President Trump’s Mideast Plan announced on 28 January is a non-starter, junked by Palestinians, condemned by their neighbours, denounced by much of the international community. Can Israel and Palestine coexist? They could — if they are given lessons in history and made to realise that the disputed land belongs to neither of them. They are both squatters. When it suited their interests, the Israelites and Philistine have been firm allies. In fact, it is the Philistine who are indirectly responsible for the creation of the Israelite state. Central to their present dispute is the control over Jerusalem.
Israelis & Palestinians Are Both ‘Trespassers’
Some years ago, on my second visit to Jerusalem, while wandering around Robinson’s Arch, I ventured into the drowsy shade of some olive trees and sat on a pile of stones that lay battered and bruised. Alone in the privacy of the silent trees, I brooded over their history. In more glorious times, these stone columns adorned magnificent buildings. Many a times, their joys of life had turned into aching grief. They had suffered demolition by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Fifty years later, King Cyrus of Persia restored their vanished glory. Herod added to it. For 600 years, the Temple Mount and its surrounds remained a fairy place, until 70 AD, when the Romans pitilessly crushed the revolt of the Jews and conquered Jerusalem.
This time, the destruction was complete. These stones had burned in the raging fires lighted by the unsparing Romans. I stroked them lovingly, trying to relieve their burden of misery.
An old man in baggy clothes, introducing himself as an historian, shook me from my reverie and offered his services at a price. Having read various histories of the region, I was a great deal confused as to what state of things existed here in the past. I welcomed the opportunity to seek clarity from the unknown historian.
“Who is the rightful landlord of this disputed and divided city — the Israelis or the Palestinians?”
“Neither. They are both trespassers,” he said.
“Trespassers? Have they not been living here since the dawn of history?”
“Nonsense! In ancient times, this land was Canaan. People have been living here since 3200 BC. But not the Israelites or the Philistines.”
‘Israelis & Palestinians Were Allies When It Suited Them’
“Where did they come from?”
“The Israelites originally came from Mesopotamia. God appeared to Abraham, their patriarch, in about 1850 BC in Haran, and asked him to settle in the land of Canaanites. That’s how Abraham got here. He didn’t own a square inch of land. The first piece of land he bought was for his wife’s burial. Over time, the Israelites flourished into twelve tribes. When successive famines struck Canaan, these tribes left for Egypt around 1750 BC. In Egypt they prospered for a while, but within 500 years were reduced to slavery.”
“ Around 1250 BC, they escaped from Egypt and led a nomadic life in the Sinai Peninsula, wandering in the wilderness, convinced in the belief that their god, Yahweh, had promised them the fertile land of Canaan. Moses, their leader, was given the Torah, the Law, by God Yahweh. These laws were written on some tablets that were placed in a chest called the Ark of Covenant. Moses died before the Israelites could acquire the Promised Land. However, under his successor, Joshua, the tribes stormed the country, massacred wholesale and subdued the leftover kings and people. That’s how the Israelites got here.”
“And the Palestinians?”
“They appeared later – around 12th century BC. They came from the sea. No one knows exactly from where. They established themselves on the southern coast of Canaan – and their boundaries waxed and waned with time.”
“Have the Palestinians and Israelis been fighting ever since?”
“They did harass each other but were also allies when it suited them.”
“Yes! It is the Philistines who indirectly created the kingdom of Israel.”
How David Became King
“Harried from the east by Ammonites and Moabites and from the west by the Philistines, the Israelites consolidated their estate under one king, Saul. For twenty years, Saul expanded the boundaries of Israel and defended them against aggressors. During Saul’s rule, David was a highly respected warrior, poet and musician. Saul married his daughter to him. As David gained in popularity and prestige, Saul became envious of him and David fled for his life. Allying himself with the Philistines, the enemies of Israelites, David slowly established for himself the Kingdom of Judah in the sparsely inhabited southern hills, with his capital at Hebron. The Philistines harboured David and actively helped him in setting up a parallel Israelite kingdom. Saul and his son were killed in a battle with the Philistines. Ishbaal, Saul’s’ surviving son, became the ruler of the northern Kingdom of Israel. He was a weak king and was murdered. Being married to Saul’s daughter, David claimed his stake to the northern kingdom. Though considered a traitor by many for having sought the refuge of the Philistines, the leaders of Israel submitted to him and David was made the King of Israel. He thus became the ruler of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah – with Philistine backing.”
“And what was the status of Jerusalem at the time?”
“Jericho, Megiddo, Ai, Lachish and Beth Shan were bristling settlements of the time. Jerusalem, lying on the edge of a barren and forbidding desert was off the beaten track. It played no part in the early development of the region. Jerusalem was a predominantly Jebusite city and their god was El Elyon. Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites, had been here once, when, in deference to the wishes of his God, El Shaddai, he offered Isaac, his younger son, as human sacrifice. Abraham took Isaac to the top of a hill, and as he was about to plunge a knife into his son’s breast, an angel appeared saying that God had had a re-think and he must sacrifice a ram instead. The hilltop where this took place is the present-day Mt Moriah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Centuries later, the first Jewish Temple was built here to memorialise Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. The Second Temple was also built here till it was destroyed. Now the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim mosque, stands on the ruins of the temples.”
‘An Imaginative Formula for National Integration’
“How did Jerusalem come under the control of the Israelites?”
“When David became the ruler of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, Jebusite Jerusalem lay in the middle of his territory. He proposed to make it his capital. To continue to rule from Hebron would have allied David too clearly with his own Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was neutral territory, central and better fortified. So, around 1000 BC, he made a merciful conquest of Jerusalem, sparing the Jebusites and their sacred symbols. Indeed, the Jebusite religious ideas were cleverly and creatively blended into the worship of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. Though renamed City of David, the Jebusite character of Jerusalem was retained in all aspects. To further strengthen bonds with the Jebusites, David seduced Bathsheba, the charming wife of Uriah, a Jebusite officer in his army. Then wanting to marry her, he arranged her husband’s death by shamelessly placing him in an insecure position in a battle. Solomon, the son born to David and Bathsheba, was thus half Jebusite. It was an imaginative formula for national integration.”
How Jerusalem Became Sacred to Israelites
“But how did Jerusalem become sacred to the Israelites?”
“The city, so far, was of no religious significance to the Israelites. It became a place of worship when David moved the Ark of Covenant into Jerusalem. To house the Ark, David decided to build a grand temple and bought a threshing floor, a sacred space used by the Jebusites for their cultic rituals. David had to justify the site and the temple, without alienating the Jebusites. Israelite gods were jangling Jebusite nerves. David had to soothe their anxiety about Israelite domination. When a plague struck his kingdom, wiping out 70,000 people, he saw his chance. David let the word out that Yahweh’s angel had appeared and told him that he could avert the plague only if he built an altar to Yahweh on the site of the threshing floor. The promise of disease’s eradication made the Jebusites cooperate with the project. However, David put the temple construction on hold. This privilege went to his son, Solomon, when he began his reign around 970 BC. Solomon built the Temple on the summit of Mt. Moriah, the Temple Mount. Through the Ark of Covenant, Yahweh was enthroned in the temple. With divine backing, Jerusalem now became the possession of the Davidic dynasty and the Israelites.”
‘As Of Now, Jerusalem Has No Present or Future’
“And that’s when all the troubles began?”
“That’s right. Since then, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, been the scene of 20 revolts and countless riots.”
“What does the future hold for the city?”
“As of now,” sighed the historian, “Jerusalem has no present or future. Only the past keeps repeating itself – over and over again.”
Instead of proposing peace plans to Israelis and Palestinians, Trump should set out to look for a surviving Jebusite. When he finds him, he should restore to him his torn city and, thereby, settle the “Jerusalem question” once and for all.
(Akhil Bakshi, an author and explorer, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Explorers Club USA, and Editor of ‘Indian Mountaineer’. His latest book is Arctic to Antarctic: A Journey Across the Americas. He tweets @AkhilBakshi1. This is a personal blog. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)