Holy Land: Territory At Stake


Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, have fought over land in the Mideast for over 50 years. The area at stake is only slightly bigger than the state of New Jersey and is bordered on the north by Lebanon, on the east by the Jordan River, on the south by the Sinai Peninsula, and on the west by the Mediterranean Sea.

But the land has great significance beyond its geography. The contested region holds great religious meaning for Jews, Muslims and Christians. For Jews, it was the promised land that Moses sought on the exodus from Egypt. For Muslims, it was where the prophet Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven.  For Christians, it was the home of Jesus Christ, the son of God. At issue is who has rights to the land, who has rights to water in an area bordered by desert, and who controls Jerusalem -- a holy city for all three religions.

The History: Before The Contested Borders

For nearly 1,900 years, the contested area had no clearly defined, autonomous state government. While ancient Hebrews and Muslims have both inhabited the land, Arab or Muslim inhabitants -- known as Palestinians -- were the principal residents in the area after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. up until about 100 years ago.

Although European Jews had called for a return to the ancient Hebrew homeland for several centuries, it wasn't until 1897 that a formal Zionist movement began. Zionists called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland: an independent area free from religious persecution, and a return to the land that -- according to religious texts -- God had chosen for the Jews. The territory they sought was inhabited by Palestinians. As pogroms (organized massacres) in Russia and anti-Semitism in Europe increased at the turn of the century, some Jews began to settle in Palestine.

In support of the creation of a Jewish homeland, the British government in 1903 offered Zionists an uninhabited piece of land in Uganda, but the Zionists turned down the offer, hoping to return to the specific sacred region in Palestine.

Their quest for the region gained massive support after Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which Britain promised to "use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of" a Jewish homeland in Palestine while respecting the civil rights of non-Jewish residents in the area. In 1922, the League of Nations entrusted the area of Palestine to British control through the Palestine Mandate. Sectarian tensions increased between the Palestinians and the tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in the region.

The Formation Of The State Of Israel


With the injustices and atrocities to Jews during World War II fresh in their minds, much of the international community began to support the creation of a Jewish homeland. The United Nations developed a plan to grant Jews their own state shortly after the war's end. In 1947, the U.N. General Assembly passed Resolution 181 (II) outlining the partition of the Palestine territory to form one Arabic country and one Jewish country. The nation of Israel was founded the following year on May 14, in the lands west of the Jordan River. A day later, bordering Arab states invaded the new nation in protest.

Arab countries opposed Israel's creation and the disruption or displacement of Palestinians living within its new borders. Furthermore, Arabs refused to recognize the Jews' claims to lands that had been inhabited by Palestinians for centuries. Following this first Arab-Israeli war, Israel's borders were set to include lands intended for a Palestine state. Egypt and Jordan annexed the remaining contested areas.

A Displaced People Spark Resistance


When Israel was established, many Palestinians fled the Jewish state and settled in the surrounding countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Millions, however, remained within the contested borders of Israel. Violence escalated in the 60s and 70s, and many Palestinian refugees moved within Israel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- both border areas with mostly Arab civilian populations that by then were occupied by Israel. Others fled to Europe and the United States. As of 1998, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) cited over 3.5 million Palestinian refugees within the Middle East.

As a displaced people, Palestinians sought to reclaim the land and began campaigns to fight the location of Israel's borders. In 1964, Palestinian activists created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Four years later, they forged the Palestinian National Covenant to define their goals of removing the "Arab homeland" of Palestine from Zionist (Jewish) control through means of force and diplomacy.

The PLO was granted U.N. observer status in 1974. Diplomatic gains in the last two decades have increased the PLO's international recognition, as the organization has moved away from the use of force and taken steps to prevent terrorism.

Time-Line Of Conflict:

  • 1948-49: Arab-Israeli Conflict
    When Jewish authorities established the state of Israel, Arab countries declared war on the new state. Fighting continued into 1949, when Israel and its neighbors signed truce agreements and established Israel's borders.
  • 1967: Six-Day War
    In perhaps the most significant Arab-Israeli armed conflict, Israel pre-empted an anticipated invasion from Egypt and attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan on June 5, 1967. Israel took control of the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Jordan River's West Bank, and the eastern half of Jerusalem. Control of these lands has been the focus of Arab-Israeli conflict, violence -- and most recently, diplomacy -- since May 1967.
  • 1973: Arab-Israeli War
    Via the Israeli-controlled Sinai Peninsula, Syria and Egypt began an unsuccessful military campaign on October 6, 1973, to retake the lands lost in the Six-Day War.
  • 1987: Intifada
    Decades of intermittent violence culminated in a December 1987 Palestinian uprising, called the Intifada. Intended to protest Israeli military presence in occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip territories, the Intifada's street protests led to the deaths of hundreds of Jews and Arabs, civilians and soldiers.
  • Present: Since the 1990s, terrorist attacks have been mostly attributed to Arabs and Israelis who oppose diplomatic compromise as a means of resolving the land disputes. Recently, tensions have grown from a lack of progress in the peace negotiations. Two weeks of Palestinian rock-throwing protests and Israeli military gunfire responses left almost 100 dead, mostly Palestinian civilians.

    On October 12: The protests escalated into the murder of several Israeli soldiers. Israel responded by sealing off Palestinian residential areas and striking Palestinian targets -- including the headquarters of Yasser Arafat's PLA -- using gun-ships and helicopters. For the latest news on the conflict, click here.

Next article in this series:

Part 2: Seeking Peace: International Diplomacy

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Source: Ryan Gillis, Mike Barnes and Kytja Weir