The Israel-Palestine conflict dates back many years and branding it as a mere conflict between Islam and Judaism can deter us from seeking an objective understanding and evaluation of it. Thus, we must examine the evolution of this conflict in a systematic, empirical manner devoid of all theological biases following the lead of historians like James Gelwin and unravel decades of competing nationalisms.
Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and as per 1878 records, the population in Palestine was roughly 87% Muslims, 10% Christians and 3% Jews. Everyone spoke Arabic as the main language and in Jerusalem, the population was distributed roughly equally among Muslims, Christians and the Jews. People of several faiths lived together in harmony. Several Arab Christians read the Quran in school, celebrated Id with their Muslim friends and neighbours while practicing Christianity in their personal lives. The Ottoman Empire was secular and people of all faiths were promised a secure place under its regime.
It was at this time, in the late 19th century, when there was communal harmony and peaceful coexistence in Palestine that a growing sense of nationalism emerged in Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, where several new nation states emerged, saw sweeping territorial changes like no other. It was during this period that several Jewish nationalists like Theodor Herzl started examining probabilities of the Jewish masses assimilating into European countries and were soon convinced that they had to look for a secure establishment outside Europe. This eventually sparked the rise of Jewish nationalism also popularly referred to as Zionism.
Most Zionists were secular and they envisioned Israel to be a safe place for Jews, more than they wanted it to be a ‘Jewish’ state. In 1917, the British government made the Balfour Declaration to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jews. This was indeed a brave move considering that Palestine was technically still under the Ottoman Empire. Its disintegration would happen only after World War I. In 1916, a year before the Balfour Declaration, the British had secretly promised the French that they would divide the Arab states and keep Palestine for themselves. Furthermore, in 1915, British officials promised the ruler or the Sharif of Mecca Hussein Bin Ali that he would rule the Arab states including Palestine if there is an Arab revolt in future against the Ottoman Empire. As expected, Hussein promptly waged a war against the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the British tactfully promised Palestine to themselves, to the Meccans and to the Zionists.
After the war, the British decided to establish a colony in Palestine until Palestinians were ‘equipped’ to rule themselves. It was called Mandatory Palestine. It was during this period that the seeds of communalism were sown in Palestine. The British established separate schools for Muslims, Jews and Christians making it difficult for the Palestinian Muslims and Christians to cooperate with each other and thus, paved the way for an easier divide and rule strategy.
Meanwhile, the British took several steps to honour the Balfour declaration in Europe. Immigration of Jews to Palestine sharply increased and Jews were just under 30 percent as per 1938 records as against their very small numbers in the region historically. This eventually led to land purchases and eviction of several Arab Palestinian landowners from their land. The Palestinian Jews attempted to set up a secular community within Palestine by controlling both land and labour, but soon tensions sparked between the Palestinian Arabs and Jews due to growing concentration of resources in the hands of the Jews and forceful eviction of Arabs. This resulted in growing tensions between these two ethnic identities and the Palestinian Arabs soon started thinking about themselves as the Palestinian nation.
This growing sense of nationalism led to further tensions between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs during the 1930s. This eventually led to several uprisings of Palestinian Arabs against the Jews including the Arab revolt in 1936 against the British due to frequent eviction from their land. It was, however, brutally suppressed by the British with the assistance of the Jews. Soon, the British, realising the impending catastrophe in the region, started limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine and called for the establishment of a joint Arab-Jewish state within a period of 10 years which made no one happy because the Jews wanted a secure land outside Europe and the Arabs would have to wait ten years for the establishment of a nation.
The outbreak of World War II made things slightly better in Palestine. It was quite a peaceful period in this region. The war ended and problems resumed. The British now finally realised that the problems had worsened in their colonies and handed the matter over to the newly formed United Nations.
The UN partitioned Palestine into separate Palestinian and Jewish nations. The UN resolution failed and was followed by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War which Israel eventually won and ended with Israel annexing a third more land than what was sanctioned under the UN proposal. Then, Jordan annexed Jerusalem while Egypt came to control the Gaza strip. Several Palestinians fled their homes and became refugees in the surrounding Arab countries. To the Israelites, this was the beginning of their nation and to the Palestinians this was the beginning of the catastrophe and they ended up becoming homeless and, in fact, stateless. In 1967, Israel and several Arab nations went to war again. It was popularly called the Six-Day War. Israel won and gained complete control over the west bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.
In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the UN resolution 242 was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council on November 22, 1967. The resolution was aimed at Israel demanding that they return the annexed territories, and upheld the liberty and independence of both Israel and Palestine to establish their own nation states. It must be noted at this stage that reducing the conflict to a religious issue would be immature because it must be borne in mind that not all Muslims are Arabs, not all Arabs are Palestinians and not all Palestinians are Muslims. For instance, there is also a significant Palestinian Christian minority. ‘Palestinian’ is just a word used to describe people historically affiliated to this region.
Tensions emerged as Israel started establishing Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which was originally under Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These settlements are of course illegal but Israel counters this by saying that Palestine is not actually a state or a nation. In the late 1980s, Palestinians launched their first anti-Israel movement boycotting all Israeli products and this also marked the rise of the Hamas which carried out one of the earliest suicide bombing against Israel in 1993. Hamas gained support mainly because of its social welfare projects in Gaza like schools, mosques, clinics, etc. and of course, because of its militant opposition to the occupation.
These anti-Israel attacks also known as Intifada (lit. shaking off) led to the Oslo Accords. These were a series of peace talks between Israel and Palestine, but the issues were too complex to resolve. Issues like Jewish settlements and the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Palestine, water rights, etc. were remained unsettled. This was followed up by the Bill Clinton talks at Camp David which came closer than any other peace deal in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to give up more land than was expected. But, the Bill Clinton talks eventually failed, adding further woes to this seemingly endless conflict.
Then in September 2000, Prime Ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon led a group of 1000 armed guards to the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. To Muslims, this is known as the al-Aqsa mosque and it is third holiest place behind only the Mecca and Medina and is also the holiest place for Jews. Thus, it indeed is quite a dangerous place to march to with 1000 armed guards. This further heightened tensions and eventually led to the second Intifada in which over 2000 Palestinians and over 1000 Israelites were killed.
In 2002, the Israelis claiming to act in defence of civilians began construction of a wall around the West Bank. But instead of building it along borders established after the 1967 war, the wall was built to include many Israeli settlements on the Israeli side. To the Israelis, it was a means of self-defence, but to the Palestinians, it was more of an illegal land grab. Then in 2005, Yasser Arafat died and in the election that followed Hamas won a majority of the parliamentary seats. In the past 10 years, Palestine has launched frequent rocket attacks into Israel and Israel has countered them with more brutal attacks and annexing more and more Palestinian territory.
Thus, it is explicitly clear that giving a communal shade to this conflict without understanding the historical narratives of both competing nationalist versions is clearly immature. The Palestinians have been denied a state since the establishment of Israel as well as several decades before that and are often forced to take up militancy to earn a living and sustain themselves. On the other hand, Israel has fought a series of wars to expand their territory and they feel a need to protect their land from annexure. For these two competing versions of nationalism to converge and to prevent it from translating into an endless communal conflict, it is essential to understand the legitimacy of both these narratives if hopes of settlements and peaceful revival are to be retained.