Once upon a time, there was a city called Jerusalem. Well, it’s still there but our interest in the matter starts several years before Christ was born. It starts with the very first story in the Christian Bible as well as the Jewish Bible. It begins with a guy Abraham who was promised a stretch of land known as Jerusalem or Zion.
But what’s so special in that? We make promises every day, right?
What was special and rather unprecedented in that promise was that it was made by God himself. Abraham’s God -also known as Yahweh- promised Abraham, descendants as many as the stars, and a land full of nature’s bounties to fulfill their needs. That land is currently known as Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. This event proved to be the foundation stone for the Jewish religion, the followers of which we know today as Jews. That mythical promise mentioned in Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible as well as the Christian Bible is the reason all the Jews consider Jerusalem as their one true home. Infact every time in history they have been ousted or rejected by a country or community -the most recent example being World War 2- followers of Abraham have flocked to their original dwelling place. Naturally, the holiest place for Judaism is Jerusalem, which houses the Temple Mount as well as the remnants of the Jewish temple built by King Herod known as the Wailing Wall.
You must be thinking what does that have to do with anything. Yes, this all-pervasive promise doesn’t have to do much with the present-day Israel-Palestine conflict but it has to do a lot with how the quarrel between the Israelis and Palestinians started. So while thinking about this issue, just remember that the land on which the country of Israel is standing was promised to the Jewish community thousands of years ago.
The History of Arab Muslims in Israel
Now that we know the history of Jews in Israel, let us turn to the people standing on the opposite side: the Arab Muslims. Islam as a religion came into being around the 5th century CE in Saudi Arabia, pretty close to present-day Israel. The founder of Islam, Hazrat Muhammad is said to have visited Jerusalem under guidance from his god, Allah. Several Islamic prophets are also said to have belonged to this holy city. The Dome of the Rock, one of the highly important pilgrimages for Muslims is built right on top of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
“Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is the third holiest site for Islam in the world.”
Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is considered to be the third holiest site for Islam in the world. Infact not many people know this but Jerusalem was the first Qiblah -the direction of prayer- for Muslims, well before Mecca. So, to say that Jerusalem holds religious importance for the Muslims would be a huge understatement. However, the Muslims as such hold no claim to the land of Israel, mythological or otherwise, especially if you compare it to the Jewish claim. So the question that arises here is how did the Arabic Muslims end up in Jerusalem?
From 1517 to 1917 the region which we identify as Israel today and a better part of West Jordan was under the control of the Ottoman empire and was known as Ottoman Syria or Palestine. Yes, contrary to popular beliefs there indeed used to be a place called Palestine. Under the Ottoman rule, the Muslim population in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas grew at a steady pace. Forced conversions and intermarriages between Jews and Muslims made sure that the Islamic presence bolstered not only in Palestine but also in the Arab crescent. In short, Muslims had been living peacefully in present-day Israel along with the Jews for hundreds of years until the late 19th century. Small religious conflicts and quarrels started with the advent of the Zionism movement in late 19th century and the early 20th century. In 1917, however, things took a turn for the worse.
Balfour Declaration of 1917
Britishers Divide Jews & Muslims
Up until late 19th century, Jews and Muslims had lived relatively peacefully in Palestine. There was some tension as I said due to Zionism and other ultra-religious movements but peace had prevailed. The turning point came in 1917 when the British army defeated the Ottoman empire in World War I. The Arab Muslims living in Palestine had supported Britishers against the Ottoman empire in lieu of favorable terms for their community. However, soon after the end of the Ottomans, Britishers under the Balfour declaration of 1917 declared support for the building of a Jewish Nation in Palestine, in hope of gaining support from the Jewish and by default the Zionists. This came as a shock to the entire Arab community, for the British had promised the same land to the ruler of Mecca in 1915, in exchange for their support in World War II.
This betrayal from the Britishers erupted tensions not only between the Arabs and the British but also between the Jewish and Muslim residents of Palestine. The Palestinian Muslims resisted giving up their ancestral land on which they had been living since the 15th century. On the other hand, the Zionist movement -supported by the British- advocated for a Jewish nation claiming the land of Israel as their birthright. The conflict was exacerbated during World War II, when the Jews were ousted from Germany and other European countries due to the Nazi agenda. They flocked in large numbers from Europe in hope of returning to the Promised Land. Under the Balfour Declaration, the British also supported this “homecoming” and hence between 1920 and 1939, the Jewish population in Palestine increased by over 320,000 people.
This didn’t settle right with the Arab Muslims living in Palestine, who took it as a Jewish ploy to capture their country. A growing sense of nationalism arose in Palestinian Muslims as they started identifying themselves as the citizens of Palestine responsible for defending their nation from foreign invasion. This resistance from the Palestinian Muslims and the corresponding Jewish reaction slowly but surely developed into a country-level feud.
UN Resolution of 1948
The War is Here
As I described in my previous article on the Israel-Palestine issue, the feud between the Zionist Jews and Palestinian Muslims became militarized after the UN Resolution of 1948. Before that, there was essentially only a cold war brewing between them.
United Nations as you know was set up after 1945 mainly to avoid another World War. For its debut performance, Britishers tossed their decades-long Palestine problem to the UN and exited the stage. United Nations sheepishly proposed the creation of two separate nations: Israel and Palestine. Israel was to be the land promised to Jews by the Britishers and Palestine would have retained the incumbent Muslim population. The city of Jerusalem naturally was to be kept under the UN’s jurisdiction as it held importance for followers of three religions: Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The solution looked good on paper but as you can see from the map below there was no chance of the Jews and Muslims sailing peacefully into the sunset. The borders were hastily drawn and there was no clear demarcation between the Jewish and Arabic States. Major resistance came from the Arabic state because the United States -and hence the United Nations- gave preference to the Israeli state which meant that in hindsight Jerusalem would end up in Jewish hands.
In response to the United Nations’ proposal, Jews and Palestinians unanimously agreed to ignore the peaceful resolution and fought with each other in the First Arab-Israeli War. It went on for 9 months at the end of which Israel won and grabbed much more land than it had been promised in the original UN resolution. A temporary armistice was signed between the newly formed state of Israel and the parties on the other side that included Egypt and the former nation of Palestine. However, many wars were to come in the future which would have more devastating consequences.
In the next article, we will discuss the many Arab-Israeli wars that came after 1948, including the First and Second Intifada. Till then, stay tuned and keep giving your love to Suburban Wordsmith