and between walls, or because the aim of the invasion was to make life as difficult as possible for the Lebanese population. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated that he intended to ‘set Lebanon back 20 years’. The Israelis knew that destroying Hezbollah cannot be achieved without destroyed its popular base of more than one millionShia. At the end, Israel failed to crush Hezbollah because it failed to displace and crush the Shia of Lebanon.

Following the massive destruction of Lebanese homes and infrastructure in the most recent war, Oslo is well and truly dead but when Arabs went along with the Palestinians in accepting the its Accords (1993), they didn’t do so because it was the preferred solution or the only one. Rather, it was in a way a recognition on their part that they had systematically failed to help the Palestinians. Oslo is dead not because Israel does not want peace, but because when confronted by the choice between peace and land, it chose land. This was the case in the past, and it is the case now. Even when Israel’s military broad sword was blunted in Lebanon, the government of Ehud Olmert is advertising tenders to build more settlements.

The good Jihad and the bad Jihad
One remembers the thousands of articles in the Western media singing the praise of Jihad in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation between 1979-1989. One remembers the hundreds of documentaries and news reports about the noble Mujahideen fighting the cruel Soviets, and one remembers very clearly how the US was helping Islam fight the Soviet infidels.

What a difference Jihad can be if it is against Americans in Iraq or Israelis in Palestine.

Jihad against the USSR was good and was encouraged by the CIA and financed by Saudi money, but Jihad against Israeli and American occupation is supposed to be bad. The Russian occupation of Afghanistan was undeniably barbaric and imperialist in intention. It was rightfully resisted, yet we are expected to believe that the American occupation of Iraq is benign and should be welcomed. In many instances, some in the Middle East wonder whether the definition of a terrorist is now pathetically reduced to somebody who wears a uniform and another who does not. How is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan different from the American invasion of Iraq? The media, or most of it, has failed everybody except governments. This reveals a wicked selectivity of judgment and morality among those who argue in favour of continued occupation of Palestine and Iraq.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I am not condoning terrorism or violence in general. Murder is evil and should be stopped whether committed by Muslims, Christians or Jews. Muslims must be expected to condemn unprovoked terrorism, but Muslims should not be made to feel that they are personally responsible for all of its ills. They should not be expected to give up their rights and freedom because they could be looked down upon by others for their defiance.

Today, more than ever, one has to be very careful in applying collective labels that are not easy to understand. Jihad in one way is simply amobilisation. Muslim lands are under attack. In this first 21st century, very few areas in the world are still occupied by foreign powers but this is not so in the Arab world. Arab land is today occupied in Iraq, Palestine, Syria and even Morocco. Of course, there are extremists in all societies but one should be careful when somebody like the moderate and widely-respected Muslim scholar Yussef Al Qaradawi is accused of extremism. Islam is not Christianity so it shouldn’t be judged in Christian terms. Islam does not have the hierarchy of Christianity so an imam (who leads prayers) is not equal to a priest nor a Muslim scholar (a’lem) to an archbishop. Islam is a bond between a believer and his creator. If an imam is ill or unable to lead the prayers any competent Muslim can replace him. It is preferable for Muslims to pray jointly, but a Muslim can pray at home. If he is unable to stand he can pray sitting down. If he can’t find water to wash with, he can gesture. In brief, it is much simpler than most people believe.

There isn’t a single interpretation of the Muslim holy book (the Quran) so there are “attempts” at interpretation. For Arabic speakers, it is not a difficult book to read and understand. The difficulties English speakers encounter when they try to read the Quran is mostly the fault of unimaginative translators who produced one version after another of soulless and sometimes meaningless text. How is it possible for an Arab who understands English to be moved by the language of the Quran in its unaltered Arabic version, then force himself to read a few pages of the translated Quran and find it dull and out of context?

The moral of this is that in condemning terrorism, all of us must be very careful not to condemn 1.7 billion Muslims as terrorists. Even the condemners themselves are not exempt from the labels they apply, because in many cases their reactionary, collective, ignorant and even racist labels are part of its cause.

The Way Forward
Predicting the future is a hazardous business and predicting the future of a turbulent region like the Middle East is even more so, yet nobody has ever lost money on betting in favour of pessimism. I am an optimist by nature, but the more I hear young Arabs and Muslims speak about today’s affairs the more I am overcome by pessimism. One has to ask oneself, what garbage it is when one speaks about the clash of civilization. How is Catholic Ecuador, for example, involved in this clash of civilization against Muslim countries, or Switzerland, or countless other countries not involved in the occupation, killing, or subjugation of Arabs and Muslims?

I will leave it to my respected audience to think about this, but I am sorry to say that I cannot share with you any optimism about the future of the Middle East, so please forgive me while I say a few words to explain the reasons.

As it happens in wars, there are always victors and vanquished. The Israelis can argue as much as they like about winning in terms of comparative death toll, and the numbers of militants killed, and numbers of tunnels and rocket launch sites destroyed but the fact remains that Israel will have to think more than twice before attacking Hezbollah again, because Hezbollah today is a force of deterrence.

And as Hezbollah’s fighters learned vital lessons from reading and hearing about confrontations with American troops in Iraq, Hamas has learned a vital lesson from Hezbollah- the decisive power of deterrence. Israelis today complain that Hamas is able to import all the weapons they need through Egypt, except aircraft and tanks. The Israelis have built a separation wall, but they know from their bitter experience with Hezbollah that missiles can easily fly over them.

How long will it take Hamas to build such a deterrent capability?

Probably around two years.

Now let’s think briefly about deterrence when applied to either party of the conflict. When Hezbollah gains a deterrent power it guarantees its existence. The same applies to Hamas, or any other Arab organization or country. For Israel it is different. When its deterrence capabilities are neutralized, its very existence becomes precarious.

The late President Emeritus Professor Guido de Marco (right) gave the opening speech at he seminar.

The late President Emeritus Professor Guido de Marco (right) gave the opening speech at he seminar.

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