Are Sunnis and Shi’ites Fighting Because of the 'Occupation'?

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Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric, January 2, 2016.
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric, January 2, 2016.Credit: AFP
Israel Harel

A religious war is raging in the Middle East. It isn’t, nor is it expected to be, between Judaism and Islam. The war is being waged, with ups and downs, within the family of Islam – between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis.

This is an ancient war, the most ancient religious war in the world. It is 1,336 years old and started in 680. It could be compared to an active volcano, which erupts with varying force and exacts victims.

The worst eruption took place in the modern era: the Iran-Iraq war (1988-1980), in which about a million people were killed. The immediate cause was territorial – a border dispute over control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway – but in depth, in essence, the drive and fear were religious. Ruhollah Khomeini, only a year in power, saw himself as God’s envoy who is obliged to make historic justice and redeem the oppressed Shi’ite minority in Iraq (and not only there). Saddam Hussein did not put up with the attempt to export the Khomeini revolution to his country, of course. It stirred up the Shi’ites in Iraq and threatened his rule. Shatt al-Arab was the match that ignited that religious war, in which thousands of Shi’ites attacked and were killed, shouting Allahu Akbar.

This week the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked. The event was reminiscent of the attack – also inspired by the rulers – on the American embassy there in 1979, close to Khomeini’s rise to power. Sunni Saudi Arabia immediately severed its diplomatic relations with Shi’ite Iran, and Sudan and Bahrain followed suit. This is muscle flexing, not war. But as long as religion is the motive driving political conflicts and the bitter historic memories between the two factions continue to foment, there will be no quiet here in the Western sense of the word.

It is doubtful whether a conflict that hasn’t been solved in more than 1,000 years will be settled in the foreseeable future, as religious emotions keep rising and overflowing. No external forcible intervention, even with a determined president in the White House, will settle deep-rooted historic-religious hostilities.

If the current Sunni alliance against the Iranian Shi’ite insidiousness persists and expands, the latter will weaken economically and militarily. This development could be good for Israel. Israel also has something to contribute to the alliance, especially in the security field, whose end is to prevent Iran – i.e. the Shi’ites – from taking over the Middle East.

Another aspect enhancing Israel’s strategic situation in the region is the breakdown of geographic state demarcation lines in the Middle East. The borders outlined by British and French imperialism some 100 years ago are collapsing. The region is returning, to a large extent, to the traditional partition between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites.

The lessons from the Arab Spring prove that as long as Sunnis and Shi’ites live together in one state, there will be hostilities between them. Sometimes they will be in full force, i.e. war, and sometimes in low impact. If Israel manoeuvers wisely in this religious thicket, it could become strengthened and remove some of the threats it faces, first and foremost the Iranian threat.

Here’s another, quite decisive proof, that the notion that all the ills in the region – some say in the entire world – stem from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was (and still is) erroneous. Almost all Israel’s governments went astray and were trapped in this notion, not to mention quite a few other countries. They wasted their strength in futile activity because they persisted in holding on to this fallacious concept.

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