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issues Thursday, 29 November, 2001, 15:00 GMT
The regional conflict
Hezbollah guerrillas
Hezbollah will remain armed as long as the conflict continues
By Middle East analyst Gerald Butt

The Arab-Israeli conflict casts a permanent shadow over the whole region, from Morocco to the Gulf.


For Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Arab-Israeli conflict is more than a shadow - it is the air they breath

Israel was created more than half a century ago, but for new generations of Arabs, as much as for their parents, the conflict is part of the fabric of their daily experience.

Not only is it inextricably linked to the politics of the Arab world, but it is also a strong thread in the region's spiritual and cultural tapestry.

Only the focus has shifted slightly.

Older generations tended to rail against the losses and injustices of the past.

Younger Arabs, nurtured by live and increasingly graphic television images of Israeli-Palestinian violence, are impatient to see action taken to end what they perceive as the injustices perpetrated by the Jewish state.

No escape

For Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Arab-Israeli conflict is more than a shadow - it is the air they breath, the shaper and taker of life. There is no escape.

Palestinian youths throw stones at Israeli soldiers on the West Bank
Younger Arabs are furious at perceived injustices
For the Arab states bordering Israel, the daily impact of the Middle East crisis is less intense.

But Lebanon and Syria, in particular, will be unable to give their full attention to any other aspect of life until a lasting settlement to the conflict is found.

The Arab-Israel dispute was one of the poisoned ingredients of the civil war that raged in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, leaving the formerly prosperous country wrecked.

Little by little, rebuilding - physical and psychological - is under way.

Not only is there no peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel, but the two states continue to contest a strip of their common border, causing sporadic outbreaks of fighting.

Hezbollah's guns

Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters keep up their attacks on Israeli positions while Israeli jets criss-cross the skies of Lebanon.

Only when the border is permanently quiet and Hezbollah guns have been removed will Lebanon attract the kind of investment to see the long-prophesied rise of the phoenix from the ashes.

The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat
Egypt was the first Arab country to open contact with Israel
Only then also will the fate of the 30,000 or so Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon become clear.

Such is Syria's domination of Lebanon's political life that no peace treaty between the latter and Israel will be permitted until the Damascus government settles its scores with the Jewish state.

Specifically, Syria is demanding the complete return of the Golan Heights that were captured and occupied by Israeli in the 1967 war.

Thus far at least, President Bashar al-Assad seems as resolutely resistant to compromise on this point of principle as his father was.

Syria wants peace, which it sees as a key to economic prosperity. But not peace at an unacceptable price - which is how Damascus characterises the peace treaties that Egypt and Jordan have signed with their old enemy.

Lifting the shadow

Egypt, the first Arab state to have open contact with Israel, can point to considerable economic benefits that have accrued from the bold step taken by the late President Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s.

President Bashar al-Assad
Syria's President Assad: no compromise over Golan Heights
Jordan, too, has more recently seen an increase in the flow of funds from the United States and elsewhere.

But in each case, as the Syrians are never slow to point out, relations with Israel are, at very best, formal and correct - Egypt and Jordan enjoy only cold peace with the Jewish state.

This, to a large extent, is because at street level there is still deep hostility felt towards Israel - a feeling that has intensified since the start of the latest Palestinian uprising.

Arab countries further afield also have an interest in seeing the crisis with Israel resolved.

Open borders would stimulate greater intra-regional trade from which all Arab countries would benefit.

Radical Arab states like Iraq, Libya and Yemen would find it against their interests to be excluded from such a trend - especially since their radicalism was originally founded as much on solidarity with the Arab nations and groups confronting Israel and its Western supporters as anything else.

Equally important, though, from the perspective of all Arab governments, Middle East peace would remove one of the key issues that militant Islamic groups cite as they seek recruits from the rising numbers of young, unemployed and disaffected Arabs.

Peace, in other words, would gradually enable the dark shadow of the past half century to be lifted.


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