Religious, Social, and Cultural Theories on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict



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December 3, 2004

Religious, Social, and Cultural Theories on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


The region of the Middle East frequently referred to as Palestine has long been the site of much conflict. In recent years, a major effort on the part of the International community has been employed in an attempt to bring peace to the troubled region, yet every time peace accords seem to be at hand, everything falls apart. In order to fully understand the enmity that keeps causing peace talks to break down, one must look at the roots from which the conflict stems. If the root of the issue can be clearly devised, then movements towards peace in the region will be much more succinct.
Palestinian Development Under Turkish Rule

Issues concerning Palestine’s development in socio-cultural and religious terms begin to become apparent to the modern world once the Turkish Empire moved into the region. The Seljuk Turks, a Muslim group, took control of Jerusalem in 1071. Their rule was characterized by struggles with the Christian crusaders of Europe. Seeking to better their own position, another group of Turks, the Fatimids (from Egypt) allied themselves with the crusaders, but were later betrayed. The betrayal led to the capture of Jerusalem and Jaffa in 1099 along with the slaughter of many Jewish and Muslim defenders at the hands of the Christian Crusaders. The Muslim leader, Saladin, attacked and gained control of Jerusalem finally evicting the Crusaders in 1291. His particular Muslim group was known as the Mamelukes, who were originally “soldier-slaves of the Arabs.” While their empire was far reaching, including Palestine, it was comprised primarily of Arab-speaking Muslims, although Jews from Spain and the surrounding Mediterranean area began to settle in and around Jerusalem in the late 1300s.

With the defeat of the Mamelukes by the Ottoman Empire in 1517, the Turkish Sultan invited Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to settle within Palestine. While the Turks did operate under a Jihad aimed specifically at the Christians (in response to the havoc wreaked by the Christian Crusades) during the Medieval Age, they became increasingly more acclimated to the cultures of their conquered peoples as they continued to move west. Their addition of these cultures helped create the distinctive culture for which the Ottoman Empire is known. The overall result was an empire that was remarkably tolerant of foreign culture and religion (particularly the Jewish faith and Islam), making the Ottoman Empire a refuge for the Jews of Europe.


Figure 1
In 1798, Napoleon invaded. The combination of war and faulty administration caused many Jews and Arabs to flee the country, significantly reducing the Palestinian population. Revolts by Palestinian Arabs against Ottoman (and Egyptian) rule began at this time. Reorganization of the empire brought order and catalyzed the beginnings of Jewish settlements under a variety of Zionist movements. The result of these changes caused an increase in both Arab and Jewish populations. By 1880, out of a population of 400,000, the Jewish population comprised 24,000 (see figure 1). At this same time, the Ottoman Empire imposed stringent restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchase although many of these restrictions were evaded by colonists.

The Zionist movement arose among the Sephardic Jewish community of Europe, who saw the concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine (under Turkish or German rule) to be a practical aspiration given the continued persecution experienced in Europe. In thoughts of creating a Jewish homeland, the existing Arab population that also inhabited the land was not a primary consideration. Farm communities began to be established throughout Palestine causing an increase in the Jewish population. The Arab population also continued to increase. By 1914, out of a 700,000 member population, 615,000 were Arabs and 85,000 were Jews (see figure 1).


Historical conflict of Israel/Palestine from the start of British Occupation to the Present

To begin to understand the argument over Palestine in recent history, one must look back to the start of British occupation in the region when General Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem in 1917. The League of Nations decided to make Jerusalem the capital of British-held Palestine with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour declaration is primarily responsible for the ensuing conflicts of land and state that developed. The document declared British support for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Unfortunately they also had previously promised Arabs to support the creation of independent nations.

During World War I, the Ottoman Empire had been allied with Germany. After the war, Britain and France were dividing their holds among themselves. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 said Syria and Lebanon would go to France and Palestine would go to Britain. However, Britain offered some of this same land to the Arabs in return for their support of the Allies. The Arabs then revolted against the Ottomans to establish Arab independence in the Middle East. The Arabs assumed that Palestine qualified as one of the independent states that Britain had pledged to support. The result of those conflicting promises led to the first anti-Zionist riot in Palestine in 1920.

In 1922 the League of Nations officially approved the British mandate of Palestine. The mandate stated that Britain would help the Jews to build a national home and promote the creation of self-governing institutions. According to Winston Churchill, the land granted by the mandate comprised a much larger area than the area originally desired by the Zionists. A series of “White Papers” were then issued to clarify the rules of the governance of the region. The 1922 White Paper detailed the terms of Palestinian establishment. Issued on June 3, 1922, this document is also known as the Churchill White Paper. It stated that Britain did not support the Jewish National Home as a separate nation, but instead as a community within Palestine. The document also denied that Britain had promised the Arabs “that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine.” It confirmed the right of Jewish immigration, but said that the immigration “should not exceed the economic absorptive capacity” of the country.

Also known as the Passfield White Paper, the 1930 White Paper was issued limiting immigration. It determined that no more Jewish development would be allowed due to a shortage of arable land (although this claim was not supported by agricultural documentation). The document further slowed Jewish immigration while reiterating that the purpose of the Jewish National Home was to exist as a cultural community.

In 1937 the Peel Commission was issued. This document declared the British promises to the Zionists and the Arabs to be irreconcilable. They decided the only solution to the problem would be to partition Jerusalem and the holy sites. The Zionists reluctantly approved the commission’s decision, but the Arabs rejected it altogether. At this point, the British decide to drop the partition idea and instead responded with the issuing of the White Paper of 1939.

The White Paper of 1939 (MacDonald White Paper) attempted to make concessions to the Arabs. In this document, a very narrow interpretation was given to the Balfour Declaration saying that a center could be built for the Jews in Palestine, but that the British had never indicated that this center would develop into a Jewish State. This particular premise thus led to the issue of immigration. In support of this notion of the Jewish National Homeland, the severe restriction of Jewish expansion and immigration followed. A maximum quote of 75,000 Jews were allowed into the county over a five year period of time with any exceptions being subject to Arab approval. The British said that under this policy too many Jews had already entered the country and thus halted immigration altogether. They also limited the amount of land Jews could purchase in an attempt to aid Arab farmers. The Zionists felt that this document was a complete betrayal of the Balfour Declaration. The Arabs rejected it because they wanted the immediate creation of an Arab Palestine and the prohibition of future immigration as well as a review of all Jewish immigrants since 1918.

In 1946 the Anglo-American conference decided that Britain should remain in charge of Palestine. They rescinded land transfer restrictions, admitted 100,000 Jews and declared that the Jewish underground should disband. In 1947 they discussed plans for Jewish-Arab autonomy, but no solution was reached. In February of the same year, the British decided that their mandate was no longer working and turned the problem over to the UN.

A UN special committee on Palestine proposed partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an internationally run zone that would include Jerusalem. Before this compromise was fully investigated, on May 14, 1948, the British pulled out and the State of Israel was declared at Tel Aviv with Chaim Weizmann as president and David Ben Gurion as prime minister. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq proceeded to invade. In the War of Independence, Israel expanded to occupy 77% of the territory. In the process, many Palestinian Arabs (about 50% of the indigenous Palestinian population) were driven out. Armistice agreements were reached in January of 1949. In December of 1949, the capitol was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in an attempt to strengthen the claim there. After the Lausanne conference in 1949, 150,000 Arab refugees were allowed back into the country to reunite with their families. In 1950, the Law of Return was issued which provided free and automatic citizenship for all Jews. In 1967 Israel proceeded to occupy the remaining territories that had been under control of Jordan and Egypt which included both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This brought about the exodus of as many as a half million Palestinians. The Security Council later called Israel to withdraw from these new territories on November 22, 1967. In 1974, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people were reaffirmed by the General Assembly. These rights included, “self-determination, national independence and sovereignty, and [the right] to return [to Palestine].” The assembly also gave the status of observer to the PLO in any UN sanctioned international forum.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the attempt to eliminate the PLO, but a ceasefire was arranged. PLO troops withdrew after being assured the safety of the thousands of Palestinian refugees present, but upon their departure large scale massacres occurred. In 1983, the International Conference on the Question of Palestine adopted, on the following principles, the Geneva Declaration: “the need to oppose and reject  the establishment of settlements in the occupied territory and actions taken by Israel to change the status of  Jerusalem,  the right of all States in the region to existence within secure and internationally recognized boundaries, with justice and security for all the people, and the attainment of the legitimate, inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.” A series of peace talks followed in the early 90s including the signing of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self Government Arrangements by both Israel and the PLO in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1993.


Conflict in Terms of Islam v. Judaism v. Christianity in the sharing of Jerusalem

While the conflict existing in Israel/Palestine is the result of many cultural, political, and social differences between the groups of people living in the region, historically speaking from a religious perspective, all three groups (Christian, Jew, and Muslim) have legitimate ties (although some more than others) to the area particularly where Jerusalem is concerned. In a growing nation comprised of 568,000 Muslims, 74,000 Christians, and 58,000 Jews in 1919 compared to 1,091,000 Muslims, 146,000 Christians, and 614,000 Jews in 1947 (see figure 2), the issue of Jerusalem as a religious city is absolutely critical.




Figure 2
There are a variety of religiously historical ties that the three religions share concerning their separate distinctions concerning who they believed Jesus was. The Jews acknowledge Jesus and that fact that he did indeed exist as a historical figure, but they don’t believe that he is the Messiah that they have been waiting for. The Christians follow the same basics as the Jews as far as the entirety of the Old Testament is concerned, but the Christians go one step further, and acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. The Koran does not dispute the historical figure of Jesus. In fact, in describing the birth of Jesus, many similarities can be seen between the Koran and the New Testament, although the Koran is not as specific concerning places, for example, it doesn’t mention that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Muslims, however, believe that Jesus was a great prophet who was then succeeded by Mohammed and his successive revelations. According to the Koran, as a baby Jesus spoke, saying “'I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Gospel and ordained me a prophet,” (Sura 19:33). Knowing how these three groups feel concerning Jesus, who did all of his ministry throughout the area of Israel, with some key aspects of his life occurring in the area of Jerusalem, provides religious background on their various levels of attachment to the region.

Jerusalem is not particularly significant to Muslims on a religious level. It is not mentioned at all in the Koran, whereas it’s mentioned 832 times in the Old Testament (which both Christians and Jews follow). The Koran never specifically mentions Jerusalem or Zion anywhere in all of its text, primarily because Jerusalem played no role in the founding of Islam. Mu’awaiya, a ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, hoped to have Jerusalem as a political and administrative center and thus attempted to make Jerusalem a Muslim stronghold by building the Dome of the Rock on the site of the original temple. Jerusalem, however, was too rich in Jewish history (and not enough Muslim history) for any concrete attachments to be made.

Due to its political connotations, religious significance thus had to be attributed to it as well in order to justify its worth to the nation of Islam as anything more than a strategically significant backwater town. A second temple was thus built on the Temple Mount and was referred to as Al-Masjid al-Aqsa which then confers upon Jerusalem, the honor of being the city hosting the holiest of Mosques.

For Jews, Jerusalem is a city of incredible importance. It is the location of the original temple built by Solomon. One always prays facing towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a city of hope, and promise. Even with only the Western Wall remaining of the temple, in very close proximity to the Dome of the Rock; it is a sacred place of prayer and reflection for Jews. Jerusalem remains a part of the Passover celebration which ends with the recitation “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Christians don’t attach as much significance to Jerusalem itself, although the entire region remains important if only due to the fact that it is the location where Jesus walked, taught, and performed His miracles. While it is a province of religious significance, in this day and age, it has become more culturally noteworthy as Christians have bowed out of the fight for religious control of the city.

For Muslims, the city holds more political importance than anything else, but in order to maintain the fervor that it is truly a place worth fighting for; more religious implication has been attached to it. For Christians, it remains a place of deep historical and religious connection, although the bond that exists there is not as integrally tied to identity as it is for the Jewish population. Out of the three groups with attachments to Jerusalem, that of the Jewish population is most significant, because it not only confers religious import, but is a source of cultural identity as well.

Another way to understand the religious significance of the region, one must look at the religious (and thus cultural) roots of a continuing conflict. According to the book of Genesis, which is the first book of both the Old Testament and the Torah, God promised Abraham that his descendents would inherit a vast amount of land, including “the land of the …Canaanites” Genesis 15:20. The Canaanites inhabited the land that is today known as Palestine. This promise was intended to be fulfilled through Abraham and his wife Sarah, but Sarah’s heretofore inability to produce a child, led Abraham to take his Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, as another wife. Through Hagar, a son named Ishmael was born. Not too long thereafter, Sarah also bore a child, Isaac who was considered the child through whom the promise would be fulfilled. Now faced with two potential heirs, Abraham questioned God concerning his sons. He was told concerning Ishmael, “I will make him faithful and will greatly increase his numbers…I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac,” Genesis 18:20b-21a. Due to the enmity of Sarah towards Hagar and her son, at Sarah’s request, Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away.

There is no controversy concerning the statement that the Arabs are the displaced descendents of Abraham through Ishmael and that the Jews are descendents of Abraham through Isaac, and thus the children of the promise (and from their perspective, the legitimate heirs of what is now considered the Palestine region.

Given this history, the issue of land sharing has some very bitter roots. While the majority of Arabs have embraced Islam, they cannot forget their origins with their Jewish cousins, and the bitterness that forced them to leave the region in the first place. It is now easy to see why the Jewish people are so connected to the land, and being the original settlers (among other reasons) why the Arabs also refuse to be displaced yet again.

Land Sharing and International Intervention

C


Figure 3: 1947 UN boundaries
urrently, the region of Palestine is approximately 100,000 square miles. It reaches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Ocean. It’s bounded by Egypt to the south, Lebanon to the north, and Jordan to the east. Before the British left the area, boundaries had already been established delineating the Israeli-Palestinian areas (see figure 3). But since the British pulled out, the Israel has been increasing their land with little to no regard for the Palestinians already living there. The Israelis have begun many settlements in Arab territory since 1967. UN resolution 446 declared these settlements to be without any legal validity. A series of reports done on the progression of peace in the region indicated that the continued presence and expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory was serving as an impediment to the peace process.

A
Figure 4: Jewish Settlements in 2000


ccording to a human rights report in the mid-90s, since 1967, the Israeli’s had confiscated 60% of the West Bank, 33% of the Gaza Strip, and 33% of Palestinian land in Jerusalem. At the time, this amounted to 19 settlements in Gaza, 158 in the West Bank, a nd 16 in Jerusalem. In 1999, the Israeli’s had started 44 new settlements in the West Bank (see figure 4). The Israeli’s also evicted and demolished Palestinian homes and neighborhoods for lack of permits. Since 1987, more than 16,700 Palestinians have lost their homes this way.

Before the British left, the idea was that out of existing territory, both a Palestinian and Israeli state could be created. Palestine would be divided into eight territories. Three of these territories would go to the Arabs and three would go to the Israelis. Jaffa was to be an Arab enclave within Jewish territory, and Jerusalem would be internationally managed. The Israelis were not enthusiastic about this division of land, but agreed anyway. The Arabs rejected the plan outright. At this point, the British pulled out. The State of Israel was declared based on the suggested boundaries, but subsequent hostilities followed as Arab troops of neighboring states entered to help Palestinian Arabs. Following the start of hostilities in the region, the Security Council called a truce, meanwhile, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization tried to help with mediation. By the time a second a truce was issued, Israel had acquired a lot of the territory that had been allotted to the Arabs under the partition agreement, as well as the western part of Jerusalem. The war forced 750,000 Palestinians from their homes causing the refugee situation.

Many Palestinians took refuge in a variety of surrounding nations. While some of these Palestinians were eventually able to return home, a large number remained in the countries they had fled to. As of March 2000, it was estimated that 1.58 million Palestinians were living in Jordan, although some sources quote the number closer to 2.5 million. Egypt is estimated as housing between 53,000-70,000 Palestinians according to the Palestinian and Egyptian ambassador, although other news sources see the number as being between 80,000 -100,000 during the 1990s. Saudi Arabia is said to be home to about one half million Palestinians, while even the US houses over 72,000 Palestinians according to the most recent census.

While many Arab nations have been fairly open to receiving Palestinian refuges, there are several key groups that have shown consistent support for the nation of Palestine over the years. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) has consistently been in support of Palestine. The PLO’s focuses were initially anti-Israel. Once the UN recognized the PLO as an official observer, they eventually began to take less of a purely anti-Israel stance, and began truly supporting the Palestinian cause. The PLO was led by Yasir Arafat since 1968, but his recent death in 2004 has opened up a position of leadership in that area.

The United Nations has also been a supporter of Palestine. Their support has been seen in a variety of legislation passed to support the Palestinians. This legislation has included measures to increase the land available for Arab farmers to maintain their agricultural development. While many nations support the formation of Palestine, only one nation has been particularly outspoken concerning the welfare of Israel.

The United States was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel. The US tended to either support or abstain on resolutions critical of Israel from 1967-1972. They had sold millions in weapons to Arabs but participated in the Israeli embargo until 1962 when they sold Israel a HAWK anti-aircraft missile. Military involvement was sporadic until 1973 when Nixon sent Israel weapons and supplies to recover after their Yom Kippur War against Egypt. Part of the motivation behind this decision stemmed from Arab support of the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War. Israel stood out as a Middle Eastern country that was a defender of “Western values.”

The United States began giving economic aid in 1951 primarily to assist with the care of Holocaust survivors. For many years, Israel received around $3 billion per year (approximately $1.2 billion for economic development, and $1.8 billion for military purposes). Over the years, the economic portion given to Israel has been reduced, but there has been a slight increase in funds destined for military purposes. The $1.2 billion will drop by $120 million per year to be phased out over the course of 10 years. Half of this phasing decrease ($60 million) will instead be tacked onto the military aid instead due to “increased security concerns.” In 2003, the United States voted to cut aid to Israel (and all foreign aid programs across the board), but the bill included a provision that would bar Federal assistance to a Palestinian state until several conditions were met. These conditions included that the state demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful existent, to take measure to combat terrorism, and to replace the current Palestinian leadership.

The US not only plays a role of Israeli defender, but under the Clinton administration, significant strides were made towards developing a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2000, Clinton met with both Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat.

The Clinton talks suggested that over 90% of the West Bank be Palestinian. The Israelis didn’t have any particular problem with this, but the major sticking point occurred over Jerusalem. The Palestinians were ok with Israel having control of the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, as well as the Western Wall, but they wanted to have sole control of Eastern Jerusalem which contains a holy site for both the Jews and Muslims. At this point talks broke down when hostilities erupted at the holy site (Temple Mount) in question.

Barak resigned, but negotiations continued. President Clinton recommended that Israel give control of the Temple Mount region, the Arab quarter, 96% of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in its entirety to the Palestinians. In return they would get some areas within Palestinian boundaries for settlement, and Jerusalem would serve as the capital of both nations. The Palestinians would relinquish the issue of refugees to Israel and accept Jewish sovereignty of the Western Wall and corresponding holy sites. Israel forces that currently reside in Jordan for border control would remain for a three to six year period at which point they would be replaced by an international military force. Finally, the accepting of this agreement would declare an end to all hostilities. Barak said that he would be willing to talk further concerning the given outline if Arafat was willing to do the same. Among other issues, Arafat had some concerns concerning the division of East Jerusalem and the refugees’ ability to return.

Sharon became prime minister, replacing Barak in early February. Sharon, significantly altered some aspects of the plan proposed by Clinton, but still was willing to work towards peace with Arafat. The Bush administration didn’t follow the same track as the Clinton administration had concerning peace in the region, but they were still willing to work as a mediator between the two parties with the goal to eventually see a Palestinian state and Israeli state living in peaceful co-existent. Unfortunately, while the new sets of proceedings were still in a delicate state, a suicide bomber detonated at an Israeli hotel. The Israel declared Arafat an enemy and began the raiding of Palestinian areas.

Looking Towards The Future

While to some extent talks have continued, peace is nowhere in the near future for the region. Whenever progress has been made some manner of hostilities erupts that halts the process. The hostilities that spring up are often the result of individual grudges and bitterness. It is not easy to put behind oneself years of living as a refugee after your neighborhood has been unnecessarily demolished or seeing ones family members blown to bits by a suicide bomber as they make a routine trip to the grocers market. While Jerusalem will always be a deciding factor because of the religious significance it has for both parties, the history of the enmity between these two groups, both recent and historical, cannot be overcome by the simple reapportioning and partitioning of a nation’s capital. At this point, the best steps that can be made towards reaching peace can come from humane interaction between the two groups. When Israel stops senselessly evicting entire Palestinian neighborhoods and when Palestinians cease blowing up innocent children and mothers, then a realistic platform will be established that shows a respect of life on the part of both groups. Even though much of the violence in this respect is done by extremist groups, those who truly desire peace in the area need to help keep their kinsmen in check and promote a respect for life, all life. Once the two groups can look at each other with the basic respect that life should be afforded, then a peaceful coexistent between a Palestinian and Israeli State will not be far in the future.



References

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De la Cruz, P., Brittingham, A. (2003). “The Arab Population: 2000”. US Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-23.pdf
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