History – or hi-story, or his-story – is essentially a story about the past. It is not necessarily a true reflection of what happened. It is what is said to have happened. There are different versions of what happened. That’s the first point.
Finding the beginning of any story is an impossibility. People say the present conflict in Gaza began with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers last month. Others pinpoint the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as the starting point. It is impossible to unentangle either of these events from what went before them. There is no beginning. That’s the second point.
The earth is one. We are tiny and we are made of stars. But instead of recognising the similarities between us we focus on difference. We create ourselves and others from strands of stories that we weave to make meaning. And we divide ourselves from others by these stories. That’s the third point.
Stories, then, are important things.
I am writing a story here. The story that I am writing is an attempt to summarise the conflict in Israel and Palestine. It is not a perfect story and it cannot be exactly representative of reality – that is an impossibility (nets catch butterfly wings but words can’t capture things).
An important story about Israel is the story that can be found in the Hebrew Bible. According to this story, God promised the land now known as Israel to the Jewish people thousands of years ago. The veracity of any story is not as important as the existence of the story.
The earliest stories of the Bible were written around 1000 BCE. It is known that the Jewish people have had a presence in these lands since then. But over the years there have been invasions, expulsions and exiles and returns. Jewish prayers and their holy book emphasise the importance of the Land of Israel.
Many of the Jews who left the land of Israel moved to Europe where there was a lot of anti-semitism which is a more polite term for Jew-hatred. Europe was dominated by Christianity and according to the Gospel of Matthew the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Many Jews also settled in North Africa and the Middle East where Islam later became dominant. Jews generally fared better under Muslim rule rather than under Christian rule. Jews and Muslims in North Africa, for the most part, lived peacefully side by side.
Jews in Europe often faced economic restrictions, violent persecution and even death. For example in 1492, the same year that Columbus set sail for the west, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain instructed all Jews that they had to either leave, convert to Christianity, or be killed. 200,000 left. Many more converted and many were killed. During the 19th century Jewish persecution in Europe rose. Thousands fled. Many went to America.
The Jewish people wanted persecution to end. They looked at a number of possible solutions. Some became socialists, some converted to Christianity, some became more religious, some became less religious, some decided to move to Palestine where they bought land and set up homes.
By the end of the 19th century a number of Jews in Europe began a movement called Zionism. This called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. A number of places were considered for this homeland including Uganda and Argentina. The Zionist movement decided that Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, would be the best place for this homeland.
In 1900 the population of Palestine was around 500,000 and the majority of people there were Muslim but the situation was changing with the influx of more and more Jews who were fleeing persecution in Europe.
During World War I the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany. During the war the British Empire made promises to the Arabs and the Jews in relation to Palestine. In what is known as the McMahon Hussein correspondence they promised support for Arab independence in the area. And in another letter – which became known as the Balfour Declaration – they stated their support for the establishment of a national Jewish home in Palestine.
The Ottoman Empire was on the losing side of the war and following its defeat its territories were divided up between the British Empire and France. Palestine came under British control in 1918 for what became known as the British Mandatory period. Arabs and Jews lived together under British rule during this time and Jewish immigration continued.
Meanwhile, levels of Jewish persecution were rising rapidly in Europe. In 1919 around 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine. The Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933 ushering a new level of anti-semitism. Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.
Many Jews tried to flee Europe but the doors were closed to them in most countries, including Ireland. Many went to Palestine and Jewish immigration there swelled in the 1930s. Jews who arrived in Palestine bought land and then supported the arrival of more Jews from Europe.
With the influx of Jews into Palestine tensions between the Jewish population and the Palestinians heightened. Acts of violence were committed by both sides against the other and by both sides against the British. By 1947 Palestine had become ungovernable.
The British handed Palestine back to the United Nations who, in 1947, decided the best solution would be to split Palestine into two – one Palestinian (Arab) state and one Jewish state. Jews in Palestine celebrated this decision. Palestinians, unsurprisingly, weren’t happy. Civil war broke out.
This splitting of the country came into force on the 14th May 1948 and on that date the State of Israel was declared. The following day the surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Iraq) attacked. Israelis call the ensuing war ‘The War of Independence’. Palestinians call it the Nakba, meaning catastrophe. Israel won the war.
At the end of the war Israel controlled the area allocated to them by the UN but also controlled a lot of the area that had been allocated to the Palestinians. The areas not controlled by Israel became known as the Palestinian territories. These areas are the West Bank (which came under the control of Jordan) and the Gaza Strip (which came under the control of Egypt).
By the end of the war 700,000 Palestinians had left or were expelled from their homes in Israel. Most planned to return once it became safe to do so. However, they have never been able to return. They became refugees. These refugees and their descendants now number over five million. Most of them live in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the surrounding Arab countries (Lebanon, Syria and Jordan). Some families still have in their possession the keys to the front door of the homes that they left behind in 1948. Many still yearn to return.
Israel was now a recognised state and a national homeland for Jews. Any Jew in the world is entitled to citizenship of Israel (but the debate about ‘who is a Jew?’ is ongoing). Not all Jews are Israelis and not all Jews are Zionists. There is a wide range of opinion amongst Jews on the State of Israel. One Orthodox group called Neturei Karta (NK) are against Zionism – pictures of their protests for peace have been regularly posted on Facebook in the last week.
It is important to note that from the outset Israel was surrounded by Arab neighbours who were hostile to its existence and some neighbours have called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. This has resulted in other wars.
In 1967 a war often called the Six Day War resulted in Israel taking control of the Palestinian Territories. Both the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza strip now came under Israeli control. Israel also took control of the Sinai Peninsula (subsequently returned to Egypt) and the Golan Heights (previously part of Syria).
Since 1967 Israel has controlled, in full or partially, the Gaza strip and the West Bank and Israeli settlements have been built in both areas. Peace initiatives have been interspersed with periods of violence including wars, uprisings, suicide bombings and many deaths.
Following peace talks in the early 1990s (the Oslo Accords) the Palestinian Authority was given control over some aspects of life in Gaza and the West Bank. It was a very complicated peace deal with Palestinian territories divided into three zones – Area A, Area B and Area C. The Palestinian Authority has civilian and security control over Area A.
As part of another peace initiative Israel withdrew all their settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the Palestinian Authority were given control of this area. However, Israel still maintained control over the borders and much of the resources. Israel continues to build or support the building of settlements in the West Bank.
An organisation known as Hamas was elected to the Palestinian government in 2006 and Hamas are now in control of Gaza. Hamas are labelled a terrorist organisation by many countries including Israel and the United States. This is partially as a result of attacks they carried out on Israel including suicide bombings. Since their election the restrictions in Gaza have increased and an economic blockade is in place. During this blockade many ordinary everyday foodstuffs have been banned as well as construction material.
The latest round of violence is another series of steps in a repeating dance of violence and peace. This round began with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers. This was followed by the arrest of Hamas members, the killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack, the launching of rockets by Hamas and the rocket attacks and ground incursion of Israel into the Gaza Strip.
As stated at the outset – this is one story and there are many different versions. Hamas tell the story that they are defending their own people and trying to secure human rights for Palestinians. Some Palestinians are against Hamas, some are pro-Hamas. Some Israelis tell the story that they are the force of good fighting the force of evil. Some are calling for peace. Some want more settlements built. Some want a one-state solution, some want a two-state solution, some Israelis are even anti-Israel.
The closer you get to the earth the more the complexities of its surface appear. And so it is with this conflict. The closer you get the more complex it becomes. It is impossible to find the strand that marks the beginning and it is equally impossible to find a strand that will mark the end. Once we have stories in our heads that divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ there will be conflict. And finally, if an ‘us’ is attacked by an outsider the bonds between the people in the ‘us’ will be strengthened against the ‘them’. Using language like ‘terrorists’, ‘Nazis’, ‘murderers’, ‘evil’, ‘jerks’ against either side is likely to strengthen it rather than bring about peace.