Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum
For about 400 years the Ottomans of today’s Turkey ruled modern-day Palestine and Israel. After their World War I defeat, Britain controlled what was called Mandate Palestine for three decades.
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour penned a letter indicating that Britain favored creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. That “Balfour Declaration” responded to the plight of Jewish people, long targets of pogroms and massacres throughout Europe. The “national home” was to provide security and fulfill the Zionist dream of restoring Jews to the land of their birth as a people. “Zionism” emerged in the 1890s in Europe as a mostly secular Jewish movement working for a safe homeland. However, the home was to be established on land inhabited for centuries by Palestinians.
“At first I was tormented with anger and grief; I wanted revenge, to get even,” says Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose 14-year-old daughter Smadar was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1997. “But we are people—not animals! … There is a high wall between our two nations, a wall of hate and fear. Someone needs to put cracks in the wall in order for it to fall down.” 1
After World War I, and particularly after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, thousands of Jews, often not welcome elsewhere, flocked to Mandate Palestine. Palestinians experienced the resulting loss of land they inhabited to be unjust. Other Arabs agreed. Together, some therefore fought both the Jewish immigrants and the British. On the Zionist side, Jewish underground militias fought British military personnel, as well as Arab targets, both military and civilian. Thousands of Palestinians were displaced and their villages destroyed, including in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. The United Nations accepted Israel into the family of nations in 1949.
The Arab world did not accept the new state and continued to fight to reverse what they saw as the theft of their land, but without success. Thousands more Palestinians were displaced (some for a second time) in 1967 when Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in a Six-Day War. Since then—and despite successive UN resolutions—Israeli control over what, according to international law, remains occupied territory squeezes Palestinians onto smaller and smaller parcels of land.
Today, Israel controls or occupies virtually all of historic Palestine, though the international community recognizes only the pre-1967 borders. Its landholdings increase through creation of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank. It opposes resistance—by Christians and Muslims, violent or nonviolent—with military force, mass arrests and detention, demolition of Palestinian homes and farms, and walls and roads separating Israelis from Palestinians. U.S. military, financial and diplomatic support is essential to Israeli government policies. Canadian diplomatic and moral support play an important role as well.
Despite multiple peace processes, just and secure peace for both Israelis and Palestinians remains elusive.
Gaza’s situation is particularly difficult. The Gaza Strip is 40 kilometers (25 miles) long and, at its widest point, 13 kilometers (8 miles) wide. Since 1994, Israel has enclosed Gaza with a fence on three sides and by control of the Mediterranean Sea on the west. In 2006, Palestine elected Hamas (an Islamist militant group) to govern, though ultimately their political leadership was confined to Gaza. Some voters favored an Islamic state, just as some Israelis favor a Jewish state. For others, the vote for Hamas reflected frustration over the ongoing loss of land and resources, harm to people by the occupation and political corruption. Israel then blockaded Gaza more tightly by land, sea and air. In response, Hamas turned to rocket attacks inside Israel. The Israelis launched three major offensives in six years, during which approximately 2,600 Palestinians and 100 Israelis were killed. Israel characterizes its military actions as a response to Palestinian violence such as rocket attacks and suicide bombings, while Palestinians regard their armed actions as a response to Israeli violence such as military campaigns, forced removal from their land and extra-judicial killings. Meanwhile, Gaza’s economy is on verge of collapse, water and electrical systems are in shambles, and the population of 1.8 million has been trauma tized.
Some West Bank Palestinians and some Israelis have experienced varying degrees of trauma as well.
Notwithstanding Lord Balfour’s assurance in 1917 that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine . . .” that is precisely what has happened. Despite multiple peace processes, just and secure peace for both Israelis and Palestinians remains elusive.