October 13, 2023
What can we make of the persistent, gut-wrenching hostility between Jews and Arabs, and more specifically, between Israelis and Palestinians?
This question has been on my mind for decades. I have spent a significant amount of time over several decades studying the history and dynamics of Israel. I regularly read two Israeli newspapers (translated into English). And I have been to Israel 12 times.
It’s natural to be puzzled by the level of animosity between Jews and Arabs, so I thought it might be helpful to give a historical sketch of the conflicts that have led to this lingering hostility. Although the history goes much farther back than the 20th century, we will mainly focus our attention on 20th century events. My goal is to help us to understand what is happening and how to pray.
1933-1945 – Holocaust and Jewish Terror
For almost two thousand years, the Jewish people did not have a homeland. After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 66-70 came the Bar Kokhba Revolt (A.D. 132), after which the Romans expelled them from their historic homeland. From the Bar Kokhba Revolt to the Declaration of Independence by Israel in 1948, the Jewish people did not have a homeland and could not defend themselves with an army. Consider two holocausts they faced: one in A.D. 66-70/132 where almost two million Jews were killed by the Romans (and most of the rest were taken as slaves) and a second one in 1933-45, where six million Jews were killed by the Germans (half of all Jews in the world).
Between those two holocausts, Jewish people experienced terrible persecution, mistreatment, and destruction of their property, homes, and lives throughout history. If you want to read a short book that provides a historical summary of the mistreatment of Jews, read Sam Clarke’s short book, The Holy One of Israel and His Chosen People: Understanding the Biblical Relationship Between Israel and the Church. We acknowledge with heartache that the terrible treatment they received was often at the hands of those who called themselves Christians.
The 20th century Nazi holocaust finally established worldwide sympathy for Jewish people and led to the establishment of the nation of Israel on May 14, 1948. Yet it did not end the historical pattern of antisemitism and mistreatment of Jewish people.
“The 20th century Nazi holocaust finally established worldwide sympathy for Jewish people and led to the establishment of the nation of Israel on May 14, 1948.”
It is against this backdrop that we will now focus in on Jewish conflicts with the Arabs starting in 1948. My hope is that it will help explain why the animosity is so strong between Jewish people and Arabs in the Middle East. As I contemplate these hostilities, I become all the more convinced that only Jesus and a miraculous movement of Israelis and Palestinians bowing the knee to him will fundamentally alter course in the Middle East.
1948 – The War of Independence
The best guide I’ve found for understanding the historicity of the establishment of Israel in 1948 is the book O Jerusalem by Collins and Lapierre. It was published in 1973, twenty-five years after the events that it chronicles. Most readers find the 600+ pages in the book to be spell-binding history. The authors provide many descriptions of the events that led up to the war, battles in the war, and what key people did in that short period of history to make Israel a nation.
The following is a broad overview of the history.
The modern nation of Israel was made possible by a resolution of the United Nations in 1947. Jewish people from all over the world, especially those fleeing Europe in the aftermath of the holocaust, traveled to the land and helped establish the nation. They wanted their very own nation, for many had never given up on God’s promise to restore them to the land (see Deut. 30:1-10). They wanted a home where they could protect themselves.
“Never again,” was their mantra.
The United Nations mandate stated that the land had to be shared between the Jews and Arabs. Originally, the Jews were slated to receive a much smaller portion of the land than they ended up with in 1948. This is because in 1947 the Arabs rejected the UN partition plan to create a Jewish and Arab state.
“The modern nation of Israel was made possible by a resolution of the United Nations in 1947.”
In response to the mandate, the Arabs contested Jewish history and any rights of the Jews to the land. Israel, they believed, was about to steal land that was not theirs, taking it from the Arabs who were living there from the Ottoman Empire (ending in 1918) through the British occupation (1918-1948). After Israel’s declaration of Independence in 1948, Israel was immediately attacked by the surrounding Arab nations (and beyond): Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, and the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Jews prevailed in the war, with a loss of about 6,000 Jews and with the Arabs losing around 15,000 people. In addition, over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left or were driven out of the land by the war and became refugees. Israelis offered to give land back to these Arabs but only if the Arabs would make peace with them. Arab leaders resisted and told their people not to return home, saying they would not make peace and would soon go to war against Israel again and defeat them. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of Arabs lost their homes in the land. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Jews, who were kicked out of Arab countries during the war, moved into the land of Israel, replacing the Arabs who had left.
“Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left or were driven out of the land by the war and became refugees.”
Although O Jerusalem takes a completely secular approach, I would encourage you to read it and reflect on the history of the 1948 war. I couldn’t help but see God’s providential hand in the events they were describing. I kept finding myself, over and over, reflecting on the improbabilities and suspecting that God guided the Jews in special ways through all of these events or they would not have made it as a nation. Intelligent, faithful Christians disagree about whether or not this reestablishment of Israel in the land has a part to play in God’s prophetic plan, but for my own part, I see God’s hand at work in these events.
Jews were once again established in the land. Although only around 10% of Israeli Jewish people at the time of independence were religious Jews (90% were secular Jews), every year since then has seen more and more Jews become religious. Currently, in 2023, approximately 43% of the Jews in Israel are religious (13% are ultra-Orthodox Jews who are very religious and typically do not serve in the army because of religious conviction).
1967 – War and Ceasefire
Nineteen years after the war of independence, Israel again fought against combined forces from Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, and the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (yes, all those countries at once again). The Arab leaders remained united in their hostility toward a Jewish nation, seeing the Jews as having stolen their land. When tensions escalated with Egypt over regional disputes, Israel launched preemptive airstrikes.
With the Arab armies not prepared militarily, the war lasted only six days and Israel amazed the world as they destroyed the armies of all the countries they fought. The following map shows some of the key countries around Israel that joined in the war.
This image is from https://www.newarab.com/analysis/1967-war-and-todays-middle-east.
As the diagram shows, Israel captured the Sinai from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Back and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Israel promised to give back these lands if Muslim Arab nations made peace agreements with her, which did not happen. Thus, the 1967 war established the basic boundaries of the country today (minus the Sinai, see below).
Animosity intensified after this war, as Arab leaders refused to even consider the Israeli offer to swap back land and homes if the Arabs would recognize Israel, her rights, and her people. The Arab League articulated their “three no’s”: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel.
“The Arab leaders remained united in their hostility toward a Jewish nation, seeing the Jews as having stolen their land.”
One especially important piece of property the Israelis gained during the Six-Day War was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was the onetime site of the Jerusalem temple. The Muslim mosque, known as the Dome of the Rock (Islam’s third most important site), was built there at the end of the 600s. Mindful of the potential for future war with all Islamic nations, Israel voluntarily handed control of the Temple Mount (including the Dome of the Rock) to the country of Jordan. Although Temple Mount is also perceived by religious Jews as the holiest site in Judaism, Jordanian leadership entrusted everything that happens on top of the mount to Islamic Waqf management, who subsequently made it illegal for Jews to pray on the Temple Mount.
Although the war did nothing to ease tensions, it did further establish Jews in their homeland. For those who see modern Israel as playing a part in God’s prophetic plan (as I do), it is a good point to pause and make a couple observations. First, historic hatred toward Jewish people has such a relentless, passionate nature that it can seem difficult to explain without resorting to the supernatural. I believe that Satan has a special hatred for God’s historic chosen people, a hatred that is borne out through persistent episodes of anti-Semitism and resentment. Second, even if you believe (like myself) that God has a special purpose for the modern nation of Israel, this is no reason to stamp Israel’s actions with our ethical approval.
“Even if you believe that God has a special purpose for the modern nation of Israel, this is no reason to stamp Israel’s actions with our ethical approval.”
We see in the Six-Day War (as well as numerous other events) mutual acts which were sinful and hateful. Arabs and Jews have acted in ungodly, hateful ways toward each other. Still, I personally believe that God was at work, sovereignly using the events and actions of people who do not accept his Son, both Jews and Arabs, to further establish the Jewish people back in their homeland.
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East is a relatively short book by Michael Oren describing the Six-Day War. Once again, when I read this book, I saw the hand of God in his providence establishing the Jews, not only in Israel, but in the recapture of the entire city of Jerusalem (the Old City and the remnants of the Temple Mount). When you read the story of how Israeli leaders and soldiers never intended to recapture these areas and how fast it happened, you might find yourself marveling at the providential hand of God.
1973 – War and Ceasefire
The Arab nations made a surprise attack on Israel during Israel’s Yom Kippur national holiday (historically known as the Day of Atonement). Because Israel was not prepared, they almost fell. But they fought back again against forces from Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Cuba, North Korea, and the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 1973 war essentially ended in a stalemate, as Israel stood her ground and the Arab armies did not regain any land.
Significantly, Syria has never made formal peace with Israel, but the 1973 War compelled Syria to stop antagonizing Israel. After the 1973 War, Israel gained recognition for having one of the top air forces in the world (only less powerful than big countries like the US, China, Russia, England, Korea, France) and a very strong overall military (including about 100 nuclear weapons).
Again, Israel offered to give back land if Syria and the Arabs made peace. Yet the Arabs, again, catering to Muslim religious zeal, invoked Allah and said he would avenge them against Israel. They proclaimed that they would get their land back and Israel would be destroyed. Animosity on both sides became more entrenched, as with the other wars. The offer of land in exchange for peace by the Jews continued to be rebuffed by the Arab nations. Yet, as described in the next section, a measure of peace was on the horizon.
“Israel offered to give back land if Syria and the Arabs made peace.”
If you want to better understand the Yom Kippur War, you might check out Abraham Rabinovich’s helpful book called The Yom Kippur War. Also, recently, the movie Golda was released. Starring Helen Mirren, it is an interesting movie about Golda Meir, the Israel Prime Minister during this war. The movie gives you a real sense of the existential threat Israel faced in these years.
1978 – Peace Treaty with Egypt
A surprising turn came in 1978 when Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President, reached out to Israel, offering to come to Israel and speak at their parliament in order to make moves for peace. US President Jimmy Carter joined in, and they were able to work with Egypt and the Israelis to sign a peace agreement. It was an unexpected and exciting period used for great good for both Israelis and Egyptians.
In response, Israel voluntarily handed the Sinai back to Egypt in 1979 after the two nations made peace. Currently, the two countries have full diplomatic relations, treaties, and peace. There are still tensions, as Muslims in Egypt, especially the Muslim Brotherhood continues to stoke the fires of animosity toward Israel, but the two nations are officially at peace.
From 1978 until the present day, Israel has not faced existential threats of war from any of her neighboring countries (although the surprise attack by Hamas in October 2023 could be bringing that possibility to the forefront). None of the nations that surround her, especially without the support of Egypt, have been strong enough for a direct challenge like in the previous wars. And the actions of Anwar Sadat set an example. Soon the country of Jordan would also make peace with Israel.
“Israel voluntarily handed the Sinai back to Egypt in 1979 after the two nations made peace.”
Ari Shavit wrote the award-winning My Promised Land, a popular book on the history of modern Israel which covers the surprising peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. As someone who believes that God has plans for modern Israel, I saw within this book further glimpses into how God sovereignly worked behind the scenes to further establish the Jews in the land.
1994 – Peace Treaty with Jordan
In 1993, there were great efforts to make peace, especially after America’s war with Iraq, a country under Saddam Hussein that was stoking hatred of Jews. After the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, Jordan was ready to make peace with Israel. Jordan gave up the rights to the West Bank (the area to the west of the Jordan River) and to East Jerusalem. Jordan had control over these areas up until 1967. These areas were thus designated Palestinian territory and were slated to be part of the future Palestinian nation (envisioned by the Oslo agreement).
Israel and Jordan have since enjoyed a strong peace agreement. Yet anti-Semitism persists in much of Jordanian culture. In addition, from 1967 until today, Islamic leaders under Jordan have responsibility for the Dome of the Rock (again, this is Islam’s 3rd most important site) and the Al Aqsa Mosque. There are regular tensions between the Jews and Islamic leaders over what happens there.
Muslims often feel that Jewish people mistreat Muslims at the Dome of the Rock and at the Al Aqsa Mosque, by entering into what the Muslims consider a sacred space and by beating and/or capturing those they call terrorists in those places. This is a major point of contention for Hamas in Gaza. Muslims in Gaza misrepresent what is actually happening at the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque (see the recent Wall Street Journal article).
“After the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, Jordan was ready to make peace with Israel.”
For more information on the events leading up to the peace treaty with Jordan, I recommend Avi Shlaim’s War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History, Revised and Updated.
2005-2023 – Iran Threatens Israel (and vice versa)
Ever since Israel declared independency in 1948, Iranian officials have been among the national leaders hostile against the nation. Iran likely has no desire for direct war against Israel at the moment, but their religiously fundamentalist leaders have said that they want to wipe Israel out. Iran is a country of about 87 million people (bigger than England), and they seem poised to develop nuclear weapons. Israelis and others are concerned that they will use them in the future on Israel. Consequently, Israel has threatened to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability in advance.
It seems that Iran is behind the scenes stoking hatred of Israel and funneling arms to terrorists against Israel in Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip (see more below). As a major regional power, Iran is perhaps the main substantive threat to Israel. For example, although Syria has been weakened through civil war, Syria allows Iran to set up bases in Syria as well as funnel rockets and arms through Syria to Lebanon. There are currently 130,000 rockets in Lebanon pointed at Israel. Israel attacks the bases in Syria from the air on a regular basis, in order to prevent Iran from establishing a strong base in Syria and Lebanon.
“Israel has threatened to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability in advance.”
Terrorism Within Israel
Within the border of Israel, there have been terrorist attacks over the years. There are multiple Palestinian groups, too numerous to name, that resist Israel and periodically attack.
Oslo Accords 1993 & Road Map 2003
The “Oslo Accords” and the “Road Map” in 1993 were the best attempt in history to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. These agreements were made between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (Palestinian Arabs who lived in the land and continued to oppose Israel). Their goal was a peace process that would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. These agreements helped end the first Intifada (organized terrorism, see below). Although they have helped bring more calm to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, they have not led to an official peace agreement.
This lack of fruition and resolution is an ongoing point of frustration for the Palestinians. They want their own country and want Israel to leave their areas (e.g., the dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque) alone.
Yet the Israelis will not make an agreement until the Palestinians make concessions to Israel. Neither side has shown that they can make the necessary compromises. The Israelis keep building new settlements for Jewish people within the area that Palestinians believe should be their state. This decades-long development explains the ongoing complaint against Israeli encroachment.
“Palestinians want their own country and want Israel to leave their areas alone.”
See the map below to understand the frustration of the Palestinians at their loss of land. The map is from an Arab organization called Al Arabiya.
This image is from https://www.palestineportal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/LossOfLandMapCard.png.
On the one hand, Palestinians accuse the Israelis of taking land that is not theirs, and of being liars and deceivers because they never followed up on the Oslo Accords. On the other hand, however, the Jews respond that they have not advanced on the Oslo Accord because so many Palestinian leaders persist in their determination to destroy Israel.
1987-1993 First Intifada (Palestinian Resistance)
When an attack on Jewish people by Palestinians is widespread and organized, it is called an Intifada. An Intifada is an Arabic word that means “shaking off,” and is popularly translated into “uprising” or “resistance.” From 1987-1993, Palestinian people regularly revolted against the Israeli occupation of their lands and the way they were being treated. Their revolt included strikes, civil disobedience, work boycotts, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and terrorist acts. The Israelis responded strongly. Throughout this period, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians died.
2000-2005 Second Intifada (Palestinian Resistance)
In 2000, the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon visited the top of the Temple Mount. As this was highly provocative to the Palestinians, it started the second Intifada. Many suicide bombings targeted Jewish areas, and Israelis responded by targeted killings of Palestinians. In order to halt the killings, an agreement was reached between Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in February, 2005.
Yet the animosity continued. Many suicide bombers became heroes to the Muslim Arabs. For example, Bethlehem High School for Girls honored 17-year-old Ayat Al Akhras, who killed herself and two Israelis in a supermarket bombing in 2002, with a plaque. If you want to understand Palestinian hostility toward Jews, it might be helpful to watch this three-minute video. One example it describes is how a Palestinian children’s magazine encourages children to look up to the “heroic fighter for Palestine” who rammed a car into and stabbed to death 25-year-old Dalia Lemkus, who had survived a stabbing attempt in the early 2000s.
“Many suicide bombings targeted Jewish areas, and Israelis responded by targeted killings of Palestinians.”
Two Major Terrorist Organizations
In the last 30 years, two terrorist organizations, Hezbollah and Hamas, have become strong through their religious zeal, support for poor people, and their support from Iran. They are enemies of Israel and Israel is constantly keeping them in check.
2006 – Hezbollah (Lebanon) and Mini-War
Hezbollah is a terrorist group that primarily exists in Lebanon and is financially backed by Iran. They are Shia Muslims (most Palestinians are Sunni) and are very loyal to Iran, which is governed by Shia leaders.
In 2006, a small war started when Israel was forced to respond to missiles that were being shot into Israel by Hezbollah as well as the ambush and capture of Israeli soldiers. The conflict lasted 34 days and Israel’s response resulted in significant damage to the infrastructure of Lebanon. The conflict left about 1,250 Lebanese people dead and about 165 Israelis dead. That war served as a deterrent to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has since rebuilt their strength in Lebanon. As mentioned above, Hezbollah now has 130,000 rockets pointed at Israel. As a deterrent, Israel has told Hezbollah and all Lebanon leaders that they will destroy Lebanon if Hezbollah attacks Israel. Mutual hatred and fear go both ways.
Hamas (Gaza Strip) 2009 & 2012 & 2023 – Mini-Wars
Gaza is a Palestinian area Israel occupied from the 1967 war forward. Then in 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. The Jews did this to give the Arabs and Muslims control of their own territory, as they wanted. In my estimation, it was a brave act by the Jews toward peace, but they soon came to regret that decision.
The Israelis gave up control to the Palestinians, under the leadership of the more moderate Fatah (a party formerly known as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement). But in 2007, the terrorist group Hamas gained political control. They are sworn enemies of Israel.
Like Hezbollah, Hamas gets support from the outside, sometimes from Iran, sometimes from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Gulf States.
In the period leading up to the surprise attack in October of 2023, Hamas would go through periods where they would allow splinter groups to shoot small missiles into the Jewish towns near the Gaza strip. Such missiles typically only did minor damage, but every once in a while a missile would kill a few people in Israel. In response, Israelis embarked on a series of mini-wars (in 2009, 2012, and 2021), as a result of which they destroyed Hamas’ military capabilities in the Gaza strip. Israel did not want to retake control of the Gaza strip, as too many lives would be lost and it would mean turning away from any hope of peace in the area.
“Israelis embarked on a series of mini-wars, as a result of which they destroyed Hamas’ military capabilities in the Gaza strip.”
The Jewish leaders would often reason, “How do you make peace with a movement like Hamas which is committed to your destruction?”
At the same time, Israel controls the goods that come in and out of Gaza. They do not let the people gain too much strength because they will turn it into the means to attack Israel. Yet, many Palestinians and sympathetic people around the world believe that Israel’s control of Gaza has been criminal, making the people live in conditions that are intolerable. In reply, pro-Israel voices would retort that Hamas leadership has spent their money and focus on terrorism instead of infrastructure.
Then, on October 7, 2023, Israel experienced attacks that will have resulted in some 1,200 dead, thousands wounded (many seriously), and up to 200 taken as captives into the Gaza strip. Jewish leaders around the world are saying that it was the worst slaughter of Jewish people on one day since the holocaust ended in 1945. It is Israel’s 9/11. As I mentioned in a previous post, sadly, it seems that many thousands are about to die in Gaza in the upcoming war Israel will, of necessity, lead in order to respond to the atrocities committed by Hamas in Gaza.
Satan has been fueling mutual hatred in Gaza and Israel (and the West Bank) for many, many years. The Israelis, with the Holocaust and the historic Arab attacks vividly in mind, will have a powerful response to maintain their posture of deterring further aggression.
Here is how I am praying in light of how complex, tragic, and fragile the political and military situation in Israel is. I invite you to join me in bringing the following concerns before God, as an updated prayer list:
- Pray for Muslim, Arab, and Jewish leaders whose ingrained beliefs and ideas about each other make peace impossible. Contrary to the thinking of many Arabs, history proves that the Jews were previously in the land and ought to have a place in which to live and thrive. Pray for both Jews and Arabs not to believe lies about each other.
- Pray for the hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders in Gaza, whose lives will be affected by the Israeli response to the horrific attack in early October. They have already been cut off from water, electricity, and food. The people are being punished for the atrocities committed by Hamas.
“Pray for Muslim, Arab, and Jewish leaders whose ingrained beliefs and ideas about each other make peace impossible.”
- Pray that things do not get worse, that it does not lead to a wider, major war between Israel and Iran (i.e., who funds Hamas and Hezbollah). Join with me in praying that the conflict focuses only on Gaza, that as few innocent lives as possible are affected and that it only lasts a few weeks or a month or two.
- Pray for all who lose loved ones, who continue to be terrorized, and that somehow, someway, there would be a desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. Pray for both Jews and Arabs to come know Jesus as their king and be reconciled to each other through him.
If you would like to read a summary of my personal view (not an official RENEW.org position) on whether modern Israel plays a part in God’s prophetic plan, click here.