As a result of recent events involving Israel and Hamas, the Middle East has again become the main focus of the daily news cycle. If you are well-versed on the background and details of the Holy Land, the following facts will be familiar to you. Otherwise, at least some of what is described below might be surprising, especially given that various parties in our presently divided society appear to have a vested interest in distorting the discussion of history/current events in order to fit their preferred narrative. However, as is the case with most issues, a general understanding of basic historical facts serves to simplify what is a seemingly complex situation.
1. History and Religion
The Jews originally entered the area which is now the nation of Israel around the late second millennium BC. King David conquered the city of Jerusalem by fighting the Jebusites/Canaanites (the religion of Islam did not exist at the time) and made it the capital of the Jewish kingdom. Approximately forty years later, his son Solomon built the first holy Temple, which was later destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, in 586 BC. Islam, which began around the seventh century, is a relatively young religion when compared to Judaism, and is also considerably younger than Christianity. Geographically, the religion of Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula around the year 610, and thus did not originate in the area that is now controlled by Israel.
2. Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to Muslims
Given the multitude of religious battles that have taken place over control of this disputed area, some may be surprised to learn that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount do not necessarily represent the most holy of all sites for Muslims. While to Islam it does represent the place where the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven and the location of the second oldest mosque (the Al-Aqsa mosque compound), the most important holy site for most Muslims is the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the place where Islam was born. From a location perspective, the city of Jerusalem generally represents the third highest degree of holiness for Muslims (after Medina, which is also located in Saudi Arabia).
Most are aware that Arabs (Arabic speakers) and Jews (Hebrew speakers) both trace their lineage back to Abraham, which officially makes them brothers. In fact, Islam and Judaism (along with Christianity) are often collectively referred to as “Abrahamic” religions. However, what many are surprised to learn is that both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages, which means that technically both groups are considered to be “Semitic” peoples.
4. King Cyrus, Persia and the Second Temple
The country of Iran is also known as Persia. Iranians are Persians and are not Arabs. Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest organized faiths, was originally the religion of the Persians, until the bulk of Persia converted to Islam around the middle of the seventh century. What may be most surprising, and what many may not be aware of, is that according to the Bible, a former King of Persia (Cyrus) was instrumental in the rebuilding of the second Jewish Temple (which was later destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD). Cyrus is credited with conquering Babylon and liberating the Jews from captivity. In the Bible, chapter one of the Book of Ezra indicates that after the Jews were liberated, King Cyrus made a decree that the house of the Lord in Jerusalem should be rebuilt, and sent back sacred vessels which had been taken from the First Temple. Although some modern scholars may dispute this account, the first-century historian Josephus also credits King Cyrus with helping the Jews rebuild the Temple.
5. The Partition Plan of 1947
Before Israel became a nation, but prior to the British giving up control of the area in 1948 (which it had since the Mandate for Palestine in 1920 and includes modern day Israel), the United Nations devised a plan (Resolution 181) to divide/share it one year earlier in 1947. The U.N. recommended an Arab state, a Jewish state, and Special International Regime encompassing the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The plan did not materialize, as all sides did not agree. Specifically, the Palestinian leadership at the time was unwilling to accept any form of territorial division. Had an agreement been reached at the time though (and assuming the border lines remained unchanged to this day), the Palestinians would today control a much larger area of land than is currently the case, and might possibly now be living within their own independent nation. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, has described the rejection of U.N. Resolution 181 in 1947 as a “mistake.”
6. Palestine as a Potential State
From a historical perspective, it may be surprising for some to learn that the concept of a state of Palestine is a relatively new idea. As described above, while offered as part of the U.N. Partition Plan, it was rejected at the time. The first “official” concept of statehood for Palestine made by Palestinians did not materialize until 1988, and resulted from a meeting of the Palestine National Council which took place in Algiers. At the Council, it was argued that despite the rejection in 1947, the right to national independence has its basis in the U.N. Resolution 181.
7. The Current Borders of the State of Israel
On several notable occasions, Israel has given away land or control of land, which was usually done in the name of receiving future promises of peace. In addition to relinquishing control of the Temple Mount referenced below, one recent example involves control of Gaza, which was ceded to Palestinians in 2005. Another historic example is the Sinai Peninsula, which was eventually returned to Egypt as the result of a 1978 Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel that was negotiated via the Camp David Accords.
8. Management of the Temple Mount
The holy site of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is located within the state of Israel, but many may not know that Israel does not have management of the site. Control over this area was gained by the nation of Israel as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967. However, realizing the sensitivities associated with the site, it granted administration to the Jerusalem/Jordanian Waqf (a Muslim Islamic trust), based in Amman, Jordan, which has managed the Temple Mount continuously since the year 1187. The Waqf retains day-to-day responsibility for management and maintenance of this important holy site, while Israel is responsible for overall security.
9. Prayer on the Temple Mount
Although the Temple Mount represents Judaism’s most holy site, and represents an important site for Christians, it may be surprising to hear that both groups are banned from praying on it, as are other non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may enter the third most holy site for Islam, but are limited to visiting during specified time periods. Religious Jews are permitted to pray at the Western Wall, which is located adjacent to the Temple Mount.
10. Iran and Hamas
Many may already know that the Hamas organization based in Gaza receives significant financial and other support from Iran. What might be surprising to learn though is that the two parties do not share a language or similar ethnic/religious roots. As mentioned above, Iranians are Persians, while members of Hamas are Arabs. From a religious standpoint, Iran practices the Shiite form of Islam, while Hamas practices the Sunni form. However, what brings them together is that they both share a desire to see the destruction of Israel, which by itself helps to explain and simplify the current conflict to a level that almost anyone can understand.
Photo Credit- Israel Board of Tourism.