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Nichols: Gaza conflict goes back to Isaac, Ishmael

POSTED: January 13, 2009 1:00 a.m.

The dispute between Israel and its Muslim neighbors is very complex and dates back about 4,000 years. According to the Bible (and parts of the Quran), Abram (later renamed Abraham) was a successful family man living around 2,000 B.C. in what is now Iraq.

One day, he had a vision in which God told him to pack up and move west. He reached the land of Canaan, now Palestine, after a long difficult journey. There, God told Abram, "Unto thy seed will I give this land." Genesis 12:7.

Later God promised Abraham, "And I will give unto thee and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession ..." Genesis 17.8.

When Abraham told his wife, who was childless, about the message, she laughed and said she was too old. She suggested that her husband might sleep with the young Egyptian handmaid, Hagar. He followed his wife's suggestion, and Hagar produced the firstborn child of Abraham, Ishmael.
Sometime later, Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham his second son, the first legitimate son, Isaac.

Sarah and Hagar argued as to which son was the more important. Sarah forced Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from his campsite.

Ishmael became the first Arab. Isaac became the first Jew. According to Arab tradition, Ishmael flourished in the desert, and went with Abraham to build the Kabah, the House of Allah in Mecca. (Quran 2:125)

So which of Abraham's seed should inherit Palestine? Primogeniture suggests that the firstborn should succeed. But Ishmael was illegitimate. The first legal son of Abraham was Isaac, who fathered the children of Israel. Today, one can normally be a Jew only if one's mother is a Jew, like Sarah.

The Jews did establish a major nation called Greater Israel, with famous kings such as Solomon and David. They controlled Israel for much of the period between Abraham and the Roman conquest. But the Jews were often conquered and were "scattered" twice.

When the Romans forced the Jews out, the Arabs moved in, though some Jews did remain in Palestine. The Crusaders established a Christian kingdom in Jerusalem but it lasted only a hundred years. Otherwise, the Arabs ruled most of the last 2,000 years.

Prior to the first World War, Palestine was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Turkey chose to support the Germans in World War I, and lost its colonies as a result. Great Britain was given Palestine to govern as a mandate from the League of Nations.

Britain opened the doors to Jewish immigrants. Incoming Jews and local Arabs conflicted. Terrorist gangs arose on both sides. After Adolf Hitler came into power in Germany, the number of incoming Jews increased. So did the friction between the two peoples.

After World War II, the British could no longer continue to govern Palestine. They turned it over to the United Nations, which divided Palestine, half for the Jews, half for the Arabs. The Jews accepted, but the Arabs refused.

So in 1947-48, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out. It was the first of several wars between the Arabs and Israel. In those wars, Israel won control of all Palestine. Later, Gaza and the West Bank could become Arab Palestine.

Gaza is a strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea bordering Egypt and Israel. It contains only 139 square miles, and is heavily populated with about 1.4 million mostly Arab Muslims. The Israeli military occupied the Gaza Strip for 27 years. In 2005, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, formally ended the military occupation of the Gaza Strip. Israel withdrew completely from Gaza.

In early 2006, Hamas won 74 seats out of 132 in a new parliament for Gaza. The next year Hamas and Fatah fought each other for supremacy. Hamas won.

Hamas is at war with Israel. Why? Israel has no military or settlers still in Gaza. Hamas thinks the land of Canaan given by God to the seed of Abraham should go to the children of Abraham's first son, Ishmael. First is first, regardless of legitimacy.

In the last three years, the Hamas military have launched more than 6,000 rockets into Israeli territory. Perhaps Hamas is playing a wicked game of placing their launchers near population centers so that Israeli retaliation inevitably causes civilian casualties.

However, in this extremely densely populated strip, almost any retaliation by Israel will cause civilian casualties. This increases Arab hatred of Israel, and perhaps increases the reputation of Hamas among terrorists of the world as a fearless David attacking the giant of Israel in spite of any retaliation.

The situation is thus a continuation of a dispute lasting some 4,000 years. Military means will not solve this dispute. Diplomacy falls on deaf ears. Money and trade have no influence.

I hope the new U.S. administration will have different ideas that might help bring peace back to this troubled area.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville whose columns appear regularly.



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