Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?
Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.
1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.
The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.
Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.
The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.
They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)
Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.
The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)
While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.
The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.
After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.
The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).
Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.
It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.
Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.
Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.
The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.
But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.
Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.
For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.
Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.