THE MIDDLE EAST: A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW. A look at some complex shades in the spectrum of Mideast politics.

PALESTINIANS: People without a country After centuries of disuse, the term ``Palestine'' was revived as the official designation for the area on the Jordan River's west bank mandated to Britain by the League of Nations in 1920. The mandate also covered Transjordan (now Jordan) on the east bank. The term ``Palestinian,'' it has been argued, applies not only to Arab inhabitants - as is common today - but also to Jews and Christians in the area.

Palestine as a legal entity ceased to exist in 1948, when Britain relinquished its mandate in the face of uncontrollable Arab-Jewish hostility. In the fighting that led to Israel's 1948 establisment, more than 500,000 Arabs were displaced. The Israelis say Arab leaders encouraged the flight; Arabs blame the Israeli violence.

Neighboring Arab states, reluctant to absorb the refugees, cited inadequate resources and said resettlement would legitimize Israel. As a result, many Palestinians were forced to live in UN refugee camps that are now permanent communities in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war exacerbated the problem of refugees, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where many of them lived.

In 1964, Arab states set up the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was to be closely allied with Egypt. But the PLO emerged as an autonomous entity after the 1967 war, and young Palestinians flocked to follow Yasser Arafat. The PLO covenant holds that ``armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine'' and it does not recognize Israel.

The concept of ``the return'' to Palestine runs deep among Palestinians, most of whom have not desired assimilation in countries of residence. Out of a total of 4 million Palestinians, about 500,000 live in Israel; 800,000 in the West Bank; and 400,000 in Gaza. In 1985, 2 million Palestinians were registered as refugees with the UN. EGYPT/President Hosni Mubarak Took office after Sadat's assassination in 1981. Some challenges he faces: keeping alive the ``cold peace'' with Israel; economic and population pressures; Islamic extremism. ISRAEL/Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir Heads coalition government. His main policies include: continuing Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza; refusal to negotiate with the PLO; refusal to trade land for peace. LEBANON/President Amin Gemayel The increasing religious factionalism and violence of recent years has left this Maronite Christian leader heading an all-but-powerless government. SYRIA/President Hafez Assad Regarded as Israel's most powerful enemy in the region, Assad is the major power-broker in the Lebanon conflict and also exerts influence over various hard-line PLO factions. JORDAN/King Hussein Considered a valuable and moderate friend of the US, he has urged Israeli-PLO dialogue in an international conference as a means of achieving lasting Mideast peace. SAUDI ARABIA/King Fahd The King is regarded as key in shaping Saudi foreign policy in critical areas such as OPEC, oil issues, and the Iran-Iraq war. IRAN/Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini Though not active in public life, Khomeini wields great influence over the hearts and minds of Iranians, and Shiites in the region, as Iran's ``supreme'' spiritual and political leader. IRAQ/President Saddam Hussein Regarded as Iran's arch enemy, Hussein espouses ``Arab socialist'' principles. He is supported in the war with Iran by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait, among other Arab states. RELIGION: The role of Islam

The three major monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated in the region and draw on several common scriptures and tradition. But despite this link, points of friction are many.

Religious antipathy underpins much of the bitter conflict between the Islamic or Arab states and the Jewish state of Israel. Christianity, except in Lebanon, forms a minor part of today's political equation.

Islam has been a driving force for nearly 1,500 years. Based on the revelations of the Prophet Mohammed, Islam (``submitting to the will of God'') exerts a powerful influence on all aspects of life in Muslim societies. Islam, however, is far from monolithic - and ethnic, political, and theological differences are widespread.

A central difference is that between the majority Sunnis and the Shiite sect. The divide originated in a political dispute over Mohammed's succession, and was later reinforced by doctrinal differences. Iran has an overwhelmingly Shiite population, for whom a core concept is that of martyrdom in the service of religion. IRAN-IRAQ WAR Begun by Iraq more than six years ago with the intent of scoring swift, decisive territorial gains, the Iran-Iraq war today continues with unexpected determination and ferocity.

The enmity between Iranians (Persians) and Iraqis (Arabs) is historical. Some analysts trace it to the 16th century wars between the Ottoman Sunni Muslims and Persian Shiites; others to the 7th century Arab conquest of Persia. The territorial dispute centers on the Shatt al Arab waterway. A 1975 treaty divided it down the middle. But after Iran's 1979 revolution, relations deteriorated sharply.

In mid-1980, with Iran internally troubled and internationally isolated, Iraq saw an opportunity to act. On Sept. 22, Iraqi troops entered Iran. But instead of weakening Tehran, the invasion spurred a surge of Iranian nationalism.

By 1982 Iran had driven the Iraqis back to 1980 borders and advanced into Iraq. Other Arab leaders, fearful of Iran's revolutionary ideology, backed Iraq financially.

In 1983, as heavy fighting continued and losses grew, Iraq urged UN mediation and condemnation of Iran.

In 1984, the conflict expanded into the Gulf and oil shipping traffic was seriously threatened. By 1986, there had been some 260 reported attacks against tankers.

1986 saw two major gains for Iran - the capture of Faw in February and the recapture of Mehran. In the fall, Iraq conducted successful air strikes on key Iranian oil facilities.

Since December '86, two bursts of fighting have refueled speculation that Iran's ``final offensive'' is imminent. On Dec. 24, Iran launched attacks on the southern front. Iraq said it repulsed the Iranians, causing major losses.

Last week, Iranian forces attacked again, near Basra and fierce fighting ensued.

Iran refuses a cease-fire and wants the ouster of Iraqi President Hussein and payment of war reparations. Iraq's better-equipped military equipment has failed to turn the tide against Iran's numerically superior forces. It is estimated that about 750,000 Iranians have been killed or wounded and that Iraq has lost about 250,000 troops.

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