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The Complex History: Unraveling the Roots of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Olusoji Daomi Esq.

The year was 1891, an Austrian journalist arrived in Paris. He worked for a newspaper in Vienna, and Paris was his new assignment. His name was Theodor Herzl. France, back then, was the land of the revolution. Herzl expected equality and free thought. He was in for a surprise. As it turned out, anti-Semitism was everywhere in France. As a Jew, Herzl knew all about it. In fact, it was a way of life in his homeland. But in post-revolution France, Herzl expected better, and then came a famous military scandal.

The draper’s affair. A French captain was accused of selling military secrets to Germany. He too was a Jew. The conviction later turned out to be false. But Herzl had seen enough. There was a massive outpouring of anti-Semitism. Jews were being targeted and abused. This episode made Herzl realize his life’s mission. He needed to find a country for Jews. A place they could call home. A place where they could live without discrimination. The only question was, where? Herzl settled on the ancient homeland of Jews. Palestine. Thus he founded a new movement for Jewish statehood. What is often called Zionism. Herzl himself is called the founder of political Zionism. But he died before Israel was created.

Why did Jews left their ancient homeland in the first place? And how did they come in conflict with the Arabs? Time for a flashback. I will start with a simple question. Who are Jews? Today, we know them as followers of a religion. The religion of Judaism. But Jews never call themselves that. In ancient times they call themselves Israelites. Not Israelis. Israelites. These people originated around 1000 BC. And where did they live? In West Asia. Roughly the same place as modern-day Israel. Jews trace their ancestry to three people. Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. They believe God made a promise to Abraham. The promise of a homeland in present-day Israel. You may have heard Israeli leaders talk about the promised land. Well this is what they mean. A land promised to them by God. And Jews did live here. Many call it the golden age of ancient Israel.

Two kings ruled over the Jews. King David, who founded Jerusalem. And King Solomon, who built the first great temple. Now the opposite question is this. Why did the Jews leave? Because of multiple invasions. First came the Assyrian Empire. Then the Babylonians. Then the Persian Empire, then the Roman Empire. And finally the Ottomans. Each round of invasion led to Jews leaving their homeland. The peak was probably during the Roman times.Jews had tried to revolt against Rome. The response was a brutal crackdown. Roman generals deceived Jerusalem. They massacred the population and destroyed the Jewish temple. Those who survived fled.

Now our story makes a time jump. To the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jews have fled their homeland. Only a few thousand remain in West Asia. The rest are now spread across countries and continents. We are talking about a large diaspora. Poland had around three million Jews. Russia, two and a half million. Britain, three hundred thousand and Germany, half a million. As anti-Semitism increased there, Zionism emerged. The call for a separate Jewish country. The likes of Theodor Herzl led the call. He decided to organize a world congress of Zionists. Herzl wanted Munich to host it. But when Jews there rejected it, he settled on Basil in Switzerland.
Around 200 Zionists attended this congress, plus hundreds of onlookers. And they decided on creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This one problem, though. Palestine was not just vacant land. It was home to tens of thousands of Arab people. So how would Jews make it their homeland? The Herzl and company had a plan. That then, Palestine was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. So in 1896, Herzl went to Constantinople. That is modern-day Istanbul. And he stayed there for 11 days, but he could not meet the Sultan. Nonetheless, he pushed on. Herzl relayed an offer to the Ottoman Sultan. He told the Sultan that Zionists will pay foreign debt of Ottoman and in return Zionists would colonize Palestine. It was basically an attempt to buy off the land. Herzl thought it was a god-father sort of offer. The one the Sultan could not refuse. But the Ottoman Sultan did just that. He rejected it. So colonization was a dead end.
That is when Zionists turned to plan B. Individual purchases. Jews could buy land from Ottoman land laws in Palestine. One piece of land at a time. This was the first wave of migration. Jews bought the land and began farming. But to the Arab population, one thing was clear. The Jews were not there to assimilate. They were there to rule. Because after buying lands, they fired Arab workers and farmers. They also set up their own towns and centers like Tel Aviv in 1909. And these settlements did not look like Arab ones. They looked out of place. To put it simply, they looked European. Most of this was funded from outside. Jews had done well for themselves in America and Europe, like the Rocher family who was arguably, the most powerful European banking dynasty. With their help, Jews bought land in Palestine. Still, it was a trickle. Things would pick up after the British got involved. Remember this was before the First World War. So Britain was still the superpower.

The Zionists asked London for help. The response was not quite as enthusiastic. Britain suggested alternatives to Palestine, like Uganda and Argentina. But the Zionists said no. They wanted their ancient homeland in West Asia. Then came the World War. Suddenly, Britain needed the support of Jews. So in 1917, they offered complete support. The British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to the Rocher family. He said Jews would have a homeland in Palestine. He said Britain was committed to it. And after the war, they had the chance to do just that. The Ottomans were defeated. Britain was given control of Palestine. By now, Jewish migration had picked up. They were still a minority in Palestine, but they had their strengths. More organization, more money and more support. An example of this was the Haganah. It was a Jewish paramilitary organization founded in 1920. Its job to protect Jewish settlements in Palestine. The Arabs were no match for it. The Haganah had better intelligence, also better training, thanks to the British. In the 1930s, Jewish migration picked up again. The reason was Nazi Germany this time. Hitler targeted in massacre Jews by the thousands. So those who could fled, did just that. As the Jewish population exploded, Palestine revolted. Jewish settlements and trains were attacked. So the British did what they do best. They said, let us partition. A Jewish state for the Jews and Arabs state for the Palestinians. But the Arabs side rejected this. Much like today their leadership was divided. So even when the proposals were favorable, they could not capitalize. And this back and forth continued through the Second World War. And soon Britain was fed up. They were financially and politically drained. So what did they do? They packed up and left. They told the United Nations, it is now your problem.
So the UN came up with a plan and read this keenly. The Jewish state would get 55% of Palestine, including the Negger desert. This state would have 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs. So a Jewish majority. The Arab state would get 44% of this land. And this state would have around 10,000 Jews. Its areas would include the West Bank and Gaza. I know the math does not add up. 55 plus 44 is 99. So what happened to the remaining 1%? Well that was Jerusalem. The city would be controlled by an international regime, basically the United Nations. Palestinians rejected the plan. But the Jews said, okay we are now independent. In 1948 they declared the state of Israel.
And almost immediately Arab countries attacked them. Namely five of them. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon. But wars are not fought on numbers alone. The Arab leadership was divided. Each country had a different objective. Also their supply lines were stretched. Israel on the other hand was motivated. They were fighting for their existence. And in 1949 they won the war. Israel now occupied 77% of Palestine. So after the war you had three different paths. The state of Israel, the West Bank controlled by Jordan. And Gaza controlled by Egypt. And the Palestinians? It was a nightmare for them. A quarter of a million people were displaced from their homeland. The Arabs called it the Nakba.

But the maps were not settled just yet. In 1967 another war broke out. Again Arab states versus Israel. This time Israel won an even more comprehensive victory. In six days they captured three important territories. The West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Basically all of Palestine and more. Later on, Israel returned Sinai to Egypt. They also formalized the border with Jordan with a question of Palestine remains. Israel still controls the West Bank. They often build settlements and eat into Palestine and land.

Over in Gaza is a full blockade. And right now a full blown war. So where do both sides stand right now? Palestine won statehood based on pre-1967 borders. Meaning the whole of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Israel says it’s not possible. They have built dozens of settlements inside West Bank. So Israel says the demography has changed. Plus the country is always expanding. Any Jew anywhere in the world can become an Israeli citizen. It’s called the Jewish law of return. So resolution looks far away. I know we call this a regional conflict, a West Asian conflict. But it is also an exported one. Europe discriminated against Jews. The Ottomans and Palestinians never did. Europe drove them out. And Europe asked them to stay in Palestine. But when the plan looked tough they bolted. Classic colonial attitude. It is simply clear that there is no military solution to this problem. The question of Palestine cannot be answered with weapons. It requires politics. The only hope is that moderates in both sides can chart a course. And remember, statehood is not the end. It is just the beginning. Because after that comes neighborhood, the challenge of building friendship between the two states.

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