Saved You A Google: The Israel and Palestine conflict

Saved You A Google: The Israel and Palestine conflict

During Christmas, everybody thinks about the nativity scene. Nobody thinks about Palestine.

Photos from Time and Mustafa Hassouna (Andalou Agency for Getty)


It is impossible not to come across Bethlehem in the most random places of the Philippines at this time of the year. The biblical city has pride of place in the annual Christmas frenzy, and it is a tradition for the biggest cathedrals or even many homes to put up a Belén display.

The Belén of our displays (the name is simply Spanish for Bethlehem) understandably focuses on the triumphant moment of Christ’s birth, often passing over the disquiet conveyed in the Gospel of Matthew in silence: that of the jealous King Herod eager to see the newborn child dead and the resulting massacre of the innocents.


Dread was no stranger to the nativity story and has never been so to the city of Bethlehem, much less so today, where gold, frankincense and myrrh give way to rubber bullets, tear gas and skunk water.


Dread was no stranger to the nativity story and has never been so to the city of Bethlehem, much less so today, where gold, frankincense and myrrh give way to rubber bullets, tear gas and skunk water – gifts to those impudent enough to dare learn at the temple of the streets in occupied Palestine. The situation in occupied Palestine is as dire as ever and an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight – yet somehow, whatever sense of spiritual connection Filipinos feel they have with this land has not made them better informed about its fortunes.

This is no surprise for a conflict as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian one. It might be tempting to wade one’s way back in time through thousands of years of history, but in fact, the conflict as we know it today is best understood in the context of events that date back only to a few centuries ago.

A brief history

The Zionist movement, the force behind the establishment of modern-day Israel, had its concrete beginnings among Germanophone Jews in the 19th century. It was the era not only of rising nationalism across Europe, but also of intensified colonial activity among European powers. This was the milieu where Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist Organization, which aimed for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Jewish ancestral homeland, i.e., a national home for the Jewish people.

The problem was that the area of modern-day Israel and Palestine has never been the exclusive homeland of any one people – throughout its history, this land, holy to three faiths, has been called home by several peoples, ancestors of modern-day Jews and Palestinians alike. As such, European Zionism faced the inconvenience of having to establish a state on land with an existing resident population. The Zionist project nevertheless proceeded in earnest, and by 1917 the British would issue the landmark Balfour Declaration where, as prospective administrators of Palestine following World War I,  they committed to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The immigration of European Jews to Palestine picked up pace right as the condition of Jews in Europe was rapidly deteriorating, reaching a climax with the Nazi murder of six million Jews. To a people that faced carnage, Palestine could not have but represented a place of safety and refuge.

Photo from

However, Zionism’s goal has never been simply flight from a war that it after all precedes. Refuge – the right of every human being caught in war – would not normally lead to the establishment of a new ethnocentric state for refugees in a land that already has native residents, who in turn are somehow expected to accept their own dispossession and to surrender their homeland to the newcomers.

Unfortunately, this was the very story of Zionism in its encounter with the Palestinians. This explains the divergent Jewish and Palestinian-Arab responses to the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which would see Palestine divided into Jewish and Arab states. Though the partition would have given the Jewish state only over half of Palestinian territory, Jewish representatives accepted the plan, as it was already a significant Zionist victory to achieve international validation for their long-standing goal of a Jewish state. At the same time, Palestinians saw the partition as an unfair imposition, as it would arbitrarily see their homeland reduced to a state less than half in size.

The catastrophe

War between Israelis and Arabs immediately broke out following the plan’s adoption at the UN General Assembly, and these events would come to be remembered by Israelis as their War of Independence and by Palestinians as the Nakba, “the Catastrophe.” At war’s end, the State of Israel would be established, though at an exceedingly high cost: the dispossession and displacement of about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled from their homes, and whose descendants now make up the five million Palestinian refugees of today.

Israel would eventually extend its control to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the Six-Day War of 1967. International consensus considers these areas as illegally occupied Palestinian territory that would eventually belong to a full-fledged Palestinian state in the much-touted two-state solution, subject to final negotiations.

The present humanitarian cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip, remains grave. According to a fact sheet published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in December 2017, the occupation continues to deny Palestinians control over basic aspects of their daily life as well as over the development of their country. UN OCHA notes the particularly dire situation in Gaza, given the decade-long Israeli blockade. This territory of two million people is suffering from “more than 40% unemployment, poor access to basic services and aid dependency.”

All this is happening amid continuing Israeli intransigence vis-à-vis international law, best symbolized by illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank now sheltering over 600,000 Israeli settlers. Such intransigence is not surprising from a militarized state emboldened by the growing power of far-right Zionist parties – a somber counterpoint to the violence of Islamist fundamentalists among the Palestinian resistance.

In this sort of environment, war is always threatening to break out, with the last one taking place just four years ago and costing the lives of over 2,200 Palestinians, including over 500 children, and over 70 Israelis.

The concept of “sumud”

It has been five years since I worked as a human rights monitor in Bethlehem, and the memory of daily life under occupation remains as clear as the Mediterranean sky in August. But I have an even stronger memory of the Palestinian people and their steadfastness, what they call “sumud,” a steadfastness that asserts itself even in a largely indifferent world, where the present-day misfortunes of a little town are always of less interest than events of 2,000 years ago, and where Filipino pilgrims in search of the same town have more freedom of movement in it than its native residents.

It remains to be seen how Filipinos, themselves coming from a country of the displaced and dispossessed, will stand in relation to this growing chorus for Palestine.


Sumud is, perhaps, the natural recourse for a people whose very existence is contested simply for inconveniencing a domineering ideological project, a necessary trait of a people left with no choice but to embrace resistance as their mode of being. One can only hope that this steadfastness gets a little easier over time, as more and more people, including many Jews worldwide, stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Even in the US, where criticism of Israel has long been anathema to political elites, newly elected Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar have taken unprecedented steps in solidarity with Palestinians, endorsing the global Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

It remains to be seen how Filipinos, themselves coming from a country of the displaced and dispossessed, will stand in relation to this growing chorus for Palestine. In the meantime, Palestinians have no choice but to continue steadfastly treading the path toward the next juncture of their land’s troubled history. In the end, it might just be this steadfastness that would see merrier Christmases back in Bethlehem, one befitting a Filipino Belén.

#history #holidays #politics

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