Context on the Conflict in the Holy Land
This post was originally made on 5/20/21
Welcome to The Bloch,
The violent conflict in the ‘Holy Land’ has re-erupted over the last week. I have been seeing a ton of conflicting information and misinformation in my social media feed. I am by no means an expert in this area, so I welcome peaceful discussion about the history of this land, what needs to happen to achieve peace, or as everyone is concerned about in the immediate term, ceasefire. According to latest reports, Hamas has given its terms for ceasefire, so that’s progress at least.
I’m going to do my best to be objective here, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my family is connected to this issue. My grandfather spent time in the British army in Palestine in the 1930s before moving to the United States.
My last name “Bloch” is my own personal piece of this history. Bloch is German, derived from Polish, meaning someone in Eastern Europe who comes from Italy, or originally, just ‘foreigner.’ It is Ashkenazic which is the name for the Jews who trace their ancestry back to Yiddish speakers in the region between France and Russia. So just from my last name, you can trace my ancestry back to Judea, Italy, Germany, and Poland. Jews have been persecuted and sent from home to home as refugees throughout history: I’m living proof.
If you aren’t a student of history, the global Jewish population in 1933 was around 15 million when Hitler started to round up the Jews in Germany and send them to concentration camps. Over 60% of the global Jewish population lived in Europe at that time. The Nazis would go on to kill over 6 million Jews in the Holocaust before Hitler was defeated and the concentration camps were closed forever. Jews including my grandfather fled Europe to avoid the horror, and many settled in Palestine which was a British-controlled territory at the time with growing friendliness toward Jews. Britain took control of Palestine officially in September of 1923, and retained control until May 15th of 1948, the day after Israel declared independence.
Israel declaring independence didn’t come as a surprise to Britain. It was actually a fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration in which the British government expressed publicly in 1917 support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. British support for the return of Jews to Palestine can be traced back as early as 1840. And if you look through a Jewish-first lens, the day Britain left is the day Israel regained its freedom, for the first time since the Kingdom of Israel was crushed by Assyrian Empire forces around 723 BCE. The Assyrian Empire, like the Egyptians, and the Romans, followed a polytheistic religion meaning worshiping more than one god.
Historically, the Jewish people, who practiced one of if not the first monotheistic religions, were fighting for survival against those with polytheistic beliefs. In later years, after the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Jews were fighting for survival against those who would force them to convert. Those stubborn Jews… The map below represents the ‘United Monarchy’ or the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah is said to have existed from about 1030 to about 930 BCE. It was a union of all the twelve Israelite tribes living in the area that presently approximates modern Israel and the other Levantine territories, including much of western Jordan, and western Syria.’ From 930 BCE until the fall of Jerusalem in 722 BCE, it served as the capital of the independent Kingdom of Judah. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Judah became an unfortified territory of Assyria until the Seige of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.
But Jewish life in Jerusalem did not end with the fall of the Kingdom of Judah. Jewish worship at the Second Temple in Jerusalem began to return to prominence around 516 BCE, and around 500 years later, during the reign of Herod the Great, the Temple Mount was completely refurbished. Here’s a model of Herod’s Temple.
If we are going to be honest about all of this, we also need to recognize that the name “Palestine” for this area of land was one of the major historical pieces of institutionalized antisemitism. The First Jewish-Roman War in 66–73 CE was “the first of three major rebellions by the Jews against the Roman Empire, fought in Roman-controlled Judea, resulting in the destruction of Jewish towns, the displacement of its people and the appropriation of land for Roman military use, as well as the destruction of the Jewish Temple and city. The proximate reasons for the final Jewish revolt in the Roman province of Judea from 132–136 CE are “the construction of a new city, Aelia Capitolina, over the ruins of Jerusalem and the erection of a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. The Church Fathers and rabbinic literature emphasize the role of Rufus, governor of Judea, in provoking the revolt.”
When the suppression of this final major Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire was more or less complete, in 135 CE, Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed the province of Judea and called it “Syria Palaestina.” Now if you understand the map of Israel, and you know where Judea was (Jerusalem/middle) where Syria is (northeast corner), and where Gaza is (on the southwest coast), you will understand the following: calling it Syria Palestina and building over Jerusalem is the beginning of telling all of the people of Judea that they aren’t welcome there anymore if they maintain their faith.
Keep in mind this was over 400 years before the Prophet Muhammad was born in 570 CE. As Christianity and Islam grew throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia minor, Jewish refugees also spread from Judea to these other regions. The persecution of Jews grew as well. And this antisemitism grew significantly as Christianity grew and it exploded when the Crusades began over 900 years ago. I’m not blaming here, just talking facts. Jud[aism] now being both a religion and an ethnicity, is a direct result of the displacement and refugee status of the people of Judea which culminated in the Holocaust but began picking up steam almost 2000 years ago. It is no coincidence that the calendar we use today, the Gregorian calendar (which is a follow-on to the Julian Calendar proposed by Julius Ceasar in 46 BCE), places today in the year 2021, rather than the year 5781 which is the year the people of Judea, who used the Hebrew calendar, would recognize if they were alive today. It is also no coincidence that our weeks in the Judeo-Christian West are 7 days long with 1 day a week being God’s day.
Modern Jewish support for returning to the diaspora to Israel, also known as Zionism, originated around the turn of the 20th century (1900). At that time, there were approximately 50,000 Jews in Palestine which made up approximately 10% of the population of Palestine. If that sounds low it is because it is. Don’t forget the 1900 years of persecution that scattered millions of Jews throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the rest of the world.
In 1896 in Germany, Theodore Hertzel published a book called “Der Judenstaat” or “The Jews’ State” which talked about the virtues of a Jewish state and carries the subtitle “Proposal of a modern solution for the Jewish question.” The “Jewish question” referred to two glaring issues: 1) many of the Jewish people, or the descendants of the people of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, had been refugees in the Middle East and Europe for at least 1800 years since the Second Temple was destroyed during the Seige of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE; and 2) growing antisemitism in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
So when Zionists in Israel declared independence and kicked off the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it didn’t come as a shock to the Arab community in the region either. The Arabic name for the war, more generically known as the 1947–1949 Palestine war, can be translated as “The Catastrophe.”
During this time approximately 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes and went through a mass exodus after many of their urban areas were destroyed. “Many Palestinian Arabs ended up stateless, displaced either to the Palestinian territories captured by Egypt and Jordan or to the surrounding Arab states; many of them, as well as their descendants, remain stateless and in refugee camps. This is absolutely horrific. I mourn for Palestinians who have suffered due the power imbalance with Israel.
Emotions aside, to be clear about this, at the same time Israel won its independence, the formerly British Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank, and, and East Jerusalem, fell under the control of Egypt and Jordan, not Israel, and not Palestine:
If you look at history through the Palestinian lens, the Great Palestinian Revolt in 1936–1939 was an attempted war for independence waged by the Palestinian Arabs. While many Jews at the time likened this to terrorism and Nazism, David Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel) described Arab causes using phrases like ‘fear of growing Jewish economic power, opposition to mass Jewish immigration and fear of the English identification with Zionism.’ So Britain stopped the Palestinian attempt for independence in the 1930s but didn’t stop the Israeli attempt for independence in 1948. And Britain ending their Mandate confirmed the Palestinians’ worst nightmare: that Britain would not hold up their promise for an independent Palestine. In British Palestine, The United Kingdom had agreed that it would grant Palestinian independence if they revolted against the Ottomans, and they did. During World War I, in the Sanai and Palestine Campaign, Arab forces drove the Ottomans out of the region. But in the end, UK and France divided up the area under the Sykes-Picot Agreement — an act of betrayal in the eyes of the Arabs.
And herein lies the problem. Palestine and Israel are the same place: both names represent the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Britain promised two different ethnic-nationalist groups control of the same land. 100 years later, those groups are still fighting over it. And I won’t sit here and argue that the Palestinians have no claim to the land. In the Hebrew Bible, the Philistines (the precursor to Palestinians) were one of the Jews’ most powerful enemies, and the “Five Lords of the Philistines” controlled five city-states of the southwestern Levant: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. In Genesis 21:22–27, Abraham agrees to a covenant of kindness with Abimelech, the Philistine king, and his descendants. Abraham’s son Isaac deals with the Philistine king similarly, by concluding a treaty with them in chapter 26 (Genesis 26:28–29). God also directed the Israelites away from the Philistines upon their Exodus from Egypt according to Exodus 13:17. Goliath, the giant that David (the very same David whose Star is depicted on the Israeli flag) defeats in the Book of Samuel, is a Philistine giant. So the Philistines have been there all along, at least that’s what the good book says.
The last major military control event in the region, which is also one of the most controversial today, happened during the 1967 Six-Day War or the “setback” as it is known in Arabic.
For some background on the 1967 War, you must remember that when Israel gained independence in 1948, for 19 years, relations were not remotely normalized. No Arab nations recognized the State of Israel. In 1950, Egypt blocked the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. In 1956, Israel invaded the Sanai Peninsula in Egypt with the intention of re-opening the Straight of Tiran. Britain and France also joined in the fighting with the intention of gaining control of the Suez Canal. Israeli forces were forced to withdraw and a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was deployed along the border to make sure the Straight of Tiran would remain open; and for over 10 years, it did.
Then in May of 1967, the Egyptian President announced that the Strait would be closed to Israeli vessels, and then mobilized Egyptian forces along the border with Israel, ejecting UNEF forces and closing the Straight. In response, on June 5th, 1967, Israel launched airstrikes against Egypt and destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian air force. Jordan had already been fighting with Israel in the West Bank at this time. Prior to Egypt getting involved, King Hussein of Jordan criticized Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for failing to come to Jordan’s aid, and “hiding behind UNEF skirts.” Long story short, Israel ended up fighting a war on three fronts, pushing back Arab forces including Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Syrians. Israel won on all three fronts and the Israeli military took control of Gaza, the Sanai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights (previously a demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria). Six days after the war began, a ceasefire was signed between Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt on June 11th, 1967.
In 1978, Israel and Egypt participated in the Camp David accords, and in 1979 Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In the peace treaty “Egypt agreed to leave the Sinai Peninsula demilitarized. The agreement provided for free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, and recognition of the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as international waterways. The agreement also called for an end to Israeli military rule over the Israeli-occupied territories and the establishment of full autonomy for the Palestinian inhabitants of the territories, terms that were not implemented but which became the basis for the Oslo Accords.”
In 1987, The First Palestinian Infatada “was a sustained series of Palestinain protests and violent riots in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and within Israel.” They were protesting the Israeli occupation that began 20 years prior. The protests lasted for 4 years and led to the Oslo Accords.
The Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and 1995, even though they were opposed by a large number of Palestinians. The Oslo process “result[ed] in the recognition by the PLO of the State of Israel and the recognition by Israel of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and as a partner in negotiations. The Oslo Accords created a Palestinian Authority tasked with limited self-governance of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and acknowledged the PLO as Israel’s partner in permanent-status negotiations about remaining questions.”
In 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, making it the second Arab country to make peace. “Egypt welcomed the agreement while Syria ignored it. The Lebanese militia group Hezbollah resisted the treaty and 20 minutes prior to the ceremony launched mortar and rocket attacks against northern Galilee towns.”
Israel and Lebanon have yet to sign a peace treaty, but the 1949 armistice line essentially serves as Israel’s northern border, while Israel’s border with Syria has yet to be settled (Golan Heights).
In 2000, after the failed attempt at an Israel/Palestine peace agreement at the Camp David Summit the Al-Aqsa Infatada occurred. “High numbers of casualties were caused among civilians as well as combatants. The Israelis engaged in gunfire, tank and air attacks, and targeted killings while the Palestinians engaged in suicide bombings, rock throwing, gunfire and rockets attacks. The death toll, including both combatants and civilians, is estimated to be about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, as well as 64 foreigners.” The violence lasted for 5 years until an agreement was reached between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. They “agreed that all Palestinian factions would stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere, while Israel would cease all its military activity against all Palestinians everywhere. They also reaffirmed their commitment to the Roadmap for peace process. Sharon also agreed to release 900 Palestinian prisoners of the 7,500 being held at the time, and to withdraw from West Bank towns that had been reoccupied during the intifada.” In August and September 2005, Israel disengaged from Gaza, but it has “continued to maintain direct control over Gaza’s air and maritime space, and six of Gaza’s seven land crossings, it maintains a no-go buffer zone within the territory, and controls the Palestinian population registry, and Gaza remains dependent on Israel for its water, electricity, telecommunications, and other utilities”
Many who oppose Israel refer to the current state of affairs as ‘apartheid.’ This video explains the apartheid viewpoint in detail and this video discusses ‘apartheid road’ in Israel. In this video from 1990, Nelson Mandela discusses his views on Israel and Palestine. He both says that South Africa identifies with the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) because they are fighting for the right to self-determination, and he also says unequivocally that he believes in Israel’s right to exist. He also says Israel should give back the territories conquered in 1967 to the Arab nations. So there is certainly an argument to be made that it is apartheid. Trevor Noah and John Oliver have said as much since violence broke out this month.
It is true, Israel has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank against the wishes of the international community. But from Israel’s perspective, this is necessary to guard the security of all its people, Arabs included. Israel has never agreed to go back to pre-1967 borders, as it claims they are indefensible. And it is hard to argue that Israeli claim. Hamas’ charter states that “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious’ and calls for the eventual creation of an Islamic state in Palestine, in place of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the obliteration or dissolution of Israel.” And Palestinians continue to show that they support Hamas rather than denounce them. And when I look at the situation from their perspective, I can’t say I’m surprised. But it is important to remember that from Israel’s perspective, their war for independence never really stopped. Until all of the borders are settled, peace agreements are signed with all the neighbors, and the terrorist attacks stop, Israel remains in a state of perpetual war.
In the meantime, Israel continues to make peace with other Arab nations, like those made with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the end of the Trump Administration. Militant groups like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon fire rockets toward Israeli cities with no care about civilian life. Israeli citizens run for cover in bomb shelters even though their Iron Dome missile defense intercepts most, but not all of those rockets. Some of Hamas’ rockets hit Palestinians in Gaza, and Israel gets blamed. Hamas uses human shields like civilian buildings like the one that housed the Associated Press and Al Jazeera offices, and when Israel destroys the building, it is assumed that Israel is just trying to stop the journalism coming from this building, even though the Israeli government passed on their intelligence to the U.S.
Ben Shapiro will talk your head off about how the left nods at Jew-hatred and Israel has the right to defend itself and Palestinians have a clear right to resist Israeli occupation according to a former IDF soldier. Israel has decided over the last 20 years, largely following the lead of the good ole’ Uncle Sam, that it will respond to terrorism with serious force. When attacked by rocket fire, Israel takes decisive action to defeat the enemy and restore peace to the region for as long as it can with a short burst military might.
Here are the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the current conflict:
And this brings us to today, where we seem to be at an impasse. It is not a fair fight. Jews around the world are no longer threatened as much today as they were when Der Judenstaat was published in 1896. But unfortunately, the reason the Jews are no longer as threatened today is both 1) because so many Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 2) because now Israel exists with the mandate of making sure that never happens to the Jewish people again. Jews aren’t as threatened now 3) because Tel Aviv is now one of the most liberal and vibrant cities in the Middle East. In 2019, the Tel Aviv Pride Parade became the largest in Asia, and remains one of the only ones in the Middle East.
Finally, 4) Jews aren’t as threatened now because every Israeli citizen has mandatory military service when they turn 18, and they are now on the front lines of the Jewish struggle for self-determination.
Since Israel does not play games with its mandate of keeping the Jewish state secure, when it looks at the thousands of rockets raining in the sky coming from Hamas in Gaza, it projects onto them the Philistines armies of the Hebrew Bible; their greatest enemy. But Hamas is not Israel’s greatest enemy anymore — both Hamas and Israel are their own greatest enemies now. Sure, there are still plenty of people around the world who would love to see the Jews exterminated, Hamas among them. But those people don’t have the best technologies, the most advanced weapons, and the most vibrant economies. Here’s the Iron Dome missile defense systems shooting down rockets fired from Gaza:
The idea of a two-state solution seems all but dead at this point. Palestinian citizens can’t exist freely when their territory is divided up into these tiny pockets of land in the West Bank and split by Israeli-only highways. Israel can’t allow Palestinian citizens, who can’t control Hamas, to control their own airspace and ports and maintain its own security. To me, this means that the idea of the State of Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting in this space doesn’t seem like it can work anymore. Especially when the Palestinian elections which were supposed to happen this week on May 22nd, were postponed, likely because it looks like they are going to elect Hamas, the very same group that fires rockets indiscriminately at Israeli citizens.
That said, modern, moderate, Israelis and Palestinians should be able to coexist in this space, no doubt about it. Jews and Muslims and Christians certainly can. But that coexistence will require concessions from everyone. In my humble opinion, the only peaceful path forward is for Israelis and Palestinians to come together and form a coalition government that is representative of all the people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israelis cannot expect Palestinians to leave and Palestinians cannot expect Israelis to leave. They need to move toward forming a new country, call it Samaria, Canaan, or Palisrael. Do away with the celebrations of Israeli independence and mourning of the Six-Day War “setback” and replace it with a new day of Unified Independence for all. Do away with antisemitism and islamophobia. Recognize the citizenship and the rights of Palestinians and do away with curfews that favor Jewish traditions. Desegragate the communities. Contain Hamas and put the terrorists on trial. Build new schools and settlements for communities that mix former Israelis and Palestinians in new high-tech spaces with global influence and foreign ex-pats. Replace the mandate to protect the Jewish people with one that is applied equally to protect peaceful Jewish people along with their peaceful Palestinian brothers and sisters. Re-form the alliances formed by Abraham and Isaac with the Philistine rulers in Genesis.
As I discussed in my previous letter on Tribalism, Genocide, and a better way forward, it is time that we as a society stop identifying with each other primarily on the basis of born traits like our race, religion, sexual orientation, and home state or nation. In the interest of freedom and modern civilization, we need to move toward a world where we identify with each other based on our shared values, uplifting passions, and cherished experiences. We are more alike than we are different. We will discover that again and again that if we communicate properly.
The world has seen too much fighting. The region has seen too much fighting. The Israelis and the Palestinians have seen too much fighting. People on all sides should want peace more than they want their side to win and the other side to lose. This shouldn’t be about competing tribes anymore. It should be about how we can ensure growing prosperity for people of all backgrounds. It starts with communication, tolerance, acceptance, and a commitment to non-violence. Moderate Palestinians must come forward and separate their grievances about Israel from antisemitism clearly. They must denounce the terrorist attacks of Hamas. Israeli Jews must come forward and demand an end to the military rule of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians must accept that the Zionists in Israel aren’t leaving, and find a way to work together. Israel must also admit that it was Arab armies who drove the Ottomans out of Palestine, not the Jews. The freedom and self-determination of the Israelis and Palestinians has been a team effort all along, they just haven’t figured out that they are on the same team yet.
When I see people claim Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, my first instinct is that I don’t want to believe it. People will point to incidents like the one at Al-Aqsa mosque a couple of weeks ago as proof of the Israeli oppression, and I am sympathetic to that argument. But when you actually look at the facts, the claim of genocide simply isn’t true; actually, far from it. For the last 40 years, under Israeli ‘occupation’ the infant mortality rate in Palestine has dropped significantly, its population growth rate exceeds that of some major industrialized countries, and the population has more than doubled in the last 30 years. That is not what genocide looks like.
The Western Wall is another good example that the claims of ethnic cleansing are unfounded. The Western Wall is a portion of a western retaining wall and it is the last remaining piece of Herod’s Temple. It is also the holiest site in Judaism where Jews now go to pray since it is the closest Jews can get to praying on the Temple Mount. Today the Temple Mount plaza is primarily covered by three monumental Muslim structures built during the early Umayyad period (the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Chain) and four minarets. The Umayyad dynasty was the ruling family of the Muslim caliphate between 661 and 750 and later of Islamic Spain between 756 and 1031. Currently, the Temple Mount can be reached through eleven gates, with ten of the gates reserved for Muslims and one for non-Muslims, with Israeli police standing guard at each gate.
Here’s a photo of Jews praying at the Western Wall.
And here’s an overhead view of the Temple Mount:
People readily admit that Israel has unbelievable military power, and while it has clearly used that power to oppress Palestinians in favor of Jews in some ways, it has not used that power to destroy Palestinian life. There are over a million Arabs with Israeli citizenship, most of whom live in the Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. And even though Israel, the only Jewish state on Earth, has had full military control of the region since 1967, the Temple Mount is still dominated by Muslim worshipers, with the peace maintained 24/7 365 by Israeli police. If that isn’t proof that the Jews want peace, I don’t know what is.
In conclusion, in my opinion it is long past time for Israel to take responsibility for the Palestinian refugees that it created during its war of independence. And it should immediately take responsibility for the tens of thousands of people displaced by the bombs Israel has dropped on Gaza over the last two weeks. Making an example out of a lopsided war with Hamas is not the answer. Violence is never the answer.
Until next time.