As Christmas approaches and we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, the situation in the Middle East is a reminder of how much the world needs the Message the Son of God brought. Since the terrible events visited on Israel by Hamas on 7 October, we have been watching in horror as Israel has fought back with a vengeance against the beleaguered citizens of Gaza. As in all such battles, it is children and women who pay the greatest price and who suffer the most. Many of us cannot bear to watch the images on the television screens; what must it be like to live there?
I was speaking to someone last week who commented on how terrible it all is but added that she does not understand the first thing about the conflict between Palestine and Israel. She is surely not the only one, even though it is one of the most publicized and bitter struggles in history. Over several decades the evolving situation has had many facets, but essentially both nations have engaged in a modern territorial contest for one geographical territory.
It also has roots in a complex hostility that dates all the way back to ancient times when both populated the area and deemed it holy. Israel’s origins can be traced back to Abraham, who is considered the father of both Judaism (through his son Isaac) and Islam (through his son Ishmael).
Abraham’s descendants were thought to be enslaved by the Egyptians for hundreds of years before settling in Canaan which is approximately the region of modern-day Israel. Both Jews and Muslims consider the city of Jerusalem sacred. The western wall is the only visible section of what remained from the massive retaining wall built by Herod. This wall allowed him to enlarge the platform on which the Second Temple stood before being destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Given this association, the wall became the most important place of prayer and pilgrimage in Judaism.
Muslim attachment to the wall and to the al-haram al-Sharif (or ‘Noble Sanctuary’, as the Temple Mount is known in Arabic) is due to their association with the story of Muhammed’s night journey to heaven. The wall is known to Muslims as al-Buraq, because the Prophet tethered his horse there, and the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, built in the seventh centuries, are two of Islam’s most revered buildings.
While it is true that Israelis are mostly Jewish and Palestinians mostly Muslim, religion is secondary to the clash of nationalities over secular issues of land and nationhood.
In 1896 Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist Movement, wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in which he showed how the creation of a Jewish state would put an end to the prevailing anti-Semitism of Europe. He chose Ottoman-controlled Palestine, the original home of the Jews as the most desirable location for a Jewish state. Had Palestine been empty there would have been no conflict: but it was not. One Jewish leader, Ahad Ha’am noted prophetically, “If a time comes when our people in Palestine develop so that, in small or great measure they push out the native inhabitants, these will not give up their place easily. “
The push to reestablish a Jewish homeland progressed and massive numbers of Jews immigrated to the ancient holy land and built settlements. Arabs in Palestine resented the Zionist movement, and tensions between the two groups led to the development of an Arab nationalist movement.
If it was the First World War that broke the Ottoman Empire the Second World hastened the demise of the British Empire that had taken its place. Between 1937 and 1947, Britain effectively lost control of an increasingly chaotic situation in Palestine (jurisdiction over which she had been given after 1918). Even before the British Mandate expired on May 14, 1948, Zionist paramilitaries were already embarking on a military operation to destroy Palestinian towns and villages in an attempt to expand the borders of the Zionist state that was to be born.
Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ is a reference to the forced removal of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, often at gunpoint, when Israel was founded in 1948. Hamas, like many groups in the Middle East, is resentful of the creation of Israel. Supporters of Israel say the area is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people who were exiled following an invasion by the Babylonian Empire more than 2,500 years ago and the subsequent occupation of the region by the Romans.
In the decades that followed its creation, Israel fought several wars and ended up occupying the West Bank and Gaza – contrary to a 1947 designation. Hamas was created in 1987 during The First Intifada, an uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. While Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it still occupies East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank – named so because of its position to the west of the River Jordan. Israel has established numerous Jewish settlements throughout the territory – which the UN Security Council has previously criticised as a “flagrant violation of international law”.
Gaza, meanwhile, is now administered by Hamas – but under severe restriction of movement from Israel. Hamas has not held elections since 2006 and is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, UK, and EU for its armed resistance against Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not revealed his plans for the aftermath of the fighting in Gaza, but he has rejected America’s idea of installing a government led by the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas who was ejected by Hamas from Gaza in 2007. The second part of the American plan is for negotiations on a two-state solution, something that Netanyahu has opposed throughout his political life. Not only is he against independence for the Palestinians, but his survival also as prime minister depends on support from Jewish extremists who believe the entire territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean was given to the Jewish people by God and should all be inside Israel’s borders.
For decades, Western media outlets, academics, military experts, and world leaders, and world leaders have described the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as intractable, complicated, and deadlocked. If the terrible conflict in Gaza doesn’t force the Israelis, Palestinians, and their powerful friends to try again to make peace, then tragically the only future is more war.
Written by Marie–Therese Cryan