The recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas began with Israeli legal proceedings intending to evict four Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The families have resided there for generations as tenants, but the property is owned by Jews who claim the rights to do with the land as they please. Protests were met with violence, which then spread to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Hamas then fired rockets in solidarity, which Israel met with bombings. The violence lasted for 11 days before the current ceasefire.
Why so much uproar over four families? Because it reflected the larger tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over land.
In part one of this two-blog series, I offered a précis on the socio-political history of the nation of Israel in the Bible—both its formation, its end, and its semi-recreation under occupation. So what is the story of the modern state of Israel, and why is there so much tension in the Middle East surrounding its existence? As Richard Haass writes in The World: A Brief Introduction, the history of the Middle East since World War II is more often described in terms of various wars than anything else:
“Even a partial list would include the 1948 war between the Arab countries and the newly created state of Israel, the 1956 war in which Israel, the United Kingdom, and France joined forces against Egypt following its nationalization of the Suez Canal, the 1967 (Six-Day) and October 1973 wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the war between Israel and Lebanon that began in 1982, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the 1990-1991 Gulf War between an international coalition led by the United States against Iraq followings its invasion and subsequent absorption of Kuwait, and the 2003 Iraq War initiated by the United States.”
So why so much conflict, and specifically related to Israel, and within Israel, Jerusalem?
Let’s go back to the time of the Crusades, that began because of Islamic military attacks. The Crusades were instigated by Islamic military aggression and expansion. Jerusalem was forced to surrender to a Muslim Army in the year 638. They immediately began construction of a mosque on Temple Mount—the most offensive thing they could do to the Jews and Christians who lived there. By the year 711, they controlled all of North Africa. By the year 846, they were already attacking the outer areas of Rome, which was followed by horrific persecution of Christians.
Appeals for help began to go to the Pope – considered one of the leaders and protectors of Christians around the world at that time – to come and help and save the Christians being slaughtered and the Christian civilization that was being threatened. From this, the first Crusade was announced by Pope Urban in 1095. By 1099, Christians did recapture Jerusalem, and that began a back-and-forth power struggle. It was back under Islamic rule by 1291 and it would stay that way until the end of the first World War.
The state of Israel, which included Jerusalem, came into being immediately following the end of World War II in 1948. Again, Haass:
“Israel was created in 1948, the culmination of the Zionist movement that gained traction in the first half of the twentieth century and came to fruition in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which saw six million Jews murdered at the hands of Nazi Germany. Jews came to believe that the only way to ensure such a tragedy did not happen again would be to have a country of their own. Many governments in the world agreed, and a vote at the UN established the state of Israel. At the same time, most in the Arab world resent or reject Israel as a Western creation imposed on them and paid for by the Palestinians, who remain without a country of their own.”
The 1967 war between Israel and surrounding Arab states shifted the dispute away from Israel’s existence to its territorial reach. Often called the “Six-Day War,” Israel succeeded in seizing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip (both controlled by Egypt), the Golan Heights (controlled by Syria), and the West Bank and East Jerusalem (then under Jordanian authority).
Palestinians, to date, remain “stateless and divided, with some living on land Israel gained from Jordan in the 1967 war (variously called the West Bank, the occupied territories, or, by many Israelis, Judea and Samaria), others living in Gaza… and still others who were forced out or voluntarily left during the 1948 war and decades later remain as refugees in neighboring countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan.”
U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 called for Israel to withdraw from territories it gained in the 1967 war, a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem, and respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area along with their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force. As Haass wryly notes, “What this and subsequent resolutions did not do was offer specifics as to how these objectives should be realized.” Further, Haass observes, as Israelis have created settlements in significant parts of the occupied territories, it makes it more difficult to give them back due to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who now live there—not to mention more difficult to create a territorial basis of a viable Palestinian state.
Beyond territorial disputes lies the religious dynamic, not least of which Israel claiming Jerusalem for its own and naming it as its capital. Jerusalem cannot help but be a flashpoint. It’s at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because both groups consider it their capital and, in terms of religious faith, it contains Judaism’s holiest site, Islam’s third holiest site, and what is arguably Christianity’s most sacred site.
For Jews, Jerusalem is the site of the Temple that was built where the great patriarch of the Old Testament, Abraham, was to sacrifice his son Isaac. It was destroyed, then rebuilt—again on the sacred ground of Abraham. The Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall” is the surviving remnant of that second Temple and is Judaism’s most holy site.
To Christians, Jerusalem is the site where the Last Supper took place, and then the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is said to be built on the site where those events took place. That’s what the word sepulcher means—a small room, cut into rock, where a dead person is laid.
Jerusalem is also sacred to Muslims because Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven from the stone that is now enclosed by the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The Mosque there is considered the third holiest Mosque in the Muslim world, after the ones at Mecca and Medina.
Many Christians who have a biblical understanding of the nation of Israel fail to have a modern, socio-political understanding of the current state of Israel created in 1948. Many would suggest they should not be confused with one another. Regardless, it helps to have an understanding of both biblical Israel and modern-day Israel in order to understand the never-ending news cycle of events that happen in the Middle East.
James Emery White
Jayson Casper, “Rockets, Riots, Sermons, and Soccer: Christian Views on the Conflict in Gaza and Israel,” Christianity Today, May 20, 2021, read online.
Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.