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Supporters of the Zionist State of Israel often claim that it is fundamentalist Islam that has been the reason for the continuance of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Middle East. Uri Avnery looks at the relationship between Israel and the growth of fundamentalist Islam.

How Israel helped Islamist movements to flourish across the Middle East

by Uri Avnery
31 December 2011

Uri Avnery charts Israel’s role in the growth of Islamist movements in the Middle East – Hamas in Palestine, Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Shi’i theocracy in Iran.

If Islamist movements come to power all over the region, they should express their debt of gratitude to their bete noire, Israel.

Without the active or passive help of successive Israeli governments, they may not have been able to realize their dreams.

That is true in Gaza, in Beirut, in Cairo and even in Tehran.


Let’s take the example of Hamas.

All over the Arab lands, dictators have been faced with a dilemma. They could easily close down all political and civic activities, but they could not close the mosques. In the mosques people could congregate in order to pray, organize charities and, secretly, set up political organizations. Before the days of Twitter and Facebook, that was the only way to reach masses of people.

One of the dictators faced with this dilemma was the Israel military governor in the occupied Palestinian territories. Right from the beginning, he forbade any political activity. Even peace activists went to prison. Advocates of non-violence were deported. Civic centres were closed down. Only the mosques remained open. There people could meet.

But this went beyond tolerance. The General Security Service (known as Shin Bet or Shabak) had an active interest in the flourishing of the mosques. People who pray five times a day, they thought, have no time to build bombs.

The main enemy, as laid down by Shabak, was the dreadful Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by that monster, Yasser Arafat. The PLO was a secular organization, with many prominent Christian members, aiming at a “non-sectarian” Palestinian state. They were the enemies of the Islamists, who were talking about a pan-Islamic Caliphate.

Turning the Palestinians towards Islam, it was thought, would weaken the PLO and its main faction, Fatah. So everything was done to help the Islamic movement discreetly.

It was a very successful policy, and the security people congratulated themselves on their cleverness, when something untoward happened. In December 1987, the first intifada broke out. The mainstream Islamists had to compete with more radical groupings. Within days, they transformed themselves into the Islamic Resistance Movement (Arabic acronym Hamas) and became the most dangerous foes of Israel. Yet it took Shabak more than a year before they arrested Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the Hamas leader. In order to fight this new menace, Israel came to an agreement with the PLO in Oslo.

And now, irony of ironies, Hamas is about to join the PLO and take part in a Palestinian national unity government. They really should send us a message saying shukran (“thanks”).


Our part in the rise of Hizbollah is less direct, but no less effective.

When Ariel Sharon rolled into Lebanon in 1982, his troops had to cross the mainly Shi’i south. The Israeli soldiers were received as liberators. Liberators from the PLO, which had turned this area into a state within a state.

Following the troops in my private car, trying to reach the front, I had to traverse about a dozen Shi’i villages. In each one I was detained by the villagers, who insisted that I have coffee in their homes.

Neither Sharon nor anyone else paid much attention to the Shi’is. In the federation of autonomous ethnic-religious communities that is called Lebanon, the Shi’is were the most downtrodden and powerless.

However, the Israelis outstayed their welcome. It took the Shi’is just a few weeks to realize that they had no intention of leaving. So, for the first time in their history, they rebelled. The main political group, Amal (“Hope”), started small armed actions. When the Israelis did not take the hint, operations multiplied and turned into a fully-fledged guerrilla war.

To outflank Amal, Israel encouraged a small, more radical, rival: God’s Party, Hizbollah.

If Israel had got out then (as the Israeli satirical political magazine Haolam Hazeh demanded), not much harm would have been done. But they remained for a full 18 years, ample time for Hizbollah to turn into an efficient fighting machine, earn the admiration of the Arab masses everywhere, take over the leadership of the Shi’i community and become the most powerful force in Lebanese politics.

They, too, owe us a big shukran.

Muslim Brotherhood

The case of the Muslim Brotherhood is even more complex.

The organization was founded in 1928, 20 years before the state of Israel. Its members volunteered to fight us in 1948. They are passionately pan-Islamic, and the Palestinian plight is close to their hearts.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened, the popularity of the Brothers grew. Since the 1967 war, in which Egypt lost Sinai, and even more after the separate peace agreement with Israel, they stoked the deep-seated resentment of the masses in Egypt and all over the Arab world. The assassination of Anwar al-Sadat was not of their doing, but they rejoiced.

Their opposition to the peace agreement with Israel was not only an Islamist, but also an authentic Egyptian reaction. Most Egyptians felt cheated and betrayed by Israel. The Camp David agreement had an important Palestinian component, without which the agreement would have been impossible for Egypt. Sadat, a visionary, looked at the big picture and believed that the agreement would quickly lead to a Palestinian state. Menachem Begin, a lawyer, saw to the fine print. Generations of Jews have been brought up on the Talmud, which is mainly a compilation of legal precedents, and their mind has been honed by legalistic arguments. Not for nothing are Jewish lawyers in demand the world over.

Actually, the agreement made no mention of a Palestinian state, only of autonomy, phrased in a way that allowed Israel to continue the occupation. That was not what the Egyptians had been led to believe, and their resentment was palpable. Egyptians are convinced that their country is the leader of the Arab world, and bears a special responsibility for every part of it. They cannot bear to be seen as the betrayers of their poor, helpless Palestinian cousins.

Long before he was overthrown, Hosni Mubarak was despised as an Israeli lackey, paid by the US. For Egyptians, his despicable role in the Israeli blockade of a million and a half Palestinians in the Gaza Strip was particularly shameful.

Since their beginnings in the 1920s, Brotherhood leaders and activists have been hanged, imprisoned, tortured and otherwise persecuted. Their anti-regime credentials are impeccable. Their stand for the Palestinians contributed a lot to this image.

Had Israel made peace with the Palestinian people somewhere along the line, the Brotherhood would have lost much of its lustre. As it is, they are emerging from the present democratic elections as the central force in Egyptian politics.

Shukran, Israel.

Islamic Republic of Iran

Let’s not forget the Islamic Republic of Iran.

They owe us something, too. Quite a lot, actually.

In 1951, in the first democratic elections in an Islamic country in the region, Muhammad Mossadeq was elected prime minister. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been installed by the British during World War II, was thrown out, and Mossadeq nationalized the country’s vital oil industry. Until then, the British had robbed the Iranian people, paying a pittance for the “black gold”.

Two years later, in a coup organized by the British MI6 and the American CIA, the Shah was brought back and returned the oil to the hated British and their partners. Israel had probably no part in the coup, but under the restored regime of the Shah, Israel prospered. Israelis made fortunes selling weapons to the Iranian army. Israeli Shabak agents trained the Shah’s dreaded secret police, Savak. It was widely believed that they also taught them torture techniques. The Shah helped to build and pay for a pipeline for Iranian oil from Eilat to Ashkelon. Israeli generals travelled through Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they helped the rebellion against Baghdad.

At the time, the Israeli leadership was cooperating with the South African apartheid regime in developing nuclear arms. The two offered the Shah partnership in the effort, so that Iran, too, would become a nuclear power.

Before that partnership became effective, the detested ruler was overthrown by the Islamic revolution of February 1979. Since then, the hatred of the Great Satan (the US) and the Little Satan (Israel) has played a major role in the propaganda of the Islamic regime. It has helped to keep the loyalty of the masses, and now Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is using it to bolster his rule.

It seems that all Iranian factions – including the opposition – now support the Iranian effort to obtain a nuclear bomb of their own, ostensibly to deter an Israeli nuclear attack. (This week, the chief of the Mossad pronounced that an Iranian nuclear bomb would not constitute an “existential danger” to Israel.)

Where would the Islamic Republic be without Israel? So they owe us a big “Thank you”, too.

However, let us not be too megalomaniac. Israel has contributed a lot to the Islamist awakening. But it is not the only – or even the main – contributor.

Strange as it may appear, obscurantist religious fundamentalism seems to express the zeitgeist. An American nun-turned-historian, Karen Armstrong, has written an interesting book following the three fundamentalist movements in the Muslim world, in the US and in Israel. It shows a clear pattern: all these divergent movements – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – have passed through almost identical and simultaneous stages.

At present, all Israel is in turmoil because the powerful Orthodox community is compelling women in many parts of the country to sit separately in the back of buses, like blacks in the good old days in Alabama, and use separate pavements on one side of the streets. Male religious soldiers are forbidden by their rabbis to listen to women soldiers singing. In Orthodox districts, women are compelled to swathe their bodies in garments that reveal nothing but their faces and hands, even in temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and above. An eight-year-old girl from a religious family was spat upon in the street because her clothes were not “modest” enough. In counter-demonstrations, secular women waved posters saying “Tehran is Here!”

Perhaps someday a fundamentalist Israel will make peace with a fundamentalist Muslim world, under the auspices of a fundamentalist American president.

Unless we do something to stop the process before it is too late.

The Three Oaths of the Talmud

The Christian Zionist understanding of the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Palestine, as revealed in the Old Testament scriptures, is superficial at best and heresy at the worst. The Bible most emphatically does not teach that the Jewish people have an absolute entitlement to the land of Palestine by virtue of their ancestry to Abraham alone. The conditionality of their possession of the land, explicitly referred to in the Pentateuch, tells us that the Jewish people are aliens in the land of Palestine: – tenants of the God whose land it is. Without living up to the ethical conditions of their tenancy, Israel faces expulsion from the land God promised them, until finally, by grace alone, they can return legitimately.

As well as this testimony from the common heritage of the Old Testament, there is the witness of the Talmud. The Talmud is the collection of commentaries of the Mishna, which draws upon its conclusions in the formulation of Jewish law. It is in this Holy Jewish writing (Kesubos 111a) that we find further illumination to the relationship of the Holy land to God’s chosen people.

Professor Yakov M. Rabkin of Montreal University in Canada relates the section of the Talmud in question.

The Talmud relates the three oaths sworn on the eve of the dispersal of what remained of the people of Israel to the four corners of the earth; not to return en masse and in organized fashion to the Land of Israel; not to rebel against the nations; and that the nations do not subjugate Israel exceedingly (2006, p. 71).

Jewish tradition informs us that God made the Rabbis take these solemn oaths at the dispersal of the Jewish people from Israel in 130 A.D. The people were to not return “as a wall” to the land. It has been interpreted by many Rabbis and Jewish scholars that this return could not be a return to the land either by forceful or peaceful means. The logic behind this stems from the combined meaning of the first and second oaths. A taking of the land by force would by necessity rebel against the nations since those dispossessed by the returning Jewish masses would obviously be driven to wrath for the harm done to them. If the first oath only prohibited a return by force, then the second oath not to rebel against the nations would seem to make the first oath redundant. The first oath would still make sense in light of the second if the prohibition to enter the land was referring to any effort at all to reclaim the land of Israel by the Jewish people.

At the heart of the oaths is the belief that to usher in the final Messianic age of peace is an act of God, by grace alone. Just as Christians have believed for two centuries that salvation is wrought sola gratia, so the vast majority of Jewish rabbis have taught that no human effort is either necessary or permissible in the consummation of the redemption of creation by God. They taught that the Messiah must come first and then the Jews would return to the land in a miraculous fashion, bringing in a world wide age of peace and service to God such that no injustice or dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine would occur.

The claim that the State of Israel is responsible for the violence between Jew and Arab in the Middle East is met with counter claims of anti-Semitism by Zionists and their supporters. Yet a simple study of history reveals that Jew and Arab have a long history of cooperation and tolerance between each other in the land of Palestine and the Middle East in general. Anti-Semitism was never the force in the Arab world that it was, and still is, in Europe.

The traditions of Judaism have never portrayed the Jewish people as “eternal victims” of what we call anti-Semitism. The lessons of the enslavement of the Hebrews by the Egyptians and the attempted genocide of the Children of Israel by Pharaoh are echoed in the Torah time and time again. These lessons can be summed up by the simple statement: Do not oppress those different to you for you were once oppressed yourselves. In other words; see to it that oppression of the vulnerable never occurs – to anyone. This lesson of the Torah, put even more succinctly by Rabbi Hillel, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” stands in stark contrast to the lessons that Zionism has taken from the Holocaust: See to it that oppression never happens again – to us. If others need to be oppressed so that we can be free, then so be it. We have an entitlement to do so because we are Jewish and no one else has a right to tell us differently. All criticism of our sense of entitlement is proof of the anti-Semitic nature of the nations.

Jewish tradition recognises that Jewish people have a responsibility not to provoke the nations to wrath and hence bring anti-Semitism upon themselves. This does not imply that all anti-Semitism has been provoked or that even when provoked it is justified, but that the Jewish people are not without responsibility in how the nations deal with them. They are not the hapless, eternal victims of a world that hates them.

Zionists today are not slow to point out that the Arab world is, and always has been, intensely anti-Semitic. One wonders why a secular Zionism would seek refuge from European anti-Semitism by creating a Zionist state in the middle of an anti-Jewish Arab world. Were the early Zionists naive?  Would they not have known that the Arab world would reject their efforts to create a Zionist state in their midst just as fervently as the Germans would have rejected the creation of a Jewish state in the middle of Germany? If Zionists knew that the Arab world would reject the creation of their homeland, would they not have been prepared to take it by force right from the beginning? Would they not have been ready to act with violence to counter this anti-Semitism right from the start? Indeed, would intelligent Zionist leaders (knowing the absolute nature of Arab hatred for Jews) have discerned the need to act in a pre-emptive fashion so as to guarantee the initial success of their venture to form a Zionist state? In 1967 Israeli leaders acted in a pre-emptive manner to destroy the Egyptian Air force, delivering victory to the Zionist State before a single Arab had attacked Israel.

Logic tells us that the Zionists took the land of Palestine by force. How else would they expect to create a homeland for themselves in a land they continually demand has always been inhabited by Arabs who hate Jews for no reason?  Or perhaps Arabs have not always been at odds with the Jewish people and this fact was exploited by the Zionists in order to push their way into Palestine, blaming the hatred that they stirred up in the Arabs by the dispossession they suffered in their homeland not on the injustice of this act but on the same insanity that overtook Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.

It is difficult to imagine how the Zionists have not trampled on the oaths of the Talmud as much as they have trampled on the rights of the Palestinian people. When you trample on the vulnerable and the powerless, you trample on the Torah. Those secular Jews who stand up for equality and justice for the indigenous people of Palestine show their Jewishness far more than a thousand Jews who say they believe in God yet oppress the alien among them.

Craig Nielsen


Israel-Palestine: A Christian Response to the Conflict

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March 2023