History's Greatest Chess Match
Yesterday, the G-8 Summit of Industrialized Nations released a statement imploring both Israel and its enemies to cease their operations and stop the escalating violence that is currently taking place in what has long been the most volatile region in the Middle East. Justifiably, the world- even Canada now, after Stephen Harper finally came to his senses- reacted in horror as news of rocket blasts hitting civilian targets, killing scores of innocent citizens caught in the shrapnel of Israel’s campaign to see the return of three kidnapped soldiers, the best known of whom is Corporal Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped in Gaza that started the entire campaign.
Now, if Shalit or any of his compatriots are alive it would be a miracle, because the militants that captured them are as extremist as Israel is and wouldn’t give one whit about exercising restraint against an enemy that seeks to destroy them as much as they wish to destroy it. Keeping Shalit alive under these circumstances would become moot, because these militants wanted war and, as far as they’re concerned Israel has already gone too far in their campaign and there’s no turning back. The Israelis would have gone to war if Shalit was dead and they’re already at war with the Gazans as we speak, so there’s nothing Gaza can gain by turning him over. An eye for an eye as Hammurabi would say, and, sadly, in this situation there is no alternative.
Of course, what is missing through this whole ordeal- one that threatens to tear Lebanon apart- is perspective. It’s easy for us in Canada, the United States, Oceania and Europe to say that Israel should be exercising restraint, and while it may serve both Israel and its adversaries better if cooler heads did prevail, the way the Middle East is right now things are sadly going to get worse before they get any better. Where peace deals and treaties of friendship allow the West to operate in harmony with each other, Israel is faced with extremely hostile neighbours and only has a peace deal with two nations in the Middle East in the Western-oriented Jordan and Egypt, the latter one whose deal cost then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat his life. Whereas we can say here that friends surround us, Israel is surrounded by enemies, so it’s no surprise that at the littlest of provocation it strikes with the mightiest of fury.
Where the problems in the Middle East began is hard to say. “Islamophobia” in the West can date back to at least 732, when Charles Martel, the “mayor” of the Franks- forerunners to today’s France- defeated an invading Arabic force at Poitiers, just east of Tours. Then, Martel was hailed as the saviour of Europe for stopping the incursion of the Arabs deep into the heart of Europe after the Arabs had already taken Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Persia (Iran/Afghanistan) and the Sind (southern Pakistan) in what was the world’s most impressive wave of conquests since the peak of the Roman Empire. History since that time period has seen the Christians of Europe face off against the Arabs in several set piece battles and struggles for territory and influence in what has become history’s longest chess match. The Europeans would respond to Martel’s victory by staging the successful “Reconquista” in Spain and the Crusades in the 11th-13th centuries, but the Muslims would strike back with the “Gunpowder Empires” in the 14th-18th centuries, with the Mughals reigning in northern India, the Safavids in Persia and the Ottomans- the most successful of the bunch- in Turkey.
It was the Ottomans who placed themselves squarely against the Europeans at this stage, for it was they who took the legendary Christian bulwark- Constantinople- away from Christendom and extended their Empire as far north as Hungary in the Balkans, as far east as Azerbaijan and Iraq, as far south as Yemen and Sudan and as far west as Morocco. Western histories typically display the Ottomans as finally ending the Roman State but the Ottomans believed they were continuing it, and their case isn’t that flimsy, since they didn’t have a state until they took land from the Romans’ successors, the Byzantines. Nevertheless, the Ottomans’ successes inspired new fears in the West of the “growing influence of Islam” and ushered a new counter-offensive, ending in World War I when the British and French divided what they hadn’t yet taken from the Ottomans previously between them. In regards to this story, Britain would land in Israel and start the “Zionist” policy there as early as 1917, with Israel eventually gaining independence as a Jewish state in 1948. The U.S. took the lead from Britain in supporting Israel unequivocally, which would land it- and thus the West- into the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a conflict the Americans have not backed down from with regards to their aggressive policies in Iraq. For their part, since independence in 1948, Israel has had an ongoing struggle for recognition in the Middle East, with only two states since then- the aforementioned Jordan and Egypt- doing so, and both rather reluctantly. Israel’s greatest triumph in their own struggle was the Six-Day War of 1967 (where it handily defeated Syria, Jordan and Egypt and doubled its territory), but at the same time had to face the setback of the stalemate in 1973 and a continuous wave of terrorist strikes that its own military has had a hard time eradicating.
Thus, it’s important to understand the Israeli conflict in this context- it is embroiled in the almost 1300-year chess match between the Muslims and the West, and judging by current events, the end is nowhere near in sight. For Israel, its already fragile existence gets drawn into question at the slightest of setbacks, and while we here may see their actions as extreme, they’re certainly understandable given their history. Probably what keeps Israel alive is rationality- its enemies are so driven ideologically that none of them have bothered trying to physically challenge Israel, believing their sub-par weaponry (and tactics) is enough to win the day because of their resolve, but Israel can’t bank on their advantage holding out forever. What would be beneficial in the long run is for both sides to eventually come to their senses and realize they don’t have anything to gain from continuous warfare, but both sides have far too much pride to let that happen. The truth- the sad truth- is that this situation is going to get far worse before it’ll get better, and that will mean that the stakes will be higher than Shalit and his compatriots alone. It will mean the chess match reaching its conclusion, but with both sides still having most of its pawns left to play, don’t count on the match ending in our lifetime.