Tension continues to build across the Middle East. This comes as no surprise to students of Bible prophecy who recognise the centrality of the region to the plan and purpose of Almighty God, but unenlightened commentators and the manon- the-street often are puzzled at the propensity for this region to dominate world affairs. And even in places as remote from Middle East conflict as Australia these tensions have an influence on daily life. For example, during April and May the price of oil, and therefore of petrol, escalated as world markets became nervous about the potential for the conflict in Iraq and instability in Saudi Arabia to spiral out of control.

Iraqi Quagmire

In Iraq the Moslem extremist insurgency appears to be gaining momentum, with the occupying forces of the “coalition of the willing” suffering more casualties since hostilities were declared to have “ended” than during the actual invasion of Iraq. In May the last of the Spanish troops left Iraq following the decision of the Spanish government to abandon its support for the American and British led occupation of Iraq—a decision taken following the Al-Qaeda inspired bombing of trains in Madrid in March. There are still troops from Denmark, Poland and other European nations in Iraq, but the involvement of Europe in this exercise is diminishing and it is becoming more and more dominated by the USA and Britain—along with continued strong support from Australia.

Although troops from many nations are in Iraq the insurgents clearly make a point of targeting American and, to a lesser extent, British troops. They also target local supporters of the occupying forces. In May the head of the Iraqi Governing Council, preparing to take over administration of the nation from the occupying forces when stability is achieved, was slain in a car bombing.

The motive of the insurgents is openly stated. They link the occupying powers in Iraq to Israel and recognise them as Israel’s strongest supporters. On 1 May terrorists attacked the offices of a western engineering firm in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea port of Yanbu, killing five westerners, including two Americans and one Australian. Eyewitnesses reported that the terrorists targeted westerners, and in particular Americans, while ignoring others such as men from the Philippines working in the same office. This was the latest in a string of terrorist attacks in the kingdom that have targeted westerners—people associated with nations that support Israel. There is growing concern that extremists may soon overthrow the corrupt prowestern regime in Saudi Arabia, with catastrophic consequences for the security and price of oil supplies for western economies.

Statements from Al-Qaeda and affiliated organisations frequently refer jointly to the western occupation of “Iraq and Palestine”. Journalists pick up on this and it is remarkable to note how often reports of violence in Iraq and the Palestinian territories on any given day are blended together even though they are (at a human level at least) completely unrelated. Of course the insights we gain from prophecy allow us to recognise the very real links that do exist between the conflict in Iraq and the Holy Land. We understand that the links are not evidence of some sinister western (some would say Jewish-led) conspiracy but rather of the Divine hand in the affairs of men.

Reports of atrocities and brutality committed against Iraqi detainees by American troops have not helped the coalition’s cause in Iraq or its standing in the wider Middle East. They have triggered a wave of revulsion that is undermining support in western nations for the occupation of Iraq and have inspired fervent anti-western protests across the Arab world.

What is the solution to the imbroglio emerging in Iraq? How can the USA, Britain, Australia and their allies extricate themselves from this mess? The Olivet Prophecy speaks of troubles arising in the last days that will defy solution (Luke 21:25) and the situation in Iraq certainly is a challenge from which there appears to be “no way out”. Ezekiel 38 suggests that Britain and her closest allies, but not the Europeans, will be both supportive of Israel and involved in Middle Eastern affairs at the time of the end. In 1969 Britain announced her determination to withdraw from “east of Suez”, but she is now entrenched as strongly as ever in that region and there seems no likelihood of an early withdrawal. Man proposes but God disposes!

Disengagement from Gaza

In March, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a new strategy designed to improve Israel’s security and reduce tensions with the Palestinians. Having become frustrated with their lack of commitment to the “Roadmap for Peace”, Mr Sharon announced his plan to “disengage” from the Palestinians. He outlined the objectives of the plan in a speech at Israel’s Annual Hi-Tech Conference on 31 March. “These principles are at the core of the disengagement plan, which is the right thing for Israel to do: establishing a security line along which the IDF will be deployed, in areas essential for Israel’s defence; erecting a physical obstacle which assists in the defence of Israeli citizens and makes the penetration of terrorists to large population centres more difficult; withdrawal from areas which will clearly not be under Israeli control in any future permanent agreement and which are sources of great friction between Israelis and Palestinians, such as the Gaza Strip; and obtaining the political support of our friends around the world, headed by the United States, for the plan.”

The Prime Minister’s plan provides for an evacuation of the entire Gaza Strip by April 2005, with the exception of the Philadelphi route along the border with Egypt. In May this particular area became the focus of world attention when the Israeli army destroyed several hundred Palestinian homes along the route from which terrorists were known to operate and also to make it easier to destroy tunnels used to smuggle arms from Egypt. At the same time the Israeli government announced its intention to build a canal along the Philadelphi route to further impede the smuggling of weapons. Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah are said to be behind that arms smuggling.

The plan has attracted widespread support from among the Israeli people. On 7 April British Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first world leader to publicly endorse the disengagement plan, and in a trip to Washington on 14 April Mr Sharon secured American support for it as well. Mr Sharon’s own Likud Party, however, rejected the plan in a plebiscite of members in May. Prior to the Likud Party vote the Prime Minister vowed to press on regardless of the outcome, and in spite of this setback he seems determined at least to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

On 19 May, perhaps in an attempt to placate critics within his own party, Mr Sharon announced his intention to develop a revised disengagement plan. Gaza will still be evacuated, but the two major differences between the old and revised plan is that the withdrawal from Gaza will now be conducted in stages, and that all houses once occupied by Jewish residents will be destroyed. Industrial zones, however, would be transferred to Palestinians through international channels.

Under the disengagement plan Mr Sharon also intends to evacuate four communities in the West Bank near Jenin: Sa-Nur, Homesh, Ganim and Kadim. He does not, however, intend to remove other larger and more strategic Jewish towns that have been established in the West Bank. In fact the plan appears to signal a determination to retain these sites indefinitely and to strengthen Israel’s hold on at least key parts of the West Bank.

Disengagement from Gaza is politically, economically and militarily sensible. Only about 7 000 Jews live in the Gaza Strip surrounded by over one million Palestinians. The area has little strategic or economic value to Israel and the cost of defending the Jewish communities must far outweigh their benefit to the state. The West Bank, on the other hand, is located in the heart of the Holy Land and has significant strategic importance.

“The Mountains of Israel”

In an earlier Watchman article (The Lampstand, November-December 2003) I drew attention to Joel 3:4 and the way in which it speaks of Israel being harassed at the time of the Gogian invasion by forces based in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon. I suggested that this indicates that the Palestinians would continue to be a thorn in Israel’s side (see Ezek 28:24) until Christ intervenes to overthrow Israel’s enemies.

Isaiah 14 is a prophecy that clearly has both ancient and latter-day applications. We know that it applies to the Kingdom Age when Jews and Gentiles are blessed in accordance with the promise to Abraham (v1). The prophecy goes on to speak of the overthrow of both Babylon (v12) and the Assyrian power (v25). In Isaiah 14:29–32 it suggests that the inhabitants of Palestina (nasb Philistia) will be judged at the same time. This is a reference to the area of the Gaza Strip. Verse 29 describes the people dwelling in that area prematurely celebrating the discomfort of those that smote them. Probably this means that the Palestinians who inhabit the Gaza Strip initially will celebrate the defeat of Israel by the Northern host only to see God intervene, overthrow the invader and establish the Kingdom in Zion (v32).

Joel 3, Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 all suggest that Israel will experience harassment from the Palestinians at the time of the end, but none of those prophecies suggest that the harassment will originate from the West Bank. The security fence now being erected along the West Bank boundary is already limiting the capacity of Palestinians in the West Bank to harass Israel, and this can only improve when the fence is completed in 2005.

Ezekiel 38 suggests that Israel will be well in control of the West Bank at the time of the end. When Gog invades the land he is said to come “against the mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 38:8) and Israel is described as dwelling “in the midst of the land” (v12). Gesenius says that the word translated ‘midst’ in verse 12 indicates a lofty place or summit. Its only other occurrence is in Judges 9:37. From its use in these two places it seems clear that, like the term “mountains of Israel”, this word indicates that when Gog launches his invasion Israel will control the mountainous central region of the Holy Land that makes up the West Bank.

Mr Sharon’s disengagement plan seems to accord with the scenario that emerges when we combine Ezekiel 38 with Joel 3—Israel not in control of the Gaza Strip but firmly in control of at least the most strategic parts of the West Bank. Perhaps it is this fact that becomes a trigger for the Gogian invasion—international pressure for Israel to relinquish control of territory that “rightfully” (in the eyes of most nations) belongs to the Palestinians.

What ever becomes of Mr Sharon’s disengagement plan, the Roadmap for Peace or of any other humanly devised scheme for bringing peace to the Middle East, we may be confident that the angels are manipulating events to ensure that God’s plan is worked out in the nations. We have every reason to be confident that our Master’s return is near and we should ensure that we are ready for His coming.