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Spiritual Justice -Introduction to Middle East  >  Geography, Religions and Conflicts of the Middle East  >  History and Background to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Early Period to 638 AD  >  History and Background to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: From 638 AD  >  The Role of the United Nations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict  > Middle East Resources

History and Background to the Israeli - Palestinian Conflict:

The early period to 638 AD


In pre-Biblical times, there was an area known as the Land of Canaan, extending from Gaza in the south and Sidon in the north which are along the East Mediterranean coast, and inland to the valley of the River Jordan.  Canaan was a collection of city-states, tributary to the Egyptian Pharaoh.  The Egyptian Empire began to break-up around 1500 BC, and according to Jewish tradition, "twelve tribes of Israel" (a type of Semitic people) entered Canaan from Egypt and conquered it, led by Moses, about 1240-1200 BC.  The Israelite kingdom first arose under Saul and then under David around about 1000 BC.  From archaeology, it is not clear if this was really an invasion from Egypt or an internal struggle between groups already inhabiting the area.  In other words, the early Israelites may have been entirely or partially indigenous to Canaan.  For maps of the region, both historical and recent, click here.

King David established Jerusalem, which represents the geographical centre of the Jewish people and the spiritual and metaphysical heart of their faith and identity, as it was in the area which became Jerusalem that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, when asked by God's emissary to do so.  Judaism began about 4,000 years ago when God spoke to Abraham to make an alliance with the people of Canaan.  There were two other founders of Judaism, being Isaac (who was Abraham's son) and Jacob (Isaac's son), whom was also known as Ishmael or Israel.  God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the "Promised Land" as long as they would accept and respect his law.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel (Semites), whom descended from Jacob or Israel, eventually found their way to Egypt and became enslaved by the Pharaoh.  But the faithful ones escaped with Moses, whom led them through the desert for 40 years.  Moses received the Tables of the Law (the Ten Commandments) on Mount Sinai.  After Moses died, Joshua led the Twelve Tribes to the "Promised Land" or Canaan.  After the break-up of the Egyptian empire, King David founded the "City of David" about 1,000 BC, then his son Solomon constructed the First Temple of Jerusalem.  Following Solomon's death, a division formed between the Twelve Tribes.  Ten tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel in the North and the other two formed the Kingdom of Judah in the South, which included Jerusalem.

In the 730s BCE the Kingdom of Israel became partly an Assyrian province and in 587 BCE the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.  The Jews were exiled from Judah to Babylon (in what is now the southern part of Iraq), marking the beginning of the Diaspora or the dispersion of Jewish people in the world.

In 538 BCE the new Persian king of Babylon, King Cyrus the Great, authorized the return of the Jews to Canaan and the construction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem occurred.  Between the 1st and 9th centuries AD the Talmud of Jerusalem and the Talmud of Babylon were written and are the fundamental texts for the Jewish religion.  During this period the Jews were living in both the Roman Empire, which was becoming Christian, and the Babylonian Empire, which was becoming Islamic.  Jews have lived in various countries since the beginning of the Diaspora as minority groups and have often been persecuted.

The main belief of Judaism is the oneness of God, who after creating the world, revealed himself to men.  Through the Alliance which God established with Abraham, the Jewish people see themselves as "the chosen people", meaning that they believe that God designated them to testify to others the presence of God, through their actions.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many non-Hebrews, the Jewish people's claim to be "the chosen people" means that they consider themselves to be the only ones who can fully carry out God's purpose on earth, and that people of other faiths can only know God's will through the mediation of the Jews (however, compare this to claims made by some Christians and even other religions).  This supposed religious exclusivity, in addition to the Jewish people's social exclusivity (i.e. believing that only those born to the Jewish faith could inherit the special relationship with God which they claim) has contributed to wide resentment and dislike of the Jewish people.

Regarding Arabic people, the origins of the Arabs are complex.  According to tradition, true Arabs are, like the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham and of Jacob's son, Ishmael (or Israel).  The word "Arab" usually means the Bedouin, tribal-based people of the Arabian desert, the birthplace of the Arabic language.  Historians generally agree that the ancient Semitic peoples included Assyrians, Aramaeans, Canaanites and Arabs whom migrated into the area known as the Fertile Crescent.                      

The Jewish people were ruled by various Persian Kings, until Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered Persia in 333 BCE and expanded his conquests as far as Egypt.  After Alexander's death in 323 BCE his lands were eventually divided into three kingdoms, including the Seleucids who controlled areas of Asia, Asia Minor and the old Babylonian Empire (Canaan).  The Romans were looking to expand their territories and fighting broke out between the Romans and the Greeks.  Rome backed the Jewish people and in 164 BCE, in Judah, under the leadership of the Maccabees (i.e. followers of Judas Maccabaeus), the people whom were descended from the line of Hasmonea, revolted.  This restored some religious and political independence.  After about 60 years, the Hasmonean state lapsed into prolonged dynastic rivalry.  The Romans occupied the land in 63 BCE.

Both the old northern and southern kingdoms of Canaan became a single province of the Roman Empire known as Judea.  During the period of Roman influence, Judea was given the Greco-Roman name "Falastina", also called Palestina, then later Palestine (after the name Philistine for the ancient inhabitants of the coastal strip of present day Israel).  In 66 AD civil war broke out in rebellion against the Jewish upper class, and in about 68 AD the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem.

Constantine the Great became Emperor in 312 AD.  He was the first monarch who embraced Christianity. The Roman Empire was divided into the Eastern (or Greco-Romano) Empire, in which Constantine renamed the old Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople.  Palestine was under the control of this eastern empire.  Under the influence of the Emperor Constantine, many Christians settled in Palestine.  In 365 AD, Julian assumed the government, repealed the taxes on the Jewish people which had been imposed by Constantine, and helped to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem.  He was succeeded by Valentinian (368 AD), Theodosius the First (380 AD), Arcadius (395 AD), Theodosius the Second (412 AD), Justinian the Great (528) and Maurice (584 AD). All of these Emperors, apart from Theodosius the Second,  respected the Jewish people.  Heraclius reigned in 613 AD. He fought the Sassanian Persians in 614 AD and lost control of Jerusalem, but regained control in approximately 629 AD.  Heraclius had possession of Jerusalem, but he would not allow any Jews to live there.   Furthermore, Heraclius persecuted the Jews because a court astrologer had predicted to him that his empire would fall into the hands of a circumcised nation.  He interpreted this to refer to the Jewish people, and was not aware that the Arabs were likewise circumcised. 

A new era in the region began in 637 AD when Jerusalem was captured by Arabs bearing the banner of Islam.  The Prophet Mohammad was born in about 570 AD in Mecca (in modern Saudi Arabia).  Like Jesus, Mohammad preached that there was only one God and that the good would experience eternal bliss and the wicked go to hell, and he was similarly persecuted.  Mohammad withdrew to Medina, and there he founded the first Muslim community.  He died in Medina in 632 AD and since then both Mecca and Medina have been regarded by Muslims as holy cities (in addition to Jerusalem where it is said that Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac and where  Mohammad ascended to heaven, which are commemorated by the Dome of the Rock shrine).  Mohammad forbad wars but entrusted his followers to spread his doctrines.  The Arabian tribes between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf were converted to Islam.  Many Arabs left the over-crowded Arabian Peninsula and within ten years of Mohammad's death the Arabs had built an Islamic empire from the Nile River in Egypt to the Tigris in Iraq.  The Sassanian Persian Empire was conquered over 637 to 651.  The Arabs adopted the Greco-Roman name Palestine for the land of Canaan. For maps and further information on the Ancient Empires - Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Macedonian, click here and scroll down until you see "Maps of Middle East", then click on that link.

Events from 638 AD onward will be discussed in the next section.


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