Palestine-Israel: Whose Land Is It, Really?

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Whose Land Is It, Really?

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"Palestine" is a term that essentially corresponds to a section of land in southwest Asia at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. That same territory comprises the modern Israeli state. Since becoming a nation in 1948, the Israelis have developed a productive, fertile and wealthy nation in a desert wasteland. They have been outstanding custodians of their homeland.

But, is it their homeland? Or, is it the Palestinians' homeland? "Palestinians" is the commonly used appellation for the descendants of approximately 780,000 Arabs who were displaced by a war between five Arab nations and the newly proclaimed state of Israel in 1948.

When the war began, some of the Arabs abandoned their homes in fear, while others left believing that they would soon return. Of course, they did not anticipate that the Israelis would win the war, much less such a lopsided victory. Since that time, these displaced peoples and their descendants have lived in temporary camps without a land they could call their own.

The bitter dispute over the ownership of Palestine continues to this day. Neither people is willing to accept the other's claim to total control of the territory that both consider their own. As with any complex dispute, there are many ways of presenting the issues involved.

How the Israelis came to possess the land

The Israelis believe that they have a legitimate claim for several reasons. Not the least of which is that they successfully defended it against overwhelming numbers in the late 1940s and subsequent wars. Is the land theirs, because they have been able to defend it? How did it come to be theirs in the first place?

Turning back the clock to the two and a half decades leading up to the establishment of the Israeli nation, the land of Palestine was under the control of the British. For political reasons, the British promised a Palestinian homeland both to resident Arabs and to Jewish immigrants. The Arabs had helped the British overthrow the Ottoman Turks and were promised control of their land in return for their allegiance. So, the Palestinian Arabs could rightly claim ownership of land in which many of them had lived. But, does that fact make it their land?

At the same time that the British gave the land to their Arab friends, they were also interested in currying the political support of Jews in different parts of the British Empire. So they promised the same land to the Jews! Therefore, both peoples could claim that the land had been given to them!

Failing to understand the passion in the heart of both peoples, the British did not anticipate that the Arab Palestinians and the Jews would want the same land.

When the British-Arab alliance freed Jerusalem from Ottoman rule in 1917, the Arab Palestinians vastly outnumbered Jewish settlers. That, in spite of the fact that from the 1880s, Jewish refugees had been pouring into the area. Due to an intensification of anti-Semitism, Theodor Herzl had founded the World Zionist Organization in 1897, proposing that European Jews immigrate to Palestine and have freedom from persecution.

Immigration increased dramatically in the 1930s, with Nazism at its peak, when world sympathy inclined towards the Jews. Even so, the British attempted to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine in deference to their Arab allies. It was in this climate that the British found themselves promising the land of Palestine to both Arabs and Jews.

Acts of terrorism in today's Palestine headline the news almost daily, as homicide bombers blow themselves up in public places in Israel, slaughtering and maiming innocent Israeli citizens. However, terrorism was practiced by both sides in those years of upheaval, before the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war ended with Israel in control of most of Palestine. One Jewish terrorist who planned and carried out strikes against the occupying British troops later became a prime minister of Israel—Menachem Begin. He was famous for referring to the land of Palestine as "Judea" and "Samaria," names the land held when occupied by ancient Israel.

Unable to negotiate an acceptable settlement, the British turned to the United Nations to resolve the complex issue.

In 1947, the UN proposed what appeared to be a logical solution—partitioning the land between the two peoples. The mufti of Jerusalem, the spokesman for the Palestinian Arabs, rejected it. The Jewish immigrants, at the time, accepted the idea. Under the leadership of David Ben Gurion, Israel declared itself a state on May 14, 1948. In spite of superior numbers, the Palestinian Arabs fled from the Israelis, counting on their Arab brothers to crush the upstart nation and return Palestine to their control.

Of course, that didn't happen.

Who had it first doesn't solve the dilemma

If we attempt to settle the Palestinian question by the concept of "who was there first," we meet with obvious difficulties. If we go back to the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the Arabs were in Palestine first. So, is the land rightfully theirs? Not so fast. Let's go back further—thousands of years further.

Historians believe the first major population to inhabit the land was the Canaanites. If "possession is 9/10ths of the law," the land belonged to them and their descendants. But, a militarily powerful people known as Philistines migrated into the Canaanite land, and it's their name that is thought to have evolved into "Palestine." So, is it their descendants who can rightfully claim the land of Palestine is theirs?

It's not that simple, either.

Another people migrated into the land of Canaan—they were the descendants of a man named "Eber," whose name meant "the other side." They were known as "Hebrews," coming from "the other side" of the Euphrates into Canaan. Their most famous patriarch was Abraham.

Genesis 12 records his immigration to Canaan. When he and his family arrived in the territory, an amazing event happened. The Creator God appeared to Abram, as he was known at the time, and made a remarkable promise: "To your descendants I will give this land" (verse 7). You can't get higher authority than that—greater than the militant Philistines, superior to the grand British Empire, senior to the United Nations—the Supreme God gave the land away. Possession wasn't the determining factor of right to ownership; the Canaanites had it taken out from under them.

Since the Jews are Abraham's children, the land is theirs after all. Right? No, it's still not that simple. Two vast peoples descended from Abraham's two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. From Isaac came Jacob, also named Israel and from him 12 clans (or 13, depending on how they are configured). The Jews are the descendants of only one of those tribes, that of Judah.

Further, the descendants of Ishmael are the Arabs! So, who has the right to the land of Palestine?

God's promise to Abraham was repeated to Isaac and then to Jacob (Israel), making clear that His intent was that Isaac's line would be the one to inherit the land.

Jews and Muslims lay a religious claim to the land

History was neither soft nor kind to Israel, for it had to fight to occupy and hold the land. Civil war divided the country into two nations, known as Judea and Samaria. It was to this rough and tumble period of Palestine's history that Menachem Begin referred by calling modern Palestine by those names. He meant to emphasize that the Jews had a religious claim to the land.

Religion is also a factor in the Palestinian view. According to the CIA's World Factbook, the religious preference of 75 percent of the Palestinians is Muslim. Beginning in the seventh century, Muslims began a 1,300-year reign over what was initially known as "Filastin," a precursor to "Palestine." (A connection to the ancient Philistines is obvious.)

"Palestine was holy to Muslims because the Prophet Muhammad had designated Jerusalem as the first qibla (the directions Muslims face when praying) and because he was believed to have ascended on a night journey to heaven from the area of Solomon's temple, where the Dome of the Rock was later built. Jerusalem became the third holiest city of Islam" (Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2002, "Palestine," p. 4).

Professor Moshe Sharon, who has a doctorate in medieval Islamic history from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, lectured in fall 2001 on "The Agenda of Islam." Dr. Sharon addressed the correlation between "Islam and Territory," according to the strictest school of Islamic law: "This civilization created one very important, fundamental rule about territory. Any territory that comes under Islamic rule cannot be de-Islamized. Even if at one time or another, the [non-Muslim] enemy takes over the territory that was under Islamic rule, it is considered to be perpetually Islamic. This is why whenever you hear about the Arab/Israeli conflict, you hear: territory, territory, territory. There are other aspects to the conflict, but territory is highly important" (

Therefore, many Palestinian Muslims believe they also have a religious claim to the land of Palestine. That is why they have fought and will continue to fight so ferociously for it.

The intensity of the passion on both sides of this complex issue is no less than it was in 1947, when both the Arabs and Jews believed that they had a right—the full right of ownership—to Palestine.

So, whose land is it? Remember, one no less than the Creator God claimed ownership of the land and the right to name its inheritor. To whom did He give it?

The land goes to the covenant people

From the beginning of the promises He made to Abraham, and then repeated to Isaac, Israel and his children, God intertwined those promises in a pact called a covenant. It was not the type of covenant which is negotiated between equals, but rather the type of agreement that is imposed by a suzerain or sovereign on a people that he has conquered. In essence, God told these people He chose for a unique purpose: "For My part, I promise to give you the land of Canaan [Palestine]. For your part, you will live by the regulations or the holy law that I give you. If you break your part of the covenant, I'm no longer bound by My Word."

Psalm 105 is but one of numerous references to this covenant, which named the land of Palestine as part of the divinely bequeathed benefits: "O seed of Abraham His servant, you children of Jacob, His chosen ones! He is the Lord our God; His judgments are in all the earth. He remembers His covenant forever, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, 'To you I will give the land of Canaan as the allotment of your inheritance'" (verses 6-11).

But, the people were expected to "observe His statutes and keep His laws" (verse 45).

With the passage of time, they drifted from their obligations. Generous and gracious, God worked with them for much longer than He was obligated to do. Yet the time came when He finally declared that the covenant was broken: "The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant" (Isaiah 24:5).

So which descendants of Abraham have a right to the land of Palestine? The ones to whom God initially gave it broke the deal and have no more claim to the land than any other ethnic group, if we look to the One who has the sole right to give it away.

Has Abraham no descendants, then, who are "covenant people," whose right of inheritance is this much-bloodied land? Ah, but he does! God actually expanded the land promise to include the entire earth (Romans 4:13), and those who are part of God's New Covenant will be co-inheritors of it.

[ Editors note: This article was originally posted June, 2002]