Recent opinion articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may leave some readers with more questions than answers. That can result when the focus is on selected events and lacks a broader context. A more complete understanding requires seeing the conflict from the longer historical perspective.
Some may dismiss the conflict as “ancient history that’s been going on for a thousand years.” In fact, it’s not a particularly long conflict. Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony for centuries in the Middle East and Africa – more harmoniously than did Christians and Jews in Europe. Persecution caused diaspora Jews to believe they needed a safe haven somewhere outside Europe.
In the late 19th century, the Zionist movement embarked on a project for the migration of European Jews to a place all three faiths called “the Holy Land.” The Balfour Declaration in 1917 perhaps set the modern conflict in motion. As World War I drew to a close, Great Britain declared support for “a Jewish national home in Palestine.” The problem wasa large population of Muslim and Christian Arabs was already living in Palestine, alongside a small minority of indigenous Jews.
With the end of World War I, Ottoman control of the Middle East passed to the victorious powers of Britain and France. Britain partnered with European Zionists to sponsor Jewish settlers to colonize Palestine. Accelerated migration, particularly with the rise of Nazism, pushed the Jewish population from around 10 percent in 1920 to about a third by the end of World War II. Conflicts intensified as Palestinian Arabs feared continuing displacement by Jewish immigrants from Europe.
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In the years preceding World War II, Britain enlisted Jewish help to suppress an Arab independence revolt. Immediately after the war, when the British attempted to limit further immigration of Jews from Europe into Palestine, the Jews launched a bombing and sabotage campaign. Exhausted, out of money and wanting to wash its hands in the post-war aftermath, Britain turned the conflict over to the United Nations.
The U.N. approved a “partition plan” that created two proposed states. A Jewish state comprised a majority of the land area, had a small majority population of Jews and a large minority of Arabs. The Arab state was almost entirely populated by Arabs. The Jewish side accepted partition, but the Arabs were unwilling to carve Palestine into ethnic enclaves when countries all around were gaining full independence from the former colonial powers. Almost inevitably fighting broke out.
Jewish forces, with more fighters and better arms from the British and other sources, defeated the divided and poorly led Arab defenders. More than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled and made refugees. Historians differ on whether the expulsions were a pre-planned Zionist strategy or an opportunity taken in the course of attacks and conquests. Having expanded the nascent Israeli state to 78 percent of Palestine, the victors proceeded to demolish and eradicate the remnants of Arab habitation from abandoned towns and villages.
Violently expelling Palestinian families to create a “Jewish state” on top of destroyed communities where Arabs had lived for centuries launched a new phase of the conflict. It continues to the present day with the building of Jewish-only settlement colonies on land and water resources taken from Palestinians by military force and occupation.
Israel-Palestine is a land sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths. Jews certainly have the right to live in the land of their ancestors. But driving out and dispossessing another group of people has turned fulfillment of Jewish destiny into Israel’s original sin.
Some resolution for the displaced Palestinians has to occur if peace and co-existence are ever to take hold in the region. Honestly confronting their history can guide people toward moral conclusions and help them live together peacefully in a common ancestral land.
Lee Mortimer is a board member of the Durham-based Coalition for Peace with Justice, which advocates for a just and sustainable peace in Israel-Palestine. More historical background is available from the Coalition’s online Promised Land Museum.