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The Story of Israel and Palestine: Part One

By Katie Dominy

When you hear the term ‘Israel-Palestine’, what are the first words, images, or phrases that come to mind? To hazard a guess, ‘conflict’, ‘war’, and ‘destruction’ are probably at the forefront of many people’s minds when they hear this infamous double-barrel. In the international news cycle, we sporadically hear mention of upsurges in violence; we come across human-rights lobbies and petitions, many of which collect dust at the bottom of email junk inboxes; and we know, from the background hubbub of fragmented information, that the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most complex and enduring struggles in modern history.

Indeed, the general consensus on this tiny corner of the Middle East is that it is witnessing a ‘never-ending conflict’. In popular parlance, this clash is deemed too complicated, multifaceted, and – crucially – too emotionally charged to even begin to fully understand. Out of apprehension to dive into a messy geo-political history, or out of fear of causing offense by asking pressing questions, many onlookers are resigned to accepting a simple conclusion: ‘it’s complicated’. This reluctance is completely understandable, especially when it has served the political interests of different groups to muddy and weaponise the conversation. This plays into the hands of sensationalist journalists and commentators, whose desire to dramatize the suffering of those on the ground is in horrifically poor taste. 

An Introduction

Is it accurate to say that the Israel-Palestine conflict is complicated, multi-layered, and difficult to fully wrap one’s head around? Yes. Does this mean that it cannot be broken down into systematic chunks, allowing willing readers to explore the origins and parameters of the conflict? We think not. 

That is the aim of this series from The International. The very purpose of this publication is to steer clear of clickbait, exaggeration, and scaremongering. We are committed to delivering clear and concise news, so as to make complicated world events more accessible. What better case study for such an ethos than one of the most complex and contentious political conflicts of our time. 

If I am permitted a more personal tangent, as someone who has lived and worked in the region, I have been struck, in each subsequent visit, by how much there is to learn about Israel-Palestine. Every encounter, conversation, and new destination shines light on a point of view to which I had not previously been exposed. Different elements of the conflict become clear to me the more time I spend there, unravelling in front of my eyes and challenging me to think more deeply.

I am in no way claiming to be an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, it is not difficult to see how clickbait and one-sided generalisations can polarise conversations on the topic. In spite of the obvious political sensitivities, the international community must move beyond internet-fuelled shouting matches. We must transcend to a deeper understanding of what’s happening on the ground, and how we got here. As such, this series will facilitate a calm and clear conversation, exploring the origins, present, and future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This conversation does not have to be one-way: we welcome any comments, insights, and questions from readers, and will endeavour to respond and incorporate these into the reporting. This is a conversation of deep importance, and we hope that readers of The International will accompany us as it unfolds. 

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The Coexisting Cultures

If we were to steal a surface-level glance at Israel and Palestine today, how could we most simply characterise it? It would be easy to brand it as a ‘clash of civilisations’, a battle of competing religious identities with markedly different visions. Indeed, this is a popular (albeit misleading) characterisation of the conflict.

It is true that the Israel-Palestine conflict contains a religious element. However, ‘clash of civilisation’-esque arguments are overly simplistic and misconstrue the more nuanced underpinnings of the conflict. On a social level, the conflict spans across ethnic, religious, linguistic boundaries, but it also entails questions of geopolitical logistics, political and national identity, borders, human rights, and, ultimately, statehood. In light of this, is the conflict entirely ethno-religious in nature? Or is it politically strategic? Geographic? Human rights-based? All of the above? Or a combination? 

At the risk of sounding ambiguous, the answer to this question will differ depending on who you ask. The purpose of this series is not to point towards a ‘correct’ characterisation of the conflict, nor to suggest that there is one single ‘correct’ characteristic at all. Rather, all of these facets will be touched upon within our wider discussion. 

When we talk about Israel and Palestine, we are referring to two entities that inhabit an extremely small area of land – by land mass, it is only slightly smaller than Belgium. Israel has a population of over 9 million people, of which just under 75% are Jewish. The remaining 25% consists mainly of Arabs, be they Muslim, Christian, or Druze. Palestine (or what is known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)) currently encapsulates two strips of land: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The combined population of the West Bank and Gaza is around 5 million (although estimates vary depending on source). The majority of Palestinians are Muslim (mostly Sunni), making up around 99% of the Gazan population and 84% of the West Bank population. A Christian minority of around 3% lives in the West Bank, and a small Samaritan community is present in the northern West Bank. Alongside these demographics, approximately 500 000 Israeli citizens live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank beside Palestinian villages and cities. 

Clearly, this small piece of land houses various social, cultural, ethnic, and religious groups. What is now Israel and Palestine was, in fact, part of the wider Holy Land in ancient times (which also spread across parts of modern-day Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria). The world’s three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all stem from the Holy Land, with the areas around Jerusalem holding particular religious importance.

But how did all of these different groups coexist in the past? Has the history of this region always been one of contention? And how does this history influence contemporary events? It is to these questions that the next installment in this series shall turn. 

Katie Dominy is The International’s Middle East correspondent.