The Arab – Israeli conflict

This is the conflict that has taken centre stage in world politics for millennia. And over what?
This is the conflict that has taken centre stage in world politics for millennia. And over what?

An Age-Old Dilemma

A conflict that seems as old as time itself, without any hope, or an end in sight. This is the conflict that has taken centre stage in world politics for millennia. And over what?

A small patch of land 250 miles long and 50 miles wide. An uneasy combination of arid deserts, fertile plains and snowy valleys that has been reflected in its claimants, who reside here, and the world over. This is the most contested territory in the world, and due to only one city – Jerusalem. Revered in all three Abrahamic faiths as a city of holy significance, it has had a rough history of exchanging hands between different groups of people.

In Judaism, it is the holiest city in the world – being the focus of numerous stories and myths, be it the place where God gathered the dust to create Adam asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", or where Abraham asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" according to the Bible bound Isaac – Jewish civilisations have always strived to capitalise on Jerusalem. When King David asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" found the Kingdom of Israel, he made Jerusalem its capital, and Solomon asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" built the First temple atop the Temple Mount.

In Christendom, the area of Palestine is where Jesus asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" spent his life and performed his miracles. The three foremost occurrences in the Christian cosmos (Jesus’ asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" crucifixion, resurrection and ascension) took place in Jerusalem. It was also where the apostles first began to preach the gospels. The city continued to be an important centre for early Christianity. In the 12th century, Pope Urban II initiated a series of religious wars – the Crusades – to wrestle control of Palestine from its Muslim overlords. These would last for two centuries and completely change the face of the region and go on to become one of the most famous clashes of civilisations in history.

Close to 630 CE, the armies of Islam arrived in Jerusalem, which was then held by the Byzantine Empire. This city was the site of Bait al-Maqdas – the first focal point of prayer for Muslims. According to Sunni interpretations, the city was the site of the farthest mosque in the Prophet Muhammad’s saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" night journey, known as the Isra. As a result, the city held high significance among Muslims, and is seen by many as the third holiest site in Islam after Makkah and Medina. As the early Islamic empire expanded under Hazrat Umar raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", Jerusalem came under Arab rule for the first time. Under the ‘Covenant of Hazrat Umar raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them"’, Jews were allowed back into the city. Christian holy sites were also protected. Contemporary sources state that Hazrat Umar raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" personally came to Jerusalem at the invitation of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and offered prayers some distance from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (believed to be built on the site of Jesus’ asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" crucifixion). The Mosque of Hazrat Umar raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" was built on the site where he prayed, and continues to stand today.

The enmity between Arabs and Israelis goes back further than you might think. A Biblical quarrel between Abraham’s asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" Egyptian maid Hagar and his Israelite wife Sarah (after Hagar conceived a long awaited son for Abraham asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" led to Sarah causing Hagar to migrate to the area known in the Bible as Paraan, which is now known as modern day Arabia. The resulting biblical account tells a tale of how this infighting continued onto Isaac asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and Ishmael asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and further generations of their progeny. Many say that this is the origin of this conflict that runs to this day. The toxic effects of this tale continue to be felt today as children are told these stories from an early age, and they grow up with the idea of being different from their peers.

A Refuge

These days, although the conflict remains charged with religious fervour, politics has inevitably entered the arena, as modern conflict is one of competing nationalisms.

In 1897, powerful groups from the Jewish diaspora came together in Switzerland to discuss a future Jewish State. After numerous proposals, the land of Palestine was chosen as the most viable land for the settlement of European Jewry. Jewish pogroms in Russia lead to an urgency in implementing plans to bring about a Jewish state.

The British were aware of the Jewish search for a homeland, and after an offer of Uganda failed to satisfy Jewish sentiments of settling in the Biblical Zion, the government knew where to shift its policy.

In the aftermath of the First World War, Britain gained control of Palestine. General Allenby famously disembarked his horse, and out of respect for the holy precincts of Jerusalem, he entered on foot. He was received well by the population, because he had promised to protect all holy sites. He held meetings with leaders of all three faiths to ensure the religious sites were respected. He remarked “only now have the crusades ended”. Unfortunately, the peace and hope brought about by the British was not to last long.

The British had never intended to stay in Palestine for a long term, so they immediately set about to decide who the territory would go to. The Hashemite Amir of Makkah, Sharif Hussein had agreed to support the British in return for the promise of future Arab independence of Ottoman Palestinian territory.

Back in London however, sentiments favoured the Jewish cause, as Christianity had always taught that God gave the land of Palestine to the Jews. Chaim Weizmann – who would go on to become the first president of Israel – taught Chemistry at Manchester University. He had contact with high-ranking politicians of the UK, and was involved in the synthesis of acetone (used for making explosives) imported from Germany, which would become a valuable resource in Britain’s war effort.

On top of this, he had exemplary eloquence in his speech, and was a powerful diplomatic and persuasive speaker. This put him in a very high position of power in the UK in support of the Zionist cause. It came as no surprise therefore, when the Foreign Secretary Balfour declared in 1917, that the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

This is a vital point in history. Both the Zionists and the Arabs felt as if they had been promised a state by Britain, which was the governing body of Palestine. Both parties were now set on a collision course. The seeds of conflict were now sown.

In Europe, Hitler’s rise to power resulted in the flight of most of the Jewish population of Europe. Many tried to flee to America. However, as a nation struggling to cope with mass immigration from Europe, it tightened its borders. The only other viable option for the Jews was their Biblical homeland – Jerusalem.

Jerusalem – a holy site for the three major religions of the world

Jewish Migration to Palestine

Jewish migration to Palestine commenced when Muslims granted complete religious freedom to all inhabitants of Palestine, and has continued since.

Over the centuries, they came in their hundreds from persecution in Europe, and settled in what they believed was their God-given land – the land of Israel.

These waves of migration – known as Aliyah in Hebrew – dramatically increased in number and frequency in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 1900 till the rise of Nazism in Germany, nearly 170,000 Jews migrated to Palestine. At the same time, tensions between Jewish immigrants and native Arabs continued to grow.

These wealthy migrants were determined to settle in Palestine, and started to buy large amounts of land from the native Arabs. Many Arab landlords lived in wealthy centres abroad, such as Cairo, and when they remotely sold their land, the native inhabitants were forced to leave. The Arabs were offered much more by the Zionist Jews than what anyone else offered them. In 1924, the second Caliph of the Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", Hazrat Musleh Maud raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" visited Palestine, and saw how the Palestinians were losing their territory in large numbers. He met numerous high ranking Muslims who he found to be feeling completely convinced that they will be able to drive out the Jews. Huzoor raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" disagreed with their blithe attitude towards this, because he understood the Jewish desire to repopulate their ancestral land. Huzoor raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" said, “It can be seen from Qur’anic prophecies and revelations of the Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" that the Jews will be successful in repopulating this land…In my perspective, this contentment of the Muslim leaders will ultimately result in their destruction.”

Jewish migration to Palestine

In the next couple of years, Jewish emigration to Palestine skyrocketed as the Nazis came to power in Germany. 250,000 Jews arrived in the decade preceding the Second World War. The Nazis signed an agreement with the Jews of Germany, under which the transfer of some 60,000 Jews to Palestine with their property was secured.

In 1929, the Arab population rioted against the uncontrolled migration of Jews, which resulted in many fatalities and the depopulation of the Jewish community of Hebron. To this day, Hebron remains a staunchly Arab city, but with a small community of Jewish settlers.

London Conference, St. James’s Palace, February 1939.
The White Paper, May 1939

The British authorities responded by issuing the White Paper, which restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. This could not have come at a worse time, because as the horrors of the Holocaust were raging in Europe, Jews were being turned away from Palestine.

As the Second World War came to an end, the Jews had a very high moral ground to have a safe place for themselves. The British, already financially exhausted from the war, were unprepared to deal with an influx of worldwide Jewry into Palestine. Helpless, they presented the issue to the newly formed UN.

Jewish demonstration against the White Paper, 1939

Two State Solution

The United Nations proposed that Palestine be partitioned into an Arab state, and a Jewish state. Jerusalem would remain an international city.

The Zionists were more than happy at this proposal. They had finally got a safe haven for themselves. They immediately accepted the UN’s proposal.

In the Arab world however, anger was brewing. Core Arab states in the region (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia etc.) met in 1945, and created the Arab League to protect the interests of the Arab people.

To this day, the Arab League holds regular summits to discuss the issues faced by the Arab world. One of the founding members of the Arab league was not yet an independent state – Palestine.

For the Arabs, the UN Partition was not a cause for celebration, but fury and resentment towards the British. They had lost a large part of their land to foreign Jews. They were not prepared to let them take it. They were prepared for war.

Upon independence, the surrounding Arab states went to war with the new-born state of Israel. At first glance, it would seem that the Arab states would have had no problem in defeating Israel. But the outcome was an overwhelming Israeli victory.

An-Nakba (The Catastrophe)

The Palestine Post headlining the crisis in Israel

Behind their united front, the Arab states were divided. All had ambitions in territorial Palestine.

This made their combined offensive into Palestine doomed from the start. Moreover, the Arab armies had no experience of fighting in war, whereas the Israeli army was made up of the Irgun (Jewish terrorists) who were known for targeting the British. In addition, the geography of Israel was different to the surrounding Arab states. The land enclosed by the Judean mountains and the Mediterranean formed a very fertile strip of land, which was a stark contrast to the arid deserts the Arab armies were accustomed to.

As Israeli troops continued to conquer more territory than what it had initially been allotted by the UN, Arab citizens were forced to flee from their ancestral villages. Appalling atrocities were perpetrated by both sides. In 1948, the Irgun massacred the people of the Arab village of Deir Yassin. In the ensuing violence, some 700,000 Arab civilians fled the new Jewish state – ¾ of the population that had once resided there. Those who stayed were put under strict military law for the next two decades.

This was all part of the Qur’anic prophecy that the Jews would cause another disturbance in Palestine:

وَقَضَيْنَا إِلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ فِي الْكِتَابِ لَتُفْسِدُنَّ فِي الْأَرْضِ مَرَّتَيْنِ وَلَتَعْلُنَّ عُلُوًّا كَبِيرًا

“And We revealed to the children of Israel in the Book, saying, ‘You will surely do mischief in the land twice, and you will surely become excessively overbearing.”

Chapter 17, Verse 5

Over the coming decades, Israel would go on to become a fully-fledged democratic Jewish state. The Jews had widespread support in Britain and America, and continued to receive financial aid, which served as a lifeline to Israel during wars. The USA gave $1 billion every year in aid, and the West German government gave $700 million as compensation for the Holocaust. This was during the Cold War, and the US was desperately looking for countries to win influence over. Since then, America has continued to give billions in aid to Israel, and in recent years, Israel has become the greatest recipient of US military aid, receiving close to $3 billion annually.
A very powerful Jewish lobby group exists in America which aims to influence government foreign policy. Known as AIPAC, politicians always aim to win their support, with both president Obama and Trump addressing their policy conferences in their election campaigns.

With time, acceptance for the state of Israel grew within the international community. There was a ‘pioneer’ spirit among the Jewish people, who felt that they had a vital role in building the new Jewish state. Due to conscription (all able-bodied people being made to join the army), most young men learned Hebrew in the army. Jewish migrants from Communist Russia kept their traditions alive and initiated the practice of communal farms – known as kibbutzim – which became very popular. Worldwide Jewry came to Israel, and bonded into a nation.

فَإِذَا جَاءَ وَعْدُ الْآخِرَةِ جِئْنَا بِكُمْ لَفِيفًا

“…and when the time of the promise of the latter days comes, We shall bring you together out of various peoples.”

Chapter 17, Verse 105


In 1990, leaders finally came together and signed the Oslo Accords. There were widespread celebrations, as peace was finally thought to have been achieved.

After decades of hostility, the two sides came together

The accords were meant to signal in a new era in which peace between the Palestinians and Israelis would flourish. Coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a time of hope and optimism. A marvellous marble building was constructed to host the Palestinian Parliament. However it was never used. Unfortunately the peace never came, and sentiments created more tension than ever before.

Jerusalem is still sought after by many parties. In 1980, Israel passed the Jerusalem Law, which made occupied East Jerusalem (which contained most of the holy sites and was under Palestinian sovereignty) part of Israel. In 2000, Ariel Sharon – who would go on to become the Israeli Prime Minister – visited the Temple Mount to assert Israeli control over the holy sites.

The resulting violence escalated into nation-wide riots that resulted in numerous deaths in what became known as the Second Intifada (Arabic for tremor or uprising). Peace seemed further than ever.

Today, Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land continues. Jewish settlement in the Palestinian territories grows at a pace that is reminiscent of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 19th Century. It is not only Palestinian land that is being carved and appropriated, its culture and way of life is also under threat. Bans on Palestinian flags and political artwork are frequent. But support for Palestine has soared in recent years. A diaspora formed from Palestinian refugees with a powerful voice exists in many countries around the world. In 2012, the UN proposed a resolution to recognise Palestine as a non-member observer state, which was overwhelmingly passed in favour of Palestine. America and Israel were the two most notable voters against it.

Ultimately, in the postmodern era of social media, tech-savvy youngsters who are tired of politics and want change have found numerous platforms to voice their views. Increasing interaction between the two people means that they see each other as human beings – not existential threats. Across the world, post-modernism is in force.

In today’s society, identity is no longer ascribed or achieved – it is chosen. Young people in particular opt to formulate their own identity – just like a Pick n Mix stand. The same phenomenon has been seen amongst youngsters in Israel and Palestine. A new generation brought up in the world of social media has little concern for prejudice to take root. Social media has broken down barriers that have always been in place. Arab Israelis and Israeli Arabs do exist. Interfaith marriages are also on the rise (although there were nationwide riots over the recent marriage of a Palestinian man with a Jewish woman).
Despite legislation which aims to curb interfaith relations, social change is gaining momentum.

As with peace, it remains elusive – and will do so for the foreseeable future. But the hope for peace remains high. Even in the Bible, there is a parable of how the Arab Ishmael asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" and the Israelite Isaac asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", both rivalling brothers, put their differences aside and made amends at the death of their father. Surely their descendants can show the same affection again?


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Picture of Anas Mahmood

Anas Mahmood

Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

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