The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Seeking Wholeness in the Holy Land

By Jamin Casciato

This paper proposes an alternative paradigm through which to address the long-standing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the Holy Land, suggesting that resolution is rooted not in politics or protest, but in roots-level reconciliation through repaired relationship. Both worldview-oriented political and theological approaches, and market-driven aid and security perspectives, are insufficient in bringing true resolution which is inextricably linked with reconciliation. What is needed is a relational-incarnational approach to reconciliation, in which we are willing to involve ourselves with those in conflict personally, just as God involves Himself with us. If we want to involve ourselves in this struggle, we must model relationally the forgiveness and repentance necessary to close the gaping wound that separates Israelis and Palestinians.

This subject is of personal interest to me because I have spent time in the region, and have interacted with people of various faith traditions within both the Palestinian and Israeli communities. Those with whom I have spoken have seemingly informed, lived perspectives that are conflicting in nature with those of other people in the region. I have found the local members of various groups to have quite compelling arguments, and have realized that, regardless of contrary perspectives, their narratives are true for them. Further, I have lived, traveled, and studied elsewhere in the Middle East, and have found that the various groups in conflict throughout the region all have seemingly valid and conflicting perspectives that can lead to disengagement from and dehumanization of the “other” so long as culture takes the place of communion.

In what follows, I will first briefly recount some key events in the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. This backdrop will attempt to provide a context for the strained relationship between the groups, and demonstrate that neither side has been always victim or aggressor. We should be cognizant of the temptation to side with those whose cultures most closely resemble our own, and must guard against esteeming the culture of the Occident over that of the Orient, which will necessarily lead to a distorted view of the situation.

Second, I will express the notion that it is imperative for us to understand that all of theology, life, and cultural engagement are interconnected, and that all bear upon one another regarding the issue being discussed. We should not imagine that our theological views, political decisions, and proclivity toward personal security do not have an impact on the people involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Third, I will explore the idea that this issue is resolved only through the restoration of relationship between Israelis and Palestinians through mutual engagement, as opposed to disengaged political maneuvering and theological rhetoric. As outsiders, we must be willing to enter into the narratives of both groups as much as possible without taking sides. We should attempt to form relationships with those related to the current conflict, whether at home or in the Holy Land, and live out our proposed solution—roots-level relationship renewal through forgiveness and repentance—in our personal lives. We must be willing either to live our theology or discard it, for an unlived theology is not a study of a living God at all. May our lives be our argument.

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become one of the most prominent and prolonged international disputes of recent history. The flames that engulf the people of the region have been both kindled and fanned by numerous parties, both inside and outside the land. Since the age of the Roman Empire, the region has been controlled by numerous groups, including Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, and Ottomans. In the late nineteenth century, Jewish immigration back into the area began with the rise of Zionism, the belief in a Jewish homeland in Palestine, spawned by a growing sense of secular Jewish identity formed by heightened persecution of Jews in Europe.[1]

Conflict between the Jewish and Arab Palestinian communities started when Jewish immigrants began arriving and establishing settlements. The two groups began to clash, typically over control of land, and eventually the disputes became violent, priming the climate for future conflict (Munayer and Loden, 6). Continued strife between Jewish immigrants and the local population of Palestinians (comprised largely of Arab-Muslims and a minority of Christians) eventually led to the U.N. partition plan of 1947, which divided the disputed area into Jewish and Arab states. In 1948, the state of Israel was formed, which then claimed larger areas of land after attacks from Arab armies. As a result, large numbers of Arab refugees were forced into other areas of the region controlled by Jordan, Egypt, and other neighboring nations.[2]

In June 1967, in response to Egypt’s announced closure of the Straits of Tiran, Israel launched the Six-Day War, and as a result took control of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. In October of 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in an attempt to reclaim the Sinai and other territory lost in 1967, but their forces were pushed back (Munayer and Loden, 16). Between 1967 and the present there have been two major uprisings, or intifadas, by the Palestinian people (Weirich, 330). As a result of suicide bombings that increased during the Second Intifada, Israel has since built a separation wall between its territories and the West Bank. Currently, the Palestinian territories include East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, but most of the territories claimed by the State of Palestine have been occupied by Israel since the close of the Six-Day War. Over the past few decades, there have been more conflicts, compromises from both sides, olive branches extended, and political attempts at brokering peace, but resolution of the conflict remains elusive.

As of this writing, 8.4 million people live in Israel-Palestine, of whom 75% are Jews, 21% are Arabs, and 4% belong to other groups, including non-Arab Christians and Baha’is.[3] Approximately 28% of the Palestinian population live in Gaza, 44% live in the West Bank, and another 28% live in Israel.[4] Included is a Palestinian Christian community still residing in the land that dates back to the time of the early church (Munayer and Loden, 53). As outsiders, we should be cognizant of the fact that those involved in the conflict do not form strictly homogenously constituted opposing sides. Instead, both groups are composed of individuals of varying ideologies and faith traditions.

Further, to highlight one of the fundamental flaws in attempts at reaching peace between the two groups, resolution of the issue at hand should be seen not in regard to land, but to people. The bodily temples of the Israeli and Palestinian people—the heavenly real estate—are to be won to one another, instead of a piece of land’s being won from the other.

That being said, instead of categorizing those involved into groups that are more or less culturally similar to us, we should make an attempt to cultivate cultural comprehension that can be utilized to breed reconciliation. An ethic that prizes the culture of the Occident (more closely related to the European Jewish population comprising Israel) over that of the Orient (more closely related to the Arab population of the Palestinian territories) will necessarily lead us to take sides in favor of those who most clearly mirror ourselves and our interests. We should guard against a market-driven approach to the current conflict, which frames truth and engagement in terms of what is most beneficial to us or is most easily sold to the American public, with its fear-drenched mentality and corresponding insatiable thirst for “security.”

In addition to rejecting a market-driven approach to engagement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we might also discard an approach centered upon a particular theological or political ideology. Worldview-dominated approaches are dehumanizing and dead, and attempt to impose static “isms” on dynamic, living beings. In contrast, a relational-incarnational approach must cost us something more than aired rhetoric, as it requires that we enter into communion with those affected. God did not simply tell us the truth; He came and dwelt among us as the Truth. It is a reductionistic mentality that seeks to solve problems by simply imposing one’s view of truth on others by voting for a certain ideology or by throwing money at misfortunes.

That said, we might guard against the complacent, disengaged inclination to solve matters through the state. Politics is a sad savior—it is inhuman and is therefore not sufficiently dynamic or relational to serve the purposes of people. Salim J. Munayer, founder and director of the Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation in Palestine contends that the Oslo Accords have failed to bring true peace to the region because they are rooted in a top-down, political effort, while at the grass-roots, personal level, people are not cultivating relationships.[5]

To this day, Palestinians and Israelis have very little informal social contact with one another. Worldviews cannot take the place of lived realities—in order for reconciliation to be reached, both groups must have the opportunity to relate to one another directly, instead of through the mediation of the political apparatus. Attempting to reach resolution in the latter manner only alienates people, as they are encouraged to reject one another personally based upon their ideological differences. As H. Richard Niebuhr said, “Everyone has some kind of a philosophy, some general world view, which to men of other views will seem mythological.”[6] People are more than adjectives; they are living actors bearing the image of God. The injurious mentality of reducing people to their worldviews, and thus to “other,” makes it far too easy to dehumanize them (and correspondingly to remove them from one’s reality).

As quantum physics continues to demonstrate through the notion of quantum entanglement, we are all more connected than we realize, and our distant, spooky actions [sic] actually affect others. As cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf explains it, “We are all entangled in each other, every particle is entangled in another particle. Everything affects everything else.”[7] Those who would involve themselves in the stated conflict from a distance would do well to realize that their theologically, academically, and socially informed political decisions back home are impacting those in the disputed land abroad.

For instance, Palestinian Christians are said to be increasingly identifying with Palestinian nationalism due to the Western church’s indiscriminate support of Israel and certain interpretations of dispensationalist theology. Messianic Jews in the region likewise feel disenfranchised by the use of supercessionism to inform people’s views on the conflict. This is not the venue to undertake critical analysis of these decisions or theological constructs; the point is to demonstrate that, whether or not we are aware of it, the viewpoints we entertain (and support) impact others—even thousands of miles away. Truly, we exist in a profoundly interconnected ecosystem. We should view inhabitants of the Holy Land not as cogs in an ideological machine (the parts of which simply can be replaced) employed for the sake of effectuating a particular eschatological reality, but as personalized souls striving for authentic life within their own particular narratives.

As outsiders, we should reject the temptation to take sides, and instead choose to be on the side of each and every human involved. In taking sides in this conflict, attempting to help either group “win the Holy Land,” we are denigrating the sanctity of the life that exists there, for all those who inhabit the land are made in the image of a holy God. In reality, the two “sides” are not occupied by two different people groups, but by life and death. Both Israelis and Palestinians should be seen as being on the same side—that of those called to communion with God. In view of the nature of the triune God, we were designed for relationship with one another, to be in communion as humans, not in competition over resource division. “Our God is a community of Persons, existing in eternal and blessed communion.”[8]

As those made in the image of God, we have been blessed with the authority to mirror this communion in our relationships with one another. Truly edifying engagement of the situation discussed will attempt to help individual Palestinians and Israelis break free of the “us” and “them” mindset that keeps them at odds with one another. Our energies would be well utilized in exhibiting forgiveness and a repentant posture in our personal lives, as well as in our interactions with individual Israelis and Palestinians both at home and abroad, getting to know them personally, and bringing them together in informal settings to break bread and share life. As much as possible, we should seek to create opportunities in our particular spheres of influence for Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, to cultivate relationships.

True, sustainable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not to be found in more weapons, new borders, or more rhetoric, but in the restoration of personal relationships. The world is watching our nation—are we willing to model reconciliation through nonviolence and forgiveness? Are we willing to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us?[9] Are we willing to demonstrate that forgiveness comes not after retaliation, but instead of it? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The life described in the beatitudes…is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries.”[10] The parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind[11]—ironically, much of the Palestinian population of Nablus, a city in the West Bank, is believed to be descended from Samaritans.[12] Can Palestinians and Israelis, “Samaritans” and Jews, live together as true neighbors, showing one another mercy? If this is possible, it is only through an approach similar to that framed in the parable…was Jesus speaking prophetically?

Jamin Casciato has spent years studying sustainable development throughout the non-industrialized world. He has taught economics in Mexico and Iraq, where he traveled extensively among the indigenous communities of the regions, studying local social traditions, music, and traditional medicine. He has also spent time among the nomadic communities of northern India and Egypt, and has done development research in Central America, Africa, and East Asia. He studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania.

[Photo Credit: Edgardo W. Olivera]

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[1] Salim J. Munayer and Lisa Loden, Through My Enemy’s Eyes (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2014), p. 3.

[2] Margaret A. Weirich, “Hijacking the Charitable System: An Examination of Tax-Exempt Status for Charities That Support Israeli Settlements,” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Vol. 14, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 327, accessed March 31, 2016, EBSCOhost.

[3] “Population by Population Group,” Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, 2016, accessed April 6, 2016, http://www.cbs.gov.il/publications16/yarhon0216/pdf/b1.pdf.

[4] Dale Hanson Bourke, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p. 19.

[5] Salim J. Munayer, Lecture at Jerusalem University College, March 24, 2016.

[6] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1951), p. 235.

[7] Believer’s Voice of Victory, “What Happens To My Brain When I Forgive?” Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and Dr. Caroline Leaf. BVOV Network, June 5, 2015.

[8] Paul Louis Metzger, New Wine Tastings: Theological Essays of Cultural Engagement (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011), p. 21.

[9] See Luke 6:27-28

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), p. 153.

[11] Luke 10:25-37

[12] Sean Ireton, “The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-religious Minority in the Twenty First Century,” Anthrobase (2003): 7, accessed April 4, 2016, EBSCOhost.