A History of Disaster: Land and Religion in Israel and Palestine

Millions of Jews make pilgrimages to the Wall every year, but generally Israeli military prohibit Jews from entering Muslim-controlled Dome of the Rock plaza for fear of violence from either side. Messianic Jews believe they are not allowed to enter the Holiest of Holies until the messiah comes, and thus they would refuse to enter the Dome of the Rock complex anyway, for fear of treading on the area prematurely. Tourists, however, flock to this controversial attraction.

Built atop the earlier location of the first and second Jewish Temple, the Dome of the Rock was built by the Muslim ruler Abd el-Malik in 688-691 AD. Muslims believe this is the place from where Allah lifted the prophet Mohammad into the sky and took him on a night tour of the heavens. The gold-domed building is considered a shrine to this event, and not a mosque.

Men pray instead at the Al Aqsa mosque located right next door, and Muslims have sanctified this as the third most holy place in the Muslim world, after shrines in Mecca and Medina, both in Saudi Arabia. The fervor with which both Jews and Muslims believe in their differentiated religious histories of the Dome of the Rock, Temple Mount, and Western Wall area has led to bloody clashes and these places are a major source of the ongoing discord between the two groups.

Origins of Zionism

In 1896 Theodor Herzl published his highly influential book The Jewish State, and the following year the first Zionist Congress met in Basle, Switzerland to discuss the idea of a Jewish state. This was in response to the waves of anti-Semitic pogroms sweeping Europe which systematically murdered the Jewish population from Estonia to Ukraine. Whenever possible, European Jews fled. By 1914, 65,000 Jewish immigrants were living alongside half a million Arabs in the Turkish Ottoman Empire that is now Israel and Palestine. Relations between the groups were generally peaceful at this point in history.

In 1917, the British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour had committed Britain to work toward "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people", in a letter to leading Zionist Lord Rothschild (BBC). "The Balfour Declaration, made in November 1917 by the British Government…was made a) by a European power, b) about a non-European territory, c) in flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory" according to Edward Said in his book "The Question of Palestine." In fact "In 1916 the British Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had promised the Arab leadership post-war independence for former Ottoman Arab provinces since they aligned themselves with the Allies (BBC). To nobody’s surprise, this double dealing had disastrous results.

On December 9, 1917, as World War I neared its end, Jerusalem surrendered to the British forces. This act marked the end of four centuries of Ottoman-Turk rule and the beginning of thirty years of British rule (Palestine Facts). Unable to keep promises to both the Arabs and the Jews, Britain subdivided the Palestine Mandate along the Jordan River-Gulf of Aqaba line. The eastern portion–called Transjordan–was to have a separate Arab administration operating under the general supervision of the commissioner for Palestine, and the western portion would be given to the Jews (Palestine Facts). Uneasy relations existed between the two groups until the situation exploded into violence with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Land Wars

The day after the state of Israel was declared in 1948, five Arab armies from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq immediately invaded Israel but were initially repulsed

Eventually the Arab forces won key sections of land but many lives were lost on all sides. Armistices established Israel’s borders on the frontier of most of the earlier British Mandate Palestine. Egypt kept the Gaza Strip while Jordan annexed the area around East Jerusalem and the land now known as the West Bank. These territories made up about 25% of the total area of British Mandate Palestine" (BBC). When the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was surrendered to the Arab armies, Jews lost access to their most sacred place, the Western Wall. From then on, the religious Jewish community struck out at the Arab population whenever possible, in retaliation for taking away their access to the Wall.

Prolonged tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors culminated again in six days of hostilities starting on June 5, 1967 and ending on June 11. The War of 1967 changed the geographic map considerably. "Israel seized Gaza and the Sinai from Egypt in the south and the Golan Heights from Syria in the north. It also pushed Jordanian forces out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The territorial gains doubled the area of land controlled by Israel. The victory heralded a new age of confidence and optimism for Israel and its supporters. The UN issued Security Council Resolution 242, stressing "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and calling for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." According to the UN, the conflict displaced another 500,000 Palestinians who fled to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan" (BBC). Israel was trying to fulfill the Zionist vision of creating a modern state with Biblical borders. When "occupied Palestine" is referred to, it is usually originating from the 1967 conflict when the West Bank of Jordan and the Gaza strip of Egypt were taken by Israel.

After trying to negotiate with international authorities to regain the territory they had lost in 1967, in 1973 Egypt and Syria launched major offensives against Israel on the Jewish festival of the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur War, as it is known to Jews, and the Ramadan War as known to Arabs, ended in January 1974, when Israeli Defense Forces withdrew across the Suez canal of Egypt and on May 31, 1974, agreed with Syria to withdraw to the 1967 cease-fire line in the Golan Heights (On War). Israel’s dependence on the US for military, diplomatic and economic aid increased at this time. Soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia led a petroleum embargo against nations that supported Israel, causing inflated gasoline prices and fuel shortages across the US (BBC), remembered by my parents as the long gas pump lines of the early 1970s.

Why Intifada?

The first Intifada, translated as the "shaking off" of the Israeli occupation, began on December 8, 1987 when four Palestinian men waiting at a checkpoint into Gaza were crushed to death by an Israeli army transporter (Jerusalemites). The resulting spontaneous explosion of popular resistance to the occupation rattled the world.

"Protest took the form of civil disobedience, general strikes, boycotts on Israeli products, graffiti, and barricades, but it was the stone-throwing demonstrations against the heavily-armed occupation troops that captured international attention" (BBC). "According to the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 1124 Palestinians lost their lives in the first Intifada. Some 16,000 were imprisoned and many were routinely tortured. Fewer than 50 Israeli civilians were killed" (Al Jazeera).

This first Intifada was concluded with the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, which attempted to bring calm to the region, but really perpetuated the occupation by allowing the Israeli Defense Force soldiers to maintain all their positions in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli settlements in Palestine increased dramatically during this cease-fire period, and many Palestinian homes and olive orchards were demolished both to make room for the settlements and as acts of vengeance. Palestine was divided into areas A, B, and C depending on if they were under all, some, or no jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Residents of Palestine were not allowed to travel Israel and visa versa.

The physical control of Palestine by Israel increased dramatically, while the international community assumed progress was being made to restore Palestinian rights, since the Oslo agreement was called a Peace Accord. "The Palestinian leadership, impotent in the face of Israeli aggression, agreed to seemingly unlimited concessions to Israeli demands – until there was no more to give. Instead of setting the stage for Palestinians to move toward freedom and independence, Oslo was dragging them toward fragmentation and surrender" (Jerusalemites). Although negotiations with Israelis were starting to address the four points critical to Palestinians: Jerusalem, the settlements, refugees, and the establishment of an independent state, little progress was made. Suicide bombings and soldier violence kept both sides wound tight in a web of fear and anger, negating any real chance for dialogue.

The second Intifada began on September 28, 2000 when Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Likud Knesset opposition (conservative Israeli government political party) went, heavily guarded by a 1,500 person police escort, to visit the Temple Mount and enter the al Aqsa Mosque. Although Sharon had stated he was going on a peace delegation, while there, he declared the area the eternal territory of the Israelis.

This flagrant insult to the Islamic faith touched off riots by the Palestinians, who saw Sharon’s actions as the ultimate symbol of occupation, that not even the holiest Muslim place of worship was free from Israeli government and military presence. Violence followed. Palestinians threw stones, Israeli soldiers shot bullets. "In the first six days of the Intifada, 61 Palestinians were killed and 2,657 were injured" (Answers). From September 29, 2000 through May 31st, 2004, the average number of Palestinians killed stands at 2.26 per day. The total killed is 3,023, and the number of wounded is many times more. Because of their superior weapons and regional control, Israeli soldiers have been able to inflict much more damage than they have incurred, and the US has financially supported much of their military development.

Palestine’s most famous scholar and political commentator Edward Said notes that time hasn’t improved the lot of his people. "The fact is that Palestinians are dramatically worse off than they were before the Oslo process began. Their annual income is less than half of what it was in 1992; they are unable to travel from place to place; more of their land has been taken than ever before; more settlements exist; and Jerusalem is practically lost…" (Said, The Progressive).

Mneesha Gellman is Associate Producer of "A World of Possibilities" radio program at the Mainstream Media Project in northern California. She traveled to Israel and Palestine in June 2005.  This is the fourth article she’s written as part of a series on her trip for Toward Freedom.

Works Cited

Al Jazeera. Online Newspaper. Webstite found July 4th 2005 http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/EAFF2127-AA44-4A76-A31A-99664FB68592.htm

Answers. Website found July 13th, 2005. http://www.answers.com/topic/al-aqsa-intifada

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Websites, found June 30th, 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/world/2001/israel_and_palestinians/timeline/1897.stm, "http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/world/2001/israel_and_palestinians/timeline/1948.stm



Chomsky, Noam. "The Fateful Triangle." South End Press, 1983

Jerusalemites. Website found July 4th, 2005 http://www.jerusalemites.org/Intifada/first.htm

Let’s Go. "A Let’s Go Travel Guide: Israel and the Palestinian Territories." St. Martin’s Press, New York. 2003.

Map. Israel and Palestine after war of 1967. Website found July 27th, 2005



Map. Israel and Palestine in 1948. Website found July 27th, 2005. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/unplan47.html

Mid East Web. Website found July 25th, 2005. http://www.mideastweb.org/israelfence.htm

On War. Website Found July 4th, 2005. http://www.onwar.com/aced/data/yankee/yomkippur1973.htm

Palestine Facts. Website. Found June 30th, 2005 http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_ww1_

british_mandate.php, http://www.palestinefacts.org/pf_independence_un_194.php

Said, Edward. "The Progressive" Magazine, March 1998

Said, Edward. "The Question of Palestine." Vintage Books Edition, April 2002.