Who’s Holy Land is it? A history of the most contested swath of land in the Middle East


Peace in the Middle East. After millennia of fighting, is such a thing even achievable? To this day, the Holy Land remains perhaps the most hotly contested piece of territory in the Middle East, if not the world. From its Mediterranean Sea coastline to the Jordan River, with a rocky landscape in between, home to the Dead Sea — the lowest elevation on the face of the earth – a history of conflict has garnered more headlines through the years than the fact that Israel and the West Bank are home to myriad sacred and historic sites significant to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Why would thousands of people over centuries fight for the right to live in a country roughly the size of New Jersey?
Israel has a long and complex history, tied to the Jewish people since Biblical times, hence their claim to the land. But the Jewish people have not always occupied it. The Holy Land has changed hands many times over the centuries, spurring other peoples to claim the land as their own. The main question in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains: Who has the right to the land?
It is not an easy web to untangle. It’s a story of conquering and being conquered, settling and resettling.
According to Biblical accounts, which the Jewish people point to in defense of their claim even they were aliens in the land that became Judea. Though God promised a land “flowing with milk and honey” to Abraham and his descendants, it was mere generations before those descendants left that land for Egypt and better prospects for food in the midst of famine. After decades of slavery in that country, God chose Moses to lead the Jewish people back to the land he had promised them. At that point, the Canaanites – peoples of various indigenous populations across the Levant – had settled there and the Israelites were expected to fight, and eradicate, most of these ancient peoples to reclaim their land.
Two kingdoms of Israel (in the north), and Judah (in the south) inhabited the land that first became known as Palestine in the 12th century B.C., with written records showing the term “Peleset” was used by the 20th Dynasty of Egypt to describe the neighboring land to their north.
Even after centuries of occupation, these two kingdoms were both conquered, one by the Assyrian Empire and the other by the Babylonians (respectively). The Kingdom of Israel vanished from the earth; the Judean people were exiled to the far reaches of the Babylonian Empire, and the Temple of Solomon destroyed.
When the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland and build the Second Temple around 550 B.C.
Following the death of Jesus Christ and the birth of Christianity, Judea, which had been a Roman ally since the second century B.C., was made a province of the Roman Empire in 6 A.D. However, in the year 70 A.D., in the course of the Jewish-Roman War, the Roman Empire besieged Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and killed or enslaved most of the Jewish people living therein. Though many Jewish people remained in some areas of Palestine, the majority had been scattered across the Empire.
Over the centuries of Roman rule and the rise of Christianity, the Holy Land became less Jewish and more Christian. The remains of the Empire had transferred to Constantinople by the time Rome fell to barbarian invasion and became known as the Byzantine Empire.
The rapid rise and spread of Islam in the 7th century led to the conquest of the Holy Land yet again. The Dome of the Rock was built upon the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, between 685-691 A.D., by the caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan as a mashhad, or shrine for pilgrims. Its golden dome above the Western Wall, which existed in the time of Jesus, forms an iconic image of Jerusalem known to many the world over.
Christians would reconquer and occupy the Levant for a short-lived period of the Middle Ages, establishing the Crusader States. With the fall of Acre – in coastal northern Israel today – in 1291 A.D., Muslim caliphates gained full control of the Holy Land for centuries, eventually being overtaken by the large and powerful Ottoman Empire until its collapse after World War I.
Even while the Holy Land remained under Christian and Muslim control for centuries, Jewish people remaining there and throughout Europe faced varying levels of persecution and expulsion from places they had lived for decades. In the late 1800s, the Zionist movement – the desire of many Jews to return to “Zion” or the land of their ancestry – expanded in response to anti-Semitism in Europe. Jewish people began to move back to Palestine. As the Ottoman Empire had sided with the Central Powers in World War I, Allied forces conquered the Levant in the Middle Eastern Theater of the war, and the Palestine area came under British control.
In the early 20th century, the League of Nations instituted the Mandate system to administer non-self-governing territories. On July 24, 1922, the League entrusted Great Britain with the Mandate for Palestine, with the body recognizing, “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.”
The Mandate for Palestine recognized the historic homeland of the Jewish people. With this official recognition and the growing Zionism movement, more Jewish people emigrated to the region, leading to hostilities between them and those already living there, particularly Arabs.
The end of World War II only exacerbated the situation, and the British chose to evacuate, ending the Mandate on May 15, 1948. Israeli leaders, led by first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, declared the formation of their new state on May 14, 1948. Israel was admitted to the United Nations a year later.
The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 broke out immediately afterward when five Arab nations – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, with Saudi Arabia sending a formation that fought under the Egyptian command, invaded territory in the former Palestinian mandate.
The Israeli forces repelled the attacks and eventually gained the offensive. A year later, in July 1949, separate agreements were reached between Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Syria, establishing formal armistice lines.
In the agreements, Israel added some territory formerly granted to Palestinian Arabs under the United Nations resolution in 1947, while Egypt retained control over the Gaza Strip and Jordan over the West Bank respectively.
The Six-Day War, as it is known to Israelis, was waged from June 5-10, 1967, primarily against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. By the end, Israel defeated the three Arab armies and expanded its territory to four times its original sizes, capturing East Jerusalem, including the Old City, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Israel’s gradual return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt was completed in 1982.
Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is in the West Bank, outside Jerusalem, where he was crucified and buried.
In 1994, Palestinian self-government was implemented in the Gaza Strip and Jericho area of the West Bank. Also, that year, Israel and Jordan signed the Oslo Accords – for which Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Full diplomatic relations with the Holy See were also established in 1994.
In 1995, Palestinian self-government was broadened with its implementation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land in 2000.
In ensuing years, a constant series of attacks by Hamas in Gaza lead to Israel launching a series of airstrikes on Hamas targets in December 2008, with the war ending three weeks later with a unilateral Israeli ceasefire, although it would not be the end of conflict between Israel and Hamas.
On December 6, 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
For two weeks in May 2021, there was a major outbreak in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Golan Heights and along the Lebanon border. It began with the Jerusalem District Court’s eviction of six Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
On October 7, 2023, more than 1,200 Israelis and other nationals were killed and more than 200 others, including more than 30 children, taken hostage and brought back into Gaza in a surprise attack by more than 1,300 Hamas terrorists, prompting a strong Israeli response. The current Israel-Gaza War has as its objectives the freeing of the hostages and the ending of Hamas rule in the coastal enclave.