Some useful terms:
(These have been taken fro Kirsten E. Schulze’s book on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, published in 2013 (3rd ed.) by Routledge)
Aliyah (Hebrew: ascent): wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine and later, to Israel.
Arab League: Established in 1945 by Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan and Yemen to promote Arab cooperation and coordination as well as providing a united political front.
Arab Legion: the army formed in Transjordan in 1920-21 by the British. Precursor of the Jordanian army.
Arab Liberation Army: Arab force during the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war.
Diaspora: Term for the dispersion of the Jews.
DOP: Declaration of Principles; also known as the Oslo Accord.
Fatah: Palestinian guerrilla organization founded in 1957 in Kuwait by, amongst others, Yasser Arafat. Became the core of the PLO.
Geneva Accord: Peace plan put forward by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo. A detailed permanent status agreement drawing the borders close to the 4th June 1967 boundary.
Green Line: Armistice frontiers in 1949; pre-1967 Six Day War Israeli state boundary.
Hamas: (Arabic acronym for Islamist Resistance Movement). Founded in 1987 in the Gaza Strip; opposes peace with Israel and wants an Islamic state in Palestine. Recognized as a terrorist organization. Suicide bombings. Intifadas. Not reasonable to negotiate with. Fundamentalist version of PLO; more extreme. Not like Isis Islamic extremists who want a global caliphate; they want an Arab state of Palestine, to the exclusion of the Jews. The PLO are more likely to work together to create a 2 state solution although there has been little agreement on the boundaries: the Arabs want a return to the pre Six Day war of 1967 territories, as per the original UN backed proposition for Israeli statehood whilst Israel do not want to give up their occupation of the contested areas that they gained in this war.
Hizbollah (Arabic: Party of God): the Lebanese version of Hamas, except Hamas are Sunni Muslims and Hizbollah are Shia Muslims, backed by Iran. Another terrorist group who advocate the use of violence and suicide bombers. They were established prior to Hamas, in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Intifada: This is the name given to the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation which began on 9th December 1987 and lasted until the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel.
‘Irgun’ Zvai Leumi (Hebrew: National Military Organization). Jewish extremist underground organization founded in 1937, prior to the creation of Israel. After the 1939 White Paper the Irgun directed its operations against the British. In 1946, Irgun famously blew up the British Army Command and the Palestine Government Secretariat in the King David Hotel, which were the British Army Command’s head quarters.
Lebanon First: Netanyahu’s policy of sidelining the Palestinians and Syrians in favour of the Lebanese in order to advise a peace agreement without having to give up any territory.
An-Nakba (Arabic: the disaster): Term for the Palestinian experience in the 1948 war, alluding to the Arab defeat and Palestinian refugee situation.
NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization
OPEC: Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
PFLP: Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
PLA: Palestine Liberation Army
PLO: Palestine Liberation Organization
Roadmap: Put forward by the US, EU, UN and Russia in mid 2002; performance based three phased plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Was officially initiated with appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Prime Minister so that neither the US nor Israel had to deal with Arafat. It was never fully implemented.
Transjordan: The area east of the Jordan river; included in the British mandate; in 1921 the British established Transjordan; in 1948 the name was changed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
UNSCOP: United Nations Special Committee on Palestine.
Wafd: Egyptian Nationalist party; evolve from the Egyptian delegation sent to negotiate Egyptian independence from the British in 1919; was in power in 1924, 1928, 1930, 1936-37, 1942-44, 1950 and 1952.
Wailing Wall: Built by King Herod in 20BC as the western wall of the Temple in Jerusalem; only remnant of the Temple after its destruction by the Romans in AD 70. It is the most hallowed site in Judaism.
West Bank barrier: Wall or fence of separation between Israel and the West Bank; runs roughly along the given line; construction began in 2002 under the Sharon (Israel) government.
Yishuv (Hebrew: settlement): the Jewish settlement in Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel.
Yom Kippur (Hebrew: Day of Atonement): After the Sabbath, the most important of the Jewish holy days; marked by 24 hours of fasting and prayer.
What is Arab Nationalism?
At its core:
This was the concept of Arab nationalism but all the states were very different. No one had an idea of what political system to aim for. Also, there were many localized nationalisms.
The first Arab Congress was in Paris in 1913, not in the Middle East. Aims: the establishment of administrative autonomy and Arab participation in the Ottoman Central Government (this was before the onset of WW1 at the end of which, the Ottomans lost). The Ottoman Empire was already very weak at that time.
The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany; hence part of the reason why they lost. The UK, who were fighting Germany, were also then fighting the Ottoman Empire. The Brits had an interest in Egypt and wanted to keep control of the Suez Canal – a pathway to them for the further Far East and their colony of India. They didn’t want to relinquish control over this to the Ottomans and as such, they started to formulate alliances with local Arab allies, promising them independence if they fought against the Ottomans.
This is an important part. In 1915, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, spoke with the Hashemite leader and the Amir of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, and they discussed this. They also corresponded in this vein through a series of letters now known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence: it was a promise that the Arab territory of the Ottoman Empire would be returned to the Arabs, along with a few additional areas that weren’t completely Arabic before (Damascus in Syria; Homs, Hama and Aleppo, all also in Syria). Britain did not include what is now Lebanon and the other parts of Syria. The excluded territory did not include Palestine, although the Brits tried to claim later on that this was not the case.
Around this time, in 1917, during the period of WW1, the Zionist movement started to take hold in the UK. There was a Russian born Jewish chemist who taught at Manchester University. He had quite a few friends in politics, both liberal and conservative, including former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. As a result of his involvement in the synthesizing of acetone (previously imported from Germany), this being necessary to make explosives that were used by Britain in the war, he held quite a lot of sway; that and he was quite eloquent and convincing.
On 2nd November 1917, Foreign Secretary Balfour issued a statement saying that His Majesty’s Government was in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. This is known as the Balfour Declaration. This declaration didn’t say that their ‘national home’ should replace what was already there, turning it into a solely Jewish state; nor did this declaration, or the Hussein-McMahon letters that preceded it, allude to any specific or actual borders or territory for this proposed ‘national home’. Here we have the beginnings of a political quagmire: the Brits, in their alliance with the Arabs against the Ottomans/Germans were promising land to them in return for their military assistance and at around the same time, they were also promising a ‘national home’ for Jews, who have been persecuted globally throughout much of history, (I refer you to David’s grandparents who emigrated from Russia to the UK in the Jewish pogroms of the late 19th century, in my article ‘An Old Fashioned Conversation’).
Already we have discord between the Zionists and the Arabs. This is stage 1.
The Onset of WW1
The war starts in 1914 and the Ottomans/Germans lose. In 1918, at the end of the war, British troops enter what was then Palestine (see map of pre 1948 State of Israel creation). They reside in a territory that has been promised to two sides: the Jews and the Arabs. This, of course, is all prior to the horrendous events of the Holocaust in the Second World War that created a massive number of Jewish refugees, persecuted by Hitler, who nobody wanted. More of that to come later though; at the moment we are still on Stage 2.
I failed to mention previously another important Agreement that took place prior to all of this. This is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, in which the contested area of Palestine was carved out as an international zone. At the time, this agreement was secret. The Week, on 28th June 2014, did quite a good article on this that explains it all. I found it tucked into Kirsten E. Schulze’s book on ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict’ that I am using as one of the sources for this article. This article can be seen below; please forgive my notes thereon in red:
In this agreement, unknown to the Arabs, Britain and France had anticipated the defeat of the Ottomans and had proposed a plan to carve out the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence, thereby preventing Russia from coming in and staking its claim. (Remember at this time, 1916, Russia had gone through two revolutions, ousting the monarchy and becoming a socialist republic). In this agreement, Britain was given a mandate over Palestine by The League of Nations in 1922; which in turn gave them access to the Suez Canal and the further East. Cleverly, for them, it prevented the French (who were given Lebanon and Syria) from drifting further southwards and pinching this important waterway for themselves.
This mandate did include provisions that stated that Palestine had to, under British jurisdiction, create some kind of Jewish national home (as had been promised in the 1915 Hussein-McMahon correspondence, already discussed). Also within this mandate it was stipulated that the existing residents in that area of Palestine were to be protected, irrespective of their race and religion. There was no talk of a mass exodus of Palestinian Arabs to surrounding territories and their consequent displacement, which is what ensued following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 an the first Arab-Israeli war around this time. This exodus is often referred to as the ‘al-Nakba’, which means the disaster, or catastrophe (see the glossary of useful terms in the introduction above).
It is said that on the international arena, Britain voiced public support for the Zionists whereas in actuality, in Palestine under their British mandate, they sided with the Arabs. No one trusted anyone at this point.
The Period between WW1 and WW2
Let us not forget that we cannot refer to the Arabs as simply ‘one people’; in the same way that we sometimes refer to a lot of the problems in present day Islam as merely being a ‘Sunni/Shia’ divide. We are dealing with very large swathes of land here. Although the British encouraged Palestinian Arabs to unite, resulting in the formation of the Arab Executive in 1920, the Arabs had their own internal divisions: religion, family and regional loyalties. These varying feuds reached some sort of accord in the 1930s when the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, fended all the other ones off and assumed the role of leader of the Palestinian cause.
Many Jews in this period started leaving Palestine for America and so the number of immigrants was declining.
The Wailing Wall incident in Jerusalem, 1929: a kick-starter for greater Israeli/Palestinian discord
I didn’t know anything about this before embarking on this article; the vast majority of my knowledge having been after WW2. According to Schulze, in Jerusalem, benches had been set up in front of the Wailing Wall which resulted in a massacre on both sides: 133 Jews died and 116 Arabs. Following this, most of the Jewish residents of Hebron (now in the Israeli occupied West Bank territory which was originally supposed to go to the Palestinians), were killed by the Arabs in retaliation. As a result of this disaster, Britain issued a White Paper blaming these deaths on Jewish Agency land purchases in the area. Restrictions were placed on further Jewish immigration. This obviously annoyed the Jewish people and as a result, the Brits issued another letter trying to remove this allegation and going back on the cut on immigration quotas, which subsequently annoyed the Arabs.
The 1930s was a period in America of the Great Depression and during this time, fewer Jews travelled there. In addition, Hitler was on the rise in Germany and Jews were being sought out and discriminated against, thereby increasing the need for them for a safe haven. Schulze says in her book that between 1930 and 1936 alone, the Jewish population in Palestine increased from 164,000 to 370,000.
With this influx, the Arabs became more and more nationalist, which is not dissimilar to the countries of the European Union today with the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East, particularly Syria.
In 1936, the Arab Revolt occurred. It started with the murder of one Jew near the town of Nablus, (again in the West Bank, as you can see from the maps), and turned into a large scale rebellion. In 1937, the Arabs refused to attend talks set up by Britain and only the Zionists attended. The result of these talks was that co-existence between Arabs and Jews was found to be impossible and that partition was the only solution.
The Arabs were annoyed again and with the onset of the Second World War and Germany increasing in power, the Brits did not want to have to worry about this issue too: it was a double war – involvement in a war with Germany and involvement in a dispute in the Arab countries. They issued another White Paper in 1939 that again reduced the number of Jews, very substantially, who were allowed to enter Palestine up until 1944. Furthermore, it also stated that their entry was dependent upon Arab consent after this time. This angered the Jews greatly and became one of the deep rooted reasons for the emergence of underground Jewish terrorist groups who were very anti-British and who famously bombed the King David hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 (more on this later).
The period leading up to WW2
Now we have the onset of the Second World war. The danger was that the Arabs might side with Germany in a bid to secure their future independence from both Britain and the Zionists. Thankfully this alliance did not transpire and the Arabs remained neutral throughout this time, although they had in the past taken a stand against the Ottomans at Britain’s behest; the Ottomans having sided with Germany in WW1 – so it was more or less an alliance with the UK at that point – but here I digress).
The Jews in Palestine, despite their grievances with Britain, joined them in their stance against Germany during WW2: they had no other choice and resentments were, for that time, placed aside. The Jews and the Brits fought together in the Middle East, fending off any German advance there. Jewish immigration into Palestine again increased, despite the recommendations of the British White Paper that had reduced this up until 1944. This action was considered illegal and as a result, Britain suspended the quota of immigrants they had proposed in their White Paper totally and turned all the immigrant ships away. When Germany took control of the Balkan countries, the number of immigrants again decreased; whereafter the next significant and massive increase was in the immediate aftermath of WW2 with the liberation of the concentration camps. Many of these ships intercepted by Britain were sent to Cyprus, at the time, also under British influence.
Post WW2 and discussions on a Jewish homeland
WW2 cost Britain dearly and their sphere of influence globally declined. They could no longer afford to pursue their imperialist ambitions. They had various colonies, protectorates and mandates. Following the end of WW2, the Americans became more involved in the creation of a Jewish state.
The Biltmore Program in the US in 1942 was an American-Zionist network that called for a Jewish state in Palestine. Whilst Roosevelt, who was president at that time, did have concerns about annoying the Arabs, which would have affected their oil supplies during the war (which was still ongoing), it became clear with news of the mass persecution and extermination of the Jewish population that something had to be done.
Here I am going to divert a little from Schulze’s book as I think the American involvement in the creation of Israel is of paramount importance; particularly as none of Britain’s plans had worked and both the Arabs and the Jews were annoyed with them for laying down promises on either side. Amongst my plethora of formerly unread books on the matter, I discovered one by the American writer, Warren Bass, published in 2003 and covering Kennedy’s Middle East and the making of the US-Israel alliance. When Kennedy was elected in 1961, beating his Republican rival Nixon in what was a very close result indeed, he inherited a lot of the Middle East mess. His involvement will be discussed later on in subsequent incursions/involvements in the Middle East conflicts but Bass does provide a useful backdrop to Kennedy’s involvement and outlines the American discourse around the time of the creation of the state of Israel.
Here are a few things that I gleaned from Bass’s book that I was not privy to before embarking on this article. I found the pre-Kennedy section very illuminative and it drew me to empathize with President Truman, who, as Vice President of the Democratic Party, took over as President when his predecessor Franklin D Roosevelt died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 63, in 1945. Truman, therefore, was the prime negotiator in the creation of the State of Israel and was in the unfortunate position of having to consider the case for the Jews and a Jewish state in Palestine and the Arabs. He was also the President who ordered the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan in Horishima and Nagasaki, ending Japan’s involvement in WW2, long after the European part had ended and Germany had surrendered.
They had pulled out of Palestine in 1946, partly as a result of a battered economy after WW2 and partly as a result of the rising animosity towards them from the extreme Jewish nationalists that instigated the attack at their headquarters in Jerusalem, at the King David hotel. The UK had concerns over further Jews entering Israel in case this annoyed the Arabs and made them want to ally themselves with Germany, (as it happened, they remained neutral, as already mentioned above). Furthermore, let us not forget that the Arab countries produced a lot of oil, even at this stage, and if the UK fell out with them, they would lose a lot of their oil supplies. This was also an important factor for the United States, who also imported oil from the Arab Gulf countries. Oil is used to drive machinery and facilitate industry, something that the Americans were trying to increase in the aftermath of WW2 in Europe. They wanted to help reconstruct Europe following the damage that it suffered as a result of the war; even Germany. The United States were partly doing this to ensure, as always, that Europe did not turn to the Soviet Union, (who had also helped Great Britain, France and America defeat Germany), for help instead. This plan is famously known as The Marshall Plan (1948). (More on this will be discussed in another article as the Marshall Plan was instrumental in the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund).
No one wanted to annoy the Arabs; however, it must be remembered that the aftermath of the second world war brought with it an enormous number of Jewish refugees who had been grossly persecuted by the Nazis and who had nowhere to go. In 1944, shortly before Truman took over, it was Roosevelt who faced this turmoil; with the case being presented to him on both sides. Britain was not wavering in their determination to keep as many refugees out of Palestine as possible (the war was not yet over), which did not make America’s position any easier. In that year, Roosevelt was pressed by a large Jewish contingent in Congress and the Senate to push for the Zionist cause and a Jewish homeland within the state of Palestine. At the same time, the US had the same concerns as the UK and were worried that if they annoyed the Arabs, the Arabs could potentially ally themselves with Russia. Meanwhile, these tensions were exacerbated by the fact that Saudi Arabia, a huge oil producing Gulf monarchy, did not want the Jews in Palestine either; it wasn’t just Palestine. Roosevelt had to promise the Arabs that he would not make any decisions that were hostile to them.
Roosevelt’s successor, Truman, inherited all of this and his role in the ensuing negotiations was paramount in the creation of Israel. Truman was a Democrat and at this time, Congress was controlled by a majority of pro-Zionist Republicans. Truman at one point was accused by a delegation of US delegates who were handling the Middle East at that time of pandering too much to the Zionist cause, thereby causing a potential rift in relations with the Arabs in the Middle East. Truman’s response to this was as follows:
‘I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents’ (Bass, p.24).
Bass refers to Truman’s predisposition to support the underdog; however, in the aftermath of WW2, he could not ignore the number of displaced Jewish people roaming the world with nowhere to go and no one wanting them: his humanitarian slant conflicted with his predisposition for supporting the underdog, (I suppose Bass means the Arabs in this case), and urged him to think more carefully about the plight of the Jewish refugees which to him, was a sort of ‘refugee Zionism’: something that had come about as a direct result of the war. He was constantly persuaded by his foreign policy bureau to side with the Arabs. Bass tells us that the nation’s First Secretary of Defence at that time, James Forrestal, was among several people in the Foreign Policy establishment who were against a Zionist state. Their concerns: that backing a Jewish state could ‘endanger the oil supplies crucial to postwar Europe’s recovery’ (see the Marshall Plan outlined above), and ‘drive the Arabs toward the Soviet Union’ (Bass, p.25). This is what Forrestal said to Truman’s pro-Zionist counsel at that time, Clark Clifford:
‘You just don’t understand. Forty million Arabs are going to push 400,000 Jews into the sea. And that’s all there is to it. Oil – that’s the side we ought to be on’ (Bass, pg.25).
Truman was caught between the Zionists and his pro-Arab State Department. His response, which has endeared him to me all the more, was that he didn’t care about the oil and wanted to do what was right. Additional pressure was put on Truman by the British Foreign Minister at that time, Ernest Bevin, who accused Truman of wanting to let more Jews into Palestine because the Americans didn’t want them in New York (a bit cheeky of him considering they had been turning boats of refugees away in the Suez Canal – see above).
In 1945, moved by the plight of the Jewish refugees, Truman toyed with the notion of letting 100,000 refugees into Palestine. In 1946, as mentioned above, the matter of Israel/Palestine was taken over by a UN committee that had both American and British representatives. This Committee considered Truman’s proposition to let in 100,000 Jewish refugees, thereby overturning Britain’s previous White Paper that had restricted their entry. The British did not like this idea and tried to stall it as much possible, suggesting convening another committee and further discussions. The Arabs were still against it. Also around this time, the terrorist underground Israeli group ‘Irgun’ bombed Britain’s headquarters at the King David hotel in Jerusalem (22nd July 1946), killing 41 people. It did not make them sympathetic to the Zionist cause. In 1947 the UNSCOP, a UN Committee, was established (see the glossary of terms above). They were charged with splitting up the land: giving one state to the Arabs and one to the Jews, with Jerusalem remaining under international control.
In the end, the state of Israel was created, in accordance with the UNSCOP’s partition plans, on 14th May 1948. Bass makes lovely comment about this:
‘In the end, Truman won his 1948 election, and Israel won its 1948 war’ (Bass, pg.33).
Going back to Schulze’s text now, towards the end of WW2 in Palestine, there was more animosity from the Jews towards the British. Arab-Israeli tensions continued. Underground Israeli terrorist groups formed which resulted in the bombing of the King David hotel in 1946, mentioned above.
Post WW2: Britain leave Palestine and a state of Israel is formed
In 1946, Britain decided to leave Palestine in the hands of the UN, having admitted defeat in finding an acceptable compromise between the two warring parties. Also, they felt the increasing sentiment of animosity towards them from the Jewish people. After their departure, the UN set up a Special Committee for Palestine, the UNSCOP, detailed above. The creation of this body was intended to set up neutral discussions between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine and try and come up with a workable solution. Again, as with previous talks of this nature, the Arabs did not attend these talks, being of the opinion that the UNSCOP was biased in favour of the Zionist cause; certainly this is understandable if that was the case given the vast number of homeless, displaced Jewish refugees at the end of the war: a sorry sight indeed. Both sides were considered by the UNSCOP and both weighted equally. They concluded that the only viable solution was to partition the land, creating a Jewish state in one and an Arab state in the other. It was clear that any aspiration to have the two living together in harmony was not going to come to fruition: there was too much water under the bridge.
This stage is very important. It drew up the perimeters for a Jewish homeland within Palestine, allocating some land to the Jews and some to the Arabs. From the map above you will see that this initial plan did not allocate any of the West Bank to Israel, (you have to look at the key at the bottom to interpret it, which should be a little easier with what I am about to outline below). Jerusalem, an important religious site for both the Arabs and the Jews, was considered and it was decided that it was to be administered internationally; not dissimilar to what happened to Berlin after WW2.
This is what was suggested:
Arab State: Gaza on the coast, Galilee in the north, area around Nablus, Hebron and Beersheba. All of these cities are in what is now referred to as the West Bank. In the Arab-Israeli war that followed WW2 after the creation of Israel, the Israelis occupied territory that had not been given to them; part of the West Bank, including Beersheba. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, both important religious sites, were under the proposed international zone of Jerusalem. Israel did not occupy Nablus or Hebron at this point in the 1948 conflict; that came later in the Six Day war of 1967.
Jewish State: they were to get the coastal area around Tel Aviv and Haifa, the Negev in the south, and the Jezreel and Hule valleys. (From the map you will see that the town of Beersheba which they occupied in 1948 was very close to the Negev region which they were allocated). The Negev region was also close to an area of land on the Egyptian border known as the Sinai Peninsula, which again Israel illegally occupied in 1948 – not the Sinai Peninsula (that happened later) – just the bit of land next to it.
The Arab League members (see above, formed in 1945 after WW2), were not happy with this. Although the Arab League appeared to all outside it to be a unit, there were still divisions within it: understandable given the vast swathes of land that were incorporated within the League: Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan and Yemen. The King of Transjordan had secret talks with the Zionists to partition the Arab sections of Palestine; Egypt and Syria were also concerned about the allocations dished out in the UN’s proposed boundaries – they had territorial ambitions of their own.
The Proposed Partition plan went to vote on 29th November 1947 and it won a majority decision. The Arabs were not swayed and gathered to exert their military might to contest this decision. Israel was established on 14th May 1948 and the following day, Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi forces attacked in what became known as the first Arab-Israeli conflict.
This is a copy of the Declaration creating Israel that Truman signed, dated 14th May 1948.
Here is a photograph of the man himself. When he left his position as President in 1953, (to be succeeded by the Republican Eisenhower), there were no post-presidential benefits at that time. Truman lived on an army pension of $112 a month. He turned down corporate job offers and commercial endorsements, saying that it would have been ‘un-presidential’ of him to benefit from his former presidency in this way.
Both of the books that I have referred to in this article are excellent resources, and are listed as follows:
Kirsten E. Schulze, ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict’, 2013, Routledge Publishing
Warren Bass, ‘Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the US-Israel Alliance’, 2003, Oxford University Press
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