The Middle East Conflict as a Global Issue of Injustice—a Runway to Annual Sessions workshop—took place on May 13. The workshop attracted 30 attendees and was facilitated by Middle East Collaborative Friends, Tony Manasseh of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, and Leila Barclay of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting.
Both Tony and Leila grew up in Lebanon, so the middle east conflict has had a deep impact on them as well as on those people and institutions they love.
In conversational and engaging ways, Tony and Leila unpacked the histories of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, sharing resources and personal knowledge during the workshop. Tony has lived through war, evacuations, trauma, and relocation. Lebanon is in free fall, and much of Tony’s life has been entirely ripped away.
Here follows a recap of the workshop and further conversation with Tony, Leila, and Middle East Collaborative member Sandy Rea. Together they discuss the Middle East’s history of conflict and outline the issues faced today:
1. What do Friends need to know about the issues faced in Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine now? How is that different for Friends who have lived there and those who have not?
People of all backgrounds in the Middle East (M.E.) live in challenging conditions brought about by decades of war, strife, and corruption. This misery breeds hostility, aggression, terror, and horror. Although some Arab populations may feel sporadic periods of prosperity, this does not last long enough to build on, and it soon folds.
People visiting the Middle East probably don’t appreciate the depth of the problems facing the country and its people in the way that those who live there do. Visitors often enjoy their trips. It is exotic, and Arabs are very hospitable and kind.
But living in the Middle East all one’s life is not what the Lebanese, for example, would like to do or give to their children. They all want better lives of security, safety, and dignity.
First, no one should feel threatened that they may be killed by a bomb/rocket or be reduced to arranging life according to when and if there is electricity. And, no one should live with the threat of losing loved ones or a dwelling.
Second, the Middle East is becoming the source and breeding place of all sorts of extremism, and this can easily spill over to the rest of the world.
2. What are the most trusted sources of information available?
Since the large-scale wars in which western powers expressed strategic interests in Iraq and Syria have largely stopped, there is little “news” about those two countries.
- The most reliable sources are humanitarian organizations plus the English language versions of news outlets such as Aljazeera or Alarabiya.
- Social media posts also provide access to opinions and information through many chat boards.
- The NY Times, WSJ, and Washington Posts have occasional in-depth articles, but these are not necessarily unbiased.
- The BBC World is my favorite with, recently, at least one full program a day on the Israel-Palestine clashes.
It must be noted here that media intended for US audiences sometimes spins the same news differently depending on which primary issues are embraced by which audiences.
The Arab press and TV, and online outlets remain the most faithful sources of news and analysis directly from the field, but we realize this will not be within reach for non-Arabic speakers.
3. What about the history of the region?
The Middle East region has been in turbulence for a very long time, but especially since the 1950s, escalating pathetically as the years go by. The East-West, North-South, push-and-pull has all augmented the strife, often to the limits of barbarianism.
Throughout, there has not been any real intent for peace or its practice at any level. Religion and ethnicities on all sides have played a primary role and have been used to fuel the conflict. Who is paying the price? It is the civilians who are hoping to live like human beings with rights for decency and prosperity. This seems to be denied in that part of the world.
That denial has encouraged an exodus, along with waves of immigration, distress, and increasing incompatibility between cultures.
4. Can you talk about the consequences of the war and border conflict that is impacting peoples of the Middle East?
The Middle East is the birthplace of the three Ibrahimic religions, and that is also the frontline of the conflict. Land, water, oil, and greed are also important elements. The countries artificially carved out by the Western powers after World War I—without any real perception of the consequences—may have led to this present conflict.
“The agreement was based on the premise that the Triple Entente would achieve success in defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I and formed part of a series of secret agreements contemplating its partition. The primary negotiations leading to the agreement occurred between 23 November 1915 and 3 January 1916, on which date the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, initialed an agreed memorandum. The agreement was ratified by their respective governments on 9 and 16 May 1916.” – Wikipedia
The consequences of protracted war and religious/cultural conflict are numerous and last for decades. Visible consequences such as destroyed buildings, poverty, demographic shifts, physical scarring of people in wheelchairs, or those missing limbs, are ever-present to the naked eye.
Additionally, damage to infrastructure results in people standing in long lines at a water pipe to collect water, gas stations to collect kerosene or other fuel to run generators, or at bakeries.
There are mountains of rubble from destroyed buildings and uncollected trash due to lack of infrastructure and disposal policy. Poor sanitation and sewage treatment and have effects on health. There is also a lack of electricity.
War experiences and have an effect on mental health and the land/agriculture through pollution. Unexploded ordinance and mines present physical and chemical hazards for the civilian populations. There is environmental damage from numerous makeshift oil refineries in Iraq and Syria. Finally, there is the overwhelming lack of education for many millions of Arabs and the consequent types of societies that will results.
- What will all that leave the world with?
- How are those people going to look at the world?
- How will they react towards others?
These are essential questions to ask, and who wants all that to go on?
The vast majority of Middle Eastern people of all religions both want peace and are ready for it. The question is on what terms.
What we think is lacking is united humanity, the world’s collective humanitarian approach to end this misery and bring about an honorable peace that preserves everybody’s basic rights of human dignity, security, the right to housing, education, medical care. All are basic needs. Once the big powers broker such a peace, all will accept. No one should feel threatened by the other party. No one should feel that one party wants to obliterate the other.
5. Sandy Rea – can you share your ideas about the intersectionality of Beirut with Israel, Syria, Jordan? How does this combine with the region’s history and your own more personal experiences?
The border between Israel and Lebanon has been closed for many years— likely since the 1967 war.
Travel to and from Beirut and Damascus, Syria was relatively easy and frequent both years I lived in Beirut (1969-70, 2000-2001) Women from Damascus would come to Beirut to shop or have hair done. Friends of ours took us to Damascus from Beirut in 2001 to look for carpets. We flew to Aleppo, Syria, that same spring, 2001, without much delay at the border/airport entry.
In 1984, my wife, Stephanie Judson, and I took our daughter Julia (who was not yet two years old) on a lengthy Middle Eastern trip via shared taxi from Ramallah to Jerusalem, and then on through Amman, Jordan to Damascus. From there, we took a bus and hired a taxi to Homs and Krak Des Chevaliers just north of the Lebanon/Syria border.
Our papers weren’t in order (or something) at the Jordan-Syria border, so we went back to Amman for a day or two, where American friends stationed there helped us get to the correct agency to get the correct papers. Then it was a second long, shared taxi ride to the Jordan-Syria border, and then all the way to Damascus.
Lebanon’s constitution set up the government in the early 1930s with a Maronite Christian as President and a Sunni Muslim as Prime Minister. Other Lebanese government cabinet positions are also assigned to (and held only by) persons of specific sects. Refugee camps were evident in sections of Beirut in 1970. Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war vs. Israel. And a high percentage of those refugees were Shiite Muslims.
In 1982, Israel entered and tragically worsened the Lebanon civil war. Relations were already bad from 1948. The massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut happened in September 1982. While carried out by militia, it has reliably been laid at the feet of the commanding Israeli general, Ariel Sharon.
Another war in 2006 (during which Tony brought his family to the US) resulted in a standoff between Hezbollah and the Israeli army.
In short, there are poor and often no relations between the countries of Lebanon and Israel for several generations. Stephanie, our daughters, and I were fortunate that although tensions (including conflict) were bad in Beirut when we were teaching at Ramallah at Friends Girls School (from 1983-84), Ramallah itself was calm.
The reverse was true when we were in Beirut 2000-2001. That was when the Second Intifada began in Palestine (September 2000). It was sparked by an incident, not unlike that of Monday, May 10th, 2021, when Israeli soldiers were violent towards Palestinians at Haram al-Sharif, the holy site in Jerusalem (Jewish folks call this the Temple Mount).
On the other hand, Lebanon had a relatively calm year in 2000-01.
I don’t know as much about Jordan. As an Arab country, it has aligned itself, to some extent, more with the Palestinians. But the history there includes a period in 1970 when King Hussein drove the Palestinians out (to Lebanon, I think). The agreement that ended the 1967 war between Israel and a combination of Arab countries left the lump of Jordan west of the Jordan river occupied by Israel. That lump is called the Occupied Territories or the West Bank or now Palestine.
In recent years, Jordan has made some peace agreements with Israel and has stayed quiet. Folks traveling from Beirut to Jerusalem cannot enter Israel directly from Lebanon. You have to fly from Beirut to Amman and then fly or drive to Israel.
Depending on what history you read, the Palestinians were either “forced out of their homes “or chose to leave” during and in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. To get a sense of the issues, I highly recommend the book The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. It is dense with historical detail and captures the agony of experience for two families living in the same house (with a lemon tree in the back yard.)
It’s my feeling that Israel’s government’s policies and practices have been aggressive and discriminatory against the Palestinians in the West Bank/Occupied Territories/Palestine. Jewish settlements located on, quite frequently, confiscated (in my opinion illegally taken) Arab land is an immense and complicated factor when considering just and peaceful resolutions for Israel and Palestine.
(For more on this topic, Sandy suggests reading the March 2018 issue of Friends Journal, all of which is devoted to Friends’ commentaries concerning the M.E. region and associated issues. Another excellent book is Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.)
The post-World War I settlement that divided the Eastern Mediterranean region (previously the Ottoman Empire, subsequently emerging as Greater Syria) lumped what are now the countries of Lebanon and Syria into a French Mandate. At the same time, Palestine (what is now Israel and Palestine) became ruled as a British Mandate.
Colonial settlers persist today and are one root cause of major conflicts in Israel and Palestine/Gaza/East Jerusalem.
Oppression, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and violation of basic human rights are all a part of the current picture of Israel’s government’s policies and practices. A webinar hosted on May 19, 2021, by the ‘Churches for Middle East Peace’ had expert, “on the ground,” panelists from Israel, Gaza, and Palestine commenting on both the violence and ongoing perpetration of these human rights abuses. They noted: “every Palestinian is George Floyd.”
They urged a cease-fire to end all violence. More deeply, and more importantly, an end to the Occupation is being called for.
With thanks to Sandy Rea and Tony Manasseh of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting and Leila Barclay of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting.
Resources noted during Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) webinar:
My Neighborhood film by Rula Salameh film on Sheikh Jarrah by Just Vision
From Child Displaced to International Activist — Learn more about the back-story of Sheik Jarrah
Churches for Middle East Peace — Sign up for our weekly bulletin with news from the Middle East.