There has always been conflict in the Middle East. The first civilizations were born there, along with the first empires. But what’s this about the Israelis, and the Palestinians?
“Palestine” is a region; one that is home to several holy sites (especially if you’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) and one that has always been contested. There has never officially been a Palestinian “nation”. Just a slab of land that has been conquered and re-conquered over the ages. The Jews lived in Palestine along with other faiths and got on reasonably well (back then they were known as the Isrealites and they referred to Palestine as the “Land of Israel”). But then the Romans came, sacked the lot, and drove the majority of the Jewish people out of Palestine. This, about 2000 years ago, was the exile of the Jews from their supposed holy land. They haven’t existed in Palestine in any significant numbers since.
Christianity spread when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted, and used his powerful and influential empire to influence others (convert or die non-believers!). Since Rome controlled most of Europe, and since the Christians kind of hated the Jews for the killing of their messiah (Jesus in case you’re not following), soon began two millenia of discrimination, expulsion, racism, and – culminating with World War Two- genocide of the Jews. In fact, about 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their allies during the years 1939 – 1945.
All the while the slab of land known as Palestine swapped hands between various empires and rulers, especially during the crusades when Christians and Muslims both thought they should have it – and spilled a lot of blood in the process. The Muslims had it (the Turks had a big empire called the “Ottoman Empire”) until the end of the First World War, but unfortunately for them, they joined the losing side and had to give up Palestine to the winners. Britain, who had the biggest empire in the world, now had an even bigger empire, and ruled over Palestine, calling it the “Palestine Mandate”.
Here comes the trouble, and the relevance to the modern day crisis. The Holocaust of six million Jews in Europe spurred on an ideology called “Zionism”, which is the idea that Jews should (at long last!) have a homeland free from persecution. And so, the great powers Britain and the United Nations, authorised the establishment of a nation of Israel. The boundaries of this new nation were drawn up on a map, and millions of Jews migrated back to their holy land.
Unfortunately, millions of people already lived in the region of Palestine. They are the Palestinians. Although there was no official nation to be recognised, millions of people still called this their home, and their ancestors had lived there for centuries. Palestinians today are mostly associated with Muslims, and the majority of them are, but there are Palestinian Christians, atheists and Jews too.
In 1947, with the ashes barely cooled in the Auschwitz crematoria, the Israelis began forcefully evicting the Palestinians unfortunate enough to live in the newly claimed Israeli territory. In what is sometimes referred to as the Nakba, the Israelis would give Palestinians the option to leave, or die. This is the beginning of the Israeli – Palestine conflict.
Israel, now being a small non-Muslim country virtually in the heart of the Arabic world, was immediately invaded by Egypt and Jordan and other Arabic countries who despised the idea of their being a Jewish state. But Israel defeated them, and actually expanded in to other areas the UN had for a potential Palestinian country (the Partition Plan for Palestine). This created more Palestinian refugees while more Jews migrated in to Israel.
I probably wouldn’t visit Israel. I remember how it was in 1948 when Israel was being established and all my Jewish friends were ecstatic, I was not. I said: what are we doing? We are establishing ourselves in a ghetto, in a small corner of a vast Muslim sea. The Muslims will never forget nor forgive, and Israel, as long as it exists, will be embattled. I was laughed at, but I was right. I can’t help but feel that the Jews didn’t really have the right to appropriate a territory only because 2000 years ago, people they consider their ancestors, were living there. History moves on and you can’t really turn it back
– Isaac Asimov, Jewish-American author
Israel has been in the mix of -for all intents and purposes- a Muslim empire, in which the majority of the countries surrounding it are opposed to its very existence for religious, political and ideological reasons. There have been many conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians (the Six Day War/the 1982 Lebanon War…), as well as the neighboring Muslim countries who support those in Palestine. And in most cases the Israelis have came out victorious, gobbling up more land in the process. Peace processes have been proposed and rejected by both sides, and now Israel controls most of what used to be Palestine, with the Palestinians “ghettoised” in to regions known as the Gaza Strip (the most densely populated area on earth), the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
There have been times when a genuine peace process seemed on the verge of being brokered, such as the Oslo Accords agreements in 1993 (in which Israel would agree to acknowledge the Palestinian people and allow some limited self-governance), but extremists on both sides broke off the talks. Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organisation dedicated to destroying Israel, started immediately attacking the Jewish state, while a fanatic Israeli assassinated his own Prime Minister in 1996.
In 2007, the Palestinians of Gaza voted Hamas in as their governmental body. As a result, Israel suspended all talks and invaded Gaza. Today Gaza is blockaded off, by the sea and the air and the land, by Israel. In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron described it as a prison; others call it a ghetto. The average age in Gaza is 17 years old.
Although there have been atrocities on both sides, the use of white phosphorous by the Israeli government (an illegal weapon which burns through flesh and bone), its unquestioned military and financial dominance, and the building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian zones (illegal under international law), has caused some to compare the Israelis as “neo-Nazis”. Some 500, 000 Jews now live in Palestinian zones, or 1 in 10 Israelis. The Palestinians meanwhile, are trying to be accepted by the United Nations as a sovereign nation, but these attempts have failed so far.
And Jerusalem swings in the balance of both opposing factions, both of want it as their capital (Israel likes to think Jerusalem is its capital but this too, isn’t recognised under international law). Some believe that if Israel and the United States would just agree with the United Nations and withdraw to the pre-1967 Israeli borders, relinquishing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, then peace could be achieved. But then, what would happen to the 500, 000 Jews now settled in the West Bank? Would they now be driven from their homes, much like the Palestinians were in 1947-8?