Learn the history to understand the Middle East conflict – Kylie Stephens

Kylie Stephens
Kylie Stephens

When I returned from Israel and Palestine last month, Christmas decorations already adorned the terminals of Dulles airport.

Initially, this seasonal décor felt comforting. It reminded me I was on the last leg of my journey home. But after hours spent staring at a plastic Christmas tree at my gate, I could no longer ignore the irony of my situation. Having just returned from the “Holy Land,” I could not shake the sadness of knowing that daily life in the region is not indicative of the moral principles of the three Abrahamic faiths that so greatly value that land.

My initial column, prior to my trip, called for Americans to recognize the humanity in all people and to make an honest attempt to explore both sides of any conflict. I could not have predicted that in less than two months President Trump would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thrusting Israel and Palestine back into the American consciousness.

Most Americans know Jerusalem as a holy city and think the larger Israel-Palestine conflict revolves around deep-seated religious hatred. The reality is much more complex.

The original 1947 U.N. Partition Plan aimed to give Jerusalem international status due to its broad religious significance, with East Jerusalem planned as the capital of a Palestinian state and West Jerusalem the capital of an Israeli state. After the 1967 war, Israel took control of East Jerusalem despite U.N. and international opposition. Since that time, the U.N. and the majority of the world has refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. President Trump’s announcement breaks with the stance of our allies around the world and escalates tensions with Arab nations.

In a rebuttal to my initial column, Robert Gutman, a co-chair of the Durham chapter of Voice for Israel asserted that greater historical context is necessary to truly understand the conflict. His observation is especially relevant in order to grasp the likely consequences of President Trump’s decision. Even after reading the condensed history of Jerusalem that I outlined above, many Americans may still be left wondering, “What’s the big deal?” A brief, yet balanced, account of the modern history of the region reveals a conflict that is less about religious hatred and more about a lack of justice and equality.

Prior to the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century, Palestine was a relatively diverse region. During the late Ottoman period, a majority Muslim population lived in peace alongside their Christian and Jewish neighbors who also considered themselves Palestinian Arabs. After World War II and the Holocaust, it was decided that British Mandated Palestine would be split into two countries. This decision was made by Europeans with little thought given to the indigenous Palestinians. In fact, much of the Zionist rhetoric that encouraged European Jews to emigrate propagated the lie that the region was, “A land without people for a people without land.” The U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 gave the soon-to-be created Jewish nation more than 55 percent of Mandatory Palestine despite Jews only making up one-third of the region’s population.

In the years leading to the creation of Israel in 1948, violence and land theft by hardcore Zionists grew. There were attacks on Palestinian villages by Jewish militias like the Stern Gang and the Irgun (both commanded by men who would later become prime ministers of Israel). The first Arab-Israeli War that broke out in 1948 was largely due to the Palestinian and Arab world’s dissatisfaction with the unjust distribution of land that would force many Palestinians to either leave their ancestral homes or be forced to live under the rule of yet another colonizing power. After the short-lived 1948 war, Israel emerged with more than 78 percent of the land and over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced. Descendants of those initial refugees now number over 4 million and many are still living in refugee camps today. In total, there are over 7 million Palestinian refugees worldwide.

I visited multiple refugee camps in the West Bank. The Dheisha camp is less than 15 miles from Jerusalem yet many people living there cannot enter the city. For those that get permits, they must spend hours waiting in line at a checkpoint. This is especially insulting given that many families living in Dheisha come from Jerusalem and the surrounding area that is now controlled by Israel. These are not people who hate Israelis because they are Jewish. These are people who simply want to return to the homes and land their families lived on for hundreds of years. Despite not being able to even temporarily visit their ancestral lands, the Israeli military can enter Palestinian territory at any time to arrest people or demolish homes based upon their own discretion.

President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital unnecessarily pours gasoline on a fire that’s been burning for almost 70 years. In the unfortunate violence that’s likely to follow this announcement, it will be easy for Americans to turn on the TV and label the people they see throwing stones as troublemakers and terrorists. I urge us all to take a moment to consider how we would react if we were living in this situation.