Twin Root Causes of Political Violence in Arab World

The two chronic threats of Zionism and foreign militarism remain the central causes of the Middle East’s political violence.

Nobody should be surprised that the two oldest and most virulent sources of political tension and nationalist resistance across the Arab World have both spiked in the past week. These two are the indigenous Arab resistance against foreign powers that enter the region with their armies to control developments here; and, Palestinian resistance against Zionist colonial expansion and claims on Palestinian Arab lands that have gone on without interruption since the 1930s or so.

Numerous other tensions and problems plague our region, most of which are purely home-grown and have nothing to do with foreign invaders, occupiers, or colonizers; these include corruption, political autocracy, resource mismanagement, lack of citizenship rights, sectarian stress, and others. But the two chronic threats of Zionism and foreign militarism remain the central causes of the Middle East’s political violence.

They are also directly linked to the core political problem that not a single Arab citizenry throughout the last century enjoyed the opportunity to practice meaningful self-determination. With the exception of the nascent democratic process in Tunisia, not a single Arab society saw its citizens shape their own democratic system and forge a social contract between themselves and their government.

Fighting constant foreign militarism and Zionist subjugation and colonization of Palestine and some adjacent Arab lands will take years to happen—but until it happens, we should not expect any serious breakthroughs towards either domestic or regional calm. Why? Because the same human impulse for freedom, dignity, and self-respect shapes the emotions and behavior of tens of millions of Arab men and women across the region. Proof of this comes in the repeated uprisings and resistance of Palestinians against Zionist and British control in Palestine since the 1930s, and more recently the last five years of uprisings in the Arab world against autocratic regimes. When foreign forces enter the picture, such as the Americans and British in Iraq, or the Iranians and Russians in Syria, they can expect serious local resistance against them.

Events in Palestine since the 1950s have also indirectly contributed to many of the political weaknesses in Arab states. Zionist and Israeli gains in Palestine gave Arab military regimes an excuse to rule with an iron fist and prevent any democratic transformations. Iraq and Syria are good examples of this problem, as is the chronic rule since 1952 of military men in Egypt who have been broadly and consistently incompetent in the governance sphere. This links with the threat from foreign powers, who have long supported merciless Arab autocracy. Initially this came from Western powers like the United States, the UK and France, and the Soviet Union, and more recently from Iran and Russia.

Palestinian spontaneous demonstrations usually are in response to provocative Israeli attempts to colonize more Arab land or intrude into sacred areas like the Aqsa Mosque. In the past week there have been at least four Israeli killings of Palestinian youths and four Palestinian killings of Israelis. Some 500 Palestinian protesters have also been wounded, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent society.

Such eruptions of political violence and Palestinian nationalist resistance are routine because they reflect a natural phenomenon—in this case the Palestinian refusal to remain permanently occupied and colonized by Zionist Israel. The Israelis have tried to suppress the Palestinians by using harsh military power, forced exile, mass imprisonment, and other brutal means since 1947-48, and especially since 1967; but they have been no more successful in achieving a calm status quo than did the violence that the American military used in Iraq, the Soviets used in Afghanistan, or the Syrian government now uses against its own people.

Israeli violence inevitably triggers Palestinian resistance. A new poll by the respected Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that 42 percent of Palestinians feel that armed struggle is the only path to Palestinian statehood, and 57 percent support a return to an armed intifada in the absence of peace negotiations.

On the wider Arab stage the same reality sees millions of humiliated and fearful citizens fight for their freedom against their own brutal governments as well as the foreign powers that support them or attack them in some cases.

When these two things happen together, as they do this week, we should recognize their centrality in the region’s troubles. More troubling yet are the signs that some Arab countries are looking at closer military ties with foreign powers and also exploring normalizing relations with Israel—a seriously misguided policy approach that will see only greater problems ahead. It is senseless Arab diplomatic amateurism to seek assistance or security from the very two forces—Israel and foreign military powers—that have sparked so much of the Middle East’s violence and instability during the past century.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global