Holy Land visitors often have questions about the current political situation in modern day Israel. Scores of books and articles have been written about the issues of Israeli politics, a subject too extensive to be addressed in this short essay. Here I have attempted to distill the issues and present short answers to the basic political questions raised by travelers in Israel.
What is the “West Bank”?
After WWI, the allies divided up the Ottoman Empire and Britain was given the mandate to govern the formerly Ottoman lands on both sides of the Jordan River. The land east of the Jordan (Transjordan) was separated from the British Mandate in 1922 and became an independent country, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In 1947 the United Nations partitioned the remainder of the British Mandate into two states, Arab and Jewish. The Jews agreed with this decision and declared their independence as the Jewish State of Israel (May 14, 1948). The Arabs rejected the decision and immediately went to war against Israel in what is now called Israel’s 1948 War for Independence. The Kingdom of Jordan joined in the war, crossed the Jordan, and captured land west of the Jordan River, which has become known as “the West Bank.” The Kingdom of Jordan controlled this area until the Six Day War (June 1967) when Israel captured the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, Sinai, and the West Bank.
Since 1967, the West Bank has been disputed territory since both Israel and the Arabs claim this land. The Kingdom of Jordan has since relinquished any claim to the West Bank. The Arabs living in the West Bank claim that this land was promised to them by the United Nations in 1947. Israelis claims that this region, which they call Judea and Samaria, was promised to them by God’s covenant with Abraham. There have been many attempts to resolve the dispute over the West Bank, but none so far have been successful.
Who are the Palestinians?
Before 1948, all the lands of Israel, the West Bank, and the Kingdom of Jordan were “Palestinian.” Governing authority over these lands was entrusted to the British by the League of Nations after WWI and called the “Mandate for Palestine.” The word “mandate” refers to the official directive for the British to govern the region. The term, “Palestine” is a Latin derivation of “Philistine” which can be traced back to the first century AD. When the Romans defeated the Jews and destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, they changed the name of the land from “Judea” (land of the Jews) to “Palestine,” (land of the Philistines). The Romans were saying, “This is no longer the land of the Jews. It is the land of their old enemy, the Philistines.” The name stuck, and for the centuries that followed, the land which had been promised to the people of Israel was known as Palestine. When my grandparents visited the Holy Land in the 1960s, they spoke of visiting “Palestine,” a land that was shared by Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
More recently, the name “Palestine” has been adopted as an ethnic identifier Arab people who live in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip (the coastal region south of Israel). They claim that their rights to Palestine precede Israel’s establishment as a nation in 1948. Israel disputes this claim. Today, the terms “Palestine” and “Palestinian” have taken on such a political connotation that they are no longer useful in describing or referring to the physical land of Israel. Historically, those who embrace their identity as “Palestinians” are people of Arab descent whose Moslem ancestors invaded and conquered Israel in AD 638.
Do Arabs living in Israel have Israeli citizenship and the right to vote?
When Israel declared itself to be a Jewish state (May 14, 1948) and was recognized by the United Nations, the people living within the borders of Israel, both Jews and Arabs, were given Israeli citizenship. As Israeli citizens, the Arabs born in Israel have the right to vote and have representatives in Israel’s parliament. Arabs who left Israel before or during the War for Independence were denied the right to return and claim citizenship. Arabs living in the West Bank have separate identity cards, passports, and license plates on their cars. While their personal rights are protected by Israeli law, they do not have citizenship or voting rights in Israel.
Did the Israelis “steal” land from the Palestinians?
Israel has often been accused of stealing land from the Palestinians. This is a complicated subject. Some of the land within the borders of Israel was purchased from absentee landlords with money provided by the Jewish National Fund. In addition, much of the land within the borders of Israel was granted to them when the United Nations partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine west of the Jordan between the Jews and the Arabs (Nov. 29, 1947). When five Arab nations attacked Israel in an attempt to destroy the fledgling nation, the Israelis fought for the land which had been promised. When the war was over, Israel’s borders included some Arab lands. Israel’s borders today include land that was purchased, land that was promised, and some land which the Arabs lost during Israel’s War of Independence. The Arabs want this land returned. Israelis argue that the Arabs lost this land when they rejected the United Nation’s 1947 decision to partition the land and attacked Israel .
What is the “Land for Peace” plan?
Many attempts have been made to resolve the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis and create a lasting peace in the Middle East. The “land for peace” was one of the peace plans that failed. The plan called for Israel to give up some of the land in the West Bank which the Israeli Defense Force had captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. In exchange, the Arabs were to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation and cease all terrorism and attacks on Israel’s borders. Israel made a good faith offer to meet the Arabs’ land demands, but the Palestinian leadership refused to reciprocate by recognizing the Jewish State and has continued to support military attacks and terrorism against Israel. Most Israelis have given up on the “Land for Peace” plan as a means to reconciling differences with their Arab neighbors.
How should visitors to the Holy Land respond to the Arab-Israelis conflict?
First, recognize that there are two sides to every conflict. As visitors and observers, we need to keep our eyes and ears open, and our mouth mostly shut. We should try to learn by listening to the voices of those engaged in the conflict and refrain from offering easy answers and shallow minded opinions. .
Second, recognize that both the Arabs and the Jews have historic family roots in the land. Many Arabs and Jews can trace their family roots back hundreds of years.
Third, recognize that many Arabs (both Christian and Moslem) and Jews have suffered considerably as a result of this conflict. Many have lost family members as a result of terrorism and war. We must appreciate the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is emotional and personal, not simply political or religious.
Fourth, remember that while God has promised the land to Israel for duration of Jesus’ coming kingdom, Israel today is a secular, unbelieving nation. When God grants the land to his believing people, it will be with justice and consideration for all residents of the land, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Fifth, appreciate the fact that there are no simple solutions to this issue. The problem is unbelievably complex and intensely emotional. It will take strong and courageous leadership to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in our day.
Finally, remember that prayer changes things. We should heed the admonition of the psalmist David who said, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6).