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To understand what’s going on between Israel and Palestine, you have to understand what’s going on with Israel and well, everyone. We also have to go way back since the issue at the centre of it all is almost as old as time itself.
LET’S GO WAY BACK
In order to really break down what’s happening in the Middle East, we have to talk about antisemitism.
While there was a time when the Jews weren’t hated for simply being Jewish, it didn’t last long. (Antisemitism is often called “the longest hatred.”) It goes all the way back to 270 BC (seriously) when an Egyptian priest named Manetho started spreading “vicious anti-Jewish statements.” Those statements quickly made their way around the world as others shared his historical accounts.
Then Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power, ruling over the Seleucid Empire from 175 BC until his death in 164 BC. During his reign, he persecuted the Jews of Judea (a.k.a. the Land of Israel) and Samaria, which resulted in a rebellion of the Jewish Maccabees while the king was off trying to conquer Egypt.
In 168 BC, the king’s soldiers descended upon Jerusalem (more on that later), massacring thousands of people and desecrating the city’s holy Second Temple, erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its walls. (So not kosher.)
The violence sparked an uprising, as the Maccabean Jews refused to let their Greek-Syrian oppressors take away their freedom to practice their religion. After seven years of battle (a.k.a. the Maccabean Revolt), the Jews successfully defended their territory. They “cleansed” the Second Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt the altar and re-lit the menorah. (If this part sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the origin story of Hanukkah.)
The Maccabean Revolt was the first of many battles that would be fought in Judea, as power-hungry leaders were always trying to conquer new territories and add to their militaries and grow their kingdoms.
In 63 BC, Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and made it a part of Rome. Three major rebellions followed (creatively called the Jewish-Roman Wars); the third was led by a Jew named Simeon bar Kokhba, who tried to keep Judea an independent state. His military was only strong enough to hold the invaders for three years: In the end, at least 580,000 Jewish soldiers were killed in the war (not including those who died of hunger and other diseases) and the remaining Jewish population was annihilated or exiled.
Jews were no longer allowed in Jerusalem.
Eventually, Greco-Romans stopped using the term Judea, and renamed the region Syria Palaestina. Jerusalem was also renamed Aelia Capitolina.
Things remained relatively calm (minus a few wee wars here and there) for hundreds of years.
THE MIDDLE OF IT ALL
Fast forward to the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Established somewhere around 1299, the Islamic-run superpower ruled most of the Middle East (and parts of Europe and North Africa) for more than 600 years.
At its most powerful (from about 1520 to 1566), the Empire ruled over Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, some of Arabia, a portion of the North African coastal strip and — you guessed it — Palestine (including obviously, Jerusalem).
But like all good things, the Ottoman Empire came to an end. Between 1683 and 1918, the Ottoman Empire lost all its territory, culminating with the straw that broke this camel’s back: World War I.
After the Empire’s defeat, the victors (Britain, France, Greece and Russia) split up the Empire’s territories. It was in this transaction that Britain took control of Palestine.
THE MODERN RISE OF RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE
Just as the Ottoman Empire was rising, so was antisemitism.
Most Jews (who were then living in various countries across Europe and Africa) were facing persecution based on two widely held Christian beliefs: 1) that all Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ and 2) that the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent forced scattering of the Jewish people was “punishment both for past transgressions and for continued failure to abandon their faith and accept Christianity.”
Jews often became the target of violent attacks, which escalated after a “blood libel” myth made its way around Europe. (The myth suggested Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes.) Jews were also seen as disloyal for not converting to Christianity, and authorities often encouraged residents to riot against them. Many even blamed the religious minority for the “Black Death.”
Some 300 years later, the idea that every race and religion was trying to wipe out the others started gaining steam. The most famous antisemite of all, Adolf Hitler used this idea to mobilize supporters and become the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (a.k.a. the Nazis).
THE STATE OF ISRAEL
In the interest of time (and our shortened attention spans 🙄), we’re going to skip over to the end of World War II.
After the Nazis’ atrocities against the Jews, they wanted a homeland where they could feel safe and defended. In 1947, the UN suggested dividing Palestine (which had historically been both Jewish and Arab lands) into two regions: an independent Jewish state and an independent Arab state, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem serving as internationalized territory.
Though most of the world supported the idea, it unfortunately didn’t go over so well with Arab leaders.
In 1948, Britain withdrew from Palestine and Israel became an independent state. When that happened, almost a million Palestinians fled the area, resettling in the Gaza Strip. Why exactly they left is still up for debate.
What isn’t up for debate is this: Several attacks heightened tensions between the two groups, and a civil war broke out. Eventually five surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq) got involved, resulting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
British-trained forces from Jordan intervened, and after another year of fighting, the UN brokered several cease-fires, and everyone agreed to formal armistice lines. At that point, Egypt and Jordan retained control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively.
WHY EVERYONE’S SO MAD ABOUT IT
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel gained almost 60% of the territory that was previously designated as part of Palestine.
To make matters worse, Israel invaded Egypt twice in 1956 (with the support of the U.K. and France). The goal was to regain control of the Suez Canal and to remove Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power.
The invasions pissed off a number of Arab leaders.
To try and keep the peace in the area, the UN created the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) to patrol the border between Egypt and Israel.
But the peace didn’t last long.
In 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that the Straits of Tiran would be closed to Israeli vessels (a closure Israel had already said would be considered an “act of war”). Egypt then mobilized its forces along its border with Israel.
In response, Israel launched a series of preemptive airstrikes against Egyptian airfields.
And then all hell broke loose.
The Israeli military also launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip and Sinai, eventually pushing Egyptian forces back and conquering both. Egypt called on Jordan for assistance, but somehow, Jordan got confused about its role, and Israel capitalized, capturing and occupying the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from the Jordanians and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Arab militaries suffered severe losses in land and manpower.
The four countries eventually signed a ceasefire on June 11, thought it wouldn’t be the last time Israel would come to blows with its neighbours.
After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the subsequent wars in 1956 and 1967, Israel (and its Jewish inhabitants) were not favoured among Arab nations. There was a rise in antisemitic rhetoric, and some citizens twisted Islamic beliefs to advocate for the annihilation of the Jewish people. According to a 2014 survey, 74% of adults in the Middle East agreed with a majority of the survey’s 11 antisemitic propositions, including that “Jews have too much power in international financial markets” and that “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.”
To this day, 12 of the 22 members of the Arab League do not recognize Israel (Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen) along with three non-Arab countries (Bhutan, Cuba and North Korea).
Iran’s president has been particularly outspoken about his disdain for Israel, saying in 2006 that he hopes “the regime occupying Jerusalem” would “vanish from the pages of time.”
WHERE WE STAND
In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza. In 2006, Hamas was elected to power and began governing over the area.
And that’s what leads us to where we are now.
With Hamas — which is widely considered a terrorist organization by the international community — running things in Gaza, it’s become rife with bombings, land assaults and other acts of violence. Many Palestinian citizens peacefully protest Israeli-occupied land, but those demonstrations are often overshadowed by Hamas supporters trying to attack Israeli citizens or Israeli forces.
Hamas even attacks its own citizens, and has become one of the main obstacles to the so-called “two-state solution.” In addition, the two sides can’t decide on terms or borders or pretty much anything, so that option hasn’t made it very far.
For years, the international community walked on egg shells when it came to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most countries have tried to keep the peace, and have avoided taking a stand on borders or regions or issues — until President Donald Trump.
While the U.S. and Israel have always been allies, Trump was the first president to take things a step further, announcing that he’d be moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv (the accepted capital of Israel) to Jerusalem (the disputed capital of Israel).
Several countries followed suit (Romania, Guatemala, Honduras and maybe Brazil) which is bound to cause more friction between Israel and its neighbours.
Trump also announced that the U.S. would recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, though Syria’s since said it will retake the region by any means necessary — including a military operation.
At this point, it looks like a one-state solution is the only solution we’ll get. But it’s not much of a solution at all.