A Short History of Israel, Palestine, Surrounding Territories, and an Endless Cycle of Religious Wars

(This post contains a graphic image.)

UN school hit by an Israeli strike this month

UN school hit by an Israeli strike this month

When religion turns violent, devoutly religious people are often the first to defend their religion and explain the violent ones aren’t “real” followers or that the conflict wasn’t really about religion at all. For example, when Israel’s government gets international criticism for war crimes, (which it has been finally, but it needs more) IDF soldiers and sympathizers often claim their war isn’t about religion. But this has almost always been about religion. Almost all of the thousands of conquests over Israel, Palestine, and surrounding territories over the past few thousand years have been about religion. Even when the conquests are made truly for more resources, money, and land than anything else, religion is used to justify them. Historically, Jews have been the more often subjugated religious minority, but there have also been Jewish Kings who were very repressive and violent as well. Netanyahu is the current one, even though that isn’t his official title.  He is fighting for a Greater Israel, (which includes more than Palestine) by making settlements on lands that belong to other people, suppressing dissent, and unapologetically ordering massive military airstrikes on hospitals, UN schools, mosques, and humanitarian aid agencies. These strikes are mostly killing innocent children. The death toll for this month’s strikes alone is over 1400.

Palestinian-child-skull open _july 29 2014[1]

The Gaza strip being bombed right now by the Israeli Air Force with US weapons is a small, overpopulated region. It is just one region Netanyahu would like to overtake and turn into a part of Greater Israel. It contains 139 square miles and over 1.8 million people. The density of the population makes air strikes that solely kill terrorists impossible. Egypt has also blocked Gaza’s only portion of its border that isn’t shared with Israel, locking the common Gazans in their territory currently under assault and maintaining what is essentially an open air prison.

Gaza July 22 airstrike

The Israeli lobby in Washington is enormous, which is why they have been able to keep this under wraps for so long. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League are so intent on maintaining a Jewish state that any criticism made by anyone of the Israeli government’s policies is often called “anti-Semitic,” even though the occupation has nothing to do with Judiasm and very orthodox Jews have protested by the thousands in Israel against their government’s occupation of Palestine, just as many very religious Palestinians have protested rocket attacks by Hamas. However, as mentioned the military capabilities of Hamas dwarfs those of Israel, and Hamas has killed far fewer civilians in their attacks than the IDF has. Almost every rocket attack Hamas makes is easily shot down before it can harm anyone by the Israeli Iron Dome defense technology. Hamas also spends about 10 to 20% of its budget on its military, which is less than many nations do, including the US.  Reuven Paz PhD, Senior Research fellow at The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herziliya, Israel said in July 20, 2001 that 90% of Hamas funds go to “social, welfare, cultural, and educational activities” like running relief programs, funding schools (including ones for women), orphanages, nurseries, mosques, sports leagues, healthcare clinics for orthodontics, pediatrics, post-surgical care, as well as soup kitchens.[0] This is largely why they were elected in 2006 and they are still popular among Palestinians.  Even Matthew Levitt, a strong critic of Hamas who wants it destroyed admits in his book on Hamas that Hamas has a budget of only $70 to 90 million, and 80 to 85% of this money is spent on social welfare programs.

Some Palestinians may feel “safer” when Hamas launches rocket attacks, just as some Israelis believe the IDF’s strikes are making them “safer,” even though this is not the case in either situation. Many of the attackers believe they are defending their homeland, but most often they perpetuate the violence.

A Brief History

Of course, Israel, Palestine, and surrounding territories have long and bloody histories. They involve genocides and all kinds of abuses on all sides, which is what makes the history so sensitive. It is important to note that extremists on both sides usually use “Holy” Books in an attempt to justify their actions. According to the Torah, God gave Abraham the Promised Land, which included Gaza, parts of modern day Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Syria: “The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”-  Genesis 17:8. In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites who had previously been slaves under the Egyptian Kingdom to the Promised Land. (However, there is little evidence this migration actually took place.) In the Qu’ran the story is very similar. In the book of Numbers, God says to Moses to explore the land at that time called Canaan. The Israelites go there and explain the land is already populated and very fertile

“We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.’ Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’ But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.’ And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.’” Numbers 13:1-3, 17-33. In the Bible, God then gives the plague to the Israelites for fearing the people living there and not wanting to fight and conquer the land. 14,700 Israelites die as a result.

Later in the book of Numbers, God orders Moses with the Israelites to massacre all the men of Midian (part of modern-day Saudi Arabia adjacent to Israel) and any women who have slept with a man. The Reubenites and the Gadites ask Moses to grant them the land east of the Jordan. Moses agrees so long as they assist in conquering land west of the Jordan River. The land east of the Jordan River is divided among the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh. Moses instructs the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites and their idols. The Israelites in the Bible are constantly at war with the Philistines whose capital is Gaza.

Abraham has two sons in the book. The first is Ishmael and the second is Isaac. Arabic people are believed to be the children of Ishmael and the Jews are believed to be the children of Israel or Jacob. Some Zionists claim that only the Jews deserve Israel because Ishmael’s mother was only a handmaiden of the mother of Isaac.

God instructs many in the Bible to wage war for the Holy Land, so it is not surprising countless peoples and Kingdoms have waged war for the land. It’s worth revisiting some of that history that many are not aware of because the current situation in Israel and Palestine mirrors this old history. When people cannot even talk about the history, there is a problem. We must study our history so we don’t repeat the tragic mistakes of our ancestors.

The accuracy of the historical narrative of Israel in the Bible in still debated among archeologists as more history is still being unearthed but the Biblical history of Israel at least gives us some idea of the events that took place. In the Bible the Kingdom of Israel is founded by King David who creates a dynasty of kings beginning with his son, Solomon. The kingdom split into a northern Kingdom of Israel and a southern Kingdom of Judah around 930 BCE. The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III around 750 BCE, along with the Philistine kingdom. In 586 BCE King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered the Kingdom of Judah and exiled the Jews to Babylonia. Cyrus “the Great” of Persia conquered Babylon in 538 BCE and the Jews were allowed to return to Judea, the Kingdom of Judah, and Edom. The Macedonian ruler, Alexander “the Great,” gained control in 333 BCE. After Alexander’s death, the Seleucid Empire controlled the region.

The Roman Empire split in 390 CE into separate East and West states, and the region was renamed Palestina Prima. Christianity became the official religion of the East Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire. It was also the only allowed religion, except for Judaism. However, Jews couldn’t hold public office, build new temples, or own slaves (as Christians could).  The Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, later banned Judaism altogether after promising to restore rights to the Jews.

By 160 BCE modern day Israel was under Jewish Hasmonean control headed by Simon Maccabaeus after his brother, Judas the Maccabee, defeated the Seleucid army. In 125 BCE the Hasmonean King, John Hyrcanus, proselytized the population of Edom to Judaism. But Judea was conquered by the Roman Empire in 6 CE. The Jews revolted against Rome to reestablish the state of Israel, but they were unsuccessful, and they were exiled from the land.

From 634 to 636 Arabic fighters conquered the Byzantine controlled Palestina Prima and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Caliphs from Medinah, Damascus, and Baghdad ruled several centuries more. The first Crusade in 1099 established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1260 the fourth Sultan of Egypt of the Mamluk Bahri dynasty, Baibars, conquered the region. The Mamluks expulsed many Jews from Europe, and the Christian conquerors of Spain also expulsed Jews there in 1492. Many Jews in Portugal were also driven out, killed, or forced to convert in 1497.

Modern-day Israel was under Mamluk control until 1570 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the region. It ruled until the British empire conquered them. In 19th century Europe, Jews were still facing anti-Semitism and persecution that reached a peak with the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. These centuries of anti-Semitism prompted mass Jewish migration. According to Zionist history, the different waves of Jewish migration are called “aliyah”. During the First “Aliyah” 35,000 Jews moved to what is now Israel. By 1890 Jews were a majority in Jerusalem, but they were outnumbered by Muslims and Christian Arabic people in surrounding cities.


Theodor Herzl is sometimes referred to as the father of Zionism. He was born in Budapest and formed the World Zionist Organization in 1897. In his book, Der Judenstaat, (The Jewish State) he explains his answer to anti-Semitism in Europe is the creation of a Jewish state, which was obviously not a new concept. The First Zionist Congress proclaimed its aim “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.”  The Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland also formed in 1899 to establish a permanent homeland for the Jews.

In the Second Aliyah (1904 to 1914) around 40,000 Jews settled in Southern Syria. In 1908 the Zionist Organization set up the Palestine Bureau or the “Eretz Israel Office,” (Eretz Yisrael is the Torah’s term for the Israeli State) and they established an aggressive Jewish settlement policy. Jewish migrants were mainly escaping persecution in Russia, which then included part of Poland. In 1909 Ahuzat Bayit (now Tel Aviv) became the first entirely Hebrew-speaking city. Hebrew media, workers organizations, Hebrew schools, and Jewish political parties were also established.

After WWI the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 gave two of the winning nations from the war a large amount of control of the Middle East. Britain gained control of much of Jordan and Iraq, some of Saudi Arabia, and the ports of Haifa and Acre in Gaza. Gaza and modern-day Israel were split and the halves were put under international control. The French had control of South-eastern Turkey, Syria, northern Iraq, and modern day Lebanon. (Syria and Lebanon both became independent later in 1943 and French troops left by 1946.) Russia controlled Istanbul, the Ottoman Armenian vilayets, and the Turkish Straits. The British, French, and Russian governments all had “mandates,” which gave them legal authority over their claimed portions of the Middle East. The British Mandate for Palestine had almost nothing to do with support for Jewish refugees. The British government wanted a “land bridge” between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf to defend British companies in India, and so they made one. Today, it is a land bridge for US military supplies, oil, and other resources. In the Shfela Basin, there are also 150 billion barrels of oil.[i] The Gulf and the Gazan waters in particular contain a great deal of oil too. Gazan reserves have been valued at $4 billion.

The Mandate for Palestine was supposed to create a “national home” for the Jews on territory previously controlled by the Ottoman Empire supported by the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. In the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Walter Rothschild of the Rothschild banking family, Balfour expressed Walter’s interest in the establishment of a Jewish homeland. (Interestingly, a later Rothschild and Rupert Murdoch acquired exploration licenses to drill gas reserves in Israel with Genie Oil and Gas. This company still has these licenses.) The language in the Balfour Declaration made it sound non-discriminatory but there is no way to create a home for a people by pushing another people out who have just as much right to live there and consider it home and just as Holy.  The Declaration states:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

In 1800 only 7000 Jews lived in Palestine. By 1850 about 4% of the population was Jewish.  (Scholch, Alexander, 1985[ii]) By 1914 Jews outnumbered Christians in Palestine at 94,000 Jews to 70,000 Christians. A 1918 British census estimated the population of Palestine consisted of 700,000 Arabs and 56,000 Jews.[iii] The 1947 Partition Plan of Palestine put an end to the British mandate and sought to create two separate, but co-existing Jewish and Arab States. Most Palestinians rejected the partition plan since in 1945 only 6% of the land of Israel was owned by Jewish people, and the plan was giving greater territory to a much smaller group of people. There was a huge influx of Jews after the Partition Plan. By 1947 there were 630,000 Jews in Palestine, 140,000 Christians and 1,181,000 Muslims who remained the majority, (Sergio DellaPergola, 2001[iv]).

The demands for a Jewish State that empires like the US and Britain have made have had nothing to do with support for the Jews and everything to do with having control of a piece of the Middle East that can serve their empire’s interests and more quickly attack other Middle Eastern countries. They also want to avoid dealing with the “Jewish Question.” The winning nations of WWI and WWII (League of Nations) recognized the need for a place for the mostly Jewish European refugees after centuries of anti-Semitism and persecution in Europe and Russia. But instead of helping rebuild their homes demolished from the wars, the consensus was to occupy and divide their territory (Germany was occupied by the Soviet Union, the US, Britain, and France) and ship them off to Palestine. It was a recipe for disaster from the beginning since a home cannot be created for refugees by pushing people out of their land to make space, creating more refugees. That doesn’t solve the problem, unless the problem is viewed as an only Jewish problem and not a problem that affects the world in which ideally there are no refugees and everyone has a home.

The problem with a Jewish state, an Islamic state, or a Christian state is that even if its founders pledge not to discriminate, eventually the hardened extremists will try to make the inhabitants of the land of only one faith or ethnicity. They will object to the presence or activities of religious minorities and try to push them out or even wage war on them. States themselves are problematic enough. They establish themselves by force and rule by violence. They are never formed by unanimous consent. A state that is defined by religion and conducts itself according to religion is even more problematic. Much of the world has recognized a need to separate church and state, even the US, even though it is hardly separate here.

The Holy Land has been conquered by many different Jewish, Muslim, and Christian rulers. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and followers of other religions have all lived in the “Holy Land” for centuries at one point or another and there has likely been a good deal of mating between them, meaning the “bloodlines” of the original tribes and Kingdoms have mixed, and they are irrelevant anyway. Who claimed the land first doesn’t matter. Even if you follow the Bible, the Bible says we are all descendants of Abraham, so it shouldn’t matter. Bibles are filled outlandish myths, but also some horrible truths about the past like our ancestor’s acceptance of slavery, their repression of the underclass, wars for lands called promised, infanticide, reigns of Kings, dynasties, their conquests, and mass murder. No one currently alive was around to see any Biblical events occur, but it is incredibly likely the “gift” of Israel to the Israelites is just one of the Bible’s many myths.

The Israelites described in the Bible may have believed they were being spoken to, but this land doesn’t belong to anyone. It belongs to Earth, and we can share it and live in union as long as we make efforts to understand each other’s lives and motivations. We don’t have to hoard more weaponry, build up our borders, colonize, and live absorbed with fear and hate. There is room for all people on Earth and enough resources for them too. But we need to move past the dogma. This may mean changing some of our long-held personal beliefs that contradict this, as hard as this can be.

Some have suggested the common people of Palestine could try to convict the Israeli government of war crimes in the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court. Many victims of genocide have appealed to these courts and won. However, these courts have little actual power as they have no military or police to enforce their arrest warrants.  For example, in 2009 the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, ruler of Sudan, for crimes against humanity, yet he continued to rule for 10 more years until being deposed by the military, after which he received a meager two-year prison sentence for committing genocide. Ultimately relying on any court is a statist dead end. Only common people engaging in a diversity of tactics will bring about an end to state brutality. Common Americans can press their government to stop funding Israel’s military, boycott Israeli companies, and all of the world can commit to peace and education. We can resist our government’s brutality and try to bring about an end to all governments. One of the most common problems is the general impression of futility. Some individuals believe they can’t do anything to greatly change the world, but they can, and the more people who believe this, the more they will act, and the more the world will change. As Howard Zinn said:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

[o] http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/02/world/fg-charity2/2

[i] Israeli Energy Initiative

[ii] Scholch, Alexander (November 1985). “The Demographic Development of Palestine, 1850–1882”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (4): 485–505.

[iii] Mansfield, Peter (1992), The Arabs, pp. 172–175.

[iv] DellaPergola, Sergio: Demography in Israel/Palestine: Trends, Prospects and Policy Implications,’ 2001.

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