Before we even start, let’s give up. In the past some of these All Around This World featured-country background posts have been ambitious enough to approach a complicated global conflict with on single, challenging question…. “Huh?” We hear about so many international squabbles on the news and do our best to grasp specific pressing details–who is doing what to whom at any given moment–but even the news outlets with the best intention to provide perspective rarely step back to try to give context for whatever calamity attracted the cameras that day. Most international struggles, especially in a part of the world so accomplished as the Middle East, are not happening just in the moment, but occur, in the minds and motivated lives of the people carrying out the acts at
hand, in the context of a history that spans thousands of years. The military leaders of Israel may decide on a specific action based upon a very specific thing that happened any given day, or the organizers of protests in the Gaza Strip may choose a particular path based upon that day’s tactical calculations, but the fact that those players are set in those positions, playing out those pressing decisions in such immediate ways, is the result of so many generations of decisions that maybe the most likely way someone on the receiving end of the news broadcast is to grasp any of it is to look at each day’s action in isolation.
Most every chance we’ve gotten, All Around This World has addressed such conflicts head on, attempting to make sense of the players in a global drama and the historical reason they’re playing. Today we’re going to be ambitious and try to set the historical scene, but we’re not going to try to parse every single happening in every phase of the Israeli/Palestinian struggle. In the absence of a minute by minute, blow by blow explanation of the history of the Israelis and Palestinians, we’ll at least provide context by introducing some relatively undisputed historical statements–even many of these being nuanced enough that some partisans would contend them.
While you’re reading this, take a look at a basic map of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza to provide some perspective on just how tiny a land mass we’re discussing. One can take a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in less than an hour. One can drive the entire north to south length of this long and thin country in less then ten hours, and about half of that would be a drive through the desert. That’s a very little country for all the hubbub, is it not? Anyway, let’s lay out some of the least contended bits the region’s history.
— Origin of Judaism:
Judaism emerged as a religion and set of distinct cultural practices in the part of the world now known as the Middle East over 3,000 years ago. For centuries people practicing Judaism lived in a territory called Canaan, whose borders roughly correspond to those of modern day Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza strip, and which they shared with many other peoples who practiced many other religions.
— Abraham, father of Ishmael and Isaac:
In the view of both Jewish and Muslim religious history, Jews and Arabs share a similar ancestor, a man named Abraham, whose first son, by his wife’s Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, was named Ishmael, and his second, by wife Sarah, was Isaac. (Some Islamic traditions dispute that Hagar was Sarah’s handmaiden, but instead present her at the daughter of an Egyptian king who married Abraham under the false pretense that Sarah was not his wife but his sister. In any case, Muslims hold Hagar in tremendous esteem.) Ishmael is perceived to be the ancestor of the Arab people, and Isaac the father of a nation that came to be known as the Israelites. There was contention between Hagar and Sarah, resulting in Hagar and Ishmael setting out on their own after Isaac’s birth. In this sense, the Arab-Jewish dispute is an ancient family feud.
— The Jewish exile:
At various times throughout history powers that invaded the land where the Jews lived–known first as Canaan, eventually by the names of its two kingdoms (Israel in the north, and Judea in the south) expelled the Jews, with the most thorough exile occurring at the hands of the Romans in the second century.
(Sidestep: What’s the difference between the terms “Hebrew,” “Israelites” and “Jews?” Though the terms are often used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same. Basically, “Hebrew” was a term that appeared in reference to Abraham and his descendants. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, became known as “Israel,” a name with multiple disputed meanings and he and his Hebrew descendants also became known as the Israelites,
giving rise to the Kingdom of Israel [Kings Saul, David and Solomon]. The ancestors of two of Jacob’s twelve sons, Judah and Benjamin, broke from their ten sibling tribes when Solomon died and the ten disputed the leadership of Solomon’s son. The Kingdom of Israel remained in the north, the Kingdom of Judah in the south, and the two coexisted tensely for about two centuries. Peoples of the two kingdoms practiced the same religion, which came to be known as “Judaism.”)
— Origins of the term “Palestine”
Though the term “Palastine” may have appeared as early as the time of the ancient Greeks to refer to the land between Egypt and modern day Syria, the Romans first solidified the name for the land in question when they renamed the area “Palastina” in the 2nd century after defeating and expelling Jewish rebels. Historians seem to agree that the Romans chose the name in reference to the Philistines, a people from the region with whom the Jewish kingdoms didn’t see eye to eye, as a way of solidifying Rome’s victory over the rebellious Jews. (If you want to get a sense of some of the contention around the name “Palestine” and the disputed origins of the Palestinian people, look at this Yahoo Answers thread in response to the question, “Why israel was called palestine by romans?”)
— Who ruled Jerusalem?
(Lots of dates here, all less important than the idea that dominion over the land changed hands often.) In the year 637 A.D., soon after the 632 death of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Muslims conquered the city of Jerusalem. Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099. Muslim leader Saladin recaptured it in 1187, Christians took it back in 1243, and eventually the Ottoman Turks took over in 1517. The Ottomans held on until their defeat in World War 1. The British claimed Jerusalem in 1917.
— When did Jews seek to return to the Middle East?
After the Romans exiled them the Jews didn’t return in overwhelming numbers to reclaim land for centuries but during successive empires, especially Muslim empires, numbers of Jews did live in their holy land and worship there. In the late 1800s, a movement of secular Jews, mainly in Europe, began to promote the emigration of Jews to Ottoman Palestine. This movement, which referred to their intended homeland as “Zion,” a term referring both
to Mount Zion and associated land around Jerusalem as well as the spiritual essence of the holy land, became known as Zionism.
Flashpoint! Herein originates a major point of contention. Is Zionism a movement of Jews who, reacting defensively to antisemitism and choosing against assimilation, desired to build their own nation so they and their descendants could be safe? Some say so. Is Zionism a colonialist, racist movement of Europeans who forcibly claimed land that was already someone else’s with complete disregard for the lives of those who already lived there? Some say so. There are some who say it’s neither, some who say it’s a bit of
both. When discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, there are “some” who say pretty much everything.
(Another sidestep. Did you know in the early 1900s Zionists seriously considered locating the Jewish state not in Ottoman Palestine, but in Uganda? Oh, what a different world this would be.)
In the late 1800s and throughout the first half of the 1900s, Jewish settlers entered Ottoman and then British Palestine, starting off as a trickle but eventually numbering tens, then hundreds of thousands. Some of the most eager early settlers were European Jews who organized communal settlements known as kibbutzim, which were mainly agricultural in nature and spoke to the settlers’ Socialist visions and unabashed idealism for what a Jewish nation may become. Immigration became more pressing as the Nazis rose in Europe in the ’30s, and became a move of last resort to Jews who faced literal extermination at the hands of Nazis during World War II. As more and more settlers settled, with more and more strident claims on the land, more and more tension developed between the Jews and those already living in Palestine.
Here is where we effectively jump off the explanation train and go into summary mode. From this point forward, every scintilla of history is a matter of passionate disagreement–one group’s fact is another’s fiction, one group’s fiction is another’s bold-faced lie. The basic story is that in the fact of increasing violence between the Jews and Arabs in the British territory–who started the violence…? A major point of disagreement. Let’s wimp out by saying “violence increased”–and in the context of the Nazis’ attempt to systematically eradicate the Jewish people, not to mention the the utter devastation World War II brought to Europe, the British Mandate of Palestine fell apart. The United Nations intervened and declared a partition of land between the Jews and Arabs, which Arabs contested, arguing that the Jews were not a majority and shouldn’t be able to claim “Jewish” land. In 1948 a Jewish army defeated several Arab armies and claimed independence for a new State of Israel. Jordan occupied the land known as the West Bank, Egypt controlled Gaza.
In a war in 1967, which Israelis call “the Six Day War” and Arabs call “an-Naksah” (The Setback), Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the West Bank from Jordan, unifying Jerusalem under Israeli rule. (Who started the 1967 War, Israelis or Arabs? Again, volumes have been literally written to argue both sides. We’re going to argue neither. We’re just going to say, “there was a war.”) Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt as part of the Israel-Egyptian peace agreement. Israel continues to control the Golan Heights. In 1993, as part of the Oslo Peace Accords, the Palestinian National Authority took official jurisdiction over parts of the West Bank and
Gaza. In 2007, Gaza, ruled by the Islamic Palestinian political party known as Hamas, broke away from the Palestinian National Authority.
Since 1948, and definitely since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, violence between Israel and the Palestinians has been, to understate the matter, awful. Bombings and military incursions and imprisonments and economic warfare and general, horrendous hatred has become such a common language between the two peoples that no matter what attempts individuals within the region on all sides of the matter make at creating peace, there is rarely widespread hope. There are many arguments–many, many, very deep arguments–in and about the region that focus on trying to determine who starts each round of violence. Which side is taking illegal and immoral offensive action? Which side is acting to justifiably defend their children against the illegal and immoral offensive action of the other? Your own answers to these questions may seem so obvious to you that the fact that someone else could even consider the opposing view defies comprehension.
— An essential note:
For reasons that are easy to understand, some semblance of the above narrative is the one most commonly told to explain what’s happening between the Israelis and the Palestinians: Jews against the Arabs, Arabs against the Jews. It’s an exceedingly tragic, passion-inspiring story that provides context for life in the region. On closer examination–and, this is hard to believe–the situation is even more complex. Yes, there is “Israel” and yes, there is a proposed nation that may one day be called “Palestine.” But we must remember that there is no one “Israeli” point of view, and the same holds true for the
people who live in the territory that may one day be a Palestinian state. Within Israel there is vicious disagreement, not only about how to relate to the Palestinians–there are many hard-liners in Israel, but also a vocal peace movement–but also about domestic issues, like the harsh disputes between ultra-religious and secular Israelis about the base religious character of the nation. Not to mention the fact that while 75% of the approximately 8 million inhabitants of Israel, about 75% are Jewish, over 20% are Arab, as well as non-Arab Christians, Christian Muslims and others, like the Druze. And not to mention the incredible diversity of Israel, which welcomes all Jews as citizens under The Law of Return, which results in a multi-ethnic population that brings innumerable perspectives to the table, but also leads to uncertainty and occasional uproar in Israeli society; for example, many Israeli Jews have ancestry in Arab nations and have different cultural and religious traditions than the European-based settlers, and then in the ’80s and ’90s around a million Russian Jews immigrated to Israel, and in the same period almost 100,000 Jews with Ethiopian ancestry immigrated, creating so many racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, economic, political, cultural and logistical complexities…. And then, lest not forget that within Palestinian communities there are severe disagreements between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian party that dominates the Palestinian National Authorities. And then layer all the normal social complications that exist in any society, including economic and educational disparities…we return to “Oy.”
— So, with all that said, let’s ignore it:
What’s said above has been said as a way to provide a tip of the iceberg introduction to the maddening struggles of Israelis and Palestinians, but please, we have just a moment together–let’s not dwell entirely on difference. Below we’re going to peer around the politics and take a brief look at some of the things that may unite Israelis, Palestinians and all people–shared music, shared culture, shared life. That’s at least consistent with All Around This World’s notion that people are people are people. Politics get us all riled up and inspire us to do ridiculous things, but can we be idealistic enough to think we can rise above that? I’ll sing your song, you’ll sing mine–I’ll dance your dabke, you do the grapevine–so let’s at least try to see beyond our differences? And if we can’t, let’s hope our kids know better.