Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Complexity of the Middle East

ABC News posted an article on its website about the U.S. scrambling to save the current Mideast peace talks. Midway through the article is a heading that captures the overall sentiment being expressed in the media: "Will Israeli Settlement Construction Doom Mideast Peace Talks?"

The problem, from my perspective, is that a very simplistic picture is being painted of current events which fails to take into account the complexity of the issues. A case in point. Back in May Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of seeking the "Jewification" of Jerusalem. The charge is similar to the one now being made--Jewish construction and settlement in historic Arab neighborhoods and lands is intended to drive out the Arab population and replace it with Jews. In both cases Israel is ultimately being charged with ethnic cleansing.

But is this the whole story?

Buried in today's online edition of the Jerusalem Post is an article few will bother to read -- "Sheikh Jarrah Palestinians fear new evictions." The article describes a decision by Israel's high court regarding property in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. For those who have been to Israel, this area is about a half mile from of the Garden Tomb, to the north of the Old City.

The high court ruled that the property belongs to Jews "who, according to the ruling, purchased it in 1892." And it is here where the complexity of the situation becomes apparent. In 1892 the Jews were the majority population in Jerusalem, though Jews and Arabs lived side-by-side. This changed dramatically during the years leading up to the formation of the State of Israel. In 1948 the Jewish population of the Old City, along with Jewish families living in areas where there was a majority Arab population, were forced from their homes. The Old City and East Jerusalem were "ethnically cleansed" of Jews who had lived there for hundreds of years.

Please don't misunderstand me here. Both Jews and Arabs were forced from their homes and lands during this tumultuous time. Hundreds of thousands were ultimately displaced. But one cannot demand the right of return for Arabs while refusing to allow Jews that same right. Israel's high court ruled that the last valid owners of the land, who had legally purchased it over a hundred years ago, were Jewish. Therefore, Jews have a right to the property. It's not the "Jewification" of Jerusalem--it's a reaffirmation of the basic right to ownership of private property.

What's the point to take away from all this? I believe it's the realization that the problems of the Middle East are far more complex than the headlines in our newspapers might suggest. Before jumping on the bandwagon of demanding simplistic, one-sided solutions, let's make sure we first understand fully the depth of the problem we are trying to solve. Otherwise, we might create an even bigger mess.

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