The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most pressing international issues of the 20th and 21st centuries. In early December of 2017, President Donald Trump, announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — thus, reversing decades of American foreign policy, which had recognized Tel Aviv as the capital. The U.S. embassy will be moved to reflect the decision.
On January 2, 2018, the President and U.N. Ambassador Haley made clear that the U.S. could stop, or at the very least not add to, the country’s yearly donation– of about $370 million– to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. Both these decisions have certainly added to the ever-growing tensions between Arabs and Jews.
Like with all contemporary conflicts, in order to understand the holistic picture, we need to take a journey through the historical record. While persecution against the Jewish people has been prevalent for thousands of years, the Jewish Diaspora from the near east came to full fruition under the Roman Empire. Despite many believing the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Levant started in biblical times, the roots of the modern conflict only stretches as far back as the late-nineteenth century.
Anti-semitism had been widespread in the Middle Ages, mostly propagated by European Christians, who regarded Jews as heretics because they did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God. Beginning in the 1890s, the Jewish elite started to mobilize around the idea of an independent Jewish state, due to the growing anti-semitic attitudes in Europe. They became known as the Zionists (Jewish nationalists) and encouraged emigration to Palestine— then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire— which was made up of mostly Arab Muslims.
As anti-semitism grew, so did emigration to Palestine which, after World War I, was administered by a League of Nations mandate — essentially British rule. The Holocaust propelled the eventual establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Since then, Arab states and Zionist have gone to war in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978, and 1982 — which increased the amount of land and Palestinians under Zionists control. Nonetheless, nearly 10% of the Israel's population (about 600,000) live outside the nation’s 1967 borders.
While the Jewish people had finally accomplished their Zionist goals, Arabs saw the situation as an extension of European imperialism and colonialism — after all, they were Jewish Europeans. Arab Muslims had enjoyed Palestine as their home since the seventh century, and they could not understand why they were being punished for the mistakes of bigoted Europeans.
One prominent thinker of the day, suggested that part of Germany should’ve been cut out for a Jewish State — this, of course, was never a real option for the European powers. Two writers exemplify the aspirations of both groups, Zionist leader Amos Oz and Palestinian writer Fawaz Turki. Both invoke history and nationalism to justify their respective claims to the disputed territory; however, their compatibility is fundamentally non-existent, considering they have paradoxical claims to the same land.
Amos Oz began by addressing the historical prosecution of the Jewish population. He writes, “the murder of the European Jews was not a shoah (hebrew word for catastrophe). It was the ultimate logical outcome of the status of Jews in Western Civilization”. For Oz, being Jewish is not an individualistic endeavor because, for Europeans, they serve as an “archetype in the dungeon,” the scapegoat for all of society's problems.
Oz explains that whether you're portrayed as a parasite or a victim, being a Jew is a stereotypical symbol, despite assimilating into various European cultures. He went on to write, “I am a Zionist because I do not want to exist as a fragment of a symbol in the consciousness of others”. Oz invokes nationalism, promoting the ideas of sovereignty and interests of the nation, to further his argument.
Oz is speaking to a collective national identity, which typically includes people of the same cultural, linguistic, or historical background — in this case, those that identify as being Jewish. This nationalist rhetoric is quite similar to the words of the other leaders throughout the ages. Just as other minority groups (whether they be religious or ethnic) who were subjugated throughout history, in this case to an extreme extent, the Zionists feel that an independent Jewish state in Israel is the only way to end lifetimes of discrimination and oppression.
For Palestinians, however, a Jewish state based on a collective identity is merely an extension of European colonialism. This point of view is grounded in the historical realities of British and French imperialism in the Middle East. Besides the extensive land grabs in Algeria, Egypt, and other parts of Africa, both powers occupied and administered the League of Nations mandates in Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). These mandates were essentially an extension of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and the French– that had originally demarcated post-war territorial boundaries.
European powers were “preparing” these states (with borders they drew, of course — disregarding linguistic and cultural differences) for eventual independence; after WWII, this finally manifested itself, with the caveat of the state of Israel. It’s no wonder Palestinians felt the way they did — Europeans seemed to again be encroaching on their ancestral home.
Nationalism and history, in the same fashion as the Zionists, are the foundational arguments used by the Palestinians to justify their claims to the territory. The wars that followed the occupation of Palestine by Jews lead to a displacement of over 700,000 Palestinians, forcing them into exile.
One of the refugees affected by the war was Fawaz Turki, he wrote about his experience and why he will never give up believing in a Palestine for Palestinians. He also describes the hardships of life in a refugee camp and the discrimination he faced by Jewish colonists. He writes that “a kid at work had called me a two-bit Palestinian and a fist fight ensued. The supervisor...came over to stop the fight. He decided I had started it all, slapped me twice, deducted three lire from my wages for causing trouble...[he] suggested I had a whore mother”. This exemplifies the type of discrimination that Palestinians face from European Jews.
Of course, discrimination and violence have been propagated on both sides; one faction of the Palestinian movement called Hamas, a militant fundamentalist Islamic group — who wants to establish a version Sharia law in Palestine, has carried out numerous rocket attacks and suicide bombings. Hamas has gained traction since it was established in 1987, and has administered the Gaza Strip since 2007 (except between 2014-16).
Secular factions like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have also furthered the struggle based on nationalist claims; their leading faction, Fatah, currently has authority over parts of the West Bank. These nationalistic sentiments parallel the writing of Turki. From exile, he writes, “we wanted nothing short of return to our homeland. And from Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, we would see, a few miles, a few years, across the border, a land where we had been born, where we had lived, and where we felt the earth. ‘This is my land,’ we would shout…”.
While both Amos Oz and Fawaz Turki invoke a common history based on a shared national identity, their visions for what the future should hold are radically in conflict. Some observers have suggested a two-state solution with Israel having a state composed of roughly three-quarters of the original British Mandate of Palestine, and a Palestinian State making up the remaining quarter..This would certainly be better than the situation we have now. However, given the tension between Hamas and the PLO, the right-wing administration of Netanyahu, and the regional proxies that are already underway it seems as though a two-state solution is far from materializing.
Cristian write pieces providing historical context to contemporary political issues. His areas of historical interests include, the Jacksonian era, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age politics.