Understanding the problems in the Middle East

Recognize the man on this page with the big smile, the short stubby beard, and the checkered Arab headdress?

If you have been following the news coming out of Beirut in Lebanon these past few weeks, you will have no difficulty knowing who he is.

His name is Yasser Arafat. He is a Palestinian Arab. He's the head of the PLO. That stands for the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO have been leaving Beirut in thousands after coming under heavy bombardment from the Israelis. Palestinians who are civilians - that is to say, not armed fighters like the PLO - are staying behind.

There's probably no person in the world today whose role compares to Yasser Arafat. He is in a very unusual position because he is head of state - just like a president or a prime minister - of a state that doesn't actually exist. In other words, his people, the Palestinian Arabs, have no land.

Mr. Arafat is determined that his people, who number more than 4 million and who live mostly in the Arab world, should live in the land that was once known as Palestine. Palestine has now become the state of Israel.

The word Palestine dates back to Roman times, and refers to the biblical land of the Philistines.

The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of snatching their country from them, when the state of Israel was formed back in 1948. They are fighting to get it back.

Actually what happened was that in 1947 the United Nations agreed that Palestine should be divided into two separate states. One would be Jewish, forming the basis of a new state that the Jews called Israel. The other part of Palestine would be given to the Arabs.

The problem was that the Jews, who had once lived in the Holy Land, as Palestine is sometimes called, had left that territory nearly 2,000 years before. From 1923, after the British took over Palestine, following the breakup of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Jews started flocking back to the land of their ancestors. But they were returning to an area where Arabs had been settled for centuries. Many people in Europe and the United States felt that the Jews, after their terrible persecution by the Nazis in World War II (1939-1945), should have a land of their own. They saw Palestine as the logical place.

This is what led the UN to divide Palestine into those two states - one Jewish, one Arab. The Arabs couldn't accept that.''Why should we make way for the Jews?'' they argued. ''This is our land,'' they said.

They felt the Israelis were outsiders moving in on the Arabs' own land. This opposition from the Arabs to a separate Jewish state in the middle of the Arab states led to the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948-49.

It proved a very costly war to the Arabs. They lost the war. More important, the winning Israelis captured 30 percent more territory than they had started out with under the UN plan. So, the Jewish portion of Palestine got bigger and the Arab portion of Palestine shrank. As a result of that war, there were 400, 000 Palestinian refugees. From these refugees and from their children and from their children's children have come recruits for Yasser Arafat's PLO. They are trying to win back that land.

Not all of Palestine fell to the Israelis during that 1948-49 War. The West Bank, which is such a troublesome area now, was in the hands of the Jordanians at the end of the war. Another area, the Gaza Strip, was being controlled by the Egyptians. Today some 1.2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But because peace never came to the Middle East - and still hasn't come, except for relations between Egypt and Israel - there were more wars between the Arabs and the Israelis.

Again the Arabs lost Palestinian territory, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Because the Israelis now control those areas, we say they have occupied them. (That is why TV and radio and newspapers refer to these places as the Israeli-occupied West Bank or the Israeli-occupied territories.) The result of all this was that the Palestinians lost more land and had more and more refugees.

About 400,000 of those refugees went to the neighboring country of Lebanon. Many joined the PLO. From there the PLO, which includes several different groups of armed Palestinians, carried out raids against the Israelis.

Now you can see why the Israelis and the Palestinians are such bitter enemies. They both claim the same land.

The Palestinians try to get it back by attacking the Israelis whenever they can. The Israelis, in turn, think the Palestinians are the worst kind of terrorists in the world. To the Israelis, Arafat is no better than a murderer and gangster. To Palestinians and many Arabs, Arafat is a hero and the Israelis are the terrorists for killing innocent civilians when they bombarded and destroyed many buildings in Beirut.

It was because the Israelis felt that the PLO in Lebanon were a threat to them that the Israelis bombarded Beirut, the capital, where Arafat and the PLO had been holed up for weeks.

The Israelis believed that, unless they wiped out the PLO, the PLO would wipe out Israel. They were determined that either the PLO should be smashed in Beirut , or forced to leave the city. In the end, the PLO left. In fact, at this writing, they are still leaving. They will take up a new life in other Arab countries.

Many experts feel that this will not solve the problem.

One problem is the Israelis won't recognize the PLO. That is to say they won't talk or have any official dealings with them. The Israelis say they won't have anything to do with them because they don't recognize the state of Israel and because they feel the Palestinians are out to destroy Israel.

Another problem is that the PLO in turn say they can't make peace unless the Israelis recognize them and accept the fact that there should be a Palestinian state.

How to get the PLO and Israel to agree on these points is the big, big question in the Middle East. If it could be settled, we would be a long, long way to solving the problems of the Middle East, which are among the most world's most serious.

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