Israel & Palestine / HISTORY
A look at the 'Holy Land' reveals a society embattled with competing views
both ancient and modern. The great traditions that collide here provide articles
of faith that people continue to live and die by. A series of ancient
historical claims and grievances uneasily coexist.
Palestine and Israel mark the western limit of the 'cradle of civilization' that gave birth to hydrology-based hierarchies - central control over irrigation systems - which eventually
became the seeds of the modern state with all its autocratic flaws. In the early years this area was home to a number of wandering tribes including first the Caananites and later the Israelites. This harsh desert climate also
fostered a series of monotheistic 'sky god' religions that are the root of modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They tended towards fairly harsh codes of conduct that blurred distinctions between political and religious authority.
These events represent a deep root of Jewish nationalism. The first revolt dates from the period just after Christ's death and was marked by the burning of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, selective assassination of Roman officials and Jewish collaborators, and the last stand of the Zealots against the Roman legions at the desert fortress at Masada. The Jews were expelled from Jerusalem in 135.
This period is usually dated from just after the Prophet Mohammed's death (632). Abu Bakr, the first caliph and successor to Mohammed, and Omar, who followed him, together engineered the capture of the Holy Land from Christian Byzantine authorities. Several of the local tribes were ready converts to Islam. This period of Islamic rule saw the construction of the Dome of the Rock mosque (Islam's third-holiest site) on land in Old Jerusalem where the first and second Jewish temples had once stood. This early period of Islamic rule was marked by an unusually high level of tolerance for the civil and religious rights of the remaining Christian and Jewish communities.
A hotly disputed historical topic between Christians and Muslims. There were eight crusades (1099-1291) of European warriors trying to capture the Holy Land. The first and most successful resulted in the slaughter of both Muslims and Jews who were living together in
peace in Jerusalem. Other crusades were less successful due to fierce resistance, crusader infighting and outright banditry. For Muslims the crusades mark a barbaric assault, while for some Christians the word retains the positive connotations of a noble cause.
After the failure of the revolt against Rome, Jewish refugees established communities from Spain to Ethiopia to Kerala in southern India. They were generally treated more hospitably by non-Christians than in the Christian world, where the dominant Catholic Church actively promoted anti-Semitism. They flourished particularly in Moorish Spain until its invasion by Christian armies, after which they were victimized in the Inquisition. Russia and eastern Europe were particularly bad, with bloody pogroms that killed thousands. Despite notable intellectual and economic achievements, a history of discrimination (and much worse) led to a widespread Jewish desire for a homeland.
Differing versions of
recent history continue
to cloud the future of Israel
and Palestine. NI examines
some of the myths
Illustration: Luba Lukova
'Zionism is racism'
Zionism is the Jewish movement started in the 19th century that promised Jews a homeland. It is a complex movement with many political tendencies - Left and Right, secular and religious. It was the belief system that motivated those who fought for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The original movement was made up of those who wanted to drive the Palestinians out and those who wanted to make common cause with them in their fight against British colonialism. While Left Zionism was the dominant force in the early days of Israel today the Right and the religious Right are top dogs. Still many people who think of themselves as Zionists are active in trying to end the occupation of the West Bank, supporting Palestinian rights and agitating for peace. To condemn all Zionism as racism is to isolate those who identify with Israel but are trying to change it from within.
'There was no-one here'
There is a common myth in Israel that when the waves of Jewish immigrants arrived after World War Two (1946-49) the land was more-or-less vacant. A variation on this is that the Palestinian population left voluntarily because they did not want to share the land with others. The fact is that some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs ended up as refugees due to attacks or fear of attacks on their cities and the conscious destruction of many of their villages. Massacres by Israeli paramilitaries like Irgun and the Stern Gang were not uncommon. Many Palestinian families left to escape the fighting, planning to return in a few weeks. In the event the Israeli military stopped them from returning at all. Most refugees ended up in neighbouring Arab states or in the West Bank and Gaza. This population today numbers some four million - the root of the refugee problem that haunts any potential peace deal.
'The Oslo Agreement means a Palestinian state'
The currently contested 'territories', or Palestinian land on the West Bank and in Gaza, fell to Israel during the June 1967 Six Day War. Every Israeli Government since 1967 has expanded or allowed the expansion of settlements and the military infrastructure needed to protect them on this territory. The Oslo Agreement (1993) was the first time the Israelis and Palestinians recognized each other as peoples with legitimate rights and interests. But each party to the agreement had very different interpretations of what it meant. For the Palestinians it was the first step towards Israeli withdrawal and having their own state. For Israeli negotiators it was a step towards giving the Palestinians very limited local control so they could police themselves. Israel would preserve settlements and complete military domination. Even this moderate agreement was resisted by the Israeli military establishment, right-wing politicians and religious fundamentalists who ran a campaign of vilification against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who engineered it. This culminated in his assassination by a young Israeli law student Yigal Amir on 4 November 1995.
'Israel is a creature of the US'
It would be hard for Israel to prosper without US economic and diplomatic support. But Israel is a complex society with its own political dynamic that often clashes with US views and interests. To reduce Israel to a US surrogate is to misunderstand the determination of Israelis to continue to exist as a homeland and refuge for the world's Jews. Any long-term effort for a just peace needs to take this on board. The continued attempts by religious fundamentalist groups in Palestine, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to challenge Israel's right to exist only strengthens reactionary tendencies amongst Israelis.
'Ehud Barak's was a generous offer'
The notion that Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel, offered the Palestinians everything they wanted at Camp David in 1999 has been a powerful weapon against the Israeli peace movement. The confusion goes back to the interpretations of the Oslo agreement. The Israeli side convinced itself that limited autonomy under Israeli military surveillance was acceptable to the Palestinians - an offer was never actually made or refused. The 'generous offer' that was mooted meant no territorial contiguity for the Palestinian state, no control of external borders, only limited control of water resources, the continued presence of fortified Israeli settlements and Israeli-only roads through the heart of the Palestinian territory and the perpetual right of the Israeli Defense Force to be deployed in Palestinian territory at short notice. Some 80 per cent of the settlers were to remain in place and there were to be no return or compensation rights for any Palestinian refugees.
'Israel's ethical army'
It is a cherished belief among many Israelis that the Israeli Defense Force is a noble guardian of the nation that stands above politics. It is further held that the army carries out its operations in as humane a fashion as possible in difficult conditions. Indeed the IDF is remarkable for its openness and internal debate, but the reality of military occupation in hostile territory - widespread civilian casualties, intimidation of the Palestinian population, selective assassination, vandalism, torture, using civilians as shields, even theft - is undermining this reputation for anyone who cares to look. The upper levels of the army, represented by Chief-of-Staff Mofaz and his deputy Ya'alon, are hostile to any reasonable peace process and are bent on further reoccupation, destroying the Palestinian national movement and if possible 'transferring' the Palestinian population elsewhere. Instead of merely responding to civilian authority they are actively attempting to shape policy themselves.