Contested Lands

Contested Lands – A History of the Middle East since the First World War by T. G. Fraser. Haus Publishing, London, 2021.

It is a daunting task to write a history of any region over a period of 100 years in order to encompass it fully and in particular, the Middle East as it contains so much of ‘western’ history and influences that it becomes, depending on interpretations, global history. In short, reflecting on the length of the book, “Contested Lands” is not up to the task.

The writing itself is academic, technically correct, and the overall effect is to think of the work as a “Coles Notes” version of events: short, shallow, sanitized, bereft of advocacy or passion. While not pro-Israel by advocacy it becomes pro-Israel by dissimulation, by not discussing important aspects beyond dates, names, and what happened. Unfortunately, the very size of the book, 218 pages, makes a full history impossible. The best I can say is it makes a good starting point for further reading – the essential “Coles”.


The title itself reflects the dissimulation, the use of language to hide certain realities of a deadly conflict, and even conflict does not do the situation justice. There is not much of a ‘contest’ if “contest” is regarded as being a competition between equals within the same league, of which Palestine and Israel are decidedly not. While there has been severe combat, the powers of empires have backed the colonial-settler foundation of Israel since where and when this work begins its journey.

No reference is made to Zionism’s original recognition of the need to remove the Palestinian population, an idea referenced by Jabotinsky, Herzl, Weizmann, Ben Gurion, and on up to today’s current ultra-right-wing positions. No mention is made of the heritage of British colonial-settlerism and its history of ethnic cleansing. WW I is discussed within 20 pages and the subsequent Versailles peace covers four pages. Other works, in particular several by Barbara Tuchman and Margaret MacDonald [1], cover these events in thousands of pages, covering not just the who, what, and where, but also the motivating passions of the different “contestants”. Between empires, “contestants” might be valid for all their pretensions of civilization and goodness.

Property disputes

Perhaps not technically incorrect, there are some usages of language that do simplify or negate the importance of events. The intifada of 1987 discusses Israel as having a “more pervasive presence” as the “Israeli acquisition of land “ covered “50 per cent of the West bank and 30 per cent of the Gaza Strip” (p. 185). Yes, they were pervasive – in a highly militaristic, internationally illegal fashion – and they did “acquire” land as a result of that pervasiveness. The softening of language and intention continues on into the conclusion where the 2021 “crisis…was provoked by a long-running property dispute in Sheikh Jarrah.” (p. 218)

A property dispute, really? The land originally held Palestinian tenants, and after the nakba, housed mostly refugees. By using their Absentee Property Law, and various legal and administrative laws, the Israeli military protected the civic destruction and/or occupation of the Palestinian houses.

The other lands

While Israel is the focal point of the Middle East, the other “contested lands” receive very limited discussion. More importantly, is what is omitted from the discussion. Oil is certainly mentioned, but not as a combination strategic-ideological concern (keep it away from the Soviets) but also a financial-ideological concern. The latter refers to the U.S.-Saudi agreement – seemingly unwritten – where the Saudis sell their oil in US$ only for protection of their country (the alternative being…dissolution?). Involved in this is a whole range of financial arrangements implicating the Bush family and major U.S. financial institutions and continues today with massive support for Saudi’s war in Yemen – ideologically to weaken the Saudis, protect Israel, and antagonize Iran.

The pre-WWI British interest in Iranian oil is mentioned, but not within the “great games” ideologies of the Middle East. The 1953 Mossadegh coup is not described, involving both MI6 and the CIA; the follow-up, the 1979 overthrow of the Shah is not related to these earlier events. The Iraq-Iran war receives a scant page and a half without mention of Israeli and U.S. interference/assistance designed potentially to keep the war going. The shooting down of the Iran Air flight 655 is not mentioned although it became a major news incident (with the commanding officer being commended and promoted.)

The only true error noted is the author’s treatment of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty during the 1967 war. Israel claimed it was an accident; Fraser, without providing any evidence, concludes “it was the probable explanation” while several major studies of the incident conclude it was no accident. In a way a small error historically, but supportive of the pro-Israel bias presented in this critique.

The “contest” goes on

The Middle East wars, in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan (which stretches the definition of Middle East) are more than “contests”. They are ideologically driven imperial wars that have created carnage and misery throughout the region. [2] Fraser ends “Contested Lands” with the statement that “Another bitter Israeli-Palestinain clash had been brought to an end, yet resolution of the gulf between the states remained…elusive.” Surprise, at least he recognizes Palestine as a state – perhaps inadvertently – but regardless, it is more than a series of clashes, it is an ongoing settlement project, created through military violence over the land for ethnic cleansing and the current creation of an apartheid state – elusive is putting it mildly.

[1] among others: the remarkable Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, (Anchor Books/Random House, New York, 2013. 505 pages.

[2] Many books cover this in significant detail, one of the best is the late Rober Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation – the Conquest of the Middle East.’ (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2005). Just under 1300 pages, it is passionate and grimly detailed in its descriptions.