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Unravelling the Israel-Palestine Puzzle: An Historical Perspective

By David Warden

David is the humanist representative on the Bournemouth & Poole Holocaust Memorial Day Committee. In this article he questions the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict is often framed and he provides an overview of a very long history. He concludes that the conflict is indicative of a 'clash of civilisations' and that the solution is less fanaticism and more humanism.

Pro-Palestinian demonstration in central London, October 2023.
“The most depressing and wretched spectacle of the past decade, for all those who care about democracy and secularism, has been the degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, where the website of Gaza’s ruling faction blazons an endorsement of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Christopher Hitchens, 2008

My aim in writing this essay, which has been drawn from a variety of sources, is to sketch a broad overview of the history of Israel-Palestine. Of necessity, it’s rather long, but it may help us to respond to the problem in a more rational and less emotive way and to discern, however dimly, a pathway towards peace. Rather than constructing our human world in binary terms as a struggle of "the oppressed against the oppressor", an ideological construct which feeds the cycle of division, violence and war, our first moral duty as humanists is to acknowledge our common humanity and our common fallibility. No doubt it's an imperfect overview and so I welcome your feedback.

I’m old enough to remember IRA bombs going off in London which indiscriminately killed and maimed ordinary people. I don’t recall mass demonstrations on the streets of London immediately afterwards in tacit support of the IRA and "nationalist liberation". And yet here we are in 2023, in the aftermath of one of the worst massacres of Jewish people since the Holocaust, and we see mass demonstrations in cities across the world in a one-sided display of support for the Palestinian cause. No doubt, any humanists taking part are doing so with the best humanitarian motives. But going onto the streets and shouting slogans against Israel is bound to give succour to Hamas – described by journalist and secularist Nick Cohen as an "ultra-reactionary theocratic movement" and by atheist writer Sam Harris as a "jihadi death cult" – and intimidate the Jewish people in our midst. The most absurd display of confused progressivism are placards declaring "Queers for Palestine". This is where radical progressivism ends up – standing shoulder to shoulder with theocratic totalitarianism. The optics, as they say, are terrible for progressivism.

Pro-Palestinian supporters frame the Hamas attack as an understandable development in the ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation from what is variously described as settler colonialism, illegal occupation and apartheid. Some legitimacy for elements of this view may be drawn from the United Nations resolution 37/43, dating from 1982, which included the following statements:

“The General Assembly… Considering that the denial of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, sovereignty, independence and return to Palestine and the repeated acts of aggression by Israel against the peoples of the region constitute a serious threat to international peace and security… Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle”. United Nations, 90th plenary meeting on 3rd December 1982, United Nations resolution 37/43 (1982).

Maybe the United Nations, in framing the conflict in this way, is part of the problem. But let's go back in time to the beginning of the story...

Biblical times

The Israelite/Jewish/Zionist moral claim to the land of Palestine is based on the belief that this was the Jewish homeland from around the 11th or 10th centuries BCE until the 2nd century CE – a period spanning some 1,200 years. Although I am sceptical of biblical history going back any further than this, it seems reasonable to accept that the ancient Israelites formed a coherent political entity in this region during the period of the United Monarchy, which is generally dated to the 11th and 10th centuries BCE. According to biblical accounts, the first king to rule over the United Monarchy of Israel was Saul, followed by David and then Solomon. King Saul is described as the first king who attempted to unite the various Israelite tribes into a single political entity. David, Saul’s successor, is credited with consolidating the kingdom and making Jerusalem its capital. Under David, the kingdom extended its territories and became a significant regional power. Solomon, David's son, further strengthened the kingdom and is famous for building the First Temple in Jerusalem, also known as Solomon’s Temple. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into two: the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. The Kingdom of Israel included territories that are part of modern-day northern Israel and some parts of present-day Lebanon and Syria. The Kingdom of Judah was located to the south and included Jerusalem as its capital. It covered territory that is part of modern-day Israel and the West Bank. Although archaeological and historical evidence is limited, most scholars agree that by the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, Israel and Judah were distinct political entities that had interactions with other major powers in the region.

Imperial conquests and exile

The Israelite kingdoms were subsequently conquered by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. The Babylonian Exile generally refers to the period during which the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah, destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and took a number of Judah's inhabitants into captivity in Babylon. Later in the 6th century BCE, the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians under Cyrus the Great who allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland. Construction of the Second Temple began in 538 BCE and was completed in 515 BCE.

Two centuries later, in 333 BCE, 23-year old Alexander the Great conquered the region. After his death, just nine years later, Palestine came under the control of the Ptolemaic and later the Seleucid Empires. Around 167 BCE, the Maccabean revolt against Seleucid rule led to the establishment of an independent Jewish state known as the Hasmonean Kingdom. In 63 BCE, the Romans conquered the region. In the first century of our era, a Jewish revolt against Roman rule led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, and in 73 CE Jewish political autonomy in the region effectively came to an end. A second major Jewish revolt against Roman rule occurred about 60 years later in 132-136 CE. After these revolts, many Jews were killed, enslaved, or exiled although many remained in Galilee, and Jewish life and scholarship continued there, as evidenced by the compilation of the Palestinian Talmud which was completed in the 4th or 5th century CE. Jewish presence in the region known today as Israel and the Palestinian territories has varied over time since antiquity, but there has generally been a continuous Jewish population in the area. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern period, there were Jewish communities in various parts of the land, including in cities like Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias.

In the fourth century, Palestine became part of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. In the 7th century, Muslim Arab forces conquered Palestine and the region came under various Islamic dynasties, including the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Fatimids. In 1099, the Crusaders established the Kingdom of Jerusalem but Muslim forces under Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. After Saladin, various Muslim dynasties ruled Palestine until the Islamic Ottoman Empire took control of the region in 1516 until 1918.

No such thing as "Palestine" under the Ottomans

It's important to note that under the Ottoman Empire, the territory known today as Palestine was not a separate or autonomous entity but rather part of larger administrative divisions within the empire. The term "Palestine" itself was not officially used by the Ottomans to describe a separate province or administrative division. However, the name Palestine has ancient origins and was used in various forms by different civilizations over the millennia, including the Romans. During the Ottoman period, European travellers and Christian pilgrims often referred to the area as Palestine, but it did not correspond to any formal or official Ottoman territorial designation. There has never been a Palestine nation. Palestinian nationalism emerged in tandem with Jewish nationalism.

Antisemitism and Jew hatred

In exile from the 2nd century onwards, Jews suffered discrimination and antisemitism wherever they went. Christian antisemitism was rooted in the belief that they were “Christ killers” – a bizarre example of doublethink given that the crucifixion of Jesus is supposed to have saving power according to Christian theology. During the Middle Ages, Jews were frequently scapegoated for social problems and pandemics. They were accused of poisoning wells and of killing Christian children to put their blood in unleavened bread (the ‘Blood Libel’). The Crusades, which started in 1095, often led to violent attacks against Jewish communities as the Crusaders made their way to Palestine. The Spanish Inquisition targeted Jews who had converted to Christianity but were suspected of backsliding into Judaism. Martin Luther’s pamphlet The Jews and their Lies (1543) claimed that Jews thirsted for Christian blood and it urged the slaying of all Jews. Over the centuries, Jews were subjected to political, economic, and social discrimination resulting in the deprivation of legal and civil rights. In many places they were restricted to living in ghettos and required to wear a distinctive symbol, badge or pointed hat. They were prohibited from many occupations, as a result of which many were forced into moneylending. Christianity forbade the charging of interest but people still needed to borrow money and so they turned to the Jews for this service. Many Jews were expelled from their countries because kings and nobles didn’t want to repay them.

The eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment led to more tolerance in some areas, but also gave rise to new forms of antisemitism based on emerging ideas of race and nationalism. Jews were considered to be “outsiders” and not part of the emerging national identities. Jews in Russia were confined to the “Pale of Settlement”, an area stretching across modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia. Movement outside this area was highly restricted. In the Russian Empire, they were frequently accused of being disloyal subjects and the Russian Orthodox Church was a significant proponent of antisemitic ideas. Antisemitic stereotypes were propagated through newspapers, books, and public speeches. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated document purporting to describe a Jewish plan for world domination, was one such example.

Contemporary antisemitism may partly be explained as a reaction to the success of Jews in many different fields such as science, business, entertainment, and academia, which can breed suspicion and resentment.

This centuries-long history of persecution, scapegoating, discrimination, and outsider status, coupled with emerging European nationalism as the successor to imperialism, gave rise to the nationalistic Zionist movement in the 1890s and waves of Jewish migration to Palestine. It's worth noting that nationalism, in the nineteenth century, was viewed as a progressive and emancipatory alternative to imperialism.

Zion and Zionism

The Hebrew word Tzi-yon (Zion) originally referred to a specific mountain near Jerusalem (Mount Zion), and later came to signify the city of Jerusalem itself or the land of Israel in its entirety. The Israelite yearning for Zion is recorded in Psalm 137 during the Babylonian Exile, and for the past 1,950 years Jews have prayed three times a day for the restoration of Zion. All of their festivals refer to a ‘return to the land’. So why did nothing happen over such a long period of time? The Jews as a dispersed people had no way of achieving their ultimate goal, and religious Jews said “Wait until the Messiah comes”. But things began to change in the later part of the nineteenth century. Inspired by European nationalist movements, including the unification of Italy and Germany in 1870 and 1871, some Jews began to work towards the restoration of their national home in Palestine.

The Earl of Balfour (British prime minister 1902-1905, and foreign secretary in 1917)

British involvement

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by the British Empire in the First World War, Palestine came under British control, initially through a military administration and then by the League of Nations “Mandate for Palestine”. (The League of Nations, 1920-1946, was the predecessor of the United Nations.) The Mandate for Palestine, approved in 1920 and formalized in 1922, included the text of the “Balfour Declaration” and tasked Britain with facilitating Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine, while also safeguarding the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities. The Balfour Declaration was a 1917 letter from Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader in the British Jewish community. The letter declared British support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The Mandate also called for the encouragement of “close settlement by Jews on the land”.

Demography of Palestine

The British conducted several censuses during the Mandate period, with the first comprehensive census carried out in 1922. According to this census, there were nearly 600,000 people in Palestine, of which 78,000 were Jews, 71,000 were Christians, and the rest were mostly Muslim Arabs. Initially, the Arab majority did not feel threatened by Jewish immigration. However, as more Jews arrived and bought land, and as the political objectives of the Zionist movement became clearer, opposition among Palestinian Arabs grew. Large-scale Jewish immigration threatened to alter the demographic makeup of Palestine, which was a concern for Palestinian Arabs. The purchase of land by Jewish immigrants often led to the eviction of Arab tenant farmers, which contributed to rising tensions. Both Jewish and Arab communities had burgeoning nationalistic aspirations that were fundamentally incompatible. Zionists aimed to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, while Palestinian Arabs sought an independent Arab state, free from the intrusion of "infidel foreigners". The Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate created a political framework that many Arabs felt disproportionately favoured the objectives of the Zionist movement at their expense. By the 1920s and 1930s, tensions escalated into violence including riots, revolts, and other forms of civil unrest. The British attempted to manage these tensions through various means, including commissions, white papers, and partition plans, but they were largely unsuccessful in reconciling the opposing aims of the Jewish and Arab communities.

The Arab Revolt and the Peel Commission

The Arab Revolt in Palestine, which took place from 1936 to 1939, was primarily against British rule and mass Jewish immigration. The revolt began with a strike and boycott against Jewish goods and escalated into widespread violence, including attacks against both British authorities and Jewish communities. The British responded with martial law and military force. The Arab Revolt led the British government to re-evaluate its policies in Palestine, ultimately contributing to the formation of the Peel Commission to look for long-term solutions to the conflict. The Peel Commission, formally known as the Palestine Royal Commission, was established in 1936 to investigate the causes of unrest. Its report, published in 1937, recommended the partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem and surrounding areas to remain under British control. It was the first formal recommendation for partition, recommending that the Arabs should have 80 percent of the territory and the Jews around 20 per cent. The Jews agreed to the proposal and the Arabs did not. They resumed the rebellion, which was eventually quelled by the British.


During the Second World War, the British-appointed leader of the Arab Palestinians, Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, met with Adolf Hitler and requested his support in opposing the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The British also had a policy of restricting Jewish migration to Palestine at this time, which resulted in many more Jews being murdered in the Holocaust than would otherwise have been the case. The Nazis started their 12-year war against the Jews in 1933. Hitler reintroduced Lutheran teachings and Social Darwinist ideas about the superior Aryan race. He blamed the economic damage of the First World War and Communism on the Jews. He passed a series of laws by which they became second-class citizens. Jews had their beards pulled in the streets and were made to scrub floors. They were humiliated and described as “vermin”. They were sent to concentration camps and death camps and the result was the death of six million Jews, of which just under a million and a half were children. Two-thirds of European Jewry perished. Following the war, most countries were closed to Jewish refugees and so the demand for a place that could be called a Jewish home grew more insistent.

Post Second World War and the 1948 War

By 1947, Zionists in Palestine were violently opposing British control and the British decided to leave and hand the problem to the United Nations. In 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations – effectively, the international community – approved the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state and called for an international regime to govern Jerusalem. The Jews were allocated 55 percent of the territory, half of which was mostly the Negev desert, and the Arabs around 45 percent. Jewish leaders accepted the partition plan, but Arab leaders did not. Following rejection of the UN Partition Plan, a civil war ensued between Jewish and Arab communities within Palestine. Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, and was immediately invaded by neighbouring Arab states, leading to the First Arab-Israeli War, also known as the 1948 War. Israel emerged as the victor and by the time armistice agreements were signed in 1949, Israel had expanded its territory beyond the partition lines proposed by the United Nations in 1947. Following the war, Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip.

Nakhba and the refugees

The term “Nakhba”, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, is used by Palestinians to describe the loss of their homes and communities during the 1948 war. According to estimates, around 700,000 Palestinians were displaced during and after the war, many of whom became refugees in neighbouring countries or in the territories that would later be known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the same time, an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Mizrahi Jews were expelled or fled their homes in Arab countries from 1948 onward, often due to state-sanctioned persecution, and many of them found refuge in Israel. Israel's population today is estimated to be over 9 million, with the Jewish population at approximately 7 million. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), there are more than 5 million registered Palestinian refugees who are descendants of the original approximately 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Israel has resisted the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, citing demographic, security, and other concerns.

The charge of apartheid

After the 1948 war, the demographic landscape of what became the State of Israel changed significantly. The Jewish population became the majority, and the Arab population within the newly-defined borders of Israel became a minority, making up approximately 20 percent of the country's total population. These Arab citizens of Israel were mostly Muslim, but there were also smaller Christian and Druze communities. It is incorrect to claim that Israel is an apartheid state. Arab citizens in Israel enjoy full human rights and equality. The apartheid charge relates to the occupied West Bank which is not part of Israel as such. The occupation is oppressive, but ending it without peace and security guarantees is not an option which Israel can contemplate.

The charge of colonialism

The characterisation of Israel as a form of colonialism is a matter of debate and interpretation that often depends on one's perspective. Critics argue that the Zionist movement involved the migration of Jews from Europe to what was then Ottoman and later British Palestine, likening this to European colonial movements that involved settling in lands inhabited by other peoples. Supporters of Israel argue that Zionism was a national liberation movement for Jews, who have historical and religious ties to the land. In this view, it was not a project of an external power seeking to exploit local resources, which is often how colonialism is defined. Unlike typical colonial contexts where the colonising power is a specific, external state, Jews migrated to Israel, often as refugees, from diverse geographic locations, including Arab countries, Europe, North America, and Ethiopia. There are many more arguments on both sides.

1967 war

The 1948 war ended with the 1949 armistice lines – the so-called ‘Green Line’. In 1967, Israel fought a pre-emptive war against its Arab neighbours, the so-called Six-Day War, which resulted in Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. UN Resolution 242 (1967) calls for the "Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" and "Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force." Israel has complied in part with Resolution 242, for example by returning Sinai to Egypt and ceding control of Gaza to the Palestinians, and in 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised Israel’s right to exist. But Hamas, according to its founding charter, rejects recognition of Israel and seeks the ‘liberation’ of all Palestine.

The West Bank

The Israeli historian Benny Morris said in a recent interview that it was a mistake for Israel not to withdraw from the West Bank in 1967 and allow Jordan to resume its occupation of the territory. In 1988, Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank in favour of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) but the status of the West Bank today is unclear. It exists in a kind of legal and political limbo, being claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. When the BBC or other news organizations report that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law, they are typically referring to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. The relevant provisions are found in Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." However, the interpretation of this provision and the question of the legality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are subjects of ongoing debate and dispute in international law and geopolitics. What does seem clear is that they significantly impact the peace process and the prospect of a two-state solution.

1973 Yom Kippur War

The 1973 Yom Kippur War was a conflict between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. The war began on October 6, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, catching Israel by surprise. Despite initial gains by Egypt and Syria, Israel managed to reverse the tide, eventually pushing into territories beyond the pre-war borders. The war had profound implications for the Middle East, eventually leading to the Camp David Accords and the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, namely Egypt.

1978 Camp David Accords

The Camp David Accords, signed in 1978, were a pivotal step in the Middle East peace process, bringing together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin under the mediation of US President Jimmy Carter. Held at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, the negotiations resulted in two separate agreements: one laid the groundwork for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and the other established a framework for broader Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The accords led to Egypt formally recognizing the State of Israel, the first Arab nation to do so, and in return, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had occupied since the 1967 Six Day War. The agreement was a watershed moment in Middle East diplomacy, though it also led to some political isolation for Egypt within the Arab world.

1993 Oslo Accords

The Oslo Accords are a set of agreements between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) aimed at achieving a peace process and eventual two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Initially signed in Washington, D.C., on September 13, 1993, the accords marked the first direct, face-to-face agreement between Israel and the PLO. The accords established a framework for the future relations between the two parties, including the creation of the Palestinian Authority to administer parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the Oslo Accords have been subject to numerous challenges and criticisms, failing to bring about an end to the conflict as of yet.

1999 Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat

In 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with US President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a series of talks aimed at advancing the Middle East peace process. Barak showed a willingness to make significant concessions. The talks were seen as an important step toward the more high-profile Camp David Summit in 2000. Despite the optimism surrounding these meetings, they were ultimately unable to produce a lasting agreement. While all three leaders demonstrated a desire to resolve long-standing issues, including the status of Jerusalem, settlements, and borders, the talks exposed deep-seated divisions that would later contribute to the failure of the Camp David Summit and the eruption of the Second Intifada.


The word 'intifada' is an Arabic word meaning uprising or revolt. The First Intifada (1987-1993) was characterized by widespread protests, civil disobedience, and some violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli forces. The Second Intifada (2000-2005) resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides. In 2002, Israel started building a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. This was met with international criticism but it was defended by Israel as a security measure. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and in 2006, Hamas rose to power.

Donald Trump and the Abraham Accords

In December 2017, US President Donald Trump officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sparking global controversy and Palestinian protests. In 2020, a series of agreements were signed between Israel and several Arab nations to normalize diplomatic relations. They were called the Abraham Accords and they were brokered by the United States under the Trump administration. The first countries to sign the accords were the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, followed later by Sudan and Morocco. The agreements marked a significant shift in the Middle East, as they represent some of the few Arab countries to officially recognize Israel since its establishment in 1948. The accords aimed to pave the way for full normalisation of relations, including the establishment of embassies and forms of economic and cultural cooperation. The accords were named after the biblical patriarch Abraham, who is a significant figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to symbolize the shared heritage and the potential for peace and cooperation among the descendants of Abraham's family.

Hamas – the Islamic Resistance Movement

When people call for "an end to Israeli occupation" this should mean the demand for Israel to complete its withdrawal from the territories it occupied following the Six-Day War in 1967 – a reasonable but difficult objective. But when people call for "an end to the occupation of Palestine", they are probably calling for something much more radical: the complete destruction of the State of Israel. Where would Israel's seven million Jews go? It seems unlikely that they would be treated kindly if Palestine were to become an Islamic state.

Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, but it still maintains control over its airspace, territorial waters, and border crossings (except for the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which is controlled by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority). Gaza is sometimes referred to as being 'under siege' or an ‘open-air prison’ owing to the restricted movement of people and goods into and out of the territory and Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza coast. These restrictions have been tightened by Israel and to some extent by Egypt since 2007, when Hamas, an organisation considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, and the European Union, took control of Gaza. The founding charter of Hamas, which was published in 1988, explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state.

Clash of civilisations

The Israel-Palestine conflict looks to me like a classic case of Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilisations' thesis. The State of Israel is a modern, liberal, democratic, pluralistic and largely secular state which has been inserted into a region of the world which is distinguished by religiously-conservative authoritarianism. Many Arab states have centralised forms of governance, where power is often concentrated in the hands of a single leader or a small elite. It's the tectonic fault line where the West and the Middle East grind against each, with continuous seismic activity followed by periodic earthquakes and aftershocks. It's a tragedy that Israel/Palestine, which was supposed to be a safe haven for Jews after centuries of persecution, has become a cauldron of ethnic hatred. The fundamental problem is that the Arab Palestinians have never consented to sharing the territory with a Jewish state – an understandable stance but an intransigent one which seems to prefer unending conflict, death and misery to co-operation, friendship, and mutual prosperity.


For over a thousand years in antiquity, what we call “Palestine” today was a Jewish or Israelite homeland. After the Roman and Byzantine periods, and apart from a brief period in the 12th century when the Crusaders were in charge, Palestine was under Muslim rule for over a thousand years. Both Jews and Arab Muslims have real connections to the territory relating to different and overlapping time periods in history. Jews sometimes plead that it is hardly unreasonable to ask for just one Jewish homeland the size of Wales, where Jews can live securely, when compared with the twenty-two Muslim-majority states of the Arab League. On the other side, the framing is utterly different. The State of Israel is seen as an occupying colonialist Western power, underwritten by America, on Holy Arab land. Western progressives often align themselves with this framing, and atrocities against Jews are interpreted as regrettable, but part of the liberation struggle and the necessity of 'decolonisation'. Faced with such an implacable and ideological foe, the Israeli Defence Force reacts with what is seen as disproportionate force.

The mass migration of the descendants of an original people to re-found their nation after an interregnum of some 1700 years, displacing the population who had settled there in the meantime, has caused a so-far intractable problem in international affairs. But at the end of the First World War, and even more so at the end of the Second World War, it seemed like an idea whose time had come and it was sanctioned, in various ways, by the League of Nations and by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Whatever you may think of the historical reasons and justifications for the founding of the State of Israel, we cannot go back and rewrite history. Only fanatics and Islamists wish to destroy the State of Israel. Everyone else wishes to see a peaceful solution and the self-determination of both peoples.

The solution to the conflict is less fanaticism and more humanism. The region needs more humanity, more empathy, more open-minded dialogue, and more hope.

References and further reading/watching of interest

  • Christopher Hitchens quotation and Hamas description as "an ultra reactionary theocratic movement" are from "Why the far left supports Hamas" - article by Nick Cohen in The Spectator 29 October 2023

  • Sam Harris X Eric Weinstein: Israel-Palestine (2023) – a Triggernometry interview At 24 minutes in, Eric Weinstein says “I don't believe the Arabs are under occupation. You have groups of people who are offered a state. They do not want the state they are offered. They are offered a choice between a state and a chant: 'From the river to the sea'. They want the chant. They are the tip of the spear in the global battle against Western hegemony, against an occupying European power, in Holy Arab land. They're not going to give up on that as a collective political entity for a relatively modest prosperous state, trading with the occupier. That's very troubling to us because we have this idea of ‘Why wouldn't you want a state?’”

  • The History and Ethics of the Israel-Palestine Conflict with Dr. Benny Morris (2023) An interview with Coleman Hughes

  • Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State (2021) Jeff Halper. Halper is an Israeli anthropologist and a founding member of the One Democratic State Campaign.

  • A Modest Proposal to Solve the Palestine-Israel Conflict (2018) by Karl Sabbagh. Sabbagh is half-Palestinian, half-English. Proposes a new secular state which would reunify the whole territory.

  • Zionism: A Very Short Introduction (2016) Michael Stanislawski, Oxford

  • Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction (2015) Steven Beller, Oxford

  • The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction (2013) Martin Bunton, Oxford

  • The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey (2012) Antony Lerman

  • The Case for Israel (2004) Alan Dershowitz. Argues that the Palestinians have torpedoed every peace initiative and thinks that the ‘one-nation’ solution would mean an Islamic state.

  • A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (2013, 3rd edition) by Howard M. Sachar. A comprehensive history of Israel, including its creation under the British Mandate.

  • Dr Gad Saad's tweets are worth reading. In a recent tweet, he wrote: “This is not a contest of Victimology Poker. Free-thinkers of all faiths and no faith should rise above tribal allegiance. When your calculus is restricted to 'my side is the perpetual victim and the other side is the eternal Satan' you can't get anywhere. Both Israelis and Palestinians commit this cognitive and emotional bias. Rise above this. Do you want to spread values that are in line with individual dignity, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, secularism, and enlightenment? If yes then choose your side carefully.” Dr Saad is a Canadian evolutionary psychologist and author of The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense (2020). Born in Lebanon, he is an atheist and culturally Jewish.

  • I acknowledge with thanks the helpful transcript of a talk on historical antisemitism given by Rabbi Maurice Michaels to the 'Out of the Box' Humanist-Christian dialogue group in Wareham, Dorset, in February 2020, and published in the Dorset Humanists Bulletin.

342 views6 comments

댓글 6개

John Pennington
John Pennington
2023년 11월 24일

Excellent article, especially on the history, somewhat biased towards Israel, but generally balanced. I was a supporter of a two state solution, but now I am inclined to the one state solution. However, it It is difficult to see how this can be achieved.


2023년 11월 06일

I echo Sean Gallager's comment that this is an excellent article and I learned from it. I am not very knowledgeable about the background to the terrible conflict. However I disagree that the huge demonstrations all over the world in support of the rights of the Palestinians are a bad idea. As Owen Jones said "I have said that I condemn Hamas, and call for the immediate release of the hostages until I am blue in the face". The vast majority of demonstrators are just sticking up for the Palestinian civilians in Gaza who are suffering horrendously. They are certainly not standing up for "theocratic totalitarianism" The anger against the Israeli assaults on the Gazan civilians, and the demonstrations, spread across…

David Warden
David Warden
2023년 11월 13일
답글 상대:

Thanks Cath. It’s worth mentioning that a great deal of the suffering of Gazan people is inflicted by Hamas. A Muslim friend of mine, who has many contacts in Gaza, describes Hamas as a mafia organisation. When you write about “the Israeli assaults on the Gazan civilians” and “the mass bombing of civilians” are you not repeating Hamas propaganda? The aim of the IDF is to destroy Hamas. It is Hamas that puts civilians in harm’s way. You also wrote about “the denial of water, food, medicines or power to 2 million civilians”. Since when has a country which has been attacked been obliged to supply water, food, medicines or power to its enemies? If we could simply separate out…


2023년 11월 01일

The possibility of a two-state solution is now utterly improbable.

Therefore, the only remaining solution is a one-state solution.

Initially, it would have to be called something like Israel-Palestine.

After a general election involving Gazan, Israeli and West Bank residents, a new legislative assembly should decide on the name of the new entity and ideally adopt a wholly secular constitution.

There may need to be a process for determining what - if any - role the diaspora communities (Israeli and Palestinian) would be allowed to play in the formation of the new political entity.

One major factor would be the establishment of a return policy for all affected individuals.

The new nation would also need to conclude agreements with Egypt,…

David Warden
David Warden
2023년 11월 13일
답글 상대:

Thanks John but how would a secular state be enforced? If it was democratic then it would be quickly become an Islamist state.

2023년 11월 01일

Superb article that addresses a highly complex subject. Significantly enhanced my understanding of the conflict - thank you for this. BTW the magazine is going from strength to strength!

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