With the terrible news in Israel and Palestine this past week, I thought it might be helpful to explore the history of this conflict. As with all history, opinions vary. I wade into this carefully and hope the description below is fair and provides you with some context. We have also included some further resources at the bottom. Murdering civilians of any ethnicity or religion is horrific. We hope hostilities will cease although the realities on the ground are not promising.
From two thousand to three thousand years ago, Jews were the major population in Israel, sometimes holding their own state and sometimes under the rule of a foreign king. In the first and second century, the Jews revolted twice against their Roman overseers but the Romans won both wars convincingly and then expelled the Jews from the land. Most Jews moved into the “diaspora” meaning countries other than Israel. For the next two thousand years, Jewish presence in Israel was minor. Most inhabitants of the land were non-Jews who eventually became Christians and later Muslims.
Jews thus lived as minorities in Christian and Muslim ruled lands. In the Muslim countries, they had rights but were subordinate to Muslims legally. Life was generally much worse in Christian lands where Jews were often made scapegoats for the plague, financial crises, or virtually anything. In Europe, Jews were quarantined into ghettos and subjected to violence, pogroms, and genocides. Many Jews yearned to return to Israel and concluded the Passover ritual every year with the phrase “next year in Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, others inhabited the land. The descendants of these inhabitants are today called the Palestinians. They have multiple roots notably the mingling of local inhabitants with the influx of Arabs when Islam emerged and spread in the 7th century. Many Palestinians have long histories in the region although identifying oneself as a “Palestinian” (rather than an “Arab”) is a more recent development that gained strength in the 20th century.
The late 18th and 19th century gave rise to the idea of nationalism where instead of seeing people as subjects under a king, those who shared an ethnicity, a language and a culture became seen as a nation who should have their own state. Some Jews wanted their own state and thought Israel was the only sensible location. Others found this idea far-fetched – ghettos had been dissolved and the enlightenment ideas of universal rights meant many Jews saw themselves as simply Frenchmen or Germans. But some terrible antisemitic events in the late 19th century, including pogroms in Russia and the Dreyfus Affair in France, led many to conclude that Jews would never be accepted as Europeans and would never be safe without their own country.
Resettling in Israel
In the late 1800s, some Jews began immigrating to Israel. They grew from 20,000 in 1880 to 80,000 by 1914 and then about 800,000 by 1948. The Ottomans ruled this land but their empire was destroyed in WWI and the British took over. As Jewish presence grew, the local Palestinians began to object. After WWII and the Holocaust, the Jewish desire for a homeland intensified. Britain, exhausted by WWII, said it would withdraw. The United Nations accepted a proposal to divide the land roughly in half into two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish. The Palestinians rejected this idea and planned for war.
The 1948 War
When the British pulled out, the Palestinians and supportive neighboring Arab states launched a war on Israel. The Israelis won the year-long war and increased their portion of the land from about half to closer to three-quarters. Many Palestinians fled their homes during the conflict, planning to return when hostilities ceased. But the Israeli government denied them this opportunity. The Palestinian refugees outnumbered the Jews who felt being a minority in their own state would mean the end of Israel. Many of these refugees (and now their descendants) still claim this “right of return” to gain back their lands which is a non-negotiable item for Israelis.
After the War
The Israeli population grew due to immigration as some Jews fled Arab nations (where they faced renewed hostility) while others wanted to live in a state where Jews were not a minority. Some Palestinians relocated to neighbouring Arab states but many remained in the area of Palestine not held by Israel. In 1967, a second war broke out and this time Israel routed the neighbouring Arab powers and gained vast tracts of land. While some was given back, Israel maintained at least military control of all of Palestine/Israel including Gaza and the West Bank where the Palestinians lived but who were now under Israeli occupation.
Immediately after the 1967 war, some Jews began settling in these two Palestinian areas. Some “settlers” do this for religious reasons believing the land was given to the Jews by God. Others do it believing Israel will not be safe until it owns all this land and that the Palestinians are Arabs surrounded by innumerable Arab states and land where they can go. The Israeli left hates the settlements but the right supports and encourages them.
A Rightward Turn
In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a two-state solution to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Many Israelis found the terms were generous (many thought too generous) but Arafat declined. This event somewhat decimated the Israeli left with many concluding that peace was impossible. The hostilities since then have also led many Israelis to conclude they can’t allow a Palestinian state in the West Bank since it will serve as a base for attacking Israel with rockets and other methods.
In addition, Israeli demographics are such that highly religious Jews have many, many children (and lean right) whereas secular Jews on the left have few children. The country grows more right-wing every year and the current Israeli government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history. With every year, there are more settlers in the West Bank as well, now numbering close to half a million.
As for the Palestinians, they are led by Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the West Bank. Many of their leaders deny Israel’s right to exist and support for a two-state solution has varied.
Amongst all of this are the people. Those in Gaza live in some of the most overcrowded and desperately poor conditions on earth. Half of the two million people are children. Most lack the basics including potable water, food security and healthcare. Those in the West Bank see what remains of their land being taken by settlers and are helpless to stop it. They confront a military but have none of their own. They are subject to the whims of others who might arrest them, search them, or restrict their movements.
Many Israelis meanwhile feel like their nation faces unique threats. They have but one tiny country on earth where they rule and are safe from government oppression which they have suffered from for centuries. They feel the Arabs have many countries and places where they are safe. Israelis are very polarized over their current government with some hating it and others supporting it. All Israelis desire peace and security for their country.
Regrettably, it is much harder to see the way to peace today than it was twenty years ago. The trends are not very good.
We hope for peace and safety for Israelis and for safety, prosperity and hope for the Palestinians.
If you’d like to know more, there is a great interview of Israeli left leaning history Benny Morris done this year on the history of the conflict (here but also wherever you get your podcasts); a short TV clip of Mehdi Hassan here done just days ago about the situation in Gaza; and an scholar of Islam explaining why the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land violates international law and how law is necessary for peace here.
The Israelis killed last week are citizens not responsible for their government’s actions. The Palestinians killed this week are citizens not responsible for Hamas. This conflict has no winners, just ever proliferating losses and suffering. We can only hope hostilities cease soon.
(We wrote a Part II to this blog as well, focusing on more recent decades).