I’ve resisted writing this article for a long time. There is really no way to talk about this issue without pissing off someone, or even pissing off nearly everyone. It is one of the most contentious political issues facing our world – and even us as travelers. And yet, only last week, Michael Che of Saturday Night Live made a joke about Israel only vaccinating Jews, and the comments made toward him from both sides (one believing it was anti-Semitic, the other believing it didn’t go far enough to condemn Israel) made me realize that I truly want to set the record as straight as possible here on The Royal Tour.
Why am I qualified to write about this? In addition to spending months in Israel, I am a former media liaison between the Israeli government and media outlets in the southwestern US. I also spent my entire first career working in the Jewish world, raising money to support Israel. And yes, I am Jewish, giving me a vested interest in what happens. I have family and friends in Israel. I also have friends who are Palestinian, non-Palestinian Arab, and non-Arab Muslim. Finally, I do pride myself on trying to be as objective as possible, as regular readers of this outlet should know. So here goes.
A note here. This will be, by absolute necessity, overly simplistic. A thousand page book cannot do justice to the history of the region, let alone to the claims and emotions of both sides. I am going to go on two basic principles, which I hope you can respect. One: actions taken by leaders – elected or otherwise – are not necessarily indicative of popular opinion. Two: the overwhelming majority of “normal” people just want to live their day-to-day lives in peace and security, no matter their religious identity or nation of citizenship.
The Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, lit up at night.
Ancient History (Biblical to 1948)
What is now Israel has been the Jewish homeland since Biblical times. Even if one doesn’t believe in the factual nature of the Bible (I don’t), archaeological evidence of the Kingdom of Israel goes back to the 13th century BCE. Jumping forward centuries, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the western wall of which still stands as the holiest spot in Judaism, was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. This, done as a punishment for a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, led to the end of an organized Jewish kingdom in Israel, and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. (Israel was now part of the Roman district of Palestina, from the Greek word for the Philistines, who shared the land with Israel – and were eventually conquered by them – in the 12th century BCE.)
In the year 636, Muslim Arabs of the Rashidun Caliphate laid siege to Jerusalem, and the following year conquered it and the region from the Byzantine Empire. This began a more than 1,000 year period of Muslim rule over what is now Israel (broken up by the occasional crusade), which ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. (At this point, Israel was part of the Ottoman state of Palestine, similar to the Roman name.) There are records of Jews also living in the area during this entire time period, but not as a political force.
Following the allied victory in World War One, the entire territory of the Ottoman Empire was claimed by the British and French in a series of mandates. Some of these were given self-determination, like Turkey, which became a country in 1923, or Iraq in 1932. The area of Palestine (a British mandate) was promised to Jews in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, though authorities doubt that the British had any intention of living up to it, rather being willing to promise anyone anything in order for assistance in the war effort.
So who was living in the Palestine Mandate in 1917? According to a survey, there were approximately 100,000 Jews, 70,000 Christians, and 500,000 Muslims. Following the Balfour Declaration, Jewish immigration (which had been incredibly limited under Ottoman Rule) increased, and by 1947, the region had 630,000 Jews, 150,000 Christians, and nearly 1.2 million Muslims. Jews tended to be clustered in the new city of Tel Aviv, and the coastal areas, Muslims in the eastern portions including Ramallah and the south in Gaza, and Jerusalem itself was a shared city. (The Christian population centered on Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as in the north near the Lebanese border.)
Following World War Two, much of the scant remains of Europe’s Jewish population (six million of whom were killed in the Holocaust) tried to immigrate to the Palestine Mandate. The British, under immense pressure to honor the Balfour Declaration especially in the light of Nazi atrocities, refused most of that immigration in an effort to hold on to the Mandate of the strategic location. (Jews caught trying to immigrate were even placed in British concentration camps on Cyprus.) Jews organized both politically and militarily against the British. The Arab population, which had largely been pro-Germany in the war, negotiated separately. Finally, in 1948, the British handed the matter to the United Nations, which voted to partition the territory into a Jewish state of Israel, and a Muslim state. The State of Israel was declared, and within hours, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, along with the British trained and armed Arab Legion of Transjordan, invaded.
Modern History (1948 to 2006)
Much of what makes up the modern conflict is the result of two wars, and as the names differ depending on which side one was on, I will refer to them by years: 1948 and 1967. (There was also a war between Israel and Egypt in 1956, and one between Israel and all its neighbors again in 1973, as well as numerous other small wars, but these are the two that are key.)
The war of 1948 centered on the issue of Israel’s founding. Prior to the vote of the United Nations to partition the area, rhetoric by Arab leaders was particularly violent. Azzam Pasha, General Secretary of the Arab League, said that if a Jewish state were declared, “it will be a war of elimination and it will be a dangerous massacre.” He went on to say that “we will sweep them (the Jews) into the sea.” Local Arab leader and Nazi-sympathizer Haj Amin al-Husseini declared that Arabs would “continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated.” Mainstream Jewish leaders spoke of peace with their neighbors, but some, including Menachem Begin (a future Israeli prime minister) were against partition, stating that “the bisection of our homeland is illegal [and] it will never be recognized.”
With the start of the war, the Arab population took four forms. Some stayed and fought against the Jews. Some stayed and remained peaceful. Some left voluntarily at the urging of the Arab countries. (Some of these booked hotels in Damascus or Amman for a week or two, planning to return when the fighting was done.) And some were driven out by the ultimately victorious Jewish forces. (Most of these final two groups became what are now known as Palestinians.)
At the end of the fighting in 1949, the State of Israel controlled about 78% of the former Mandate, including West Jerusalem, Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and Transjordan (which would soon become the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And so the borders would remain, along with a constant state of war (Jordanian soldiers were known to shoot Jews trying to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem) until 1967.
From 1948 to 1967, what happened to the Arabs living in Palestine? Those living in what was Israel after the war were given full Israeli citizenship. Those living in the West Bank became Jordanian when the region was annexed in 1950 (and would remain Jordanian in name until 1988, when Jordan officially surrendered claims to the area). Those living in the Gaza Strip lived under Egyptian military rule, not becoming citizens, and prevented from travel into Egypt proper.
Let’s also examine the Jewish population. In 1948, approximately 800,000 Jews lived in Arab countries. Over the next two decades, more than 95% of these would immigrate to Israel, some by choice, many after persecution and expulsion. Jews from other parts of the world also immigrated to the new Jewish state, especially from areas experiencing high degrees of anti-Semitism.
In the months leading up to June 1967, tensions were especially high. Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran (the international waters guarding the opening of the Gulf of Aquaba which leads to Israel’s southern port of Eilat) to Israeli shipping, and then massed troops on their border with Israel, kicking out the UN forces watching the border. They also signed a mutual defense pact with Jordan. Fearing an imminent invasion, Israel preemptively bombed the Egyptian Air Force while it was on the ground, and then in six days (leading to the war being widely called the Six Day War) defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, conquering the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan, and both the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.
Arabs living in the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem were offered full Israeli citizenship as the areas were officially annexed (although it should be pointed out that many refused it). Those living in the the Gaza Strip traded one military occupation for another. In the West Bank, where Arabs had full Jordanian citizenship, approximately a third moved to Jordan, while the rest remained under Israeli military occupation.
So let’s recap here. We have a land that has been home to Jews for 3,000 years and to Muslims for nearly 1,500. Both claims seem reasonable and justified (and are both long enough that “more recent” is meaningless). We have a territory that was artificially divided by a colonial power, to which one side (Israel) largely said ok and the other said no. We have two (really three, but two important) wars that have resulted in the failure of the Arab states to fulfill their promise to drive the Jews into the sea, and a sudden increase in Israeli territory via a decisive military victory leading to a population of now stateless Arabs who had previously been under Syrian, Egyptian, or Jordanian rule to be under Israeli rule instead.
Over the next two and a half decades, determined efforts were made on the part of Israel to negotiate peace (following another war in 1973) with her neighbors. The Camp David Accords, signed in 1978 with Egypt, resulted in the entire territory of the Sinai Peninsula being given back, and Jewish settlements inside of it being (in some cases forcefully) dismantled. This began an official policy of “land for peace.” A similar treaty was signed with Jordan in 1994. The 1993 Oslo Accords agreed for the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to largely (more on this in a bit) become a new country of Palestine, governed by the new Palestinian Authority, formerly the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by Yasser Arafat.
But what was the PLO and where did it come from? When did a national consciousness of “Palestinians” emerge from people who had been mostly Jordanian and Egyptian until 1967?
The PLO was founded in 1964, three years before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In its charter, it called for the liberation of all of Palestine through armed struggle. Since to this point there was no occupied territory, it can be reasonably assumed that this meant the destruction of even pre-1967 Israel. (This call for Israel’s destruction was officially abandoned as part of the Oslo Accords.)
As for the people the PLO represented, they were mostly Jordanians and Egyptians living under Israeli rule. At the 1967 Arab League Summit, determination was made to keep this nearly one million people as refugees, as part of their agreement to never have peace with Israel. For the first time in an official capacity, the group were referred to as Palestinians, along with their “right to regain the whole of Palestine – that is, to destroy the State of Israel.” (That statement was an official communique from the summit.)
By 1993, twenty-seven years into Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this deliberate political using of refugees had turned into a legitimate national identity. (Many will argue that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian,” an argument I find morally reprehensible and completely ignorant of facts on the ground. While there may have not been a true national movement of Palestinian Arab self-government prior to 1967, there sure is one now, and it must be both recognized and understood.) Palestinians were seen as separate from other Arabs both politically and culturally. And while a small percentage of them adopted terrorism (just as a small percentage of Israelis took extreme positions), the overwhelming majority contributed to a society that – even under military occupation – created educational systems, public infrastructure, and more, even though the official PLO stance was the eradication of Israel and Jews.
Meanwhile, not all Israelis bought into the concept of land for peace. Some, especially among the religious right wing, believed that all of biblical Israel “from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea” should be under complete Jewish control. A percentage of these set out to turn the land de-facto Israeli, establishing “settlements,” small enclaves of Jews in the midst of the non-East Jerusalem portion of the West Bank.
The 1993 Oslo Accords offered a great deal of hope. Israel agreed to withdraw their military from Palestinian lands in the West Bank in phases over 18 months, handing most day-to-day responsibilities over the civilian population to the Palestinian Authority. Areas A and B, containing most of the area in which the Palestinian population live (but not the Israeli settlements) were withdrawn from on schedule. Most of the more difficult issues (refugee status, Jerusalem, etc…) were left for the “final agreement.” The problem was that, by 1999, no final agreement was reached. Israeli leaders seemed reticent to dismantle settlements after the assassination of Oslo architect Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian leadership refused to back down on their insistence that all Arabs displaced from their homes in 1948 (by force or choice) should be eligible to return along with their descendants (called the “Right of Return”, and while both sides agreed in principle to a dual capital in Jerusalem, it was unclear how it would work in practice. The Israeli military thus never left Area C, and that is still the case today.
Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority leadership launched an intifada, a campaign of violence targeting Israeli civilians using suicide bombers. (I was in Israel for two months in 2002 at the height of this “second intifada,” and the bus I took each morning – route 6 – was bombed on multiple occasions.) This in turn led to Israel hardening the border, building what is in most places a wall (and in some a fence) that – since it goes around many larger settlements in the vicinity of Jerusalem – actually served to de-facto annex what was promised by Oslo to be Palestinian land.
In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the decision to unilaterally withdraw all Israeli troops and civilians from the Gaza Strip, despite intense opposition from the Israeli right wing that actually resulted in Sharon leaving his political party, Likud. (As with Rabin before him, pressure by the Israeli religious right against any dismantling of settlements in any area, even in Gaza where Jewish historic claims aren’t nearly as strong, was immense.) However, since the Palestinian Authority was not as strong in Gaza as in the West Bank, this led to the terrorist organization Hamas being elected there in 2006, the last election the Palestinians have had for more than local offices. Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, has held on to PA rule in the West Bank.
The Situation Today
So here we are, more than 50 years after the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank began. (As we mentioned, the Gaza Strip is free of direct occupation, though Israel maintains strict border access – as does Egypt on their border with Gaza – as well as a naval blockade that is purported to be there to prevent arms imports but goes so far as to prevent Palestinian fishermen from leaving shallow coastal waters.) Since the breakdown of the Oslo Accords, little real progress has been made, with leaders on both sides to blame. Yasser Arafat turned down a proposal in 2004. Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be said to have negotiated in anything resembling good faith during his most recent tenure as Prime Minister of Israel. And the citizens of both suffer for it.
In Gaza, the situation is barely tenable. Basic medicines and foodstuffs are in constant shortage – Israel hasn’t been great about getting the Palestinians things they need and Hamas has gone so far as to burn supplies that have been given to their people rather than accept help from what they still call the Zionist Enemy. Rocket attacks by Hamas into southern Israeli population centers are a daily occurrence, and Israeli responses have included tightening restrictions and bombing campaigns. (To be fair, if Israel’s intention were to kill Palestinian civilians, they could certainly do so, and the fact that casualties have been so low is testament to the willpower of the Israeli military. At the same time, individual soldiers have targeted civilians, and punishments have not been nearly severe enough for these Geneva Convention violations.)
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority maintains day-to-day control on most population centers, and even works with Israeli intelligence to address security threats. Palestinians from the West Bank are treated for serious ailments in Israeli hospitals. Muslims are free to worship at their holy sites. However, military occupation of Area C is ongoing, and rather than gradually remove settlements from what should be Palestinian land, Israel is fairly rapidly expanding them, as Netanyahu needs the support of the religious (pro-settler) political parties to keep his coalition together and avoid potential prosecution for corruption. Tens of thousands of Palestinians enter Israel proper each day to work (or did before Covid), though the process can at times be arduous.
In Israel itself, the Arab Joint List has the third most seats in the Knesset (parliament). Israeli Arabs enjoy positions of power in all levels of government. And yet there is major anti-Arab rhetoric from Netanyahu and those on the Israeli right, as well as efforts to suppress Arab voting. When polled, Israelis say that security is their overwhelmingly most important priority, understandable when your country has been invaded and subjected to terrorism on a routine basis since its inception. And on the other hand, a consistent majority of Israelis is in favor of a “two-state solution,” a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel. So why isn’t there such a solution?
Israel and the Palestinians have little reason to trust each other at this point. Both sides have shown little good faith, instead rehashing obviously untenable concepts. The Palestinian leadership insists on the aforementioned right of return, which if granted would end Israel as a Jewish state due to demographics. That’s obviously a non-starter, and understandably so. As is Israel’s insistence that a state of Palestine have Israeli soldiers guarding its entire border, even the portion not shared with Israel. Until leaders quit posturing with these outrageous ideas, nothing will be accomplished.
And so the occupation drags on, seemingly with no end in sight. So what next? What will give? Let’s examine a few possibilities.
First, there could be a two-state solution. This would require new leadership in both countries, as neither Netanyahu nor Abbas has shown any appetite for the sacrifices it would take to work out a deal and sell it to their people. Netanyahu is desperate to hang on to power to avoid prosecution. Abbas is desperate to hang on to power to keep his wealth, estimated at more than $100 million (while the average Palestinian makes about $20,000 per year), much of it plundered from international aid sent to the people. For this option to work, the Muslim world would have to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in their midst. It would take Palestinians ending their payments to the families of suicide bombers who kill Jews. It would take Israeli politicians ending their demonization of Palestinians as terrorists or lesser beings. Possible? I certainly hope so.
Second, there could be a one-state solution, whereby all Israelis and Palestinians live in a single non-religious democracy. This is understandably hard for Jews less than 100 years removed from a Holocaust that could have been avoided had any democracy existing at the time been willing to take them in. Israel as a Jewish state is seen as the assurance that the Holocaust will not happen again. It is also worth pointing out that while certainly not a guarantee, no state with a Muslim majority currently allows Jews as fully equal citizens. So this option is possible, but highly unlikely.
Third, Israel could annex the West Bank and not grant citizenship to Palestinians. While currently I’ve been able to push back on claims of Israeli apartheid (there are not Jews-only anything in the country), this would end up crossing that line, as it would create a whole second-class non-citizen inside Israel itself. Many American Jews like myself, upon whom Israel depends for political and financial support, would likely abandon support (I definitely would) of something that so grotesquely violated the morals the religion teaches. (Let’s also note here that this seems to be the path Netanyahu and some of Israel’s right wing favors, a prospect that sickens me.)
Finally, the status quo can continue. And so here we are. But with each passing year, it is harder for Israel to maintain occupation in the face of well-deserved international criticism, and it is harder for the Palestinian leadership to continue to enrich themselves at the expense of their stateless people without either progress or elections.
Both sides deserve criticism; both sets of leaders deserve blame. Both peoples deserve respect, and deserve sympathy. International criticism these days seems one-sided against Israel at times. It is the more powerful, more wealthy country. With those things comes responsibility to act morally. Israel has failed in this respect at times, especially recently. Criticism of Israel is deserved at times. However, it is also important to recognize that much criticism of Israel is done as pure anti-Semitism. Not recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is anti-Semitic, not just political, especially if one is ok with other countries with state religions.
Ultimately, it is my belief and my fervent hope that this conflict of more than 70 years is resolved soon, and two pretty awesome sets of people are able to live in peace and dignity, side by side, limiting arguments to who actually invented falafel. (The jury is still out, but I think the Druze make the best I’ve ever had.)
Impact on Travel
Since this is a travel blog, I’d be remiss to not include a section here on how the conflict plays out to the normal traveler. While in Tel Aviv or Haifa, or much of the Israeli high-tech corridor between them, the conflict is fairly non-existent to the casual observer. However, one will notice ever-present armed soldiers. Most of them, at least inside the cities, are on leave, but required to keep their weapons with them at all times. (The first time I saw a young woman – obviously a solder off duty – on the beach in a bikini with a huge gun across her back made me do a double take.) Military service is largely compulsory in Israel, and young people take that duty seriously, proudly wearing their unit insignia the way American youth wear their college sweatshirts.
When one enters Jerusalem, though, the tenor changes. There is a palpable tension. Military presence around the holy places is increased, Muslims are looked with suspicion around the Western Wall, Jews are actively discouraged from visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock, and just for fun, various Christian sects employ armed guards to keep priests of other sects out of their sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. East Jerusalem isn’t very safe for Jews, Orthodox neighborhoods likewise may not be safe for Muslims, and the border wall is visible from the hillsides. Visitors to Jerusalem are safe, but to visit East Jerusalem, or even the Temple Mount, it would be safer to be part of an organized group.
Travelers interested in seeing the Palestinian Territories will have to go through checkpoints run by Israeli military; it is, after all, a border. Gaza is harder to reach. In southern Israel, visitors will be shown where bomb shelters are for the inevitable missile attacks. All that said, anyone wishing to cross from Eilat into Jordan to visit Petra will find that border easily managed by two countries at peace.
While I mention the tensions, it is important to note that Israel is a huge destination for tourists from all over the world and of all backgrounds. These tourists come, they see the sights, and they return home safely. The record on that is clear. And one will also find that ordinary people (non-extremists) just want to live in peace, and will be happy to talk, to share their table, or to direct you to the best falafel.
The moral? Things are complicated, as everywhere has things that are complicated. Don’t stay away, but come in aware. Don’t provoke, do your part to support peace and normal existence, and things will be fine.
I’ve written this over several days, so my apologies if some of it is a bit tangential at times. There is so much to say, so much that really needs to be said, and not nearly enough time to say it all. I’ve tried my best to minimize editorializing, to stick to the facts, and to acknowledge the very real concerns by both sides. I have not, purposefully, mentioned many specific instances of violence. It has happened, on both sides, and it is terrible. It is also in the past, and any hope of peace will mean moving beyond it.
I am open to having a dialogue here in the comments, but on two conditions. First and foremost, be respectful of both sides’ legitimate concerns and aspirations, not just those of the one with which you identify most. Secondly, please refrain from name-calling, racist tropes, calls for violence, and those sorts of things. You’ll be wasting your time, as I will not allow anything of that sort to be published.
I hope this was educational for many of you. It was hard to write, and I know it will cause some anger. I am sorry for that, and hope you will take this in that educational spirit in which it was meant. And let us all, together, hope for peace.
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