Currently, there are more than 2.2 billion Christians, 1.7 billion Muslims and at least 15 million Jews around the world, according to the World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States and the Pew Research Center.
What do all of these people, who together represent about 57 percent of the world’s population, have in common?
They all claim a volatile area of the Middle East — known as Israel to some and as Palestine to others — as an important historical place for their religion. Generations of observers have called this area the “Holy Land,” because it is the site of the ancient Hebrew kingdom of Israel, the place where Jesus proclaimed the Christian gospel and home of the third holiest site in Sunni Islam, Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Given how important the area is to so many people, what has kept its residents from simply enjoying the sacred beauty and living in peace?
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major source of tension across the Middle East and between faith traditions around the world,” said U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, a Democrat who represents Indiana’s 7th Congressional District, which covers most of Indianapolis.
In comments shared exclusively with the Recorder, Carson highlighted obstacles that have stood in the way of Middle East peace for generations. Like many concerned government officials, he noted that the ongoing dispute over land and other matters between Israelis and Palestinians has been a serious challenge to peacemakers.
“There are major disagreements over core faith issues, like who should control Jerusalem, as well as moral issues about Palestinian rights and violence toward Israelis,” Carson said.
Jonathan R. White, a professor of interdisciplinary studies in the Frederik Meijer Honors College of Grand Valley State University, agrees with Carson. Religious concerns, he said, are at the center of the conflict between the mostly Jewish Israelis and the predominantly Muslim Palestinians.
“The religious differences in the region have developed over centuries, and fanaticism in any one of them can spawn violence,” said White, a recognized expert on religious terrorism and national security issues who has conducted counterterrorism training for law enforcement and military forces.
This week, two incidents served as reminders that events in the Middle East, especially the area known to some as Israel and others as Palestine, continue to concern people around the world.
On Sunday afternoon, a Palestinian drove a truck into a crowd of Israeli soldiers, killing four of them near the Old City section of Jerusalem. This action angered supporters of Israel.
On Tuesday, various news reports revealed that the incoming Donald Trump administration has told U.S. allies that it has plans to move the United States embassy in Israel from the city of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this year.
With this change, the U.S would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, although it is a disputed city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. This action, diplomats from various countries have said, would anger supporters of the Palestinians.
By the time WWI ended in 1918, the area that was once Canaan and Judeah (the ancient kingdom of Israel) was known as Palestine and populated mostly by Muslim Arabs. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the war, the British oversaw Palestine, and the city of Jerusalem became a neutral international zone.
At the same time, the Zionist movement grew, leading thousands of Jews to settle in Palestine to escape persecution in other countries, establishing a homeland for the Jewish people. Some wished to restore “Eretz Israel,” or the Greater Israel of biblical times.
“The modern state of Israel is not the nation mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles or the Islamic Quran,” White said. “It is a secular power dominated by people of European descent.”
Since the 1970s, the United States has tried to directly facilitate peace agreements between Israel and Arab nations supporting the Palestinians. The most successful of these were the 1978 Camp David Accords, a separate peace arrangement between Egypt and Israel, and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994.
In most other instances, however, American efforts to promote peace have met resistance from extremists on both sides who refuse to compromise. Also, some Arab leaders do not trust the United States as a fair peace broker due to its record of aid to Israel. They are not impressed by its large amount of aid to the Arab state of Egypt.
“The United States provides Israel with extraordinary levels of economic, diplomatic and especially military support,” said Michael Desch, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “Not only does the United States have Israel’s back — it has its front, top and bottom, too.”
Christians often find themselves in the middle of the conflict, either remaining neutral or embracing the cause of one side over the other.
Some Christians, such as Hilarion Capucci, a Syrian Catholic archbishop who died last week, have supported freedom for Palestinians. Others have staunchly backed Israel, like former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who was in Israel last week to support the expansion of Israeli settlements.
Some observers say Israel’s refusal to stop building Jewish settlements on Arab land in Gaza, and keeping Palestinians under a “police state” type of occupation, has derailed the peace process.
John Mersheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, says Israel has become “an apartheid state” that operates much like the former white-ruled South Africa.
“There are already separate laws, separate roads and separate housing in occupied territories, and the Palestinians are essentially confined to impoverished enclaves,” Mearsheimer said. “This is not sustainable in the long term.”
Others, however, believe the major problem in the region is the inability or unwillingness of Palestinians to control terrorists in their ranks and guarantee security for Israel.
Congressman Luke Messer, a Republican who represents Indiana’s 6th District east of Indianapolis, is among those who believe Hamas is the biggest cause of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The difference between our ally, Israel, and Hamas is that Israel tries to avoid civilian casualties. Hamas cheers when it brings civilian causalities on the other side,” Messer said. “Israel uses its weapons to protect its people; Hamas and its allies use people, civilians in the area, to protect their weapons. We have to be clear that the true cause of all of these deaths is Hamas and its unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist and its unwillingness to lay down its arms.”
Messer, who visited Israel during his first term in Congress, said he has personally witnessed “the siege mentality” among Israelis who must be prepared daily for rocket attacks by Hamas.
Carson believes there has been too much suffering in the conflict on both sides. He said that as a Muslim, he knows that each person has value and deserves respect, no matter their ethnicity, background or circumstances. As a congressman he cares about those who are suffering and would like to see stakeholders in the region address the situation as a humanitarian crisis.
“For me, this conflict is a question of how we treat people,” Carson said. “Too often people get stuck on long-term diplomatic concerns, which are critical but ambiguous, without considering how people in Palestine and Israel are suffering every day. These men, women and children need relief and should be our first consideration.”
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with political parties that disagree on some issues, but quickly unite on matters of national security. However, the Palestinian leadership is hampered by a division between its two main groups: Fatah, which is willing to negotiate with Israel, and Hamas, which is not.
Carson calls Palestinian disunity one of the biggest challenges.
“So long as Hamas continues to call for the destruction of Israel, there is no hope for reconciliation or a true peace process,” said Carson. “Recent talks between Hamas and Fatah make me hopeful that unity can be achieved in a way that will move peace efforts forward.”
In recent years, diplomats and the United Nations have proposed two main solutions for the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.
One solution, called the “one-state solution,” calls for a single state in Israel, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where most Palestinians live. All residents would have citizenship and equal rights under this arrangement, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Another solution is the “two-state solution,” with Israel and an actual Palestinian state functioning independently side by side.
Carson said that, although current political dynamics do not offer much hope for peace in the near future, people in the 7th District and everywhere can still make their voices heard in support of peace.
“We should also realize that this does not have a black and white solution,” Carson said. “Peace will require us to look at all sides, not just stand firm with the Israelis or Palestinians. We need to look at what is right and what it takes to get there, then find others who want to support peace efforts.”