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The suggestion that the Israel-Palestine conflict is essentially religious does not stack up. But the idea that it has no religious aspects is also baseless, writes Peter Welby.

This situation report covers the religious aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It can also be found on the Palestine country profile page.


In 1906, Dr Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist who would become Israel's first president, had a conversation with a former British prime minister. Arthur Balfour had, as premier, suggested that the Jewish people could be given Uganda as a homeland. He was bemused by the Zionist fixation on the land of Israel. "Mr Balfour," said Weizmann, "supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" Balfour protested that the British already ruled London. "True, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh," came the response. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, Phoenix: London, 2012, p.492.

As foreign secretary, Balfour would go on to give one of the defining statements in the modern history of the Middle East. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promised that the Jews would be given a national homeland in Palestine after World War I.

Weizmann's witty rejoinder speaks to the heart of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or prior to 1948, between Jews and Arabs in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The conflict is territorial: two peoples lay claim to one, relatively small piece of land. But those claims are complicated by the fact that the same piece of land is regarded by a substantial part of the global population, Christian, Muslim and Jewish – including a substantial part of the Israeli and Palestinian populations – as holy.

The suggestion that this makes the conflict essentially religious does not stack up. But the idea that it has no religious aspects is also baseless. The driving forces behind the modern Zionist movement were secular, as were the dominant voices in the Palestinian and Arab opposition to the State of Israel. However, from the beginning there were religious aspects to the hostilities, and in recent years, they have become more prominent.

Fighting for the holy places

Conflict over the Holy Land, and Jerusalem in particular, is not a modern phenomenon. Jerusalem has been fought over in the name of God for millennia. Much of today's disputes are moulded by that legacy. Without understanding that history, it is impossible to understand today's conflict.

As the single focal point for the Jewish people for nearly one thousand years until its final destruction in 70 AD Jerusalem's Temple had amassed huge riches through the tithes of the faithful and gifts of rich benefactors. Besides the city's strategic location at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, this made Jerusalem attractive to foreign powers. But it was also a centre for nationalism, which came with a religious tinge.

In 167 BC, a revolt broke out in response to efforts by the Antiochus Epiphanes – a successor to Alexander the Great – to impose Greek worship on the Jews. These efforts included the dedication of the Jewish Temple to Zeus. Montefiore, Jerusalem, p.75. On seizing Jerusalem, the first act of Judas Maccabeus, the revolt's leader, was to rededicate the Temple, an act now celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. As the campaign against the Greeks continued, Maccabeus tore down pagan shrines across the country. Montefiore, Jerusalem, p.78.

Later revolts against Roman rule likewise focused on the Temple. In 66 AD, Jewish unrest about Roman rule turned into full-scale revolt when the priests of the Temple decided to stop offering sacrifices to the emperor. By 70 AD, the revolt was crushed, and the Temple destroyed. Montefiore, Jerusalem, pp.148-51. A second revolt in 132 AD acclaimed its leader, Simon Bar Kochba, as the Messiah. On his defeat, Jews were expelled from Jerusalem, and a statue of the emperor placed on the Temple's ruins. Montefiore, Jerusalem, pp.163-5.

With the exception of a few short years under Persian rule, Jews would not control Jerusalem's holy places again until 1967. But two global religions sprang from Judaism, both of which would lay claim to the city. A construction boom followed the establishment of Christianity as an official religion of the Roman Empire, changing the shape of the city to mark the life and death of Jesus in spectacular fashion.

In 621 AD, the Prophet Mohammad spoke of a journey he had made on Buraq, a heavenly horse, to the Masjid al-Aqsa, the furthest mosque. Tying his horse to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, he ascended to the site of the Temple, and from there to heaven where he met with previous prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and spoke with God.

Although the Quran does not mention Jerusalem by name, strong Islamic tradition identifies the al-Aqsa Mosque with the city. The strongest link comes from the first qiblah, or direction of prayer for the fledgling Islamic community. In the earliest days of the faith, Muslims prayed not towards the Meccan Kaaba – as they would later – but, following the Jewish practice, in the direction of Jerusalem.

After the death of Mohammad, Muslim armies swiftly pushed Byzantine forces, weakened by years of conflict with the Persians, out of the Levant. For the first sustained period since 70 AD, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was cleared and returned to use as a place of worship, now as a mosque. The entire esplanade – known now by Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the noble sanctuary – was regarded as holy. The Quran speaks of taking Mohammad to "Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings we have blessed." Quran 17:1.

In comparison to Islam and Judaism, Jerusalem does not hold such a central place in the Christian faith. In fact, until the establishment of Christianity as an official religion of the Roman Empire, the city was something of a backwater for Christians. It was secondary to the great centres of Christian leadership and the theology of Antioch or Alexandria.

This was all to change with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine after 312 AD. His mother Helena embarked on great relic-hunting tours in Jerusalem and Palestine, and sparked the onset of a new age of pilgrimage to the city. The Patriarch (leading bishop) of Jerusalem became one of the leaders of the church across the Roman world, and a crucial figure in the politics of the city. It was the Patriarch of Jerusalem who negotiated the city's surrender to the Islamic Caliph Umar in 637. The surrender was accompanied by the signing of the Pact of Umar, assigning rights and protections to the Christians of the city in exchange for the payment of a special Islamic tax, the jizyah. This was the model for the treatment of minorities in the Muslim empires until the 19th century. ISIS purports to have revived it in the areas under its control.

While the loss of the holy land was a blow to the Byzantine Empire, it was in no fit state to mount a counter-attack. It was striving to stabilise its new borders, and the Church had lost three of its main centres of leadership to the Muslim armies: Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. It was another 350 years before the church in the West would turn its attention back to the region, launching a devastating series of crusades to regain the Holy Land for Christendom.

Western armies conquered Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtering many of the city's Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. For the first time in Christian history, the Temple Mount became a focus of worship: both the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were turned into churches. Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, Penguin: London, 2010, p.384. Muslim armies led by Saladin reconquered the region less than 100 years later. After that, with one brief exception in the 13th century, Jerusalem and the Holy Land were ruled by successive Muslim powers until 1917.

These events are not ancient history. They have deep resonance today. The Hamas Charter cites the British conquest of Jerusalem in the First World War as a continuation of the Crusades. Hamas Charter, Article 15.

Secular nationalism in Israel and Palestine is focused on land imbued with religious identity; grievances are cited that date back hundreds of years. To ignore the conflict's religious aspects is to see only half the picture. And yet to regard these religious elements as its defining features misses the multiple grievances in which religion plays only a minor part.


By the mid-19th century, around 10,000 Jews lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, most of them in Jerusalem, which had a Jewish majority from the 1850s. Martin Gilbert, Israel: A History, Black Swan: London, 1999, pp.3,9. Yet across Europe a movement was growing to reestablish a Jewish state in the Holy Land, driven in large part by the persecution of Jews across the continent.

One of the multiple figures driving this movement was Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jew. Herzl had been particularly shocked by the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus affair in France in 1894. He founded the World Zionist Organisation in 1896 to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine, which he had never visited himself. The following year, the organisation held the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where some 200 Zionists defined their mission as "to secure for the Jewish people in Palestine a publicly recognised, legally secured homeland." Gilbert, Israel, p.14. After the Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary, "At Basel I founded the Jewish State." Gilbert, Israel, p.15. The Zionist movement was by and large secular. Herzl was opposed by Orthodox rabbis who held that a Jewish return to the Holy Land would be led by the Messiah.

Jews mostly from Poland, Russia and other parts of Europe answered Herzl's call. By 1914, 90,000 Jews were living in Palestine. But if a Jewish national consciousness had found new political strength in Zionism, a Palestinian Arab consciousness was growing in reaction. The Ottoman rulers of Palestine were opposed to both; on the outbreak of the First World War, the military governor had Arab nationalist leaders hanged, and 18,000 Jews were expelled or forced to flee. Gilbert, Israel, p.30. With Russia one of the Ottoman Empire's enemies, the multiple Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine were viewed with suspicion.

By the end of the war, the Jewish community had dropped to 56,000. But it had brought a significant change to all communities in Palestine: the 1917 Balfour Declaration, given weight by the conquest of Palestine by British General Edmund Allenby's armies that same year. The Declaration was in fact an open letter written to Baron Rothschild, president of the English Zionist Federation. The result of painstaking negotiations, it stated that the British government would:

View with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, Knopf Publishing: New York, 2015, p.6.

With the end of the war, the de facto British control of Palestine was given legal force with a League of Nations mandate, the preamble of which restated the Balfour Declaration. League of Nations, The Palestine Mandate, 1922 Yet the establishment of a 'national home' was not plain sailing. Two rival agreements during the war posed complications. The McMahon-Hussein correspondence between 1915 and 1916 appeared to promise the Sherif of Mecca authority over Palestine in exchange for his support. Meanwhile, under the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, Britain and France accorded themselves control over much of the region, including Palestine.

Within the boundaries of the Mandate, in principle opposition was the fact that the rising Palestinian Arab nationalism that had concerned the Ottomans at the start of the war was resurgent. In 1920, the Muslim-Christian Association held its Third Palestine Arab Congress, which denounced the Balfour Declaration as "breaching the laws of God and Man." Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.14. That year, Ragheb Bey al-Nashashibi was elected as mayor of Jerusalem. His previous experience in elected office was as a representative in the Ottoman Parliament in 1914, standing on an anti-Zionist platform. Gilbert, Israel, p.30. However, it was the 1921 appointment of Haj Amin al-Husseini as Mufti of Jerusalem that would have possibly the most impact on the disturbances that would wrack the Jewish and Arab communities over the following 30 years.

Husseini came from one of the most prominent Jerusalem families: his grandfather, father and brother had all previously held the post of Mufti. Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.19. Yet he was also an ardent Palestinian nationalist, deeply opposed to Jewish immigration. He had been convicted in absentia (and later pardoned) for instigating riots against Jews in Jerusalem in 1920, which left five Jews and four Arabs dead. Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.12. 

The Mufti was to play a critical role in the events of 1928 and 1929 that demonstrate the fusion of religion and nationalism prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. The status quo at the Western Wall of the Holy Esplanade since Ottoman times was that it was part of the Waqf, or Islamic religious endowment, that governed the site. Jews were permitted to pray at the wall, but had no legal right to do so.

On Yom Kippur 1928, a group of Jews fastened a screen to the Western Wall to separate men and women praying there. Amid complaints from the Muslim authorities, British police removed it. Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.26. But this was the trigger for an escalating campaign of rhetoric and violence, led by Husseini. He sent a memorandum to the Mandate government accusing Jews in Palestine of "unlimited greedy aspirations" to "take possession of the Mosque al-Aqsa gradually." Gilbert, Israel, p.57. Later in September he organised a conference advocating restrictions on Jewish access to the Wall, including preventing worshippers from "raising their voices or making speeches." Ibid. Continuing protest into 1929 prompted the High Commissioner to write to Husseini in June to reaffirm the right of Jews to "conduct their worship" at the Wall as they had previously.

Simmering tensions boiled over in August. Some 6,00 Jews protested in Tel Aviv chanting "the Wall is ours!" The next day, demonstrators in Jerusalem raised the Jewish flag at the wall, and sang the Zionist anthem. That Friday after prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque, Muslim crowds demonstrated at the Wall, burning Jewish prayer books and chanting: "There is no God but God; the religion of Mohammad came with the sword." Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.28.

The following week, the preacher at al-Aqsa gave an inflammatory sermon, accusing Jews of seeking to expel Arabs from the land:

I ask you now to take the oath of God the Great to swear by your right hand that you will not hesitate to act when called upon to do so, and that you will, if need be, fight for the Faith and the Holy Places to death... Pounce upon your enemies and kill that you in doing so may obtain paradise. Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.29.

In the ensuing violence, even the long-established Jewish community in Hebron – untouched in the earlier communal riots – was destroyed. By the time the violence was over, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were dead across the country, with many of the latter killed by British security forces. Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, pp.30-34

The violence of August 1929 and its aftermath resonates today. Waqf officials still cite a League of Nations commission appointed to examine claims of the Muslim and Jewish communities to the Western Wall as assigning the site in full, along with the pavement in front of it, to the Waqf. According to this telling, the Waqf permits Jews to conduct "certain religious ceremonies" there, but not to pray. Author interview with Waqf official, 2 February 2016. Meanwhile, Hebron's largely peaceful coexistence was forever shattered. After Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967, a group of religious Zionists established a presence in Hebron, the site of the tomb of the Patriarchs. This has been the site of clashes and violence between the Muslim and Jewish communities since.

With some exceptions, the drivers and leaders of Jewish action in the years up to the creation of the State of Israel were secular. Opposition in some religious quarters to the Zionist project ensured this. Yet there were many personal religious motivations, some held more publicly than others. Avraham Stern, the leader of the extremist Stern Gang active in pre-state Israel, was a devout Orthodox Jew who framed the struggle for a Jewish state in religious terms:

Like my father, who, on Shabbat, reverently carried his prayer shawl in his bag on the way to his house of prayer, I will carry in my bag holy pistols... Because there is a religion of redemption – a religion of the war of liberation. Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, p.105.

But this was not simply a secular struggle framed in religious terms for Stern; he sought the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the return of the Diaspora to the promised land. Ibid.

There was also growing support among rabbis for the establishment of a state. The Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, Avraham Kook, regarded the Zionist movement as an essential part of God's plan to restore the Jews to the promised land. International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith: Israel's National Religious and the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, 21 November 2013, p.2. This kind of more public religious view was sufficiently concerning for Chaim Weizmann to write in his diary on the day of the UN vote establishing the State of Israel in 1947:

We must clearly differentiate between legitimate religious aspirations and the state's obligation to defend them, and the excess of power sometimes revealed by supposedly religious groups. We must be firm if we lust for life. Gilbert, Israel, p.150.

The victory of secular Zionism in 1948 ensured its supremacy in the early years of the state. The modus vivendi between the secular leaders of the State and the religious establishment was made on the understanding by both sides that the other would decline in the following years. (Author interview with Yedidia Stern, 3 February 2016). This was aided by the fact that under the 1949 armistice agreement, the new state did not include Hebron or East Jerusalem. Even Israel's control over West Jerusalem was only recognised as de facto. According to the partition plan, Jerusalem was meant to be administered by the UN. This was to change after 1967's Six Day War. The assault on the Old City on 7 June brought the Holy Esplanade under Israeli control. The Esplanade was captured after a brief skirmish with Jordanian forces. The commander of the 55th Paratrooper Battalion radioed his commanders: "The Temple Mount is in our hands." Michael B Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002, p.245. Then-Defence Minister Moshe Dayan went to the Wall and proclaimed that "we have returned to our most holy places, returned in order never to be separated from them again." International Crisis Group, Extreme Makeover? (I) Israel's Politics of Land and Faith in East Jerusalem, 20 December 2012, p.4.

The Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces, Shlomo Goren, had hastened from the Sinai front to Jerusalem in order to witness its capture. He rushed to the Western Wall, blew his shofar, Rams horn trumpet used in Jewish religious ceremonies. and declared that its capture was "heralding redemption." International Crisis Group, Extreme Makeover? (I), p.4. More concerning was his suggestion that the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque should be blown up in order to prepare for the restoration of the Temple under the Messiah. Oren, Six Days of War, p.246. His suggestion was ignored, and a makeshift synagogue he constructed on the Esplanade was ordered destroyed. International Crisis Group, The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem's Holy Esplanade, 30 June 2015, p.4.

Even though, apart from the Western Wall, the Esplanade remained in the hands of the Waqf, the victories of 1967 was regarded by many Jews as a work of divine intervention. It was seen as a "gift," not only of the holy sites of Jerusalem and Hebron, but the whole of Eretz Yisrael: the Land of Israel, the biblical promised land. Author interview with leading settler, 3 February 2016.


The Settler Movement: Secular and Religious

The desire to gather in the Jewish Diaspora and resettle the land is not wholly religious. Theodore Herzl and others were more concerned with anti-Semitism and Jewish self-determination than the coming of the Messiah.

A strong strand of the settler movement is still in this mould. Dani Dayan, former head of the Yesha Council (the umbrella body of settlements in the West Bank) and incoming consul-general in New York, is firmly secular. Yet, he is deeply committed to Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank for reasons of security, and for ideological ones, almost religious in their fervour.

In Dayan's view, the very idea of Zionism is inseparable from the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, as the "cradle" of Jewish civilisation, expressed in Jewish culture, history and the bible. That connection to the land, according to Dayan, is stronger in the West Bank (referred to by settlers as Judea and Samaria) than it is in Tel Aviv, as there is more Jewish history there. Author interview with Dani Dayan, 4 February 2016.

There is a further strand of the settler movement that is pragmatic. Quality of life for many Israelis in the West Bank is higher: many services are subsidised and there are often special tax breaks. For young Israeli families in particular, this is a significant attraction: house prices and the cost of living inside the 'Green Line' (the internationally recognised Israeli border) have risen substantially since 2000. The cost of living in Israel is 10 per cent higher than that of Japan, Italy and the US, according to the OECD. Amiram Barkat, 'Israel thinks it's an open economy. It Isn't', Globes, 14 February 2016.

However, the national religious (the Israeli term for those whose Zionism is combined with observant Judaism) form the backbone of the settler movement, an increasingly influential voice in the state. Religious settlers together with the broader 'national-religious' voting bloc constitute around 22 per cent of adult Israeli Jews. Tamar Hermann et al., The National-Religious Sector in Israel 2014: Main Findings, Israel Democracy Institute 2014, p.10. However, they possess a growing influence in the state, with some suggesting that the upper ranks of the IDF and security forces will become disproportionately drawn from this sector. Author interview with Yedidia Stern, 3 February 2016; International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith, p.22

According to the religious view, it is only through settling the entire land of Israel ('from the river [Jordan] to the [Mediterranean] sea') that redemption can occur. The establishment of settlements, and through them Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, therefore takes on a religious garb.

For such national-religious Israelis, the pain and sacrifice of the settlement movement is a religious duty. International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith, p.14. However, as Zionists, the majority also attaches a certain sacred character to the state itself. Different parts of the 'national religious camp treat this differently: some hold the state to be sacred, but the government liable to error; others hold the decisions of the government to be akin to those of the state. Only the smallest minority regard violence against the state to be legitimate. International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith, pp.9-10. This can present problems when the decisions of the state go against the vision of the settlement movement, as with the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, or the withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 2005 disengagement from Gaza proved distinctly traumatic for Israel's national-religious. It seemed to run counter to the divine plan for Israel's redemption, though Gaza is of less religious significance to Jews than the West Bank. According to one national-religious academic, while this group had regarded Israel's victories in 1967 and 1973 as a sign of God's divine favour, the withdrawal seemed to deny that. Author interview with Yedidia Stern, 3 February 2016. In the eyes of some, it was this incident that has, more than anything, driven the strengthening of the national-religious movement in Israeli politics, and the focus on the Holy Esplanade. Ibid.

However, there is disagreement over the extent to which the same could happen in the West Bank. While there are some who believe that the settler movement will inevitably decline, many settlers, including Dani Dayan, believe that it is now past the point of no return. Author interview with Dani Dayan, 4 February 2016.

Historically, the ultra-Orthodox community has found more in common with the pragmatic wing of the settler movement than the national-religious. The main ultra-Orthodox settlements are located close to the Green Line, offering relative security along with the advantages of cheap housing and segregated communities. Nevertheless, there are reports of plans to develop ultra-Orthodox settlements deeper in the West Bank. Author interview with Israeli journalist Shahar Ilan, 1 February 2016. As such, although the ultra-Orthodox community holds itself largely separate from the national-religious camp, it is regarded as a strong potential ally. Its political influence, with its parties present in almost every coalition government, would make its support extremely valuable to the national-religious.

Within the settler movement, a very small number have been engaging in violence. Some see this as a direct continuation of the work of the Jewish Underground, an extremist organisation active in the early 1980s: namely, to undermine any peace process. Author interview with anti-Price Tag activist, 2 February 2016. The Price Tag movement – named in reference to the 'price' of any concession to Palestinians or removal of settlements – mostly engages in vandalism. However, it has also carried out deadly attacks, such as the arson attack on a home in the West Bank that killed three including an 18-month-old baby. These attacks usually include spraying of graffiti with verses from the bible or other religious phrases.

The status quo at the Holy Esplanade

The refusal of the Israeli authorities to follow the demands of the likes of Goren in 1967 led to the reestablishment of the status quo at the Holy Esplanade that had been in abeyance since 1948. Jews were to have access to the Western Wall, but could not pray upon the Esplanade, which would be reserved to Muslims under the control of the Waqf. Between 1948 and 1967, when the area was under Jordanian control, Jews had no access to the Western Wall. The Waqf, meanwhile, remained answerable to Jordan, though it was not until the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994 that this situation was formalised. The treaty states that "Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status [with the Palestinians] will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines." (Cited in: International Crisis Group, Status Quo, p.19).

Nevertheless, the site has become a focus of Palestinian nationalism. A growing number of religious Jews harbour an ambition to reestablish the Temple there, though their numbers remain small.

If 1967 brought opportunities for the national-religious, and could even be said to have brought religious Zionism into being as a coherent movement, it brought the same for religious Palestinian resistance. The Israeli conquests brought Arab citizens of Israel into contact with the Islamist – particularly Muslim Brotherhood – movements of the West Bank and Gaza. In the early 1970s, a group of Arab-Israelis founded the Islamic Movement in Palestine, a Muslim Brotherhood inspired movement of anti-Zionist Muslim citizens of Israel. Adam Hoffman, ‘What is the Islamic Movement in Israel,’ Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, 30 March 2016.

Their Movement was both Islamist and nationalist. It viewed all of Palestine (including the State of Israel) as an Islamic waqf with a duty on all Muslims living in the land to protect it.

Differing views as to how this could be achieved led to the breakup of the Movement into Northern and Southern branches in 1996. The Northern Branch, led by Raed Salah, held that any engagement with the state amounted to collaboration, and refused to participate in national elections. From 2013, it also refused to participate in local elections. The Southern Branch held that political engagement and representation of Muslims was necessary. It continues to be represented as part of the Arab Joint List in the Knesset. 

The Islamic Movement has been central to the exploitation of the Holy Esplanade as a symbol of the conflict. This, of course, is nothing new, but its actions, and particularly the actions of the Northern Branch, have made the site the focal point of the religious side of the conflict.

Alleging Israeli attempts to alter the status quo at the site, the Northern Branch started an ‘Al-Aqsa is in Danger’ (al-aqsa fi khata) campaign in the 1990s. This sought financial aid from across the Muslim world (particularly from the Gulf), which Israeli authorities accused the group of channeling to activist groups on and around the Esplanade. These included the ‘Murabitun’ and ‘Murabitaat’ (‘Guardians,’ male and female respectively), groups of men and women that would heckle and jostle Jews and other non-Muslims on the Esplanade. International Crisis Group, Status Quo, p.17; Hoffman, ‘What is the Islamic Movement?’

For many Palestinians, the prospect of losing al-Aqsa to Israel is a reasonable fear. Attention is drawn to the division of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron from 1996 as an example of how Palestinians can lose control of their holy sites. Waqf official cited in International Crisis Group, Extreme Makeover? (I), p.25.

Temple Mount Activists

The fears over changes to the status quo, undoubtedly stoked by nationalist groups, are nevertheless exacerbated by the actions of individuals in Jewish Israeli society who wish to do just that. The historic ties of the site to Judaism give it a special status in Jewish consciousness, for secular and religious Jews alike, either as the foundational heritage of the nation, or as the focus of worship.

Historically, Jewish religious law has forbidden Jewish ascension to the Holy Esplanade. The exact boundaries of the Temple are unknown, and as no-one but a consecrated High Priest was permitted to enter parts of the Temple, there is a prohibition on ascending the Temple Mount for fear of desecrating the Holy of Holies. The means for reconsecration, and all else that would lead to the rebuilding of the Temple, would miraculously come with the Messiah. For most Orthodox Jews, this remains the case; for the ultra-Orthodox, it is almost universal. 

However, over the past two decades, as religiosity and nationalism are drawn closer together in Israeli politics and society, the movement to assert Israeli control and Jewish rights of worship on the Esplanade has grown.

For some, the retention of the status quo following Israel’s victory in 1967 was an affront: (Jewish) Israeli victory should lead to the enforcement of Israeli law on the Esplanade, which includes freedom of worship for all religions in their holy places. Such a view was reinforced by the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980, meaning that Israeli domestic law was applied to the city. Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, By this argument, Jews who wish to pray on the Esplanade should be permitted to do so. According to one activist, “settlements are based on Zionist ideology, but Temple activism is based on law.” Author interview with Temple Mount activist, 3 February 2016. 

Just as in Palestinian society fears over Israeli intentions around the site stoked activism, a similar process grew in Israeli (particularly national-religious) society through the 1990s. As the Oslo process got underway, fears grew that the government would trade the Esplanade in a deal with the Palestinians. The Committee of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) started to encourage Jewish visits to the site. International Crisis Group, Status Quo, p.8.

As a religious site, the Esplanade was not just important for the fringes of Israeli society. Tensions rose markedly in 2000, when the then-leader of Likud, Ariel Sharon, and six other members of the Knesset ascended the Esplanade with a large security detail. Writing in the Jerusalem Post daily beforehand, Sharon asserted (Jewish) Israeli sovereignty over the site: “the Palestinians must recognise the historical right of the Jews to their capital, and particularly to the Temple Mount. Freedom of access and religious worship would never be denied to [other nationalities] in their own respective capitals... It should never be denied to Jews in their one, eternal capital.” Cited in International Crisis Group, Extreme Makeover? (I), p.24. This incident is regarded as instrumental in the outbreak of the second Intifada (uprising), which lasted until 2005.

Although access to the Esplanade was restricted for non-Muslims through the worst years of the Intifada, by 2015 there were reported to be approximately 12,000 entries per year by national-religious Israelis to the site. International Crisis Group, Status Quo, p.10.

Despite these relatively small numbers, Temple activists have some public sympathy, including limited support from members of the government. A 2014 poll found that while 56 per cent of Israeli Jews thought the policy prohibiting Jews from praying on the Esplanade should be continued, 39 per cent thought that the prohibition should be cancelled regardless of the consequences. Israel Democracy Institute, The Peace Index, 11 November 2014.

The battle over history

The determination of many on both sides to deny the legitimacy of the other’s claim has made the history of Jerusalem – never insignificant – a central battleground in the control of the Esplanade. It is now commonplace for leading Palestinian figures, including from the Waqf, to deny that the historical Jewish Temple was ever present on the site.

According to one Waqf official, claims that the Jewish Temple was present on the site of the Esplanade were a “fantasy of a small number of Jews,” and to get into discussions of what existed on the site prior to the building of al-Aqsa was to indulge in “fantasies.” Author interview with Waqf official, 2 February 2016. According to another senior Palestinian politician, “if the Jews had discovered any evidence of Jewish history under al-Aqsa, they would show it off.” Author interview with Palestinian politician, 3 February 2016. 

This kind of revisionism is a fairly recent development. Guidebooks issued by the Waqf as recently as 1925 wrote that it is “beyond dispute” that the Esplanade is the site of Solomon’s Temple. Supreme Moslem Council, ‘A Brief Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif,’ Jerusalem, 1925. But such revisionism is not restricted to Palestinians. Some Temple activists point to the fact that there is no mention of Jerusalem in the Quran: only a reference to “the farthest mosque,” masjid al-Aqsa. Author interview with Temple activist, 3 February 2016. A guidebook published by the Temple Mount Heritage Foundation, an activist organisation, cites 19th century photographs of the Esplanade as showing, by its “neglected” appearance, that it did not occupy “any significant place in the Muslim spiritual consciousness.” The Meeting Place Association, Arise and Ascend: A Guide to the Temple Mount, Jerusalem 2015, p.15. 

However, the majority of Temple activists remain adamant that they want rights of access to, and freedom of worship at, the Esplanade, not to demolish the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Claims that this does not mean that they wish to rebuild the Temple, however, seem disingenuous. Pressed on his aims, one Temple activist insisted that he was fighting for the establishment of a “house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7. He refused to engage in any specifics over what would happen then.

Some in the movement of Temple activists – and among the settlers – have associations with the Jewish Underground. This extremist group was associated with plots to blow up al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock in preparation for the rebuilding of the Temple. Aimee Amiga, 'Israel was soft on Jewish terrorists in the 1980s – will history repeat itself?,' Haaretz, 11 February 2016.

The rebuilding of the Temple forms part of the divine plan of redemption, according to some Jewish theologies: the Jewish diaspora will return to and settle the land, build a state and rebuild the Temple. Maimonides, 'The Rules of the Kings'; author interview with Ofer Zalzberg, 2 February 2016; International Crisis Group, Leap of Faith, p.2. The precise order in which this will happen is disputed, but it is the theological inspiration for both Temple activists and the religious settler movement.

Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Palestinian resistance

As in Israel, the dominant voices in the Palestinian nationalist movement through most of its history have been secular. Palestinian identity is not fundamentally tied to Islam: though now comparatively small, the region has always had a strong Christian presence. This has made its voice heard in much of the national rhetoric of the Palestinian Arabs through to the present day, something that forms part of the secular Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) claim to be the only true representative of the Palestinian cause. Author interview with Fatah official, 4 February 2016. 

Nevertheless, combinations of the Islamic revivalist movements sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s, the perceived failure of the secular Palestinian resistance to make significant progress, and resentment at the corruption of much of the secular Palestinian leadership drove the rising popularity of Islamist resistance groups from the 1980s on.

As tensions rose ahead of the first Intifada in 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza formed an explicitly Palestinian wing: the Islamic Resistance Movement, Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyyah. This swiftly became known by the acronym Hamas, which can also mean ‘strength’ or ‘bravery.’

From the beginning, Hamas’ aims were more than military: it sought to completely reshape Palestinian society. In the words of its charter, its aim was to establish a “complete comprehensiveness of all concepts of Islam in all domains of life: views and beliefs, politics and economics, education and society, jurisprudence and rule, indoctrination and teaching, the arts and publications, the hidden and the evident, and all other domains of life.” Hamas Charter, Article Two.

As such, Hamas established schools and clinics in both the West Bank and Gaza. Its efforts allegedly even gained support from some Israeli politicians who regarded the movement as an alternative to the PLO. Mubaraz Ahmed, 'What is Hamas?', Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, 5 October 2015. However, as its name suggests, its primary goal was resistance to Israel:

[Hamas has] raised the banner of Jihad in the face of the oppressors in order to extricate the country and the people from [their] desecration, filth and evil. Hamas Charter, Article Three. 

Following from the Islamic Movement in Israel (itself inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood), Hamas views all of historic Palestine as an Islamic waqf Hamas Charter, Article Eleven. that cannot therefore be ruled by non-Muslims. Building on this theme, the group’s Charter states that fighting for Palestinian nationalism is a religious duty for all Muslims, Hamas Charter, Article Twelve. and a peaceful compromise is to “[renounce] part of the religion.” Hamas Charter, Article Thirteen. 

The group’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, was formed in the early 1990s. The wing was named after a Syrian preacher who led a resistance against the British in the 1930s. This group, which by some estimates consists of 7-10,000 full-time fighters, launched a wave of suicide bombings, as well as more conventional attacks on Israeli targets, through both the first and the second Intifadas. Although the use of suicide bombings in the conflict is not the sole preserve of religious groups, they were relatively rare before Hamas started to employ the tactic. Ahmed, 'What is Hamas?'

With its charter refusing to allow anything more than a temporary truce with Israel, Hamas did not recognise the negotiated end of the second Intifada in 2005. However, its violence has not only been targeted at Israel. The largest party in the PLO, Fatah, lost its majority in the Palestinian parliament to Hamas in elections in 2006. Ensuing clashes between the rival groups’ militias left over 200 dead. In the summer of 2007, this was followed by a short civil war that left Hamas in control of Gaza, and Fatah ruling the West Bank. Attempts at reconciliation between the two parties have so far failed to bear fruit. Ibid.

From its base in Gaza, Hamas has continued its conflict with Israel, leading to Israeli incursions into the territory in 2006 (Operation Summer Rains), 2009 (Cast Lead), and 2012 (Pillar of Defence). A further June 2014 escalation (Operation Protective Edge), which followed sustained rocket fire from Gaza and the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, left over 2,000 dead. While these military operations represent the most severe moments in the cycle of violence, rocket, mortar and other attacks from the Strip on Israel have continued between them. Militants associated with Hamas have also continued to launch attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem. 

Yet much as Hamas dominates the Islamist side of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, it is not the only Islamist militant group operating there. Palestinian Islamic Jihad was formed in Gaza in the early 1980s as an offshoot of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Its founders were also associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the group has worked with Hamas in the past, it operates independently. Notable attacks include the deadly Mercaz HaRavyeshiva shooting in 2008. 

The presence of Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza is a more recent feature of the conflict. In June 2015, ISIS posted a video threatening Hamas, condemning the group for its crackdowns on Salafis in the coastal enclave, and its perceived failure to implement sharia law. A more serious charge regarded Hamas’ willingness to cooperate with Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah, and its focus on Palestinian nationalism. Ibid.

ISIS’ intervention in the conflict is in any case an unsurprising phenomenon. It has long been used as a rallying call by Islamists elsewhere. Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian leading recruiter of the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s, and co-founder of al-Qaeda, was determined that the jihadis’ attention should focus on Palestine when the Afghan conflict was over. Cited in Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, I.B. Tauris: London, 2007, p.147. In attempting to claim the mantle of Islamic resistance to Israel from Hamas, ISIS followed up with a message delivered in almost perfect Hebrew (probably by an Israeli-Arab) calling for the ‘liberation’ of al-Aqsa and “returning the terror to the Jews.” Adam Hoffman, 'A Message to Jerusalem: ISIS Threatens Israel,' Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, 26 October 2015.

Current violence

The current wave of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank is broadly spontaneous, and points to long-standing frustrations boiling over. Here too, however, we see that there is a religious backdrop, as well as a nationalist one, to the violence. While tensions had been simmering since before the 2014 Gaza war, the immediate trigger for the rise in the violence in the autumn of 2015  seems to have been rumours that the Israeli government planned to change the status quo on access to the Holy Esplanade. Despite repeated and vigorous denials by the Israeli government, both the Islamic Movement in Israel and Hamas stepped up their campaigns to ‘protect’ the site, and there were fierce clashes between protestors and security forces around the complex. Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, ‘What’s Behind the Growing Violence in Jerusalem?, 13 October 2015. Israeli authorities responded by outlawing the Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch. In a separate case, relating to a sermon in 2007, its leader Raed Salah was jailed for incitement to violence in Spring 2016.

However, the ‘lone wolf’ manner in which much of the violence is carried out, with individuals ramming pedestrians at bus stops, or random stabbings, suggests a lack of any particular organisation directing matters. Hamas and other groups laud the actions of individuals (mostly from the West Bank and East Jerusalem), describing Palestinians killed as ‘martyrs.’ Yet a worrying development came in April 2016 with the bombing of a bus in Jerusalem. The attack wounded 21 people, and was claimed by Hamas in the West Bank.

Extremists on both sides are escalating the religious rhetoric around the violence. Jewish extremists launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for a Passover sacrifice on the Esplanade in April 2016 (a highly religiously unorthodox move), while the Islamic Movement was (again) claiming that Israel was digging under the complex.; Passover passed relatively quietly, however. The Israeli authorities pulled out all the stops to limit the number of Jews who managed to access the Esplanade, with police reissuing a ban on Knesset members and Israeli ministers visiting. Times of Israel, ‘Police: MKs, ministers banned from Temple Mount on Passover’, 22 April 2016. On Passover eve, police arrested ten Temple activists heading to the area to sacrifice a goat. 

Religion and the conflict

Despite the many religious aspects to the Israel-Palestine dispute, it is also a nationalist one. Two peoples lay claim to the same piece of land. The fact that the same piece of land has immense religious and cultural significance to the majority religions of both nations adds a layer of complexity.

But the conflict is not only the domain of Israelis and Palestinians. The religious importance of the land is shared by a further four billion people across the world. Since the creation of the State of Israel, regional states have supported the Palestinian cause both verbally and by force of arms. This support makes regional buy-in to any peace deal vital. The 2002 peace initiative presented by the Arab League, which offered Arab recognition of Israel subject to conditions, was a good start. 

While those identified with the Israeli national-religious movement will be most hawkish regarding settlements in the West Bank (and their numbers give them a substantial influence on the Israeli government), a far greater proportion of the Israeli population will not compromise over Jerusalem, but would give up the West Bank. Recent polling showed that 52 per cent of the Israeli population held that it is more important for Israel to have a Jewish majority than sovereignty over the whole of the Land of Israel. 22 per cent said that sovereignty was more important than a Jewish majority, and 19 per cent said that they were equally important. Israel Democracy Institute, The Peace Index, 9 May 2016.

Among Palestinians, opposition to the settlements is much more national than religious, and the continued expansion of settlements makes the possibility of a contiguous and viable, independent Palestinian state all the more distant The matter is more confused when it comes to the Holy Esplanade, but even this is a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, as well as a holy site.

Yet the religious aspects of the conflict feed off one another. Temple activists demanding the right to pray on the Holy Esplanade bolster the likes of the Islamic Movement and Hamas in claiming to protect the site. Attacks on settler communities in the West Bank bolster those in what Israelis refer to as the national-religious block who claim the presence of Palestinians is a threat. One of the triggers of the 2014 Gaza war was the retaliatory murders of Muslim and Jewish teenagers by Hamas and Jewish extremists.

The Israel-Palestine conflict cannot be resolved without engaging with the nationalist sentiments at its heart. But failure to engage with the way in which these nationalist sentiments are fueled by religious symbolism makes a continuing cycle of violence inevitable.