Disclaimer: I am not a historian and this essay will offend involved groups. In such a complicated, divisive history disagreement is inevitable.
I recently visited Israel and Palestine.
I began the trip knowing little about religion and vaguely understanding the conflict in Israel. I left with an appreciation for how fucked it all is.
In this post, I'll try to get you from 0 to today.
And it starts with religion — Jews, Christians and Muslims. They all have a claim to this otherwise unimportant piece of desert.
Religious Histories and Claims
Abraham kicked off Judaism, Christianity and Islam. On one of his trade journeys, he discovered a hill in what today is Jerusalem.
On that hill God spoke to Abraham giving him instructions on how to properly worship. Abraham thought having a connection with God was cool. He told other people about God’s new rules and grew a following.
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son at the hill that became Jerusalem. Abraham was willing but an angel swooped in at the last moment — “kill the goat instead.”
Judaism, as a religion, developed from Abraham’s following centered. His descendants rules Jerusalem for hundreds of years.
Here we need a quick clarification since Jewish is an overloaded term. It refers both to a religion and an ethnicity. So when someone is Jewish it means either they practice the religion of Judaism or they descend from the Judaic peoples, or both.
The original Jewish people were Jewish by religion and race. Now we have ethnic Jewish people that aren't religiously Jewish and religious Jewish people that aren't ethnically Jewish. Confusing, but that’s how it is…
The Jewish people love Jerusalem and Israel. All of their stories begin in Israel and their holiest place is where Abraham chatted with God — on that hill in Jerusalem.
While the Jewish people were doing their thing in Jerusalem, a lot of religious leaders taught their view of spirituality. One of these leaders, called Rabbis, went by Jesus.
Born near Jerusalem, Jesus lived most and preached a day’s ride north of the city. His version of Judaism amended the previous stories, but with some big amendments — I am the son of God, kosher is BS, etc.
Every few years, Jesus rode to Jerusalem to check out the other Rabbis, visit the temple, and celebrate Passover. This turned into a fatal mistake.
The rabbi’s claims of heavenly authority annoyed the Roman’s so much that they decided to do something about it. The Roman police dragged religious leaders, including Jesus, through the streets of Jerusalem and crucified them.
Dali’s portrayal of the crucifixion.
Jesus died and came to life again in Jerusalem, making that hill pretty important for Christians.
Now, both the Jewish people and the Christians think of Jerusalem as holy. Let's see what claim the Muslim's have...
Around 600 CE, Mohammed checked out a cave near Mecca and found God there. They chatted and God told him the story of Abraham and Jesus along with other prophets.
But God had an update. The Christians and Jewish people misinterpreted God's word and Mohammed would be the final prophet.
Naturally Mohammed had to tell everyone about his awesome chat with God. He traveled around, told his stories, marshaled an army, and took over the Arabian Peninsula all while spreading his version of the Abrahamic story, Islam.
Mohammed loved God’s stories about Jerusalem so much that he decided to visit the hill where God first spoke with Jerusalem. His trip to Jerusalem turned out to be pretty sweet. Once on the hill, he hopped on a white mule and flew into heaven to hang out with God.
Mohammed on his white mule flying from Jerusalem into Heaven.
The Muslims built a Mosque in Jerusalem, where the ancient Jewish people had their temple, to celebrate Mohammed's ascent to the heavens.
Over the span of about a thousand years, Jerusalem became immensely important to 4 billion Muslims and Christians and to the Jewish people who today control Jerusalem and are responsible for keeping the peace.
Modern Geopolitical History
Ancient Times to 20th Century
People have been killing each other in the Holy Land for a long time.
To get us started, the Romans killed the Jewish people to take over control and install Christianity.
In the 7th century, the Muslim Caliphate killed the Romans and took over.
In the 13th century, the Christians killed a bunch of Muslim’s on the Crusades.
But the Muslims under the Mamluk and Ottoman empries remained in control until the 20th century.
End of World War I
In 1917, at the end of World War I, the Brits and the French defeated the Ottomans and took control of most of the Middle East.
The Europeans could divide up the Middle East however they saw fit. They drew a bunch of horrible borders that ensured constant fighting. After drawing the borders, the Brits assumed control of Mandatory Palestine which roughly corresponds to Israel + Palestine today.
Looking back in history, the Judaic (ethnic group) people had been kicked out of Israel 2,000 years ago and Jewish (ethnic + religion) communities preserved their traditions and religion throughout the world. While some Jewish communities thrived, anti-Semitism brewed in Europe.
So the Jewish people in Europe saw the British control of Mandatory Palestine as an opportunity to go back to the Holy Land of their ancestors and to get out of Europe. This movement, called Zionism, effectively petitioned the UK government which declared its support of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1917.
With this declaration, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people immigrated from Europe to Israel where they were not warmly welcomed. The Arab Muslim Palestinians fought the influx of Jewish immigrants.
World War II and Aftermath
Then WWII happened. The Nazis killed millions of Jewish people and forced millions more from their homes.
The West saw the atrocities of the Holocaust and took the situation — how to deal with millions of Jewish people leaving Europe — to the newly created United Nations.
In 1947, the United Nations voted to divide the land of Mandatory Palestine into Israel, a Jewish State, and Palestine, an Arab State. In this plan, the land would be divided relatively even between the Arab State and the Jewish State with Jerusalem, the holiest spot, administered by the U.N.
The U.N.’s failed plan in 1947.
The Palestinians didn’t like the U.N. plan because they would be giving up land that was theirs for hundreds of years. Wars broke out between the new state of Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians lost in 1949 and signed an armistice with Israel. That armistice gave Israel about 80% of the land and control over most of Jerusalem.
Borders after the Armistice in 1949. These are similar to the borders today.
Since then, the borders have shifted back and forth in wars between Israel, Gaza, Egypt, and Syria. But the map from 1949 remains mostly accurate today.
Today — Israel and Palestine (West Bank + Gaza Strip)
Today, Palestine is divided into two non-touching parts — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The West Bank, which gets its name from being the Western side of the Jordan River, is home to about 3 million people of Arab descent, predominately Muslim. Most of the West Bank territory is under Israeli military control. When visiting, I drove from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea without showing my passport.
The cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron and others remain under Palestinian control. In these cities walls and Israeli military checkpoints divide the Palestinian and Israeli areas.
With support of the Israeli government, Israeli settlers are building controversial housing developments in the West Bank. These settlements encroach on territory ceded to Palestine in the 1949 agreement.
Despite the tension, the West Bank is relatively safe, especially when compared to the Gaza Strip. About 30% of the West Bank population are Arab refugees from Israeli land, most who fled during the wars in the 1940s, while in Gaza the majority of the population are refugees.
The Gaza Strip borders Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea and houses around 2 million Palestinians, the vast majority Muslim. While Gaza depends on Israel for basic utilities including water and electricity, Gaza is a self-governed territory who elected Hamas, an Islamist fundamentalist party, in 2006.
Since Hamas’ election, Gaza has been effectively cut off from the rest of the world with a wall along both the Egypt and Israeli borders and an Israeli naval blockade at the Mediterranean Sea.
Gaza ranks near the top of the lists for population density and growth rate. But with little opportunity and no land to expand to, living conditions are deteriorating.
Periodically, Hamas organizes rocket attacks, firing rockets from within Gaza into Israel. In turn, Israel created the Iron Dome, a missile defense system.
When I visited Tel Aviv, a Jewish man described the “summer of rockets” in 2014 where the Iron Dome defense missiles intercepted Palestinian rockets over the beach in a stunning fireworks display.
Today we are still in a bad spot and trending towards an even more unstable equilibrium. Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip resent the Israeli’s due to their lack of autonomy while the Israeli’s see the Palestinians as a fatal threat.
On a positive note, I met people in Palestine and Israel who are working to bridge that gap. Our tour guide in Israel sets up secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian tour guides where they can exchange advice and culture.
The Israeli and Palestinian people both come from the same land and share similar stories. While lounging on the beach at swanky resort in Tel Aviv, I ate pita bread with hummus. While visiting our tour guide’s home in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, we shared pita bread with hummus.
Israel’s has a vibrant tech scene and a strong economy. New skyscrapers full of startups light the Tel Aviv night sky. I hope the rising tide in Israel will also buoy Palestinian prospects and create potential for peace.
Israel and Palestine are in a very tough position. Both sides will have to make compromises and care a little less about their religious history if they want to live peacefully together.