President Joe Biden arrived in Israel this morning to show support for Israel. His trip comes less than a day after a horrific blast at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza, which was sheltering thousands of displaced people when it was bombed. More than five hundred people were killed.
Palestinian officials blamed Israeli airstrikes, but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) “categorically” denied any involvement in the attack, blaming a “failed rocket launch” by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a rival militant group in Gaza. President Biden likewise assigned blame to “the other team,” not Israel. Independent analysts who reviewed footage of the explosion also supported the IDF’s denial.
Meanwhile, a different kind of conflict is continuing in American society. Many critics of Israel have claimed for many years that they “colonized” their land from its rightful Palestinian owners and that the state continues to “oppress” the Palestinians. This explains the support voiced on many university campuses and in cultural centers for Hamas after their October 7 atrocities.
So let’s ask: Who are the Palestinians? Did Israel steal their land? Is their plight in Gaza Israel’s fault? How should Christians view them today?
Is this colonialism?
“Palestine” derives from “Philistia,” the name given by Greek writers to the land occupied by the biblical Philistines. The Romans called the area “Syria Palestina.” It was ruled successively by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, and the Ottoman Empire.
After World War I, the area came under British control. In 1947, the United Nations approved a “Partition Plan” whereby the West Bank (so-named for its location on the west bank of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea) and the Gaza Strip would become the nation of Palestine. The remainder of the area would become the State of Israel.
Jewish authorities accepted the plan; Arab leaders rejected it, leading to Israel’s War for Independence in 1948 and the creation of their nation.
The people commonly called “Palestinians” today largely descend from Arabs who conquered the area in the seventh century during the first era of Muslim expansionism, as well as those who emigrated from Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia, and other Arab nations in the nineteenth century. The vast majority are Muslim, though there is a significant Christian minority. I have several Palestinian Christian friends in the West Bank.
This history gives the lie to the claim that Israelis are “colonizers.” They were present from the time of Joshua until the Roman Empire dispersed them, though many remained in the land afterward. There were eras when the land was dominated by Christians (AD 324–640; 1095–1291) as well as Muslims (AD 640–1095; 1291–1917).
If we wish to “return” the land to its rightful owners, to whom would we give it—Canaanites, Jews, Christians, or Arabs?
Is Israel an oppressor?
When Israel warned Gaza residents to flee from their homes for their own safety, Hamas told them to stay. Hamas would rather use Gaza residents as human shields and their potential deaths as propaganda fodder. Sen. Mitt Romney was right: “Do not forget the lives that you will see lost on TV. Israeli lives and Palestinian lives [lost] are all the result of Hamas.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board agreed. After describing Hamas’s strategy of hiding its soldiers and weapons behind civilians, it noted: “Blaming Israel for . . . civilian casualties amounts to denying the Jewish state its right to self-defense. It means that Hamas can launch attacks on Israel with the goal of slaughtering women and children, but Israel can’t attack Hamas in Gaza because civilians might be unintentional casualties. It means Hamas would retain a terrorist sanctuary from which it can attack Israel whenever it has the means and opportunity.”
In a recent New York Times article, David Brooks timelines opportunities for the Palestinians to create a two-state solution with Israel. He lists several major peace efforts: the Oslo process, the Cairo Agreement, Oslo II, the Hebron Protocol, and the Wye River Plantation meeting.
Late in the year 2000, for example, the Israeli cabinet accepted a plan that would have created a Palestinian state. However, Brooks writes, “Yasir Arafat [the Palestinian leader] did what he generally did. He never said no, but he never said yes.”
According to Forbes, Arafat died a billionaire. Mahmoud Abbas, his successor and the current leader of Fatah (which controls the West Bank), is worth an estimated $300 million. The leaders of Hamas, many of whom live in luxury in Qatar, are likewise estimated to be billionaires.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens cites a 2014 Wall Street Journal report that with the money Hamas could have spent to build a single tunnel to infiltrate into Israel, it could have purchased construction supplies “enough to build eighty-six homes, seven mosques, six schools, or nineteen medical clinics.” At the time, Israel had identified at least thirty-two such tunnels.
Stephens concludes: “The central cause of Gaza’s misery is Hamas. It alone bears the blame for the suffering it has inflicted on Israel and knowingly invited against Palestinians. The best way to end the misery is to remove the cause, not stay the hand of the remover.”
A thought experiment
Let’s close with a thought experiment: Why doesn’t Israel take Palestinian hostages?
Because Hamas would pay nothing to get them back since it has essentially taken the entire populace hostage and views the Palestinian people as a means to its jihadist ends.
Conversely, why does Hamas take Israeli hostages?
Because Israel, grounded in the biblical worldview, values every human life.
As should we.
God loves Palestinians just as much as he loves Jews (cf. Galatians 3:28). We are each made in his image (Genesis 1:27), someone for whom Jesus died (Romans 5:8).
Consequently, please join me in praying daily for protection for civilians on both sides of this conflict, Israeli and Palestinian. Pray for the “shalom” of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), which is peace in the region based on justice and righteousness (cf. Isaiah 1:17). And pray that God would redeem this unfolding tragedy by leading many Jews and Muslims to Christ as their Messiah.
To that end, let’s make these words from the Book of Common Prayer our intercession today:
O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
NOTE: Bold Faith, our latest book release, follows the book of Acts because there we find clear examples of Christ’s continued work through Christians as a result of the Spirit’s influence in their lives. As a Christian, that same Spirit resides just as much in your life. But if we have the same Holy Spirit in us as they did, why does it often seem like we struggle to have the same impact on our culture today? Read more by requesting your copy of Bold Faith today.