One area of the world has assumed particular significance for the great powers since 1945: the Middle East. The reason is that it holds about 70% of the world’s known oil reserves.
Oil is the global economy’s most important commodity. Oil is fuel, heat, and light. Without it, capitalism would grind to a halt. Oil is also immensely profitable. Five of the world’s top ten corporations are oil companies.
Post-1945 US economic growth fast outstripped domestic oil production. In the 1950s, the US imported only 10% of its oil. By the late 1980s, this had risen to more than half.
At the same time, newly industrialising countries like China and India are putting growing pressure on oil supplies. With annual growth rates of around 8%, China’s share of global output has risen from about 5% in 1978 to about 20% today.
But oil is running out. Systematic lying by states and corporations makes accuracy impossible, but there is little doubt that we are now close to ‘peak oil’ – the point at which depletion of the world’s reserves causes total output to begin to fall and prices to soar.
Oil is the principal reason the Middle East has been a battleground for a century.
In the late 19th century, the British took control of Egypt and the Suez Canal, mainly to secure their communications with India and Australia. Shortly before the First World War, they acquired a second, equally pressing reason for influence in the Middle East.
Britain’s Royal Navy had begun the conversion from coal to oil power. Control over the oil-fields of southern Iraq immediately became a strategic priority.
The modern Middle East was created by the First World War. Half a million British soldiers were deployed to drive the Ottoman Turks out of Iraq and Syria in 1918. The Middle East was then partitioned into colonies by the British and their French allies.
They had agreed to do this in secret negotiations during the war (the Sykes-Picot Agreement). But the British had also promised Arab independence to the Hashemite leaders of a native rebellion against Turkish rule (the McMahon Correspondence). This promise was broken.
The British had also made a wartime promise of support for Zionist settlement in Palestine to create ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ (the Balfour Declaration). This promise was kept.
Zionism was a right-wing nationalist movement founded in the late 19th century and supported by a minority of European Jews in the years before the First World War. Most politically active Jews in this period were on the Left.
Judaism is a religious confession, not a race, nor even a nationality. The vast majority of European Jews were descended from converts to Judaism in medieval times. Their only real ‘homeland’ was Europe.
But the Zionists claimed that anti-semitism was inevitable, the Jews were a separate ‘nation’, and Jewish people from different parts of the world should therefore re-settle in a single place and live together. Where this should be was secondary. One suggestion was Madagascar.
Most Jews regarded the whole scheme as fantasy. They had jobs, homes, and businesses where they lived. They were integrated into local communities. Anti-semitism was a real threat, but the most practical response seemed to be to fight against it in alliance with socialist and trade union allies, not to daydream about escape to a non-existent ‘homeland’.
What gave Zionism traction was imperialism. The Zionist leaders understood this. They lobbied hard for high-level backing – from, among others, the German Kaiser, the Russian Tsar, and the Ottoman Sultan.
But it was the British who delivered. They wanted the Zionists to encourage Jews to volunteer for military service during the war, and they could see the potential advantage in a pro-British Zionist enclave in post-war Palestine. ‘We could develop the country,’ one Zionist leader had written in 1914, ‘bring back civilisation, and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.’
The problem was that Palestine was already occupied. And of its 700,000 people in 1918, only 60,000 were Jews. The rest were Arabs, most of them tenant-farmers.
Yet by 1947, when the British surrendered their ‘mandate’ to rule Palestine, Jewish numbers had increased more than ten-fold to 650,000, Arab numbers less than three-fold to 2,000,000. The difference is explained by the large-scale Jewish immigration permitted under British rule.
The Zionists were well-funded by rich benefactors in Europe and America. So they were able to buy land by offering attractive prices to absentee Arab landlords. They then moved in to evict Arab farmers whose families had tilled the land for centuries.
The Zionist land-grab – and British repression of Arab protests – triggered the Palestinian Revolt of 1936-1939. Zionist militia units fought alongside 20,000 British troops to crush it. About 5,000 Palestinians were killed.
The British afterwards tried to slow down Jewish immigration to ease tensions. This brought them into armed conflict during the 1940s with the increasingly confident Zionist militias. The defeat of the Palestinian movement meant that the Zionist monster the British had nurtured now had a life of its own.
In 1947, with British withdrawal imminent, the new United Nations brokered an international peace plan. Palestine was to be partitioned, with 55% of it allocated to the Zionists (who represented 30% of the population, the vast majority of them foreigners).
The Arabs rejected the plan. Huge anti-imperialist demonstrations erupted in Arab capitals. The Palestinians organised for self-defence and hoped for wider Arab backing.
But the Zionists were now too numerous, too well organised, and too heavily armed to be stopped. They went onto the offensive and seized 80% of historic Palestine.
Terror was an essential instrument of their conquest. After the Irgun group massacred 250 Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin, truck-loads of Zionist militia drove around chanting ‘Deir Yassin! Deir Yassin!’ as a warning to others. At least 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes in 1948.
The Arab monarchs committed their small, ramshackle armies to war. They were quickly defeated, but settled for a land-grab of their own, the rump of Palestinian territory being divided between Egypt and Jordan.
The State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. It has since fought a series of wars against its Arab neighbours – in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. It captured the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Desert in 1967. Another 350,000 Palestinians joined a second exodus in that year.
Much of the additional territory acquired in 1967 has been retained. Israel continues to annex land, build settlements, and encourage Jewish immigration.
It also engages in exceptionally high levels of internal repression against Palestinians. This repression peaked during the First Intifada (1987-1993), the Second Intifada (2000-2005), and the Gaza War (2008-2009).
Israel is inherently militarised and expansionist because it is a colonial-settler state based on dispossession. It can never live at peace with its neighbours because it has stolen their land. Insecurity imposes a permanent pressure to increase territory and manpower.
Israel is also an outpost of imperialism. It regularly receives up to 25% of total US foreign military aid. The Zionist state is the paid watchdog of Western imperialism in Middle East.
Zionism and US imperialism are enduring sources of oppression, violence, and instability in the Middle East. Only an Arab revolution from below with the power to recast the whole geopolitical structure of the region offers hope of lasting peace. The road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo.
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