“A struggle is now raging over the heart of Jerusalem,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated yesterday. He was addressing riots in the Old City of Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. What sparked the violence?
Thomas Friedman explains in today’s New York Times: Jerusalem Day is an Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and establishment of Israeli control over the Old City after the Six-Day War in 1967. It was celebrated with prayer services at the Western Wall beginning Sunday night.
It roughly coincided with Muslims’ Laylat al-Qadr, or “Night of Power”, commemorating the night when the first verse of the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. It is the most sacred night of the Islamic calendar and is marked by thousands of Muslims gathering at the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.
As Israelis celebrated Jerusalem Day, Palestinians threw rocks at them. Israeli police raided the mosque, where Palestinians had stockpiled stones. Hundreds of Palestinians were wounded; more than twenty Israeli police officers suffered injuries as well.
Yesterday’s violence was part of a weeks-long escalation. A month ago, Israel blocked some Palestinian gatherings at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Then a plan to evict dozens of Palestinians from an East Jerusalem neighborhood engendered further conflicts.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, has called for a new intifada—or uprising—in response. Hamas militants fired a barrage of rockets into Israel yesterday, one setting off air raid sirens as far away as Jerusalem. The Israeli military responded with airstrikes.
I have led more than thirty study tours to Israel and love the Holy Land deeply. I have lifelong Jewish friends in Jerusalem and Palestinian friends in Bethlehem. Out of my decades of travel to the region, I have a personal insight I’d like to share with you today. But first, let’s consider a very brief overview of the region from two perspectives.
The Jewish version
The Jewish people believe that the land we call Israel was promised to them through Abraham (Genesis 12:7). His grandson Jacob became the father of twelve sons who became the progenitors of twelve tribes. Under Joshua, these tribes took possession of the land of Canaan in obedience to God’s direction.
Around 950 BC, King Solomon completed the first temple atop Mt. Moriah (1 Kings 6) where Abraham had offered Isaac centuries earlier (Genesis 22). After that temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, it was rebuilt when the Jews returned to their land from Babylonian captivity but was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Following the second Jewish revolt in AD 132, Emperor Hadrian quashed their armies and scattered their people. He renamed the land “Palestine” (the Latin version of “Philistine,” the sea peoples that inhabited the Mediterranean coastal plain of the nation). Until 1948, the Holy Land would be known as Palestine and its inhabitants as Palestinians.
In AD 312, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized his new religion the next year. This began the Byzantine or “Christian” era in Israel. However, in AD 637, an Arab Muslim advance conquered Jerusalem and Palestine. The Muslim era continued until the Crusaders “liberated” and ruled the land from 1095–1291.
Egyptian Mamluks drove the Crusaders from Palestine and controlled the land until the Ottoman Turks gained control in 1517. They dominated Palestine until they were defeated by the British in World War I. In 1917, the British Empire was given control of Palestine. They left in 1947; on May 14, 1948, the modern State of Israel was born.
However, the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque stand), remained under Jordanian control. In 1967, Israel gained control of all of Jerusalem. They allow Jordanian administration of the Temple Mount itself, while Israel controls the Western Wall and adjacent areas.
Nonetheless, Israel considers the entire, united city of Jerusalem to be its capital.
The Muslim version
Muslims tell the story very differently. They believe that Abraham offered not Isaac but Ishmael to God. Since they trace the Arab race to Ishmael, this makes the Arab nation God’s “chosen people,” not the Jews.
They also believe that the Prophet Muhammad was transported by God from Mt. Moriah to heaven and returned to Mecca the same night, making Mt. Moriah their third-holiest site (after Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet, and Medina, where he died). They completed the Dome of the Rock in AD 691 as a shrine over this location, followed by the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Arab Muslim residents of Palestine who were displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 still claim the land as their own. Some, such as the leaders of Hamas, believe that the Jews should be driven from the region and the entire land reclaimed for a modern nation of “Palestine.” Many who reject the existence of Israel also claim that the Jewish temples never existed in Jerusalem.
Other Palestinians seek a “two-state” solution whereby Israel would keep some of the land and the Palestinians the rest. Both Palestinian groups claim East Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount) as the capital of a future nation of Palestine.
In recent years, Jewish settlers have been building homes and communities in the West Bank (an area located on the western bank of the Jordan river and including East Jerusalem). Many do not recognize the Palestinians’ right to the land; some claim the entire region as part of God’s mandate for the Jewish people. This land, however, is vital to a future Palestinian state, making the “settlements” extremely controversial and problematic.
“The way of peace they have not known”
As much as I love my Jewish and Palestinian friends in the Holy Land, I am convinced that the solution to their conflict lies with neither. Controlling the city of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount or finding a way for both peoples to live in one tiny region will not create the peace each seeks.
This is because we cannot have true peace with each other until we are at peace with God. Peace is one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), God’s gift to those who have made his Son their Savior and Lord. Otherwise, as Paul explained, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9) so that “none is righteous, no, not one” (v. 10) and “the way of peace they have not known” (v. 17).
The good news is that, according to friends of mine who are missionaries in the Middle East, Muslims and Jews are coming to faith in Jesus in unprecedented numbers. We can “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) by praying for all who live in Jerusalem and the Holy Land to meet the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:7).
Would you join me in making this your daily prayer, beginning today?