Spain’s Overseas Plazas in Africa, the Gibraltar Question and the Western Sahara; A Complicated Chess Game

by Norman Berdichevsky (July 2010)

Norman Berdichevsky NER Symposium Nashville from Jerry Gordon on Vimeo.

The following is an expanded version of Dr. Berdichevsky’s speech delivered to the New English Review Symposium, “Decline, Fall & Islam,” June 19th, 2010.

In the Rise and Fall of Islam, several lengthy chapters are currently being played out amidst the consequences of the Spanish Reconquista, the Expulsion of the Jews, and the centuries long conflict between Great Britain and Spain. Also involved are Israel, the Palestinians, radical Arab nationalism, and Morocco and its neighbors. Five separate but related areas are involved: 1. the Spanish overseas plazas (enclaves within Moroccan territory) or lying just offshore, 2. Gibraltar, 3. Morocco, Algeria and Mauretania, 4. the Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara and also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (or SADR), led by the Polisario (Frente Polisario, from the Spanish abbreviation of Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y o de O(“Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro“), an organization with support from radical Arab and Muslim states, and 5. The Canary Islands. 


Most of us identify Spain immediately as that larger part of the Iberian Peninsula in Southwestern Europe that has been an independent state with a distinct national identity for more than a thousand years. Those with a more extensive knowledge of geography will also probably recall that the Spanish state includes two island chains, the Balearics (Las Islas Baleares) in the Western Mediterranean between mainland Spain and Italy and the Canaries (Las Islas Canarias) off the coast of West Africa. Tennis fans would know that Spanish star Rafael Nadal is from Mallorca. Only a select few with some special interest however are likely to identify the two autonomous city-territories Ceuta (7.3 square miles and a population of 80,000) and Melilla (4.7 square miles and 75,000 inhabitants) as integral parts (autonomous communities) of the Kingdom of Spain wholly located on African soil and surrounded by Morocco.

These two postage size autonomous communities although not contiguous with the European mainland are as much a part of Spain as Alaska is part of the United States, Greenland and Bornholm parts of Denmark, Newfoundland, a part of Canada, Easter Island, a part of Chile; the Falkland islands are British territory and Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, Kaliningrad, part of Russia, Ngorno-Karabach, part of Azerbaijan and Cabinda a part of Angola. The world was once strewn with many more similar enclaves, exclaves and offshore island territories but most people today are under the assumption that a major requirement of national solidarity is territorial contiguity.

Ceuta and Melilla are valuable economic resources, important fishing and free ports and the majority of the population in both areas are native-born Spaniards and Christians. Both cities have important historic Jewish communities and about one-third of their populations are Muslim. Many Moroccan workers cross the frontier daily to work in the two towns and Morocco. The former Organization of African Unity (disbanded in 2002 and reestablished as The African Union) and the Muslim and Arab countries back what they call “Morocco’s fight for the liberation of its territories occupied by the Spanish.” At the time of the OAU’s disbanding, all African states except Algeria supported the Moroccan claim yet, ironically, Morocco left the organization on November 12, 1984 following the admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (the former Spanish colonial territory of the Western Sahara) which Morocco also claims. Morocco thus found itself, like Spain, at the end of a double-edged sword. In Morocco’s case, mobilizing African and Arab support at the U.N. to “win back” the plazas “under Spanish occupation” clash with the claim of the Polisario, a radical organization of local Arabized Muslim inhabitants of the former Spanish Sahara colony demanding independence for their territory that Morocco occupied. 

The issue of Ceuta and Melilla is of note due to the fact that Spain is the only NATO country bordering an Arab and Muslim state. The borders of both city regions are surrounded by double fences of barbed wire. What is at stake is nothing less than Spanish sovereignty in the form of two cities, their hinterlands and several small but strategic islands, the Chafarinas and the “island plazas” (originally a plaza meant a fortified town) of Peñón Vélez de la Gomera and Alhucemas located a few miles from the Moroccan coast. These islands are important for the maintenance of Spanish fishing rights, navigation and supervision of illegal migration and smuggling. All of these areas have the status of autonomous communities (comunidades autónomas) on an equal footing with the other regions of Spain as guaranteed by the Spanish constitution.

Peñón de Velez de Gomera is a minor conical island, barely more than a barren rock of 15 acres which serves as a relay station between Ceuta and Melilla and has been used as a prison. Peñón de Alhucemas to the west of Melilla is a few miles offshore and consists of three small islands. They were occupied in 1673 as part of Spanish efforts to prevent the Turks from raiding the Spanish coast. The Chatarinas, occupied in 1848 by Spain, are used as fishing base.

The potential for conflict over these territories is both imminent and far reaching. On the Spanish political landscape, only the Far Left has contemplated any form for negotiation over sovereignty. How did Spain acquire these territories? Ceuta was originally conquered by the Portuguese in 1514 as part of their Reconquista which drove the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. When Portugal was absorbed by Spain (1580-1640), Ceuta passed under Spanish control and Spain simply refused to return it when Portugal regained its independence. It later was used as a Spanish penal colony and military base that withstood repeated Muslim sieges.

Melilla was conquered by Spain in 1497. Like the Portuguese seizure of Ceuta, it was a necessary defensive strategy to acquire a major naval base on the North African coast to prevent further attempts by the Muslims to try to regain the peninsula which they had seized in the early 8th century and on which they had imposed their rule and religion. Both areas have thus been under continuous Spanish rule for approximately five hundred years.

They are much closer to the Spanish mainland than either the Balearic Islands or the Canaries. A list of colonial territories drawn up by the U.N. in 1947 did not mention them and a statement by the U.N. proclaiming the principle of “territorial integrity” for all states in 1960 is regarded by Spanish authorities as proof that these legal grounds outweigh any consideration of “geographic contiguity” put forward by Morocco.

The Gibraltar Controversy and the Irony of Spanish Claims

Spain’s attempts to recover Gibraltar from the British bear an uncanny resemblance to Morocco’s campaign to eventually absorb Ceuta and Melilla. Spain’s insistence that the principle of territorial integrity justifies its claim to regain Gibraltar is, again, a double edged sword. Morocco claims precisely the same rights over the plazas. The issue of the plazas and Spain’s determination to acquire Gibraltar present a complex riddle of political geography. Gibraltar on the Spanish mainland (known as El Peñon – The Rock) is a narrow peninsula jutting southward towards Africa. It was conquered from the Moors in 1462, thirty years before the fall of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, marking the final victory of the Spanish Reconquista. In 1704, Gibraltar was seized by a joint Anglo-Dutch military force in the War of the Spanish Succession. The Peace Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 awarded Gibraltar to Great Britain “in perpetuity.” In terms of length of ownership, Gibraltar has been British longer than it was under Spanish-Christian rule just as Ceuta and Melilla have been Spanish longer than any claim put forward by Morocco. The inhabitants of Gibraltar even expressed a wish to become part of the United Kingdom but the British government was reluctant to go so far and rejected the proposal in 1976!

Beyond physical geography and history, there is, of course, another concept in political geography, namely “self-determination” (the will of the people). Gibraltar has already had two referendums, with 99.5% of the people voting to remain British. Any foreseeable referendum in Ceuta and Melilla would give a majority to Spain. No one on the Spanish political horizon except the Far Left can imagine negotiating away part of Spanish territory although just before his death in 1976, General Franco and King Hassan II of Morocco were reported to have agreed on a minor compromise. This would have allowed Spain to retain the two city-plazas but cede minor island chains, the Chafarinas and the “plazas” of Vélez de la Gomera and Alhucemas to Morocco.

In The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, by which Gibraltar came under British rule, the Spanish added the following clause barring Jews and Moroccans from the city:

Her Britannic Majesty, at the request of the Catholic King, does consent and agree that no leave shall be given, under any pretext whatsoever, either to Jews or Moors to reside or have their dwellings in the said town of Gibraltar.

As the British ignored this provision regarding the admission of Jews (others were the admission of Moors, the extension of fortifications and the alleged smuggling from Gibraltar), the Spanish claimed the British had violated the treaty. Throughout the 20th century, Spanish claims to recover Gibraltar actually were based on honoring the absurd anti-Jewish provision as if Spain wished to further emphasize its emotional fundamentalist Catholic attachment to the territory that would forever remain judenrein. In 1727, the Spanish unsuccessfully laid siege to the city.

In 1729, the British and the Sultan of Morocco reached an agreement giving the Sultan’s Jewish subjects permission to reside in Gibraltar. Jews were given the right to permanently settle in 1749, when the new community’s first Rabbi, came to the country from London and established congregation Sha’ar HaShamayim, the oldest synagogue in Gibraltar. At the time, there were already 600 Jews in Gibraltar, who constituted one third of the civilian population. Three more synagogues, all of which still function on Shabbat and feast days, were subsequently built Nefutsot Yehuda and Etz Hayyim in 1781, as well as the Abudarham Synagogue in 1820.

During the sieges of the city by the Spanish and during the Peninsular War (1808-1814)against Napoleon’s occupation, Jewish civilians valiantly helped defend Gibraltar from invaders. In 1984, Rabbi Ron Hassid became the new Chief Rabbi and has been there ever since. Since his arrival, he has had a positive impact on Gibraltar and much of the surrounding communities in Spain, Melilla and Ceuta. The Jewish communities have become much stronger which can be directly attributed to him, adding yet another factor to the near total support of the population to remain British.

Spain’s abysmal record of anti-semitism, and more than four centuries of religious intolerance from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century left behind a deeply entrenched legacy (see fig. 3, the photo of Church inscription in village near Murcia) in popular opinion. Several Gibraltarian Jews have served in important positions in the Government there in the 20th century, particularly Sir Joshua Hassan, who served as Chief Minister of Gibraltar for two separate terms before his death. Gibraltar’s current Mayor, Solomon Levy, assumed the position on August 1, 2008. The city maintains five Kosher institutions, a Jewish Primary School and two Jewish secondary schools. In 2004, at a celebration of the anniversary of three hundred years of British rule, the congregants at the Great Synagogue (Sha’ar Hashamayim) performed the anthem “God Save the Queen” in Hebrew, the first time this has been done officially.

Spain’s attempts in the 19th Century to become an imperial power, after the loss of its South American and Caribbean colonies, focused on expansion and influence in Morocco and West Africa. Ceuta and Melilla were important staging grounds for further penetration into Morocco, the Spanish Sahara, and Equatorial Guinea. Eventually, Spain gained control of its own protectorate in Morocco. From the Moroccan point of view, its demands to acquire the plazas are part of its struggle for liberation against colonialism. They don’t accept the Spanish arguments about historical presence, or sovereignty, or even the right of self-determination.

Spain’s campaign to “decolonize” Gibraltar from British rule was submitted to the UN in December 1967. In spite of all the changes in technology and transportation in the past century, Gibraltar retains a strategic importance. The straight separating Spain from Africa is only 8.6 miles wide at Gibraltar and while the port is not of great economic importance, the naval base has safeguarded the link between the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Suez Canal. It acts as a guardian for international shipping, especially oil tankers supplying Western Europe and Britain with oil from the Persian Gulf. The Spanish claim to Gibraltar was the sole issue on which the governments of General Franco and the losing Republican side in the civil war fully agreed.

The Moroccan Seizure and Expulsion from Perejil; A Sign of Things to Come?

In early July, 2002, a handful of Moroccan troops seized the tiny Spanish island of Perejil (Parsely), a football field size island lying 800 feet from Morocco, and 5 miles from Ceuta. The island itself was deserted, although some Moroccan shepherds had made use of it in the past. Morocco claimed that their occupation was to “monitor illegal immigration and to fight drug traffic.” They claimed smugglers used the island as a logistic platform, a claim Spain denied. Spain received lukewarm support from all the European Union countries except France. Morocco was supported by all Arab League states except Algeria, one of Spain’s top trading partners.

On the morning of July 18, 2002, Spain took the island back by force in an operation named Romeo-Sierra. The attack was carried out by Spanish commandos supported by the Spanish Navy and Airforce. Moroccan Navy Cadets did not offer any resistance and were captured and transported by helicopter to the headquarters of the Guardia Civil
 in Ceuta, from where they were returned to the Moroccan border. With the exception of the fringe United Left Party and Basque Nationalists, Prime Minister Aznar’s action was popularly supported in Spain but doubts remain about the future ability of Spain to resist Moroccan demands backed by the large Arab-Muslim block. It was for this very reason as well as to regain Gibraltar and not anti-Semitism that General Franco followed a pro-Arab foreign policy and refused to recognize the State of Israel.

While Aznar strongly supported American policy in Iraq under President Bush, his Socialist successor, José Luis Zapatero, has emphasized close cooperation with the Arab world and should not expect the same kind of American backing provided in the Perejil incident, especially now with Obama in the White House. Among Spain’s Muslim minority are Al-Qaeda sympathizers who wish to restore Andalucía to Dar-al-Islam. All of Spain’s efforts to win Arab sympathies by its hostile attitude towards Israel will not help it in the confrontation that is bound to come sooner or later.

The Complicated Chess Game

During the reign of King Hassan II (1929-1999), Morocco recuperated the Spanish-controlled area of Ifni in 1969, and seized two thirds of Spanish Sahara (see figure 4; now Western Sahara) through the “
Green March” in 1975. The African union and a total of 81 governments consider the territory a sovereign, albeit occupied, state. They demand recognition by all of an independent Western Sahara, styled the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR- see figure 5), with an exile government backed by the Polisario Front. This issue continues to dominate Moroccan foreign policy to this day and has embroiled the country in a long dispute with the radical Islamic states and Algeria. Relations have deteriorated sharply due to the Western Sahara affair, as well as Moroccan claims on Algerian territory, which unleashed the brief 1963 “Sand War.” Morocco is thus walking a tightrope under its new ruler, King Mohammed VI, anxious to assume undisputed control over the former Spanish possessions in Africa and assert its credentials as a proud Muslim nation by recovering the plazas of Ceuta and Melilla. Facing the territory of the Western Sahara are the Canary Islands, discovered and settled by the Portuguese, Spanish and Genoese in the 14th century although claims have been made that the Muslim navigator Ibn Farrukh, from Granada, landed in “Gando” (Gran Canaria) in February 999. Spaniards from Majorca established a mission with a bishop in 1350. Treaties between Spain and Portugal established Spanish sovereignty there. Nevertheless, radical Arab leaders, especially Muammar Gaddafi backing the SADR have also claimed that the Canary Islands should “revert” to Arab control and tried to enlist the support of African, Arab and Muslim countries.

The international boundary of the Canaries is the subject of a dispute between Spain and Morocco. Morocco does not accept the Spanish claim for seabed boundaries based on the territory of the Canaries. The boundary is relevant for possible seabed oil deposits and other ocean resource exploitation. Morocco therefore does not formally agree to the current territorial and sea boundaries.

This policy has at times created “strange bedfellows.” The present king (who learned the Koran by heart as a child), like his father, is a pro-Western moderate. Morocco was among the few Arab countries to have had formal and cordial ties with Jerusalem. Morocco further traditionally has been one of the safest refuges for Jews in the Arab world. In solidarity with the Palestinians, however, Morocco closed its official mission in Israel and broke off all formal ties six years ago. Nevertheless, diplomatic activities between Morocco and Israel have been warming lately. According to Sahrawi (Polisario) sources, Morocco is offering the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for a strong Israeli lobbying in favor of Rabat’s Western Sahara policies (and quite possibly over the Spanish plazas as well) and the promotion of Moroccan interests. Spain, for all its notorious past anti-Semitism, is fond of pointing to the thriving Jewish communities in Ceuta and Melilla in an attempt to ward off Moroccan demands for absorbing the enclaves and thwart possible closer relations between Morocco and Israel.

The Israeli press recently revealed that relations between the two countries indeed are thawing. In September 2003, King Mohamed VI even received Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at one of his vacation palaces for political talks. Israeli diplomats have reportedly tried to influence the American government to accept Morocco’s so-called autonomy plan for the Western Sahara – the former Spanish colony occupied by Morocco since 1976 despite numerous UN protests. The controversial autonomy plan opposes UN demands of an independence referendum in Western Sahara and instead proposes to make the disputed territory an autonomous Moroccan province. In this complicated chess game, the plazas, Gibraltar, and the Western Sahara are all important chips.


Figure 1 Map

Figure 2. Gibraltar from the West


Figure 3. Church inscription (ca. 1820) in village of Pliego near Murcia, Spain

“The Religion of the Spanish Nation is, and will eternally be The Only True Roman Catholic and Apostolic one. The Nation protects it by wise and just laws and prohibits the exercise of any other (Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy, 71.2 Chapter 2, Article 12)”
(Photo by Monty Sugarman)


Figure 4. Postage stamp of former Spanish colonial government in the Western Sahara

Figure 5 Map of the Western Sahara and the Canary Islands

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome. 


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