Contextualizing the Past Landscape and Relations
“Palestinians from Gaza leaving the occupied West Bank to go to Jordan in 1968” (Image c/o New York Times)
“Exodus 1947, Jewish refugees wait to board the President Warfield on a quay in Sete's harbor, on their way to Palestine” (Image c/o U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
By Jenevieve Monroe
In the past week, the United States has emerged as a pivotal actor in the ongoing global discourse regarding the Middle East’s humanitarian crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. Nations from around the world have shared varying perspectives and concerns surrounding the conflict. The focus of dispute between these two groups begins with the land itself: both Palestinians and Israelis claim ancestry, religious sanctity, and indigenous rights to the land East of the Mediterranean Sea.
In the perspective of many Israelis, their state has existed since the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Israel, biblically known as the Land of Canaan. The Israelities occupied and conquered the land of Cannaan in the late 2nd millennium BCE; this occupation was justified using the Bible, which identified Canaan as the Promised Land for the Israelites. The people who had been living in this region prior to Israeli occupation were known as the Caananites, and are considered to be the ancestors of some Arabs and Jews today.
Some Palestinians state that they are descendents of the ancient Canaanites. According to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “This land is for its people… who were here 5,000 years ago.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denies this, however, stating that the ancestors of modern Palestinians “came from the Arabian peninsula to the Land of Israel thousands of years” after the Israelites. The disagreement between these claims was largely contested between native Palestinians and Jewish refugees following World War I. The indigenous people in this area, labeled as the Canaanites in the Bronze Age, did not have a distinct ethnic group and faced occupation for centuries. Some scholars believe these lands have been given the name “Palestine” as a derived version of the word “Philistia”, which comes from the Philistines that occupied the region in the 12th century BCE
Since the existence of Canaan, these lands have been conquered for centuries by the following powers:
Israelites (13th to 9th BCE), Philistines (12th BCE), Assyrians (8th and 7th BCE), Babylonians (6th BCE), Persians (6th and 5th BCE), Alexander the Great (4th BCE), Seleucids (3rd and 2nd BCE), Romans (1st BCE and 1st CE), Umayyad/Abbasid/Fatimid Caliphates (7th to 12th CE), Crusaders (12th CE), Ayyubid and Mamluk Islamic dynasty (12th to 16th CE), Ottoman Caliphate (16th to 20th CE), League of Nations’ British Mandate (20th CE), and the State of Israel (20th to present).
With this diverse history of conquest came different forms of oppression. For Jewish inhabitants around the 2nd century BCE, they were severely persecuted. They revolted against and were violently suppressed by generations of Roman rulers. Under the Babylonian empire in 6th century BCE, the sacred Jewish First Temple was decimated and many Jewish civilians were forced into exile. This trend continued under the Roman empire, where Roman legions under King Titus destroyed the Second Temple during the Jewish-Roman wars and forced an even greater Jewish diaspora from Jerusalem in 70 CE. After the revolt, the Romans changed the region’s name from Judea to Syria-Palaestina as a means of erasing Jewish identity.
By the 7th century CE, the prophet Muhammad founded Islam in this region and viewed his beliefs as an extension of Abrahamic Judaism and Christianity. Many Christians, Muslims, and Jews generally coexisted in these lands for centuries following. The prophet’s death in 632 CE prompted Islamic expansion into the region and Jerusalem was conquered by 638 CE. For the next four centuries, the region was under Islamic rule and Caliphate. From the 11th to 13th century, Christianity had overtaken Europe and the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. The city was renamed as the “Kingdom of Jerusalem” and deemed a Crusader state. This transition of power from Islam to Christianity led to centuries of violence between Muslims and Christians in the region. These conflicts led to the Mamluks, an Islamic dynasty, recapturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders. In 1517, the region was once again conquered. The Ottoman Empire governed Palestine from 1517 until 1920 when they were defeated in World War I.
After the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire , the League of Nations seized the territory of Palestine and transferred its authority over to Britain. The document solidifying this was called the British Mandate for Palestine in 1920. The League of Nations’ mandate told Britain to control the lands and natives “until such time as they are able to stand alone” while simultaneously creating a Jewish national homeland in the region. This became a major point of contention because Britain, acting as an imperial power, promised the region to both Jewish Zionists and native Palestinians. From 1915 to 1916, the British government indicated support for Arab independence and Arab self-rule in a series of communications known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. Their support specifically referenced Palestinian liberation. Less than a year later, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration. This document expressed British support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine and an explicit clause stating no harm would come to non-Jewish natives in the region. The hopes for a Jewish homestead was not new to diplomats; the creation of Zionism was a way for Jewish people to unite under a theocratic state and avoid persecution. Britain orchestrated a great influx of Jewish immigrants into the region, resulting in territorial disputes between natives and immigrants. This event was a catalyst for the overarching debate on who owns the land: current residents or immigrants with ancient ties to the region?
By 1936, the dispossession of Palestinian land, the lack of self-determination, and several altercations put many native Arabs in distress. This caused the Arab Revolt, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. The revolt began with spontaneous acts of violence by the followers of Sheikh ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām, a man who had been killed by the British. One example of this was the murder of two Jews that year. The revolt became a series of protests, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience against British mandatory authorities. Over time, the protests escalated into violent attacks against the British forces and Jewish settlements. An array of two-state solution proposals were prepared as a form of compromise. The Peel Commission (1927) and the UN Partitions Plans (1947) responded with geographic delinations of land ownership between immigrants and natives. However, resolution between the groups never happened because Palestinians felt their land rights were not equitably represented in the distribution policies.
Both the British government and Jewish Zionists disregarded the outcome of this democratic process and declared the region as Israel on May 14th, 1948. Following the declaration, major conflict ensued between the groups which became known as the Arab-Israeli War. The conflict resulted in significant territorial changes, with the newly established State of Israel gaining control of more land than what was proposed in the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947. The State of Israel viewed the resolution of this war as the result of several armistice agreements that delineated ceasefire lines; for native Palestinians, however, these events are called the 1948 Nakba (also known as “The Catastrophe”). For approximately 700,000 Palestinians, they were forced out of their homes by Israeli police brutality and became refugees. Violent massacres ensued, like the Deir Yassin massacre, and villages were destroyed. Palestinian families were separated, properties and livelihoods confiscated, and citizens expressed experiencing an overall loss of identity and culture. The Nakba has left a profound impact on Palestinians to this day.
Extensions of conflict similar to this ensued throughout the decades. One significant example was the 1967 Six Day War. Border disputes heightened between Israel and several Arab states; diplomatic tensions also peaked with Egypt’s strategic closure of a waterway that Israel depended on for trade. The State of Israel launched a preemptive strike on June 5, 1967. War broke out in lethal, swift waves between countries. By the end of the War, Israel had won several victories that expanded their territory, displacing even more Palestinians. All of Jerusalem was claimed as Israel’s “eternal capital”. This war left a legacy of diplomatic implications for Israel. A summit was held after, known as the Khartoum Arab Summit, which voted on a resolution called the “Three No’s”, meaning no peace, no recognition, no negotiation with the state of Israel.
Persistent violent clashes continue to this day. While property rights center these historical tensions, religious rights do as well.
Both Jews and Muslims share sacred religious sites in Jerusalem. For those who practice Islam, Palestine is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Islamic tradition considers it to be the third holiest place in the world. According to the Qur’an, Muhammad was divinely transported one night from Mecca to the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It was there that he led Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other messengers of God (known as Allah in Islam) in ritual prayer. That same evening, Muhammad was taken up to heaven from the site of the Dome of the Rock and spoke directly with Allah.
For those who practice Judaism, the site of the mosque has become a focal point of conflict between these two groups. It is also deemed sacred to the Jewish community due to its historical association with the Temple of Jerusalem in ancient Israel (also known as Temple Mount). The First Temple was constructed at this site in the 10th century BCE by King Solomon, the son of King David. This temple was a place of worship, housing the Ark of the Covenant, which was believed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The First Temple stood for several centuries but was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. This event is a crucial part of Jewish history, since it ultimately led to the Babylonian Exile and began a series of Jewish diasporas. A second temple was built in the 6th century BCE under the Persian Empire's, only to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The site today embodies what Jewish people call the Temple Mount.
It is imperative to provide context for the religious importance of these sites, as their accessibility has been a contentious issue between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. The site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque is under coordination with the Jordan government to allow Palestinian Muslims access for worship, but entry into the building is controlled by Israeli police. The holy grounds, known as Al Haram Al Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), are solely for Muslim worship.
Many Palestinian Muslims fear that the precedent of religious coexistence between groups is being eroded by a far-right Jewish movement. According to CNN, Israeli police conducted several raids in the Al-Aqsa Mosque earlier this year. “Videos shared on social media showed Israeli police beating screaming Muslim worshipers with batons.” Israel Defense Forces state that they stormed the mosque after “hundreds of rioters and mosque desecrators barricaded themselves inside” and were said to be throwing fireworks and stones at them. The violence prompted rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza, to which Israel retaliated with airstrikes.
For Muslim Palestinians, however, this event was viewed as an act against their ethnic group and religious practice. A Palestinian resident of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood commented on the issue to CNN saying, “I feel pain. True pain deep inside…This is a house of God. It is for worship. Not for occupation or provocation. Even as we pray, we are provoked and monitored by the Israelis.”
The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex array of narratives, indigenous claims, and violent historical events. It encompasses a connection to the land, religious practice, and centuries of both coexistence and contention. The recent terrorist attacks on October 7th have since caused further strain on these hostile relations. Over 1,400 Israeli citizens were killed and 5,132 injured by Hamas. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. The events have been deemed the “deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust”. Israel Defense Forces have since responded against Hamas by using air strikes against the city of Gaza and trapping all citizens, a city home to more than 2 million civilians. It is considered to be Hamas's home base. The IDF has also deployed airstrikes in the West Bank against a mosque alleged to hold Hamas militants. The bombings are ongoing at this time and the latest death toll stands at 4,741 Palestinians killed and over 20,386 injured.
This situation underscores the urgency of the Middle East’s developing humanitarian crisis as the toll of fatalities continue to mount.
Madison Sciba '24,