The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again erupted in violence, resulting in hundreds dead, even more displaced, and reignited fears of the possibility of full scale warfare in the region.
But what became immediately clear is that the consequences of this violence are not regional – they’re global. Over the weekend, as news of the conflict spread around the world, protests and counter-protests erupted in cities across Europe and the United States.
Our hearts and minds are with all of the innocent people currently suffering in the region. While events are playing out on the ground at far too fast a pace to cover on this blog, we do think it is worthwhile to learn a bit about how we got here. What is the history of the conflict? How can we understand the historical – and continued – significance of religion in the dispute?
We’ve done our best to provide brief answers to some of these questions below – but feel free to contribute your own insight in the comments section.
Ancient Historical Roots
The origin story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be traced back thousands of years. The Israelites, at least according to the Old Testament, were led by figures like Abraham, Moses, and later King David and Solomon, to establish a Jewish presence in the region over three millennia ago.
It is important to note that there remains considerable debate among scholars about these earliest days, including what the exact timeline of events was and whether or not some of these figures actually existed.
There is a lot of complex history here: historical and archaeological evidence points to several different tribes residing in the area over the years, and there were quite clearly a number of conquests that disrupted the region over the centuries… so, we’ll come back to this, but for now we’ll fast-forward to around the time the Romans arrived, when it can be established that the area was predominantly Jewish, and that Jerusalem was the spiritual and political center for the Jewish people. Jesus’ life in the region took place within this window.
But… it was not to last. Under the rule of the Roman Empire, the Jews would eventually be expelled from the land following revolts against Roman control. In the year 136, Emperor Hadrian initiated measures to minimize a Jewish presence in the region, including renaming it from Judea to "Syria Palaestina" (a precursor to the name "Palestine").
After these revolts, a large portion of the Jewish population was killed, enslaved, or dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Though not all Jews were expelled, and a Jewish presence in the land continued in some form, the majority of Jews lived in diaspora for nearly two millennia.
Throughout these periods of dispersion, the memory of the ancient homeland remained central in Jewish liturgy, rituals, and identity. The concept of returning to Zion (a name often used for Jerusalem and the land of Israel) was a consistent theme.
And as we indicated earlier…the Jews were not the only inhabitants of this land. During those same years, the region (also known by its ancient name of Canaan), became home to a tapestry of various tribes and kingdoms, including the Philistines after whom Palestine is named.
In the 7th century CE, the rise of Islam ushered in a new chapter. Caliph Umar captured Jerusalem in 638 CE, and for centuries, the city and surrounding areas were under Muslim rule.
Throughout this period, the holy sites in Jerusalem, like the Al-Aqsa Mosque, gained paramount significance for Muslims worldwide. That mosque is now considered the third most important site in all of Islam (after the mosques in Mecca and Medina).
Although under Muslim control during this time period, the region was also home to Christians who, like the remaining Jews, lived as a religious minority in a land of immense spiritual significance to their faith.
Establishment of a Jewish State
Fast-forwarding again to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Zionist movement, which aimed at establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, gained momentum. The movement's goals were driven partly by religious connections to the land and partly by a response to European anti-Semitism.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 by the British government, favoring the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, further inflamed tensions. For approximately 400 years prior to this time, the region of Palestine had been a part of the Ottoman Empire that was dissolved in the wake of World War I.
Following the atrocities of World War II, the United Nations officially backed the establishment of the state of Israel and a homeland for the Jewish people where they would be free of persecution.
In order to create a state of Israel, however, the land was forcibly partitioned – prompting violent conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians living there, and their Arab neighbors. In the resulting wars in 1948 and 1967, many Palestinians were displaced from the land they had called home for centuries.
That displacement has been a central point of grievance in the conflict that continues to this day.
Religious Sites and Their Significance
So how exactly does religion figure into this?
Even today, the city of Jerusalem is home to important religious sites for all three faiths with ties to the region – and thus remains a flashpoint in the conflict.
- For Jews, the Western Wall is a last remnant of the Second Temple, the holiest site in Judaism.
- For Muslims, the Dome of the Rock, believed to be the place from where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, holds immense significance.
- Christians revere the city for sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it's believed Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
While many aspects of the conflict are driven by territorial, economic, and political issues, the religious dimension cannot be overlooked. Religious beliefs sometimes exacerbate tensions – like when certain Jewish groups advocate for rebuilding the Third Temple at the site where Al-Aqsa stands, or when Islamic groups deny the Jewish historical connection to the Temple Mount. The protection of and right to access these sites of tremendous holy import has been an incredibly crucial part of negotiations over the years.
Although far from the sole factor behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion plays a crucial role in shaping identities, narratives, and claims.
What is your reaction to the recent news? Do you see faith as a path – or an impediment – to a potential resolution?