Crossroads of Faith and history: The Ancient Narrative of Israel and Palestine

Sub Title : Whose land is it anyways – a quick peep into history

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2023

Author : Ashwani Sharma , Editor-in-Chief

Page No. : 14

Category : Geostrategy

: November 25, 2023

The ancient history of Israel provides foundational narratives for Judaism and has also influenced Christian and Islamic traditions. Archaeological findings in the region have both confirmed and challenged some of the biblical accounts, and the study of ancient Israel remains an active and evolving field of research. The history of Israel and Palestine is intricate, spanning thousands of years, and is closely interwoven with religious, political, and cultural narratives. Here’s  a concise overview:-

Ancient History

The region known today as Israel and Palestine has been inhabited for millennia. Historically, it was home to ancient kingdoms and peoples like the Canaanites, Philistines, and the Kingdom of Israel. It has significant religious importance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For Jews, it’s the birthplace of the Jewish people and the site of the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For Christians, it’s the birthplace of Jesus Christ. For Muslims, Jerusalem (Al-Quds) is the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

The ancient history of Israel spans thousands of years and is deeply intertwined with the biblical narrative. A brief overview to set the perspective right:-

Early Beginnings

Before the emergence of ancient Israel, the region was inhabited by the Canaanites and other Semitic peoples.

Biblical accounts describe the journeys of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the land of Canaan, marking the roots of the Israelite people.

Exodus and Conquest of Canaan

The Book of Exodus tells of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

Under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites are believed to have conquered parts of Canaan.

Period of the Judges and United Monarchy

  • After settling in Canaan, the Israelites were led by judges, charismatic leaders who arose in times of crisis. This period is described in the biblical Book of Judges.
  • Around the 11th century BCE, the Israelites established a united kingdom under Saul, the first king. He was succeeded by King David, who established Jerusalem as the capital. David’s son, Solomon, is credited with building the First Temple in Jerusalem.
  • After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.

Divided Kingdom

  • The Kingdom of Israel existed in the north, with Samaria as its capital. In 722 BCE, it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, leading to the dispersion of its ten tribes, sometimes referred to as the “Lost Tribes.”
  • The Kingdom of Judah persisted in the south, with Jerusalem as its capital. It maintained its independence until 586 BCE, when it was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who destroyed the First Temple and exiled many Judeans to Babylon.

Babylonian Exile, Hellenistic Period.  The Babylonian Exile lasted for about 70 years. In 539 BCE, Babylon was conquered by the Persian king Cyrus the Great. He allowed the Judeans (or Jews) to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, leading to the construction of the Second Temple. In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the region, bringing with him Hellenistic culture. After Alexander’s death, the region became a battleground between the Seleucid Empire in the north and the Ptolemaic Kingdom in the south.

The Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE) was a Jewish uprising against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who tried to impose Hellenistic practices on the Jewish people. The successful revolt led to the establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty.

Roman Period. By the 1st century BCE, the area was under Roman rule. The Jewish population revolted several times, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Over time, the Jewish population declined due to migrations, forced exiles, and conversions. By 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey had taken control of Judea. While the Romans allowed the Jews some autonomy, tensions often ran high. In 70 CE, after a major Jewish revolt against Roman rule, the Romans under General Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

Islamic Conquest and Ottoman Rule:

In the 7th century CE, Muslim Arab armies conquered the region, and it became part of various Muslim empires over the subsequent centuries. European Christians launched a series of Crusades in the 11th-13th centuries to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim rule. The Crusader states were eventually defeated by Muslim forces.

The region was part of the Ottoman Empire from the early 16th century until the end of World War I.

British Mandate. After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate to govern Palestine. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 had already expressed British support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.  Jewish immigration increased during the British Mandate period, leading to tensions between Jewish settlers and the Arab majority.

UN Partition and Establishment of Israel:

In 1947, the United Nations proposed a plan to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem under international administration. The Jewish leadership accepted the plan, while the Arab leadership did not. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 was influenced by a complex mix of factors, including centuries of Jewish diaspora, a long-standing Zionist movement, the impact of World War II and the Holocaust, and geopolitical considerations during the post-war period.

Key factors that led to the United Nations’ involvement in the establishment of Israel:-

Jewish Diaspora and Zionism. The Jewish people had been dispersed across the world for centuries, with a consistent presence in the land then known as Palestine. The Zionist movement, which emerged in the late 19th century, aimed to re-establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine due to historical and religious ties.

British Mandate of Palestine. After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate over Palestine. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, issued by the British government, expressed support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, though this was to be done with respect for the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities. Jewish immigration to Palestine increased during the British Mandate, especially with the rise of anti-Semitic policies and actions in Europe. This immigration led to tensions and violence between Jews and the Arab population, who opposed the increasing Jewish presence and feared the loss of their land and rights.

The Holocaust. The genocide of approximately six million Jews during World War II created an urgent demand for a solution to the plight of Jewish survivors and refugees, as well as a place where they could be safe from persecution. The world’s reaction to the atrocities of the Holocaust created sympathy for the Zionist cause and put pressure on world leaders to find a resolution to the Jewish question.

United Nations Involvement. Unable to resolve the conflict between Jewish and Arab nationalist aspirations, Britain referred the Palestine question to the newly formed United Nations in 1947. The UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommended the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with an international regime for Jerusalem. This was approved by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, through Resolution 181, which recommended the end of the British mandate and the partition of the territory.

The UN partition plan was accepted by the Jewish leaders but rejected by the Arab leaders and the surrounding Arab states. Civil war broke out between the Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine, which escalated into a regional conflict once Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, following the withdrawal of British forces.

Establishment of Israel and Aftermath. The State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948. The surrounding Arab states invaded the very next day, leading to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Israel managed to survive and even expand its territory beyond the boundaries set by the UN partition plan.

The UN’s decision to recommend the partition of Palestine was seen by some as a way to resolve the competing claims and aspirations of Jews and Arabs in the region, while others viewed it as an imposition that failed to account for the wishes of the majority of Palestine’s existing Arab population. The establishment of Israel has had lasting and complex consequences, leading to a prolonged and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Subsequent Wars. Over the next few decades, Israel fought multiple wars with neighbouring Arab countries: the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and others. The Six-Day War of 1967 was particularly significant as Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Intifadas

  • The PLO, founded in 1964, aimed to achieve Palestinian self-determination. Over time, it gained international recognition as the representative of the Palestinian people.
  • Two significant Palestinian uprisings (Intifadas) against Israeli rule occurred, the first from 1987-1993 and the second from 2000-2005.

Oslo Accords. In the 1990s, the Oslo Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO, leading to the creation of the Palestinian Authority and granting it limited self-governance in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Current Situation. The peace process has seen numerous setbacks. Core issues include the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, borders, security, and settlements. The Palestinian territories are currently divided between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Conflicts and tensions, such as the repeated confrontations between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, continued to flare up off and on, till Hamas’ surprise attack which is discussed in subsequent features.