Around 6th century BC, somewhere in Middle East, there lived a man named Abraham. One fine morning, ‘God’ appeared and commanded him to leave his ancestral land to settle in Canaan, the Promised Land. There, the God promised him to make him the father of many nations and etch his name in greatness and protect him. Years later, after settling down in Canaan, when his barren wife Sarah couldn’t bear him an heir, Abraham conceived a child through his Egyptian slave, Hagar and named the child Ishmael. But God had other plans for Abraham. He reappeared to him and made a covenant with Abraham. That covenant would be for eternity, which all the descendants of Abraham have to bear in their flesh by circumcision. According to the covenant, Abraham would be blessed by a true heir as Sarah’s child, who would be named Isaac and God would further his covenant through Isaac. Hagar’s son Ishmael would go on to become the father of the present-day Muslim Arabs, while the son of Isaac (i.e. the grandson of Abraham) Jacob would become the father of the Isarelites or the modern-day Jews. God also promised to the descendants of Abraham, the land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates. Eventually, Abraham became the fatherly figure to the people following three of the most influential religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – together known as Abrahamic religions. World history and culture were forever changed by the promise of the Promised Land, which the descendants of Abraham are still fighting over in the land of Canaan or present-day Middle East and whose repercussions are felt worldwide to-date.
The Fight over the Promised Land
No geographical location has seen so much of blood spilling as this region from Egypt to Euphrates and from Jordan river to Mediterranean Sea. All the Abrahamic religions, jumped at each other’s throats in the name of religion, in the fight for claiming legitimacy of their God over other’s. Around 1000 BCE, the Promised Land of Israel was ruled by King David, whose son Solomon built the first holy temple for the Jewish, in ancient Jerusalem. After successive Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, the first temple was destroyed and a second holy temple was rebuilt by Zerubabel at around 516 BCE. For the next several centuries, the land of modern-day Israel was conquered and ruled by various groups, including the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Fatimids, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Egyptians and Mamelukes among others. During 1517-1917 CE, it was ruled by Ottoman Turks before finally coming under the British Mandate. But why all are in a wild goose chase for this place? It all traces back to Abraham. All the Abrahamic religions have their holy places located here, especially in the city of Jerusalem. The city houses the Temple Mount, holy to both Jewish and Muslims along with Church of the Holy Sepulchre, holy to the Christians. During its long history, the city has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and recaptured 44 times! Religion has bloodied its hands in the ‘Holy City’ of Jerusalem, the city that had divided and united humanity like no other, all in the name of Abraham and the Promised Land.
Rise of Zionism and Arab Nationalism
With growing anti-Semitic sentiments throughout the world, the Jewish population were facing worldwide persecution. This led to the rise of Zionism, a religious and political effort to bring back thousands of Jews from around the world back to their ancient homeland in the Middle East. The name comes from the word “Zion,” which is a Hebrew term that refers to Jerusalem. The father of modern Zionism is an Austrian Jewish journalist, Theodor Herzl, who in 1897 organized the 1st Zionist Congress and became the President of the World Zionist Organization. With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, this movement saw the first open support from Britain, a major world power. The Declaration along with the formation of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1923, stamped a seal of approval on the Zionist movement and that started a mass exodus of persecuted Jews throughout the world into the Promised Land of Abraham. Most Jews—about 57 percent of them—lived in Europe in 1939. However, by the end of World War II, only about 35 percent of the Jewish population still resided in European countries. In 1949, more than 249,000 Jewish settlers moved to Israel. This was the largest number of immigrants to arrive in a single year. The Jewish population in Israel increased from about 500,000 in 1945 to 5.6 million in 2010. Today, around 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel. With the end of Great Britain’s mandate in Palestine and the British army’s withdrawal, Israel was officially declared an independent state on May 14, 1948.
While Zionism was rising with British support, on the other side Arab nationalism was also seeing the light of the day, again by British support. To gain victory over the reigning Ottoman Empire, who were Turks, the British convinced the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali in 1916, to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks and in return they promised support for a single unified and independent Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. Later the British reneged on their promise and divided the Middle-East between them and France, based on Sykes-Picot Agreement. With the mass immigration of Jewish into Palestine, the Arabs felt cornered there and it finally exploded into the 1947-49 Palestine War, fought inside the British Mandate of Palestine which eventually led to mass exodus of 7 lakh Palestinian Arabs, British withdrawal from Palestine and establishment of the State of Israel. The demographics of the region changed forever.
Following the Israeli Declaration of Independence on 14th May of 1948, the first Arab-Israeli War broke out between Israel and five Arab nations of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Since then numerous conflicts broke out between Israel and Arab nations. The 1956 Suez Crisis saw escalation of hostility between Israel along with France and Britain against Egypt, it was followed by Six-Day War in 1967 in which Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 6 days. The Yom-Kippur War in 1973 saw tension flaring up between Syria and Egypt against Israel and it continued for two weeks. The Lebanon War of 1982 saw Israel attacking Lebanon to oust the Palestinian Liberalization Organization and just after five years, in 1987, Israel saw the first Palestinian Intifada (Arabic word for shaking off), in which a Palestinian uprising happened against the Israeli state, protesting the occupation of Gaza Strip and West Bank, leading to hundreds of deaths. The second Palestinian Intifada happened in 2000 when the Palestinians rose against Israel and the violence continued for several years before ending in a ceasefire. In the second Lebanon War of 2006 Israel launched an attack against Hezbollah, a terrorist group sponsored by Iran as a proxy. Israel has been involved in repeated violence with Hamas, a Sunni Islamist militant group that assumed Palestinian power in 2006. Some of the more significant conflicts took place beginning in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
Gradually the Israeli-Arab conflict is cooling off and its dynamics are changing. The conflict between Jewish Israel and Sunni Arab countries are slowly getting resolved and they are uniting to face another adversary in the form of a strengthening Shia Muslim dominated Iran. The Egypt-Israel Peace treaty of 1979 and Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 normalized the relationships a lot. Recently as a further sign of easing relationships, Abraham Accords were signed between Israel, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, mediated by USA. The accords were signed by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 15, 2020 at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. This led to unblocking of telephone lines to Israel from UAE, Bahrain and also allowed direct commercial flights between the countries. This will open up a world of possibilities of future cooperation between the countries sharing the borders. Amid the looming threat of Iran, finally the Sunni Muslim Arabs and Jewish Israelis are getting a chance at peace.
Can Peace Prevail?
Divided by religion but united by Abraham, his children after centuries of bloodshed are now perhaps realizing the futility of war. One of the brightest children of Abraham once sang, “Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly, before they’re forever banned? Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take ’til he knows, that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind”. From Egypt to Euphrates, from Jordan to Mediterranean, let us hope the spirit of Abraham lives and peace prevails for the sake of humanity.
-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at IndianFolk and Senior Research Fellow at IACS Kolkata)
Picture Credits: Reuters /Ammar Awad / aljazeera.com