Israel/Palestine – To what extent is religion the main driving force behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

By Gemma Perry (2015)

“All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.” Genesis 13:15

The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in 1948 when the State of Israel declared independence from the British Mandate of Palestine; an event which is referred to as al-Nakba, the catastrophe, by the Palestinians. Following the end of World War Two, in which 6 million Jews died and thousands more were made refugees as a result of the Holocaust, the Jewish people demanded a nation state in the biblical lands promised to them by God. Britain, which ruled the Mandate of Palestine agreed to decolonise and the UN supported dividing Palestine into two states; a Jewish and an Arab one. On Friday 14th May 1948 the Jewish leadership established the State of Israel in the area of land referred to as the Eretz-Israel. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War followed and there has been conflict in the region ever since. Unfortunately either many supporters of the Jewish state ignored the fact that the new Israel would be created in an old Palestine, which had been inhabited by Arab Palestinians for over 1,500 years or just assumed the Palestinians would accept moving.[1] The conflict intensified following the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank and this is now the predominant cause of tension. The United Nation’s official name for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is the State of Palestine.

The most recent flare up of violence in this ongoing conflict was the so-called 50 Day War in summer 2014 in Gaza between Israel and Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement). On the 12th June Hamas kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israel enforced a clamp-down on Hamas and a Palestinian teenager was killed by Israeli extremists in retaliation. This triggered violent protests and heavy rocket fire from Hamas to Israeli cities.[2] On the 8th July Israel launched a military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, which lasted until 27th August when a ceasefire was agreed. Both sides claimed victory in the conflict; Israel has severely weakened Hamas but Hamas nonetheless remains in control of Gaza. The people of Gaza, however, will be impacted the most by the conflict; it is estimated that over 2000 Palestinians were killed compared to just 64 Israeli soldiers and six civilians.[3]

This essay will examine to what extent religion is the main driving force behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The role of religion on both sides of the conflict will first be analysed, followed by a discussion on the other factors that influence the conflict including; the role of ethnicity, the oppression of the Palestinian people, territorial disputes, and the impact of foreign interests on the conflict.

There can be no doubt that religion is the key factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The whole conflict “is infused with religious symbols and values.” [4] The Middle East is the birthplace of the Abrahamic religions, predominantly, Judaism, Christianity and Islam[5] and since the Crusades the area surrounding present –day Israel has been referred to as the ‘Holy Land’ with the city of Jerusalem being of particular importance.[6] There is a widespread theological outlook among Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims that holds the entirety of Israel/Palestine as a holy land – the “Promised Land” for one and the Waqf (pious endowment) for the other.[7] Religion is important for three main reasons; first religion provides an ideological framework for understanding the world, second religion defines codes of behaviour and simplifies moral standards of good and evil, and third religion provides legitimacy for the individuals and organisation pursuing ‘religious’ goals.[8]

After almost two millennia of Diaspora, Judaism is now acting in world politics as both a state and world community.[9] Israel is the only ethnically and religiously majority Jewish country in the world.[10] Religion is the driving force in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the Jewish belief in the “promised land” is responsible, for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which triggered the conflict, and also the reason behind Israel’s expansionist policies in Palestine. Jews lay claim to the land of Israel on the basis that it is the land that was promised on oath by God to the descendants of Abraham, the children of Israel, in the book of Genesis.[11] Furthermore, following the Hebrews escape from Egypt, they were led by Moses to Israel. [12] For much of history, following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews have lived in what is known as the Diaspora, scattered around the earth. The Jews nonetheless clung to the land and prayed that they would return.[13] In the 19th century Theodore Herzl created the Zionist movement, which supported the creation of a Jewish nation state in the biblical land of Israel. Anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe and Herzl concluded that there was no future for the Jewish people unless they constructed their own nation state. [14] The Zionist movement originally grew out of a secular school of thought but the Torah has always been central to the movement there have more religious Jews who saw Zionism as part of their religious mission towards redemption.”[15] Support for the Zionist movement grew following the Holocaust.

The Zionist movement still remains important today because the “promised land” refers to Eretz Yisrael, including the Palestinian territories and there are many extremist Jews, such as Gush Emunim, who promote the establishment of Israeli settlements in Palestine. This was supported by the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War, which was seen as a sign that the messianic age had come. Although extreme religious Jews are in the minority, there presence cannot be overlooked. For example in 1995 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a religious Jew because he was willing to negotiate giving some land from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank back to the Palestinians.[16]For many non-religious Jews, Rabin’s assassination showed the willingness of Jewish fundamentalists to attack secular Jews in pursuit of their religious goals.[17]

Furthermore, although Israel is not a theocracy and was originally dedicated to being a western style secular state, over time religious political parties have become an increasingly significant voice in politics.[18] The Israeli legislature, the Knesset, is elected through a system of proportional representation, reflective of the country’s divided society and coalitions are the norm. Religious parties often form part of the coalitions and were first part of the government in 1949.[19] Explicitly religious parties have gained significant electoral success since the mid-1990s and at the 2015 Knesset Election the ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, collectively won 13 seats.[20] The radical Jewish parties are most vocal surrounding the possibility of returning parts of biblical Israel, such as the West Bank, to the Palestinians. Nonetheless the Israeli Government prohibited the far right Jewish party Kach and Kahane Chai from running in the 1988 elections and later banned the party completely due to its anti-Arab policies.

Religion is also the driving force for Palestinian side of the conflict. Islam is increasingly important in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the majority of Palestinians are Muslim and the extreme Islamist organisation Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip in place of the predominantly secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation. As with the Jewish interpretation, radical Palestinians regard all of the land of Israel/Palestine as holy and Jerusalem is the first direction of prayer within Islam. Israel/Palestine is considered holy for several key reasons. First, some argue that Arabs have a 5000-year old claim to Jerusalem on the basis that the Jebusites and Canaanites were early Arab tribes.[21] Second, Jerusalem is very important for Muslims. According to Muslim tradition, Jerusalem was the desired destination of the Prophet Muhammad during his Night Journey and also the place from which the he ascended to heaven.[22] The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is considered to be connected to the creation of the world. Finally, the lands of Israel/Palestine are holy because they became Muslim lands after they were conquered by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, who gave their lives in the process.[23] Thus, Islamic extremists consider the existence of the Jewish state on Muslim soil an insult to their faith and they aim to restore pre-Zionist Palestine.[24]

Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since the 2006 elections and is dedicated to destroying the Jewish State of Israel. Article six of the 1988 Hamas Charter states, “The Islamic Movement is a distinct Palestinian Movement which owes its loyalty to Allah, derives from Islam its way of life and strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”[25] Furthermore, Hamas believes that Israel/Palestine must be liberated through the jihad, cited in article 15 of the Hamas Charter, and that it is the personal duty of every Muslim everywhere to support this.[26]The term jihad literally means a sacred “struggle” or “effort”.

A good example of how Islam is crucial in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that in 2010 when the Netanyahu Government included the important Muslim heritage sites of Rachel’s tomb and the Cave of the Machpela, in a list of areas to be developed, there was an outbreak of violence and a threat of religious war from the Palestinian leaders.[27]

Despite the importance of religion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an argument can be made that the conflict is actually between two ethnic groups rather than religions. As Oren Yiftachel argues, it is a conflict dominated by ethno-nationalism, which is where ethnic groups are trying to achieve or preserve an ethnic statehood.[28] During the last 100 years, the land of Palestine and Israel has been dominated by a bitter struggle between Zionist Jews and Palestinians Arabs, who both claim the territory as their national homeland.[29]

First, the Jewish people have always differed from other religions in the sense that they, to a certain extent, resemble an ethnic group as well as a religious one. “The nature of Jewish identity has long been understood as an overlapping combination of both religion and nation.”[30] There are distinct Jewish customs, traditions and joint histories that mean the Jewish people are more than just a religion. Most Jews disapprove of being labelled as a racial group, due to the negative implications this had for them during Holocaust when the Nazis determined the Jews as a race. However in 2000, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defined the Jewish people as a race at a public event in California.[31] Furthermore 51% of the Israeli Jewish population claim to be secular Jews, meaning they are culturally Jewish but do following the religious teachings, even if the majority do believe in the existence of a God. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that “the land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,”[32] and this implies that they are an ethnic group, in which religion is obviously important, because they originate from the same area and have a shared background.

Second, the argument for Palestinians being an ethnic group is even stronger than that of the Jews. Palestinians originate from a mixture of different Hebrew tribes, who remained on the land, converted to Christianity or Islam, and were later joined by migrants of Arab descent.[33] Most Palestinians today are culturally and linguistically Arab. The majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslim but there are significant Shi’a Muslim, Christian and Druze populations. Thus the Palestinians are an ethnic group and they concentrate their claim to the land “on their unbroken residence on and cultivation of the land, on their recent (partial) expulsion and dispossession, and on their current status as a stateless nation.”[34]The 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence states that, “Palestine… is where the Palestinian Arab people was born, on which it grew, developed and excelled.”[35]

Hence, as both the Jewish people and the Palestinians can be considered to be ethnic groups, it means the conflict is arguably driven by ethno-nationalism because they are both trying to preserve their ethnic statehoods. The conflict is between two ethnic groups, who both believe that the land of Israel is their rightful homeland. Religion is nonetheless an element of ethnicity and so still important.

Furthermore, although religion being the main driving force behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the original trigger and on-going fuse of the conflict is that the Palestinians have had their land taken away from them. The Palestinians had lived in the area surrounding Israel for over 1,500 years and “no one ever asked 700,000 Palestinian Arabs whether they wanted to have a Jewish nation created in their own territory!”[36] The U.N. proposal for the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine was arguably unfair in the first place because it gave 57 per cent of the land to the Jewish community even though they only made up one-third of the population and owned seven per cent of the land.[37] The Palestinians, on the other hand received 43 per cent of Palestine, despite making up two-thirds of the population.[38] The Palestinians have gradually had more and more of their land taken away from them and by 2005 the Palestinians only controlled 12 per cent of the pre-1948 Palestine. [39] Even now Jewish settlers are moving into Palestinian territories and establishing illegal settlements; in August 2014 Israel seized 990 acres of Palestinian land near Gvaot to create a new city[40]. Between 2009 and 2014 the Israeli population in the West Bank grew by almost 25 per cent.[41] Furthermore, the Palestinians are forced to live in occupied territories; there is only one access point, not controlled by Israel, to the Gaza Strip (the Rafah Crossing to Egypt) and Palestinian access to the West Bank is severely limited. Thus, the conflict is driven on the Palestinian side by a desire to reclaim their land and assert their right to self-determination. In addition to the Palestinians demanding their land, they are also in desperate need of water. Israel controls the amount of water accessed in the Palestinian territories and the average Palestinian only uses 72litres of water per day, which is significantly lower than the WHO guideline of 100litres.[42]

Another key cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Israel is oppressing and discriminating against the Palestinian people. Israel’s policies towards the Palestinian territories have often been compared to that of the apartheid in South Africa and Noam Chomsky infamously described the Gaza Strip as the “world’s largest open-air prison.”[43] Palestinians have been displaced, disposed and discriminated minority as a consequence of Jewish settlements in the land of Israel.[44] “Since the 1940s, Israel has systematically employed murder, forced relocations, and torture to subjugate Palestinians.”[45] The Gaza Strip is reminiscent of a Third World country but it could have become a prosperous Mediterranean region, with thriving agriculture and fishing industries, marvellous beaches and extensive natural gas supplies. [46] Following the recent attacks in Gaza, a letter signed by 327 Holocaust survivors and their descendants was published by the New York Times condemning Israel for ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people.[47] Thus the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the result of the Israeli Government actively discriminating against Palestinians, and the Palestinians refusing to be oppressed and fighting against for their rights. The majority of terrorist activity that results from Palestinians is in order to draw attention to the Palestinian cause.

Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also influenced and driven by the policies and attitudes of other nation states and world actors. First, the Palestinian territories are supported by several Muslim states, which are fundamentally opposed to the existence of the Jewish state of Israel and sponsor their own anti-Israeli guerrillas.[48] Iran and Hezbollah both publically declared support for Gaza during the 2014 50 Day War. Israel is “totally and unconditionally supported, armed and funded by the United States.”[49]The US is home to approximately 6.8 million Jews, who although only make up 1.7 per cent of the population, are an influential section of the electorate and neither the Republicans nor Democrats are willing to risk alienating them by an even-handed approach to the Palestinian issue.[50] In 1945 when President Truman was rationalising his decision to create a Jewish state, he told a group of American Arabs that he was sorry, but that he had to answer to hundreds of thousands of constituents, who were anxious for the success of Zionism and did not have to answer to hundreds of thousands of Arabs constituents.[51] Furthermore, Evangelical fundamentalists in America support the Zionist cause because the biblical prophecies about the second coming of Christ cannot be fulfilled until the biblical nation of Israel had been restored. [52]However, Israel is also supported by other western liberal democracies. There is a clear disparity between the way in which the US and other Western democracies treat Israel compared to other Middle Eastern States. Between 1967-2000 Israel was the subject to 138 UN, most of which were ignored but Iraq was subject to 69 resolutions and the US demanded an invasion.[53] A strong Israel is supported by the West because it shares similarities with European states and can also be potential ally against Islamist extremism in the Middle East.

In conclusion, religion is the main driving force behind the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Religion plays an overt role in the conflict by providing the ideological framework but also a more covert role by being fundamentally intertwined with the other factors that cause the conflict. The Jewish beliefs in the “promised land” drive Israeli policy, and are largely responsible for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Muslim beliefs about the sanctity of the land and of Jerusalem especially, drive the belief that the presence of the Jewish state is intolerable and therefore must be destroyed.

However, a more implicit role of religion can seen by the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be labelled as an ethnic conflict, in which religion is important. The Jewish people can be seen as an ethnic group as well as a religious one and the majority of Palestinians are Arabs, who have their own claim to the land of Israel, separate to that of Islam. Their claim is based on the fact that they had continuously lived and worked on the land, and have now been made a stateless nation. Additionally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a direct response to Israeli, in the name of the Jewish faith, dividing, seizing occupying and building on Palestinian territory. The Palestinians have had their state reduced to 13 per cent of its original size and are forced to live under Israeli rule, where they are made out to be second-class citizens. Furthermore, the conflict is also a reaction to the fact that the Palestinians are discriminated against and persecuted by the Israelis. Israeli policy towards Palestinians is based on repression, intimidation and violence, and in the recent conflict alone just over 2000 Gaza civilians were killed compared to just six Israeli citizens. Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is influenced and manipulated by the actions of other nation states and organisations, whose motives are predominantly driven by religious beliefs.

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[1] Mark Thomsen, “A word of truth on behalf of the Palestinian marginalised and dispossessed: root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, January 2007, http://www.christianzionism.org/article/thomsen01.pdf (accessed on May 4, 2015),6.

[2] Associated Press in Jerusalem, “Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2014 – timeline”, The Guardian, November 18, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/18/israel-palestinian-violence-timeline (accessed May 6, 2015)

[3] Lizzie Dearden, “Israel-Gaza conflict: 50-day war by numbers”, The Telegraph, August 27, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israelgaza-conflict-50day-war-by-numbers-9693310.html (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[4] Yitzhak Reiter “Religion as a Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” in Barriers to Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, ed. Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov. (Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies: Jerusalem, 2010), 229, http://www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_22213-1522-2-30.pdf?110316110457

[5] Bahgrat Korany, “The Middle East since the cold war: torn between geopolitics and geoeconomics ,” in International Relations of the Middle East ed. L. Fawcett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 72.

[6] Reiter “Religion as a Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, 239

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 233.

[9] Shmuel Sandler “Judaism and the state”, in Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics, ed. Jeffrey Haynes (Oxon: Routledge, 2009),128.

[10] Jeffrey Haynes, An Introduction to International Relations and Religion,2nd edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2013), 257.

[11] Reiter “Religion as a Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, 241.

[12]Sandler “Judaism and the state”, 133.

[13] Ibid, 133.

[14] Jonathan Sacks, “Judaism and Politics in the Modern World” in The Desecularisation of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, edited by Peter L. Berger, (Michigan: Ethics and Public Policy Centre, and Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999), 52.

[15] Reiter “Religion as a Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, 231.

[16] Haynes, An Introduction to International Relations and Religion, 258.

[17] Frank Bealey, The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 140.

[18] Ibid, 261.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Final Results”, Haaretz, http://www.haaretz.com/st/c/prod/eng/2015/elections/results/ (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[21] Reiter “Religion as a Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, 246.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid,243

[24] Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 102.

[25] Yale Law School, “Hamas Covenant 1988”, The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp (accessed May 6, 2015)

[26] Reiter, “Religion as Barrier to Compromise in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, 237.

[27] Ibid, 245.

[28] Oren Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2006)13.

[29] Ibid, 51.

[30] Haynes, An Introduction to International Relations and Religion, 259.

[31] Max Weber, “Jews: A Religious Community, a People or a Race?” The Journal of Historical Review, vol 19, no.2, 63

[32] “Declaration of the Establishment of Israel” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/guide/pages/declaration%20of%20establishment%20of%20state%20of%20israel.aspx (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[33] Yiftachel, Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine,53.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Mahmoud Darwish, “Palestinian Declaration of Independence”, An Open Door to the Arab World, http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/pal/pal3.htm (accessed May 6, 2015)

[36] Thomsen, “A word of truth on behalf of the Palestinian marginalised and dispossessed: root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 1.

[37] Ibid, 7.

[38] Ibid.

[39] “Map of Israel and Palestine” Israel and Palestine, http://israelandpalestine.org/map-of-israel-and-palestine/ (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[40] Peter Beaumont, “Huge new Israeli settlement in West Bank condemned by US and UK” The Guardian, September 1, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/01/israeli-settlement-west-bank-gvaot-condemned (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[41] Ishaan Tharoor, “Map: The spread of Israeli settlements in the West Bank”, The Washington Post, December 22, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/12/22/map-the-spread-of-israeli-settlements-in-the-west-bank/ (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[42] “Pending Water Issues between Israelis and Palestinians” The Palestinian Water Authority, 2013, http://www.pwa.ps/page.aspx?id=Xi6ijta1940624367aXi6ijt (accessed May 6, 2015)

[43] Noam Chomsky, “Gaza, The World’s Largest Open-Air Prison” In These Times, November 7, 2014, http://inthesetimes.com/article/14148/gaza_the_worlds_largest_open_air_prison (accessed on May 4, 2015),

[44] Adam and Moodley, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, xi

[45] Michael Ratner, “Israel’s Actions Against Palestinians Violates Human Rights” ALTERNET, August 4, 2014, http://www.alternet.org/world/israels-actions-against-palestinians-violate-human-rights (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[46] Chomsky, “Gaza, The World’s Largest Open-Air Prison

[47] “More than 350 Survivors and Descendants of Survivors and Victims of the Nazi Genocide Condemn Israel’s Assault on Gaza”, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, http://ijsn.net/nafa/survivors-and-descendants-letter/ (accessed on May 6, 2015)

[48] Adam and Moodley, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, 102.

[49] Abdullai A. An-Na’im “Political Islam in National Politics and International Relations”, The Desecularisation of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter L. Berger (Michigan: Ethics and Public Policy Centre, and Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999),106.

[50] Adam and Moodley, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians, 163.

[51] Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land?: The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 70.

[52] Thomsen, “A word of truth on behalf of the Palestinian marginalised and dispossessed: root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 4,

[53] Ibid, 10.

One thought on “Israel/Palestine – To what extent is religion the main driving force behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

  1. Very good essay – very well researched, structured and written, and showing plenty of evidence of very good critical thinking.

    The essay possibly still underplays somewhat the non-religious elements, but it does consider the main ones critically enough. There could have also been a bit more discussion of the relation between the PLO and Hamas, how their respective popularity has evolved, and what that reflects. Indeed the way the role of religion may have changed over the years (with the broader resurgence worldwide, with changing Israeli demographics, etc) could have perhaps been discussed a little further.

    Some of the paragraphs are also a little packed with information and could have done with a bit more overall explicit critical discussion, though it still reads very well throughout.

    Overall, though, this remains a very good essay indeed.

    Like

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