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Spiritual Justice -Introduction to Middle East  >  Geography, Religions and Conflicts of the Middle East   History and Background to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Early Period to 638 AD  >  History and Background to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: From 638 AD   The Role of the United Nations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  > Middle East Resources

The Middle East

Geography, Religions and Conflicts of the Middle East



Geography and Religions

The Middle East is a strategic designation, usually defined as those 22 countries, disputed regions and territories in the Middle East Region as follow:

Afghanistan Morocco (Ar)
Algeria (Ar) Oman (Ar)
Bahrain (Ar) Palestinian Authority
Egypt (Ar) Saudi Arabia (Ar)
Iran Sudan (Ar)
Iraq (Ar) Syria (Ar)
Israel Tunisia (Ar)
Jordan (Ar) Turkey
Kuwait (Ar) United Arab Emirates (Ar)
Lebanon (Ar) Yemen (Ar)
Libya (Ar) 
Mauritania  (Ar) 

Seventeen (or 4/5) of these, which are marked in the list with an (Ar) make up the Arab world, leaving five non-Arab countries in the Region.  250,000 million (a quarter of a billion) people live in the 17 independent countries of the Arab world.  The Governments of the Arab countries are either monarchies, republics, federations (United Arab Emirates) or democracies (Turkey), as shown in the CIA World Fact Book, 2002.  Economically, the populations of the Arab countries span the spectrum from the wealthiest to the poorest populations in the world, and have access to widely different natural resources.  Arabs belong to many religions, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

According to Malcolm Booker...

"There are three basic problems in the Middle East Region, being -
  1. the discontent between the Israelis and the Arabs;
  2. the great disparities in economic wealth between the countries; and
  3. the division among the Muslims between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites.
These problems interact in ways which aggravate each of them."

(source: "Background to the Gulf War" by Malcolm Booker. Left Book Club, Sydney 1991)

The land known as Israel, which is 20,770 square km in area, is bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.  In 1948 the State of Israel was self-proclaimed by the Jewish people living in that area.  Seventy-seven  percent (or just under 4/5) of its population comprise Jewish people, this 77% numbering approximately 5.5 million people.  Outside of Israel, throughout the world, there are about 2.8 million Jews living in more than one hundred countries around the globe.  The largest communities are found in the United States, in some European countries (mostly England and France), Russia, several Asian countries, Latin America and Australia.

The land known today by some as Palestine is 6,220 km total in area, and comprises two areas called the West Bank (including the historical regions of Samaria in the North and Judea in the South) and The Gaza Strip.  Historically, Palestine or Canaan was a country east of the Mediterranean Sea that included the areas known today as Israel, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and inland to the Jordan River Valley. The West Bank is 5,860 sq km in area (including East Jerusalem) and lies between Israel's eastern border and Jordan's western border.   The Gaza Strip is 360 sq km in area and lies along the south-west edge of Israel, bordering Sinai, a country of Egypt.  Currently Palestine, comprising the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is home to 2.3 million Arabs, whom are predominantly of the Sunni sect.  The population of the West Bank at July 2002 was 2.16 million.  In August 2001, there were about 182,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank with about 176,000 in East Jerusalem.  In 1988 a Palestinian State was self-proclaimed.  Today the current statuses of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are subject to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (i.e. the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government, otherwise known as the Oslo Accords, signed in September 1993) and their permanent statuses are to be determined through further negotiation. 

Judaism is the religion followed by the Jewish people, and Islam is the religion followed by Muslims.  The word 'Islam' literally means "to surrender" and the word 'Muslim' literally means "one who surrenders."  Muslims comprise about 1 billion people in the world (compared to Christians whom make up about 1.5 billion people in the world).  Muslims span a vast range of races, nationalities and cultures across the globe, all whom share the same faith - Islam.  About 18% of all Muslims in the world live in the various countries of the Arab world.  Approximately 10% of all Muslims in the world live in the five non-Arab countries of the Middle East.  In other words, about 200,000 million (or 4/5)of the people living in the Arab countries are Muslim.  Approximately 28% (or just under 1/3) or 280,000 million of all  1.5 billion Muslims in the world live in the Middle East.

Thus, in the Middle East Region, about 5.5 million people are practitioners of Judaism, while 280,000 million are practitioners of Islam.  By the ninth century AD (800s) Islam had become divided between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites.   Since then, the effects of this division have been comparable to those of the division, within Christianity, between Catholics and Protestants.  One of the causes of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was the desire of Iran (a predominantly Shi'ite country) to recover control of cities regarded as sacred to the Shi'ites.  The conflict over the centuries between the sects has been exacerbated by racial tensions, as, in the Middle East, the Sunnis are predominantly Arabs and the Shi'ites are predominantly non-Arab Persians

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Conflicts in the Middle East

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Regarding Iraq, at the beginning of the sixteenth century AD (1500s), non-Arab Persians (Shi'ites) under Ismail Shah, who proclaimed himself as leader of all Shi'ites, conquered Iraq (which, to historians, is known as Mesopotamia, and was the cradle of the Sumerian civilization), but he was swept away by "Suleiman the Magnificent", the leader of the Ottoman Turks, who captured Baghdad in 1534.  For the next century Iraq was a battleground between the Turks and the Persians (Shi'ites).  Since the Turks were Sunnis, this was partly a continuation of the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. Iraq was divided into two provinces, one centred on Baghdad and the other on Basra, which included the territory of Kuwait (which borders the Persian Gulf).

During World War I, British forces occupied these provinces and in 1921 established new boundaries of Iraq, excising Kuwait, which became a British Protectorate until 1961, after which it became an independent state.  Booker (1991) has stated that the Kuwaiti Emirate (leader) accumulated great wealth from the oil resources of its territory, but would not concede any land to Iraq.  He says that this attitude was encouraged by most Western powers and by Kuwait's oil-rich neighbours.   Saddam was faced by enormous international debts, and it seems that in August 1990 this debt and the tension over land boundaries exploded into the illegal invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.  In January 1991 the Western world intervened and the "Gulf War" drove the Iraqi military out of Kuwait. 

Economic sanctions were imposed upon Iraq following the Gulf War.  Sanctions no doubt dampened  Saddam Hussein's capacity for further developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  But sanctions have been reported by Amnesty International to actually shore up a corrupt government and cause immense suffering and hardship to ordinary people, through economic impacts.  Often, the power institution in the countries upon which sanctions are imposed, remains very comfortable with adequate resources, while it makes conciliatory gestures toward its citizens, which only serve to garner support for their administration.  Sanctions and weapons inspections have meant that Saddam was unable to use even conventional weapons effectively against his neighbors.  Since the Gulf War, in accordance with Resolution 687, up until 1998, the United Nations weapons inspections teams (known as UNSCOM or the United Nations Special Commission) searched Iraq for weapons and facilities, and arranged the destruction, removal or rendering harmless of chemical and biological weapons and agents, and of related components, and research, development, support and manufacturing facilities. 

In 1998 Iraq accused the US weapons inspections team of spying and it expelled the weapons inspectors.  United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a deal with Iraq to allow the return of the teams to Iraq, but the teams were warned by the US to withdraw, in the face of an eminent military attack on Baghdad by the United States. Almost a year after a four day attack in December 1998 by the US military on Baghdad, known as "Operation Desert Fox" (at a time when President Clinton was facing possible impeachment, and perhaps wanted to deflect the public interest away from him), a new resolution (Resolution 1248) was passed by the UN Security Council in November 1999.   The new resolution stated that sanctions in Iraq would now be suspended for renewable periods of 120 days if Iraq was quantitatively (i.e. completely) disarmed, and a new weapons inspections team (known as UNMOVIC or the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission) would be created and installed.  Scott Ritter, a leader of one of the former U.S. weapons inspections teams, has said that, from a qualitative viewpoint, Iraq had been disarmed in 1998, i.e. its chemical, biological, nuclear and long-range ballistic missile programs that were a real threat in 1991 had, by 1998, been destroyed or rendered harmless.

Scott Ritter has stated that it was the policy of the Clinton administration to maintain economic sanctions until Saddam Hussein was removed from office.   In March 2003 the Bush administration waged a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, on the grounds of material breaches by Iraq of a new UN Security Council resolution (Resolution 1441).  Resolution 1441, voted in on October 2002, re-affirmed Resolution 1248 and stated that Iraq was to be given a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.  The United States administration has clearly called for "regime change" in Iraq, but its favoured method of achieving this, that is, war, will kill women, children and young people in Iraq.  In Iraq, people of ages 1-14 make up 42% of the population and people of ages 15-64 make up 55% of the population.  Only 3% of Iraq's current population comprises people aged 65 and over as shown in the following Internet resource,  www.classbrain.com.   Pentagon estimates before the war stated that an invasion of Iraq could lead initially to the deaths of 10,000 civilians (www.unitedforpeace.org) - "collateral damage."

War is not simply a matter of targeting the military apparatus and leaders, but of hunting down the "enemy", whether they are in military bases, or on the run, or have taken refuge in their homes in the community.  Errors in carpet or target bombing with so-called precision weapons, of  public areas which are deemed the "front-line" for highly targeted enemies, other tactical errors, stress and pressure placed upon the Allied forces, and apathy amongst the planners, are all contributing to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

On 5 September 2002 the foreign ministers of 20 of the 22 nations of the Arab League jointly pledged to support Iraq in a confrontation with the United States, saying that threats to the Iraqi regime were threats to the entire Arab world.  (Source:  Article in The Washington Post newspaper, 6 September 2002.)  In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, 12 of what were then 21 members of the Arab League voted to condemn Iraq (five were from the Persian Gulf region).  Now, political leaders across the region maintain that they no longer feel threatened by Saddam Hussein (perhaps because they have built up their own weapons programmes), that a hasty regime change in Iraq could spark ethnic, religious and tribal clashes and spill across Iraq's borders, and that they don't want to set a precedent of removing a leader in the region by force.  The US administration shored up the Iraqi regime to facilitate the Iraq - Iran conflict in the 1980s, and peace activists have advocated for a ground-swell of support amongst the people of Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussein utilising Gandhian principles of non-violent resistance, backed up by international support.

Other considerations in launching a military offensive against Iraq are the costs (amounting to billions of dollars) of a US-led occupation of Iraq after Saddam was deposed, not to forget that the presence of a foreign power in Iraq after the war will likely be unwanted by the Iraqi civilians, whom value their sovereignty.

There was a chance back in 1991 for the Iraqi leader to have been deposed without an extended war.  Political thinker, Noam Chomsky, has said that a week after the conclusion of the Gulf War, rebelling Iraqi generals pleaded with the United States to let them use captured Iraqi equipment to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but  the U.S. refused.  The terms given to the Allied forces were to "liberate" the people of Kuwait, not to overthrow Saddam Hussein, even though there had already clearly been signs that Saddam was harbouring intentions to acquire nuclear weapons, in a bid for control over the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia also approached the U.S. with a plan to support the rebel generals, but the U.S. administration blocked the plan, which was then dropped.  The United States, as well as Britain, actually supplied Saddam Hussein with materials and technology to develop chemical and biological weapons in the early 1980s, to assist Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War  in using chemical weapons against Iranians.  Perhaps, in 1991, at the conclusion of the Gulf War, it was not considered a propitious time for the U.S. to oust Saddam Hussein from Iraq, as a massive ground invasion would have, back then in 1991, claimed the lives of U.S. personnel and put the government out of favour with civilians.

The History Guy says that the 2003 Iraq war is the third Persian Gulf war, the first being the Iran-Iraq War, and the second the Gulf War in 1991.  The current war can be seen in at least two distinct phases: The Invasion and the Occupation. Though Saddam's regime fell fairly quickly, the insurgency was able to gain strength in large partly because the U.S. and Coalition leadership was slow to recognize that they had a nascent guerrilla movement underfoot. Though the Iraqi people have voted, and now have an elected government (featuring a Kurdish president!), the situation is now changing from a war against the occupier, to becoming more of a civil war among Iraqis.

Click here for analysis, websites and the daily news in Iraq - by World Network News.

Click here for news from Voices in the Wilderness


Motivations for the Iraq War

The issue of sanctions on Iraq became somewhat muddied by a controversy over remarks made publicly by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright in March 1997. She gave Saddam a propaganda weapon by saying that the United States, even if Iraq did comply with the disarmament regime, would not favour the lifting of sanctions until Saddam had gone.  Some political commentators have described this as a major mistake because it supposedly removed any incentive for Iraq to comply with UNSCOM.   In any event, it clearly exposed the intention of the US as that of regime change.

There have been reports in the media that the United States has refused to give certain information to UN weapons inspectors on possible storage places of hidden weapons in Iraq, and wide speculation is that the reason for such is that the U.S. wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein by military force, rather than have Iraq's weapons dismantled or destroyed by the inspectors, the latter of which is what the UN resolutions aimed for.   There is also speculation that the United States administration is eager to rid Israel of any threat by Iraq, a long-standing enemy of Israel, and eager to establish a co-operative trading partner of its own liking in Iraq, as a start to "democratic reform" in the Middle East. 

Government administrations, through with-holding and issuing selective information via the media and other outlets, may whip up fear and anxiety in civilians about perceived monstrosities or threats.   People tend to grade or rank people or nations according to how bad or worth-while they perceive those people or nations to be, and on this basis, they support violence in the name of "justifiably" removing or suppressing dictators or tyrants.  But, responsible planning and massive support is required to re-build a nation.  And perhaps a question we should be asking ourselves, and have asked throughout our past is:

"Is it legitimate of nations to over-throw a tyrannical ruler, on the claim that such will "liberate" the people of that land?"

If the answer is yes, then the necessary support must be available to re-structure the country.

The assumption that Saddam Hussein may have launched an offensive attack within his geographical range is why the United Nations weapons inspectors should have been given a chance to resume weapons inspections and qualitatively disarm and monitor Iraq, with appropriate intelligence from all contributing nations.  In many cases, however, it is actually not self-defence, i.e. defence in the face of direct or extreme provocation or "clear and present danger", which some people really are advocating (yet claim to advocate).   Rather, it is their own nation's self-interests which they are promoting, at the expense of someone else's interests. 

Although some people say that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against numerous people living in his own country (the Kurdish ethnic group), a television documentary has shown that the US Armed Forces once experimented with spraying some of it own soldiers with a test chemical, in order to try out the effectiveness of the soldiers' protective clothing, without the consent of the soldiers.  This experimentation later caused harmful effects upon the soldiers' health.   During the Vietnam War, the U.S. used 17 million gallons of agent Orange, a herbicide, on the Vietnamese people, but which also contaminated U.S. personnel.  Agent Orange has been linked since to numerous diseases, including cancer, Hodgkin's Disease, spina bifida and diabetes.

The primary motivation of the United States for a war against Saddam Hussein has been to get rid of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction, but the Kay Report in October 2003 (written by the head of a US survey team investigating after a 3 month period whether WMD had been found in Iraq) has concluded that no chemical or biological weapons or missiles capable of attacking significantly beyond Iraq's borders have been found.  The Bush regime has purposely made its goals and reasons for embarking upon the Iraq strike very muddy or unclear.  Besides citing the liberation of the citizens of Iraq as a reason for the Iraq strike, it has erroneously cited ties between Saddam Hussein's regime and terrorist attacks in the US as one of the reasons for its invasion.  The media has reported that Hussein, a megalomaniac, was not a person who would have become embroiled with terrorists because it would indebt him to their help.

As leaders of the Coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the US decided to "liberate the Kuwaiti people" through the Gulf War or what the US called "Operation Desert Storm".   However, there may honestly have been other reasons, for the actions of the United States and its Allies at that time such as "convenience" in demonstrating the Coalition as the liberators of the Kuwaiti people.   This is not to say that the Coalition should not have responded to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, but to point out that their motivations were not clear, as neither the U.S. or any of the other Western powers went to the assistance of East Timor in 1975 or afterward, when or after it was invaded and brutally annexed by Indonesia as Indonesia's 27th province.  The front of this attack resulted in the deaths of two Australian journalists, and it has even been documented that the Australian government, at that time, actually had warning of the Indonesian invasion, but did not warn Australians living in Indonesia.  Furthermore, the annexation has resulted in the deaths of 200,000 East Timorese.  The question stands: 

Why didn't the Allies liberate the East Timorese, when they had the opportunity to do so, if the Allies claim to be the liberators of  ordinary people from repressive dictatorships?

Click here for a retrospective look at East Timor by Noam Chomsky.

Click here for up to date information from PBS News about Iraq.

For info about CIA officers warning of an Iraq civil war, contradicting Bush's optimism :  click here.


Civilian Casualties of the 2003 Iraq War
 provided by www.Iraqbodycount.org 

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Other conflicts

History has shown that leaders of "civilized" nations have, in the past, been very selective over which countries they have helped, out of self-interest; and that governments have even manufactured conflicts, in order to gain the approval and support of civilians (whom believe that their government is helping them, when the government responds to conflicts or crises, which it has actually manufactured itself). 

Many nations have carried out oppressive acts and cannot claim to be a "beacon of liberty and freedom" as an exemplar to others.  The United States is certainly not exempt from carrying out atrocities.  The U.S. has used nuclear weapons against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and has carried out devastating bombings of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians. It also invaded Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989.

There is speculation that the real reasons why the United States is backing a war against Iraq is not just to gain control of the Middle East oil, in a move for dominance or strategic position, but also, to offer support to Israel through removing one of Israel's enemies, and maintaining its good relationship with Israel, which acts as a regional watchdog.  The  leader of Iraq has declared that Israel is his enemy, Israel and Iraq are positioned within short-range nuclear missile range of each other, and although Israel has a very advanced anti-missile defence system, an attack by Saddam's Iraqi regime would have wreaked havoc in Israel..

Another serious concern in the Middle East region, apart from the Iraq situation, is the conflict between the Israelis and Arabs.  Since the seventh century (600s) when the Arabs swept into the lands known today as Israel and Palestine, there has been enormous conflict and tension between the Jewish people in Israel and the Arabs in "Palestine" (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza Strip).  While since the 1970s the Israelis have, significantly, been given a lot of support by the United States, the Palestinians have the backing of other Arabs in the Middle East.  Today, both Israel and Palestine are war-torn by the actions of terrorist factions loyal to each, but many of the ordinary people wish for an end to the suffering and devastation, and for a viable state of Israel and a viable state of Palestine.

 If such states were recognised under international law, if the physical security of Israel was assured, and if both Jewish and Arab refugees are re-settled, then some justice for the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs would be effected, and competition and desire amongst some of the leaders of the Arab countries (including Iraq), to fight the Israelis (or their allies), in order to "liberate" the Palestinian Arabs, would be eliminated.  Israel is presently a small nation surrounded by a host of sworn enemies and all of its people must feel safe before a group of them will stop their offensive and defensive actions against the Arab people.  Once there is relative peace, of which the United Nations and the western countries can exert pressure upon Israel and Palestine to achieve, then such peace would, to some extent, placate the Arab nations. 

The history of the Israelis and the Palestinians and the causes of the conflict between them today will be outlined in the next section.


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