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Entrenched Histories: Deconstructing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Sacaria Joseph Sacaria Joseph
22 Apr 2024

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a deeply entrenched struggle rooted in competing historical and religious claims to the land. Both Israelis and Palestinians have deep-seated connections to the region, shaped by millennia of history, culture, and religious beliefs. From the ancient promises of a homeland chronicled in religious texts to the modern-day struggles and aspirations for self-determination, this region's story unfolds in complexity, shaping the divergent narratives that continue to shape the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The story of the Israelites unfolds through a combination of religious texts and archaeological and historical evidence. The Hebrew Bible, a collection of religious texts written by various authors over centuries, offers a rich narrative of Jewish history embellished by poetic, prophetic, allegorical, legendary, and mythological elements alongside historical accounts.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites trace their lineage back to Abraham, a revered patriarch chosen by God. God promised Abraham and his descendants a future homeland in the land of Canaan, an everlasting inheritance (Genesis 12:1-3). Jacob, Abraham's grandson, was renamed Israel by God, and his twelve sons became the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel, forming the nation's foundation.

As Canaan, the territory where these tribes initially inhabited, eventually became synonymous with its inhabitants, the region came to be known as the 'Land of Israel.' By the 5th century BCE, the region also acquired the name' Palestine,' most probably from the Philistines, another ancient people who inhabited a coastal portion of Canaan. The history of the Israelites is punctuated by recurring periods of dispersion, followed by attempts to return to their homeland.

Driven by a famine in Canaan, Jacob and his extended family migrated to Egypt. The biblical account recounts a multi-generational stay lasting roughly 210 years (approximately from 1523 to 1313 BCE). During this period, the Israelites flourished in numbers. However, the Pharaoh, fearing their growing population, enslaves them. This marks a turning point in the Israelite story, setting the stage for their struggle for freedom.

Following their liberation from Egypt and subsequent resettlement in Canaan, the Israelites established themselves as a nation. David, the second king of Israel, united the previously separate kingdoms of Judah and Israel into a single, powerful nation. He was succeeded by his son, Solomon, who expanded the kingdom's territories. After Solomon's reign, the kingdom was divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel, governed by Jeroboam, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, ruled by Rehoboam.

From 734 BCE, Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III launched multiple attacks on Israel. In 722 BCE, he captured most of the Israelites, exiling them to Assyria as slaves, resulting in Israel's destruction by 724 BCE. The ten tribes exiled by Assyria, unable to return, became known as the ten lost tribes of Israel. The Assyrians brought Gentiles to populate the vacant land of Israel.

During Jehoiakim's rule as king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar II, the king of Babylon (modern-day Iraq), launched an attack in 605 BCE, capturing thousands as slaves and initiating the first phase of Babylonian deportation. In 598 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah again, deporting almost the entire population, including the king and his family, marking the second phase of Babylonian deportation.

When Babylon fell to Persian king Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great, in 539 BCE, Judean Israelites came under Persian rule. Recognising their plight, King Cyrus permitted the Judeans to return to Judah in 537 BCE, marking their homecoming after 68 years of exile. Cyrus also sponsored the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple.

When Persia fell to the Greek-Macedonian king Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, Judah became part of the Macedonian Empire, marking the onset of the Hellenistic period for the Jews. After Alexander's death, his four generals engaged in the Diadochi Wars, resulting in the establishment of four major Hellenistic kingdoms. During this time, Judah shifted between the Ptolemaic kingdom and the Seleucid kingdom five times, eventually falling under Seleucid control.

During the Hellenistic Period, Greek culture and ideas greatly influenced the Jews, leading to the adoption of Greek language, customs, and interest in philosophy and literature. While some embraced Hellenism, others saw it as a threat to their traditional Jewish way of life, sparking conflict between Hellenisers and traditionalists.

The Maccabean Rebellion erupted in 167 BCE, as Jewish rebels, known as the Maccabees, revolted against the Seleucid Empire, reclaiming control over Judah by 142 BCE. The Maccabees governed Judah for 80 years until the Roman Empire conquered it in 63 BCE, ending the Hellenistic period in Judah.

The weakening Seleucid Empire presented an opportunity for the expanding Roman Empire. In 63 BCE, Roman general Pompey the Great conquered Judea, effectively ending Seleucid rule. Judea became a Roman client kingdom, with Herod the Great (appointed by the Roman Senate in 40 BCE) acting as a king under Roman authority. However, this uneasy alliance simmered with tension, as evidenced by a failed Jewish rebellion.

Following Herod's death, Judea became a direct Roman province. This power shift sparked discontent among the Jewish populace, leading to a rebellion against Roman rule. The Romans responded harshly, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. These events triggered a significant dispersal of Jews from Judea, known as the Jewish Diaspora. This forced migration scattered Jewish communities throughout the vast Roman Empire.

The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire cast a long shadow over the Jewish population. Accusations that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus triggered centuries of persecution. This blame ignited discrimination and violence, particularly targeting Jewish communities within the Empire.

The Middle Ages offered little respite. Facing religious intolerance, economic competition, and expulsions from various European countries, Jewish communities were forced into constant movement. The 1478 Spanish Inquisition, a tribunal designed to identify and punish heretics, primarily targeted Jews and Muslims. Similarly, the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain stands as a glaring example of European religious intolerance. These events, along with ongoing persecution, scattered Jewish communities further across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, contributing significantly to the long-term phenomenon known as the Jewish Diaspora. Economic hardship and organised massacres plagued them in Europe through the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to waves of emigration, primarily to the United States and other Western countries.

Following World War II, the aftermath of the Holocaust left a profound impact on Jewish communities. The systematic genocide of six million Jews by the Nazi regime had devastated populations across Europe. Survivors, along with other displaced persons, were forced to seek refuge in various parts of the world, further dispersing these communities that had thrived for centuries.

Centuries of persecution have instilled in many Jews a yearning for a safe haven, a place where they can practice their religion freely and live without fear. This yearning finds powerful expression in the concept of the Promised Land. More than just physical territory, the Promised Land represents a cornerstone of Jewish national identity. It signifies a place where Jews can fulfil their religious obligations, establish self-governance, and finally belong. It embodies the hope for a refuge from persecution and a place to rebuild their lives.

Therefore, the concept of a Jewish homeland, often referred to as the Promised Land, played a significant role in the emergence of Zionism in the late 19th century. This movement arose as a response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe, with the Dreyfus Affair in France being a pivotal moment. Zionism aimed for Jewish national self-determination through the creation of a state in the Land of Israel, also known historically as Palestine.

Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, became a leading figure advocating for a Jewish state. This objective fueled waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, particularly in the early 20th century. These immigrants sought refuge from persecution and the opportunity to rebuild a national home.

However, the surge of Jewish immigration heightened tensions with the established Arab population, known as Palestinians. They had inhabited the land for centuries and viewed it as their ancestral homeland, deeply rooted in their cultural, social, religious, and political identity. Unlike the Jewish immigrants, Palestinians did not have another homeland they identified with. This clashing of historical claims and aspirations continues to contribute to the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, issued by the British colonial government, endorsed the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. However, Palestine was already home to a well-established Arab population, the Palestinians. The declaration's call for a 'national home' for Jews, while also mentioning the protection of the rights of the existing non-Jewish communities, was seen by Palestinians as a betrayal of their national aspirations.

In the decades following the Balfour Declaration, the influx of Jewish immigrants intensified competition for land and resources. As Jewish communities expanded, they acquired land from absentee Ottoman landlords or founded new settlements, often displacing Palestinian farmers or limiting their access to customary grazing areas. In 1948, after the approval of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, the Jewish leadership announced the creation of the State of Israel, realising a pivotal Zionist goal of establishing a Jewish homeland. While the State of Israel was not directly established by the UN, its formation aligned with the partition proposal of the UN, which outlined separate Palestinian and Jewish states within Palestine. The partition plan sparked controversy, and the ensuing 1948 war of Israel with neighbouring Arab states resulted in the significant displacement of Palestinians. This conflict remains unresolved, persisting as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to this day.

Throughout the 20th century, Palestinian nationalism emerged as a powerful force, seeking self-determination and statehood in the face of growing Zionist aspirations for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Various Palestinian political movements, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), have advocated for Palestinian rights and their right to a sovereign state.

Delving into the intricate historical trajectory of this contested region unveils the nuanced complexity of its ownership. Over millennia, a mosaic of religious scriptures, archaeological discoveries, and historical occurrences has interwoven a multifaceted narrative, shaping the contrasting claims of both Jews and Palestinians.

From ancient biblical promises of a homeland to the enduring struggles and exiles of the Israelites to modern waves of immigration propelled by persecution and Zionist ideals, the land holds profound significance for the Jewish people. Concurrently, Palestinians have cultivated deep ties to the land, reflecting centuries of habitation and cultural fusion.

Essentially, the question of rightful ownership defies simplistic solutions. Both Jews and Palestinians possess legitimate and deeply entrenched connections to the land, rooted in rich histories, cultures, and religious traditions. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessitates grappling with this complexity, acknowledging the validity of each narrative, and endeavouring to craft a just and equitable resolution that respects the rights and aspirations of all involved parties.

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