THE PURPLE SWEET POTATO

Gay Taiwan

Image source: PinkNews

GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) rights are a mixed bag worldwide. Within a few decades, they have become mainstream and widely accepted in the West, where gay marriage is now becoming normal and gay lifestyles are integrated into urban society. In other regions — especially Muslim countries — homosexuality is seen as a horrible perversion and treated as a crime. It has become 1 of the most glaring symbols of “Western decadence” and “immorality” elsewhere and in Russia, and gay activists cocky after their string of victories in the West run into a steep cliff of incomprehension when they try to spread their values to Africa or Asia.

East Asia mostly sits in the middle of this spectrum. It embraces a wide array of cultures, from highly Westernized ones to conservative Islamic ones. Like other regions, it has its own cultural traditions and sense of native pride that makes it instinctively resistant to gay rights, but it’s also in the midst of deep modernization, which brings it closer and closer to Western norms. As such, reactions to GLBTs varies widely from country to country, but the country in the vanguard of gay rights so far is… Taiwan.

Taiwan might seem like an odd place for a gay haven. It is Chinese in culture, and other Chinese places like mainland China and Singapore are generally unfriendly to gays. China’s Confucian culture places a great emphasis on the family, and not only is a homosexual couple a direct challenge to the traditional concept of a family, it’s impossible for them to have kids. China might be uninterested (at least officially) in having more kids, but no such population control exists in Taiwan. And Chinese culture is famous for its resistance to outside influences.

Why Taiwan is so gay-friendly remains something of a mystery, but there are theories. Taiwanese like to point to the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Taiwanese history, from the aboriginal population in the mountains that descends from island Southeast Asia to the Hakka mariners who colonized the island centuries ago to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who colonized a few forts to the Japanese who annexed and colonized it in 1895 to the mainlanders who took over again in 1945. But there are plenty of places with diverse cultural influences, and they’re not necessarily gay-friendly. Besides, it’s not like the Dutch in the 1600s were especially gay-friendly (or the Japanese in the 1890s, or the natives…).

A more likely explanation is the growth of civil society on Taiwan. Although the country was a military dictatorship at first, its societal control was never as harsh as China’s, and its dictators ruled through martial law. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s government, transferred from the mainland in 1949) was founded along liberal republican ideals, and although they weren’t really fulfilled for most of the 1900s, they remained embodied in its constitution for brave protestors to point to. Taiwan has never been as closed as China, and before 1972 it enjoyed a close relationship with America, which meant exchanges of values and students and researchers trained in American universities. Even though political reform was the main goal, other social causes like environmentalism and feminism blossomed on this fertile ground, and each popular success emboldened other groups to change an ancient and seemingly immobile society.

Religion generally plays a big role in opposition to GLBT rights, and Taiwan is a more religious country than China. But the main religion is the unnamed Chinese religion, which is more tolerant of homosexuality and alternative lifestyles in general. There is also a folk tradition in Taiwan (originating from Fujian on the other side of the Strait of Taiwan) of a rabbit god, Tu’er Shen, who was originally a man executed for eyeing a handsome mandarin too much. The god protects gays and is worshiped at temples — a tradition wiped out in mainland China but quietly thriving in Taiwan.

Taiwan has accordingly enacted legal protections for GLBTs steadily since the 1990s. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against them, they are allowed to serve in the military, and they can change their legal gender. Concurrently, there is a widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. Pai Hsien-yung portrayed Taipei’s gay scene in the 1960s with his novel Crystal Boys way back in 1983; since then, world-famous director Ang Lee has made The Wedding Banquet, about a Taiwanese-American who ends up getting married to a woman because he can’t admit to his parents that he’s gay (it’s a hilarious movie, by the way), and lesbian relationships have been portrayed in movies like Blue Gate Crossing and Spider Lilies. Taipei’s gay pride parade has grown from a modest 1,000-person march in 2003 to East Asia’s premier gay event, with 80,000 participants last year. A McDonald’s commercial about a son coming out to his father (in a McDonald’s, naturally) drew nearly universal support. Public opinion polls have mixed results, as usual, but support for gay marriage regularly tops 50% (at least).

Fairly or otherwise, gay marriage has become the ultimate litmus test for how accepting of homosexuality a country is. While it is now widespread in the West and Latin America, it is still too much for East Asia to handle. But Taiwan pushed for gay marriage in the ’00s, when the movement to legalize it built momentum in the West. Despite opposition from Christians (who are a small minority in Taiwan) and older Taiwanese who saw it as an assault on their culture, the movement gathered steam. The Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party in Taiwan and the main embodiment of the reformist movement, embraced the idea. In 2015, its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, took the bold step of endorsing gay marriage in a Facebook post.

This year, Taiwan has come closer than ever before to finally adopting gay marriage. The Constitutional Court ruled on May 24 that the Republic of China’s constitution’s guarantee of equality meant that gay marriage has to be recognized. It’s now up to the Legislative Yuan (parliament) to pass the laws or amend preexisting ones, and this looks likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t, the Court ruled that it would recognize gay marriages within 2 years anyway. The ruling has been preceded (as in other countries, like America and Mexico) by the gradual legal recognition of homosexual partnerships in municipalities across the island, including almost all of Taiwan’s west coast, where most of its people live.

The dawn of gay marriage in Taiwan, when it formally comes, will be a landmark moment in East Asian history, since Taiwan — a small, overlooked island despised by its massive neighbor — would be the first country in the region to do it. The question then is: Will others take notice? Taiwanese culture subtly influences China, and there is a GLBT movement there too… but the Chinese government hates any sort of grassroots organizing, and it’s typically conservative when it comes to “public morality.” Japan and Taiwan have close and warm ties left over from their colonial relationship, and Japan also has a thriving gay scene and widespread social acceptance of homosexuality… yet it also has a much more reserved and private culture and GLBTs are expected to “get over” their flings and move on to more serious relationships and assume their adult responsibilities. Singapore is another advanced, modern Chinese country with a big, visible gay community and a famous “Pink Dot” event… but it continues to ban homosexuality. Thailand is famously accepting of GLBTs and “alternative lifestyles,” but it’s currently ruled by a conservative military junta with a dim attitude towards homosexuality.

It’s hard to say how quickly East Asia will embrace GLBT rights. Taiwan’s example has emboldened GLBT communities elsewhere, and the example of the West suggests that grassroots pressure will only grow. But religious conservatism in India and Muslim countries remains powerful. Given the Western and Latino origin of the gay rights movement, many non-Westerners are suspicious that homosexuality is really a latent human condition and consider it an unwelcome cultural import. And even the more liberal, Westernized East Asian countries prefer to tacitly accept GLBT culture without going so far as to recognize gay marriage. This just makes Taiwan’s achievement — in a Confucian society only a few generations beyond dictatorship — all the more remarkable.

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TONGUE-TIED IN CAMEROON

Cameroon lawyers

Striking Anglophone lawyers show off 1 easy way to tell them apart from Francophone lawyers… Image source: Bareta News

Identity politics are pretty much a universal axis of conflict, although the type of identity under dispute can vary. Religion is a very old and very bitter source of animosity. Class is a universal divide and still provokes outrage in places with high inequality. Race is a hot-button issue in multiracial countries. The nebulous concept of “ethnicity” divides and unites societies worldwide. Some commentators even point to the even more nebulous concept of “civilization” as a rallying point for political allegiance.

Language might seem to be less controversial, because it’s something everyone uses all the time everyday without much thought. But its very fundamentality makes it crucial and vital: how can you understand someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying? In multilingual contexts people sort themselves by preferred language all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa this can be a problem, given how many different languages are spoken across the continent, but luckily colonialism has given Africa a small group of languages that are spoken across tribal and national lines. Their importance in giving African countries something to unite around becomes obvious when you consider Cameroon, a central African country with the unusual situation of having 2 colonial languages.

BACKGROUND
Cameroon, like its giant neighbor Nigeria, is a very artificial country. It has over 200 different tribes and encompasses everything from the verdant Cameroon mountains in the west and the desert by Lake Chad in the north to the tropical jungles in the east and the plateau in the center and south. The north is more like the dry, Muslim Sahel region of West Africa and the east is more like the Congo jungle that dominates Central Africa. The more densely populated west has more in common with the tribes of Nigeria. (The upshot to this is that Cameroon is advertised to tourists as “Africa in Miniature”; since it’s located at the “hinge” where West Africa becomes Central Africa, it’s probably the single best introduction to the continent and packs a lot of diversity into a relatively small package.)

Cameroon’s colonial history only adds to this diversity. It was one of the blank spots on the map scooped up by Germany in the 1880s when it got into an imperialist mood. Thus, the colony was organized along German lines and German was the official language. But Germans never got very far into the interior (despite claiming a lot of territory); they stuck to the profitable, accessible coastal regions and relied on missionaries to do a lot of the intermediary stuff with Africans, and they tended to use local languages. When Germany lost control of the colony during World War I, there hadn’t been much cultural influence to clear away (although German remains a favorite language to study there).

Instead, Cameroon became a British AND French colony. It was surrounded by Britain in Nigeria to the west and France in its colonies to the south and east. They invaded together in 1914 and partitioned the colony between them. The trouble is, France got much further than Britain — leaving only a narrow strip along the Nigerian border in British hands. The colonial powers went on to govern their sections differently, too: Britain preferred to use indirect rule, leaving local elites intact and mostly staying out of local affairs, while France liked direct rule, scooping up plantations and mines, creating a rich settler community to manage them and introducing its customs and culture to “civilize” the Cameroonians.

Cameroon

After 1972 Cameroon became the “United Republic of Cameroon,” but the borders have stayed unchanged. Orange = German territory, red = British territory, blue = French territory.

When independence came to Africa in 1960, French Cameroon gained it without much fuss. The question was what to do about the British Cameroons, which were thought too small to be viable independent countries. Should they join neighboring Nigeria, from which they had been basically governed and with which they shared cultural and linguistic ties? Or should they join Cameroon, from which they’d been separated for 44 years and which would probably dominate them? The Brits put it to a vote in 1961, and surprisingly, the result was a split. Northern Cameroons chose to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons went for reunification. (It’s hard to say why this was, but apparently local elites in the north decided that Nigeria would better protect their interests and vice versa in the south, and they managed to convince everyone else to vote accordingly.)

Northern Cameroons was soon absorbed and integrated into Nigeria, although transnational tribal ties linger, as they do across Africa. But Southern Cameroons faced the prospect of joining a much larger country where everyone spoke French and where many were in thrall to French culture. It was nervous, but initially the 2 former colonies formed a federation, where each had its own government and prime minister, with a president presiding over a weak central government in Yaoundé (in the French zone). But Cameroon’s founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, like most other African leaders, eventually came to crave more power and crushed all opposition to his rule. This included pesky West Cameroon, which was fully absorbed into a unitary republic in 1972 (hence the date on the map above).

English-speakers (“Anglophones”) were mollified by constitutional guarantees that their language would be respected; Cameroon is officially bilingual. Anglophones are often appointed as ministers in the national government. The unique administrative structures set up by Britain also remain intact. But Cameroon is a dictatorship; its president, Paul Biya, has clung onto power since 1982, which makes him 1 of what are derisively called Africa’s “dinosaurs” (really long-serving rulers). Threats to his power — or to national unity — are not tolerated.

CURRENT SITUATION
Anglophones complain that they are 2nd-class citizens in their own country. French-speaking (“Francophone”) judges sent to their regions don’t understand British “common” law (France uses a different law code promulgated by Napoleon). Francophone teachers sent to their schools can’t easily communicate with their students. Yaoundé generally ignores the west or takes it for granted, since the region is cloaked by a veil of English.

Some Anglophones go even further and complain that they are actively discriminated against. Government funds are often linked with the tribal ties of the relevant ministers in Africa, and when the national government is dominated by Francophones, that means West Cameroon goes undeveloped. Attending school in the rest of Cameroon or getting a job in the big cities (both of which are Francophone) is hard for Anglophones, since they can’t understand their teachers or coworkers. There is widespread suspicion that, in the name of national unity, the bilingualism drive is really just a way to get all Cameroonians to speak French — something many Anglophones are reluctant to do.

Protests against the government have come and gone in Cameroon; they are usually tied to economic problems (which might say something in itself), and although in 1990 they played a role in getting Biya to liberalize a bit and allow other parties to run in elections, the language situation has not changed much. The latest outbreak of protests began in October with a lawyers’ strike. It then expanded to include teachers and eventually big parts of West Cameroon, to the extent that towns were declared “ghost towns” on Mondays and everyone would go on strike. (Those who dared to go to work faced arson and beatings for breaking the strike.)

The government responded with repression. Police broke up the protests and arrested anyone openly calling for secession (as “Ambazonia”); at least 6 protesters were killed. More deviously, it also pulled the plug on West Cameroon’s Internet. From January until April, the Anglophone areas — already separated from many Cameroonian websites by their language — were cut off from the Internet altogether, partly as punishment, partly to squelch any organized resistance. The west is one of Cameroon’s most economically vibrant regions, dubbed “Silicon Mountain” due to its tech start-ups. The Internet blackout cost it $3 million and forced everyone to keep in touch via texting instead. Anyone needing to use the Internet had to take the day-long journey into the Francophone part of the country on Cameroon’s crummy buses.

So is Cameroon headed for civil war and breakup? Probably not. Secession is very hard to actually achieve in Africa; the last time it happened was in 2011 (South Sudan), and not only was that a rare and remarkable event, but it’s gone REALLY badly since. Even without government repression tying up their organizational efforts, Anglophone groups are very divided. Some want an independent Ambazonia, others want to go back to the “good old days” of federalism, others just want more decentralized government and local autonomy. Within West Cameroon, there are tribal divides and a rivalry between the “Graffi” of the Grasslands in North West Cameroon and the coastal people of the South West. Some are suspicious that talk of secession is just a ploy for Anglophone politicians to grab more power.

Francophones, meanwhile, are not very sympathetic. They make up 80% of the country and think Anglophones are whiny. They point out that other parts of the country are worse off (like the north, which is harried by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram) and comparatively quiescent. Anglophones get plenty of central government positions, including the prime minister’s office, and they tend to be pretty content and pro-Biya once they get them. And as Emmanuel Anyefru points out in “The Refusal to Belong,” Cameroonians have many bonds that cut across linguistic lines. Both Anglophones and Francophones like Cameroon’s catchy makossa music, eat plantains and fufu, drink beer and palm wine, watch Cameroon Radio and Television, and enjoy the formidable national soccer team. A pidgin form of English is also widely understood across the country, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to speak in school or the office.

Cameroon’s experience sheds some light on how important languages are for bringing a country together. A common language — especially a colonial language, since they come from outside and are not ethnically biased within African contexts — can serve to bind wildly different tribes and cultures together. Lacking this, it’s harder to conjure up a sense of national identity. When the linguistic minority is as small as Cameroon’s is, it makes the feeling of victimization and discrimination even more acute. Although it’s by no means a perfect solution (except for the most passionately nationalist, anyway), Canada might be a good model for Cameroon. With a small but fiercely proud Francophone minority overshadowed by an Anglophone majority spanning the continent, Canada is sort of the reverse of Cameroon. But a bilingual national identity is carefully cultivated in Canada, and national politicians are expected to be fluent in both languages.

(Or Cameroon could just try more political liberalization, although dictators usually hate that.)

A LAND PROMISED TO WHOM?

Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

ANCIENT HISTORY
1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

MODERN HISTORY
The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

CURRENT SITUATION
Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.