WHAT IS A PROXY CONFLICT?
A proxy conflict is a geopolitical conflict or war in which one or more sides act on behalf or upon the instigation of another. For instance, the Vietnam War was a proxy conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. Currently, in Southwest Asia (the Middle East), Saudi Arabia and Iran, while not involved in direct combat with each other, are fighting a proxy war in Yemen. For instance, though Houthi militants are not under the direct command and control of Iran, Iran provides them with arms, with the objective that they fight Saudi Arabia’s anti-Houthi coalition.
Proxy wars have existed since antiquity. For a conflict to qualify as a proxy war, there has to be a direct and longstanding relationship between one side and external actors. Generally, external actors fund, train, provide arms, or assist one of the sides in other significant ways.
In many ways, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a proxy war, with a plethora of external actors instigating violence to serve their own geopolitical interests. While it would be absurd to claim that Israelis and Palestinians are not fighting on behalf of themselves — of course they are — it’s an undeniable reality that outside, much more powerful forces have long instigated fighting, to the detriment of the local Israeli and Palestinian populations.
The Ottoman Empire ruled over much of North Africa, Southwest Asia (the Middle East), Central Asia, and southeastern Europe between 1299 to 1922. In the region of Israel-Palestine, the Ottomans ruled between 1517 to 1918, minus a brief period between 1831 to 1841, when the region was under Egyptian control. During both the Ottoman and Egyptian periods, Jews lived under second-class citizenship.
A number of complex geopolitical factors and atrocities contributed to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire: the Italo-Turkish War; the Balkan Wars; two coup d’états, World War I, the Young Turk Revolution; the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides; and more.
With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire came the emergence of a plethora of nationalist and independence movements in former Ottoman territories, including Kurdish nationalism, Arab nationalism, and more. Sometime earlier, Jews, primarily in Europe but with the considerable support of Jews in Palestine, North Africa, Central Asia, and elsewhere in Southwest Asia, united under the cause of political Zionism. At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the representatives concluded: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel] secured under public law.”
Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, a cohesive Palestinian national identity, independent of a greater Arab national identity, began to form. Khalil Beidas was the first Palestinian Arab to identify as “Palestinian” (vs. just “Arab”) in Arabic in 1898. By 1908, with the relaxing of Ottoman censorship, the use of “Palestinian” spread.
As the Ottoman Empire weakened, the United Kingdom and France, with the support of the Russian Empire and Italy, drafted a secret treaty in 1916, in which they agreed to partition the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves. Bolshevik whistleblowers exposed the treaty to the public.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement essentially divided the Ottoman provinces outside of the Arabian Peninsula between Great Britain and France, so that they could maintain spheres of influence across the region. Modern-day southern Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and southern Iraq were to become British territories, while southeastern Turkey, Kurdistan, Syria, and Lebanon would fall under French control. Russia was promised Western Armenia, the Turkish Straits, and Constantinople, while Italy would receive southern Anatolia. The rest of what is now Israel and Palestine would fall under “international administration.”
The Sykes-Picot Agreement contradicted promises that the British had made to the Arabs, who had previously been guaranteed a unified state in Greater Syria (Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and parts of Turkey). It also would contradict the Balfour Declaration of 1917, during which the British expressed support for “a national home for the Jewish People” in Palestine/the Land of Israel. In other words: the British made contradicting promises to the opposing nationalist movements in the region, stirring hostilities.
The rise of modern Arab nationalism can be dated to 1911, when Arab intellectuals from across the Levant (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey) met to form an Arab nationalist club with the stated goal of “raising the level of the Arab nation to the level of modern nations.” In 1913, they met for the Arab Congress, where they asserted a growing desire for independence from Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire, unsurprisingly, responded negatively, and the group was forced to go underground.
During World War I, Great Britain sponsored Arab nationalism as a means to weaken the Ottoman Empire, so much so that the pan-Arabist flag, which represents the various stages of Arab imperialism, was designed by none other than Mark Sykes, most known for negotiating the Sykes-Picot Agreement. To this day, most Arab national flags, including the Palestinian flag, derive from the pan-Arabist flag.
Arab-British relations eventually grew hostile (though certainly no more hostile than Jewish-British relations) for a number of reasons, including the Balfour Declaration. Between 1936-1939, the Arabs revolted against the British and the Jews in Palestine. Both Nazi Germany and Italy provided the Arabs with arms and ammunition. Nazi Germany, of course, had a vested interest in both defeating the British and murdering Jews.
During World War II, the Nazis continued to arm the Arabs in Palestine. In 1957, a top secret document came to light, which revealed that Germany and Italy recognized the right of the Arabs to “solve the Jewish question” in Palestine and other Arab nations.
The greater Arab world has been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from day one. Early Palestinian nationalism was not independent from Arab nationalism. Amin al-Husseini, the first leader of the Arab Higher Committee in Mandatory Palestine, was both a Nazi SS member and a pan-Arabist himself.
The Arab League, founded in 1945, became involved in the conflict before the UN Partition vote in 1947. Azzam Pasha, the General Secretary of the Arab League, threatened: “Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because it will be a dangerous massacre which history will record similarly to the Mongol massacre or the wars of the Crusades…We will sweep [the Jews] into the sea.”
The day that Israel declared its independence in 1948, an Arab coalition including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq invaded the newly established country.
While Israel absorbed about a million Jewish refugees in the years following the events of 1948 (mostly Holocaust refugees and Jews expelled from Arab countries), the surrounding Arab nations passed a plethora of laws denying Palestinians citizenship. Some 1.5 million Palestinians live in refugee camps to this day.
At times, Arab nations have massacred Palestinians when they’ve felt that Palestinian leaders and militants were gaining too much power. The most notorious example of this is Black September, when, in September 1970, Jordan massacred some 3,500 Palestinians over a period of 11 days.
After Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979 — a move that resulted in Egypt’s temporary expulsion from the Arab League — the wider Israeli-Arab Conflict shifted to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. As such, Arab countries hostile to Israel began utilizing Palestinian militant groups as proxies.
The Soviet Union was initially supportive of Israeli statehood, voting in favor of the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947, given the socialist nature of early political Zionism. In fact, not only was the Soviet Union the first country to legally recognise Israel, but it also even facilitated the supply of arms to Israel during the 1947-1949 Israeli-Arab War, while the Arab armies were aided by the British. Though the Soviet Union never officially changed its “anti-Zionist” stance, it momentarily stopped publishing anti-Zionist propaganda in the late 1940s. At first, the Soviets believed Israel would slow down British influence and spread socialism in Southwest Asia.
The Soviets quickly realised, however, that geopolitically, supporting Israel left them at a disadvantage (e.g. oil). By the early 1950s, as Israel grew closer to Great Britain and France, the Soviets switched alliances, disseminating massive antisemitic propaganda campaigns in Southwest Asia and Africa to rally the support of Arab and/or African nations, as well as inciting proxy conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
It was in these very propaganda campaigns that the Soviets began framing Zionism as a tool and/or extension of American imperialism (ironically, it wasn’t until after the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 that Israel and the United States established a close geopolitical relationship).
An example of the Soviets’ meddling in the Israeli-Arab Conflict is Cuba’s participation in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Cuba, being that it’s 10,750+ km away, was never in conflict with Israel; however, Cuba was deeply dependent on the Soviets economically, and, as such, rallied behind Soviet “causes.”
FRANCE & GREAT BRITAIN
In the 1950s, France and Israel grew a close relationship, so much so that France became one of Israel’s largest arms suppliers. At the time, in the midst of the Algerian Revolution, France was battling the spread of Arab nationalism in its colony of Algeria. France considered Israel a strategic deterrent to the spread of Arab nationalism in the region.
Following the bloody period of the British Mandate of Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, during which British soldiers aided the Arab armies, relations between Israel and Great Britain were extremely strained.
In 1956, however, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, which threatened British military and economic interests. Having taken control of the Suez Canal, Egypt then blocked ships from reaching Israel via the Straits of Tiran. Additionally, Egypt also sponsored Palestinian fedayeen, many of them also armed by an extremist Egyptian group, the Muslim Brotherhood*, to carry out violent terrorist attacks against the Israeli population.
Great Britain and France conspired to take the Suez Canal back by force. The French pressured a reluctant Britain into arming Israel for an impending attack. In 1956, backed by Great Britain and France, Israel carried out an attack against Egypt. The British and French then seized the Canal, taking nearly all of it by force, until the United States and the Soviet Union intervened.
After this, Israel-British relations soured once more, as the British continued to support Arab nationalism. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that British-Israeli relations improved. After the Algerian Revolution expelled the French from Algeria in 1962, France’s interests in the region dissipated, and its relationship with Israel declined, at times becoming hostile.
*Hamas, the militant/terrorist group ruling the Gaza Strip, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
IRAN & QATAR
From the early 1950s to the mid/late 1970s, Israel and Iran enjoyed a friendly relationship. After the 1979 Islamist Revolution, the new Iranian government adopted a hostile position towards Israel. Islamism — not to be confused with Islam, which is a religion — is an extremist, antisemitic political ideology. In 2005, following the election of Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli-Iranian relations declined from cold to outright hostile. Ahmadinejad repeatedly threatened the destruction of Israel, and in 2016, Iran tested a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel which was inscribed with the phrase “Israel should be wiped off the Earth” in Hebrew.
Though Iran does not directly fight Israel, it provides funding, training, and weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with the objective that they carry out attacks against the Israeli population.
Similarly, Qatar, which is not involved in direct fighting with Israel, is Hamas’ most significant financial sponsor. Qatar and Israel established trade relations in 1996; however, after the 2009 Israel-Gaza War, Qatar broke off all trade ties with Israel. Between 2012-2018, Qatar donated over a billion dollars to Hamas. Qatar also hosts Hamas leaders, so much so that some of Hamas’ leadership lives in mansions in Qatar. It has also provided Hamas with the materials to create explosives that they can then use against the Israeli population.
In 2010, Qatar offered to restore ties with Israel on the condition that Israel allow Qatar to send building materials to Hamas. Israel refused, claiming that the materials could be used to build bunkers and reinforced positions from which Hamas could more effectively fire missiles at the Israeli population. However, from 2012 on, Qatar has provided Gaza with billions in aid with Israel’s consent.
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