Israel And The West Bank: A Biblical And Historical Perspective

Sep 2nd, 2023 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

The state of Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War.  Historically and biblically in terms of Israel’s history, this area is known as Judea and Samaria.  It is part of the land God promised to Abraham by covenant (Genesis 12:1-7; 15:18, etc.).  Since 1967, Israel has been slowly planting Jewish settlements on the West Bank, but this has accelerated and intensified under the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu.  The expansion of these settlements runs counter to the so-called “two-state” solution, which refers to the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The current government of Israel is actually a coalition of political parties of the most religiously conservative in Israel’s modern history.  Therefore, the government of Israel has advanced or approved permits for 13,000 new housing units in West Bank settlements.  As violence has surged in the West Bank, the government has introduced new settlement plans and cut the red tape to accelerate the process. More than 130 settlements have been built in the West Bank since 1967.  In addition, more than 100 settlement outposts have been erected since the 1990s without government permission.  As Isabel Kershner of the New York Times reports, “The Israeli authorities are working on authorizing many of them retroactively.  Some settlement construction has continued under every Israeli government over the past decades.  More than 400,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank alongside more than 2.6 million Palestinians . . . [Bezalel] Smortich, the minister overseeing settlement construction, has instructed ministries in Israel to prepare to improve the infrastructure in settlement areas of the West Bank to absorb another 500,000 settlers.”

The Israeli-Palestinian view of the West Bank could not be more diametrically opposed: Israel argues that a Jewish presence has existed on the West Bank for thousands of years and that Jordan’s rule over the territory from 1948 to 1967, was never recognized by most of the world.  The fate of this territory must be decided through negotiations.  As Kershner reports, the Palestinian leadership moved in late 2014 to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague in order to pursue cases against Israel’s settlement policy and its military operations.  The Court opened a preliminary inquiry and in 2021 announced that it was opening a formal investigation into allegations of war crimes by Israel and by Palestinian militant groups.

As already noted above, God decreed, via the Abrahamic covenant, this land to the Jewish people.  But over the last 4,000 years, this land has been a source of immense controversy, war and exile for the Jewish people.  But as God had promised (see Ezekiel 36-37), the Jewish people are back in their land promised by God.  It is important to briefly review the history of this “promised land” to recognize the providential hand of God in preserving the Jewish people in this land.

World War I (1914-1918) produced the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and set the stage for the creation of the nation-state of Israel in 1947.  To survive since 1947, the nation of Israel has fought four major wars and numerous smaller but deadly conflicts with the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah.  Israel remains the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, and now boasts the largest concentration of Jews in the world, even exceeding the Jewish population residing in the United States.  [World War I, often called the Great War, began on 28 July 1914 and ended on 11 November 1918.  It was the sixth-deadliest conflict in world history, and forever changed the Middle East.  Its impact paved the way for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people.]  Several key developments flowed from World War I:

  • Before the outbreak of the War, a cohesive and well-organized Jewish community in Israel (known as the Yishuv or new settlers) had grown to nearly 100,000 people.  Along with agricultural settlements, the Yishuv founded new village communities and laid the foundation for a thriving Jewish presence in Israel.  About half of the Jewish population lived in Jerusalem, with the other half in the rural areas and in urban communities growing in Jaffa and Haifa.  The Yishuv founded Tel Aviv in 1909 as the first modern Hebrew city.  In addition, the resurgence of Hebrew as a modern spoken language was the work of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) and by World War I was becoming the national language of this flourishing Jewish population.
  • The Ottomans had organized the area of Palestine into the Ottoman province of Beirut in the north and the district of Jerusalem in the south.  Since the Ottomans had sided with Germany in the Great War, the Germans assumed protection of the Jews in Palestine. The British Empire hoped to drive the Ottomans from Palestine and secure a safe route to its prized possession of India, while providing a buffer to protect the Suez Canal in Egypt.  Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war in London, believed that aligning the Arabs with Britain was the key to defeating the Ottoman Turks in Palestine.  Kitchener therefore opened discussions with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali (1854-1931) of the Hashemite family (direct descendants of Muhammad), to launch an Arab revolt against the Ottomans.  Kitchener thereby ordered Sir Henry McMahon, high commissioner in Egypt, to do whatever he could to keep the Arabs on Britain’s side in the war.  Hussein, as a price for leading the Arab Revolt, demanded that Britain grant him an empire that included Arabia, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.  On 24 October 1915, McMahon replied to Hussein granting him his request for an “empire,” but clearly excluding Palestine and Jerusalem in his correspondence.  The so-called McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, the exchange of letters between 14 July 1915 and 30 January 1916, was interpreted by Hussein as a promise that Britain would give him Palestine once the war had ended. The British government has always disputed this interpretation.  Indeed, in 1922 McMahon declared that “It was as fully my intention to exclude Palestine as it was to exclude the more northern coastal tracts of Syria.”  He also stated “that Palestine was not included in my pledge was clearly understood by Hussein.” Nonetheless, many Arabs today still charge Britain with a “shameless betrayal of its wartime pledges.”
  • Meanwhile, from November 1915 through March 1916, Britain and France were engaged in secret negotiations on the future of the Middle East.  The result was the Sykes–Picot Agreement, named after the principal negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France.  The agreement was concluded in May 1916.  As Efraim Karsh argues, the agreement was a commitment by Britain and France “’to recognize and protect an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States—under the suzerainty of an Arab chief stretching over the vast territory from Aleppo to Rawandaz and from the Egyptian-Ottoman border to Kuwait.  This commitment represented a clear victory for Britain’s championing of Arab independence and unity over French opposition.”  The agreement also provided for the internationalization of Jerusalem.  The “spheres of influence” of both France and Britain detailed in the agreement provided a framework for what would become the French and British Mandates after the war.
  • In London, another remarkable agreement was being negotiated.  The conversations in 1914 were initially between Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a Russian-born scientist, a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester and a committed Zionist.  Balfour listened as Weizmann presented his case for a Jewish homeland in Israel.  Weizmann made a similar appeal to David Lloyd George, who became a committed Zionist as well.  In 1917, the Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, summoned Weizmann, Director of the British Admiralty laboratories, to London to explain Britain’s need for acetone, a key component in the manufacture of munitions.  Weizmann had developed a new process of extracting acetate from horse chestnuts, which provided abundantly for British munition needs.  [Chaim Weizmann would later become the first president of the State of Israel.]   In December 1916, Lloyd George became Prime Minister and he named Arthur Balfour as his foreign secretary.  As a part of the war effort, Lloyd George and Balfour agreed to issue the Balfour Declaration.  In a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917, Balfour proclaimed:  “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in another country.”
  • The new British commander, Sir Edmund Allenby, arrived in Cairo on 28 June 1917 to begin his conquest of Palestine.  He amassed an infantry of 75,000, with a cavalry support totaling 17,000.  He promised the British people that he would give them Jerusalem as a Christmas present.  He kept his promise.  On 11 December 1917, the Ottoman Empire surrendered Jerusalem to the 60th Infantry Division of the British army.  For the first time in 1,200 years (except for the brief Crusader rule), Muslim rule of Jerusalem had come to an end.  General Allenby entered Jaffa gate into the Old City of Jerusalem on foot, stating emphatically that no Christian should enter Jerusalem where Jesus died in an arrogant or pompous manner.  By September of 1918, Allenby had driven the Germans and the Ottomans completely out of Israel.  Israel was now in the hands of the British Empire.

The Arabs of Palestine strongly opposed the swelling increase in Jewish immigration.  Between 1919 and 1923, over 40,000 Jews (known as the third aliyah), largely fleeing the Bolsheviks of Russia, arrived in Israel, settling particularly in the Tel Aviv region.

In the spring of 1921, Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, arrived in the Middle East, together with his aid and friend, Lawrence of Arabia.  Churchill called the Cairo Conference which dramatically changed the geography of the Middle East.  First, Churchill gave control of Iraq to Prince Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein.  He made Haj Amin el-Hussein the mufti of Jerusalem.  Finally, he created the new Arab kingdom of Transjordan (basically today’s Jordan) and gave it to the other son of Sharif Hussein, Abdullah.  West of the Jordan River to the Mediterranean would be ruled by Britain, with a commitment to continued Jewish immigration.  But, as Karsh correctly observes, an unintended consequence was that Faisal and Abdullah “had talked the largest empire on earth into enthroning them in newly created Iraqi and Transjordanian states, thus making them key figures in the post-war Middle East and the natural contenders for the realization of the Arab imperial dream.”

Jewish immigration to Israel accelerated.  Between 1924 and 1928 (the fourth aliyah) over 70,000 Jews arrived, many of them from Poland.  The Jews of Palestine, now living under the British Mandate, formed their own national council and a militia, called the Haganah, to defend themselves against growing Arab violence.  Indeed, in 1929 the Mufti of Jerusalem charged that Jews sought to seize the Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount.  Thus, riots ensued killing 135 Jews and wounding another 350.  The Jews in Hebron were especially targeted with 67 of them killed.  To investigate the causes of this bloodshed, the British formed the Shaw Commission of Inquiry.  The Commission concluded that Jewish purchase of land and immigration were the causes of the violence.  The recommendation was to slow down immigration and end Jewish land purchases.  Thus, the British government issued the 1930 White Paper of Colonial Secretary Lord Passfield, restricting Jewish immigration to Israel and retracting the intent of the Balfour Declaration.

When World War II erupted, the situation in Israel changed dramatically.  Most Arabs in Israel did not support the British but temporarily ceased terrorist activities against both the British and the Jews.  But the mufti of Jerusalem traveled to Germany in 1941 to meet with Hitler, hoping to form a common alliance against their common enemies—the British and the Jews.  The mufti willingly embraced not only Hitler’s strategic opposition toward the British, but also his virulent racial anti-Semitism.  In his memoirs, the mufti admitted that he was told of the Nazi extermination of at least three million Jews already and he boasted that “if Germany had carried the day, no trace of the Zionists would have remained in Palestine.”

Meanwhile, by 1944-45, the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust were becoming clear.  Nazi conquest had brought over nine million Jews under their control, and the “final solution” resulted in two-thirds of them being killed—men, women and children.  Adding to this unspeakable horror was British policy:  The British crackdown on Jewish immigration detailed in the 1939 White Paper meant that British troops were turning back shiploads of frantic Jewish refugees, who could have found refuge from Hitler’s terror.  The combination of the Arab Revolt, the “final solution,” and MacDonald’s White Paper led many Zionists to the conclusion that only focused violence would force Great Britain to once again embrace the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine.

During the summer of 1947, UNSCOP commissioners researched the situation in Palestine, holding meetings with Jewish leaders, but finding no cooperation from Arab leaders.  In fact, the Arab leaders completely boycotted all UNSCOP meetings and requests for information.  In August, the commissioners published their report and presented it to the UN General Assembly.  UNSCOP recommended partitioning the Land into a Jewish and an Arab state, but the Arabs rejected any solution that did not call for a completely Arab state in Palestine.  On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted on UNSCOP’s recommendations.  Thirty-three nations voted in favor of the plan, while thirteen voted against it, with ten nations abstaining.  The Partition Plan (known as UN Resolution 181) declared the following:

  1. The British Mandate in Palestine would terminate no later than1 August 1948.
  2. Two states would be established, a Jewish state and an Arab state.
  3. An international tribunal would govern Jerusalem.
  4. An UN committee of five members would assume power from Britain and transfer it to the new Israeli and Arab governments.


Resolution 181 defined the Jewish state as encompassing the coastal plain, western Galilee and the Negev Desert.  The proposed Arab state would encompass eastern Galilee, the central part of Palestine on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.

Immediately, the Jewish Agency under David Ben-Gurion accepted Resolution 181.  The Palestine Arab Higher Committee and the Arab League rejected it.  With the certain threat of war from the various Arab nations, on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion, standing under Theodore Herzl’s portrait, read Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration also encouraged Jewish immigration to Israel, promised equal rights to all Israeli citizens (including Arabs), and called for peace with its Arab neighbors.   Within minutes of Ben-Gurion’s Declaration, United States President Harry Truman recognized the new state of Israel. The Soviet Union followed soon thereafter.

The Arab response to the Declaration was immediate—Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon invaded Israel with the express purpose of liquidating the Jews in Israel.  Indeed, the secretary of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, declared that “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”  That war did not succeed.  The War for Independence had two immediate effects.

  • First, the creation of the nation state of Israel created the Arab refugee problem.  For many complex reasons, Arabs in the Jewish state created by the UN, fled Israel, most settling in refugee camps set up in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.  Some were forced to leave (e.g., the town of Lydda), but most fled because of the propaganda coming from the various Arab states, which created fear and panic.  Once the war ended, David Ben-Gurion was not open to the return of these refugees.  The descendants of these refuges today demand a “right of return” to Israel, claiming that the land is their land.  This demand remains one of the most difficult issues separating the Palestinian people and the Jewish state of Israel.
  • The second effect of the victorious War for independence was the flood of refugees that poured into the new state of Israel.  In fact, the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) enacted the “law of return,” which gave any Jewish person or any person with a Jewish parent or grandparent, the right to come to Israel and be granted immediate citizenship in Israel. Within three years, over 300,000 Holocaust survivors came to Israel, with an additional 400,000 from hostile Arab nations (e.g., Yemen, Iraq Syria, Tunisia, Libya, etc.).  The state of Israel had tripled in size.

Since no Arab nation was interested in a permanent peace treaty with Israel, the effect was an ongoing state-of-war.  Israel fought wars in 1956 and then in 1967, gaining control of all of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank.  The 1973 Yom Kippur War was a watershed, altering the course of Middle Eastern history:

  1. The seeming invincibility of Israel was shattered.  As Karsh comments, “The Arabs were elated.  For many of them the war was a moment of treasure, a glorious break with a painful past, redemption of lost pride and trampled dignity, ‘a new era of unity of ranks and purpose.’”  For Sadat, the War gave him an improved bargaining position when it came to Israel.
  2. Anwar Sadat reached a fundamental conclusion about the Middle East—there was no military solution to the feud with Israel: “Israel was in the Middle East to stay and the Arabs had better disavow their unrealistic dream of a unified regional order and follow Egypt’s lead in rolling back to the 1967 borders.”  He was willing to travel to Jerusalem and address the Israeli Knesset as the first step in peace negotiations.
  3. The War altered the political culture of Israel.  A special committee formed to investigate the lack of military preparedness placed virtually all blame on the military leaders; none on the political leaders.  But, after weeks of popular demonstrations, Golda Meir’s government resigned.  Due to the political residue from the War, plus numerous financial scandals within the Labor Party, the May 1977 elections resulted in the election of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party, ending the Labor Party’s continuous rule since Israel’s founding in 1948.  Therefore, when Sadat proposed coming to Jerusalem, Begin issued the invitation to Sadat in November 1977.  Sadat stayed in the King David Hotel, prayed at the al-Aqsa mosque, visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and delivered an address of peace before the Knesset.


In September 1978, after thirteen days of negotiations at Camp David in the United States, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed two agreements—the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” and the “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel” (the Camp David Accords).  Then on 26 March 1979, in Washington, D.C., Sadat and Begin signed that peace treaty in which Israel promised to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula, with the establishment of open borders.  In addition, the two nations agreed to exchange ambassadors and establish embassies and encourage trade and tourism.  Egypt had recognized Israel’s right to exist—the first Arab nation to do so—on the basis of “land for peace.”

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the West responded with the Gulf War of 1991, Yasser Arafat and the PLO supported Saddam.  When Saddam fired SCUD missiles into Israel in a futile attempt to draw Israel into the conflict, Palestinians cheered.  Wisely, Israel did nothing.  As the conflict ended, Arafat was humiliated and thereby lost significant credibility throughout the world.  The PLO was now vulnerable as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people; Hamas was a viable alternative.  And, with the defeat of Saddam in the Gulf War, the United States was now a much more decisive player in the Middle East.  Thus, on 30 October 1991, a major peace conference was convened in Madrid, Spain.  For the first time since Israel’s independence in 1948, Israel sat at a table with Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians, joined by the United States, Russia, the European Union and representatives of the United Nations.  The primary subject was the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Although no agreement was reached, it provided necessary momentum for further discussions. All of these developments provided the context for the Oslo Accords of 1993.

The new Israeli government under Yitzhak Rabin, the hero of the 1967 war, was elected in 1992 with a clearly defined peace platform.  Rabin expressed a willingness to talk with the PLO, even though the PLO had not yet abandoned its dedication to Israel’s total destruction.  Hence, secret talks began in Oslo, Norway between Israel and the PLO.  These talks culminated on 13 September 1993 with the signing on the White House lawn of the “Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangement.”  It was an extraordinary agreement based on the premise that each party would agree on simpler issues, while leaving the more difficult (e.g., Jerusalem, borders and refugees) for future negotiations.  It provided for Palestinian self-rule in the entire West Bank and Gaza for a transitional period not to exceed five years, during which time Israel and the PLO would negotiate a permanent peace.

Although there was understandable euphoria over the Oslo Accords, the reality was that Arafat was not really embracing a two state solution.  Rather, he was achieving what the PLO had failed to attain after years of violence and terrorism.  Karsh summarizes Arafat’s objective:  “As early as August 1968, Arafat had defined the PLO’s strategic objective as ‘the transfer of all resistance bases’ into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, ‘so that the resistance may be gradually transformed into a popular armed revolution.’  This, he reasoned, would allow the PLO to undermine Israel’s way of life ‘preventing immigration and encouraging emigration . . . destroying tourism . . . weakening the Israeli economy and diverting the greater part of it to security requirements . . . [and] creating and maintaining an atmosphere of strain and anxiety that will force the Zionists to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel. . . Indeed the prominent PLO leader Faisal Husseini famously quipped, Israel was willingly introducing into its midst a ‘Trojan Horse’ designed to promote the PLOs strategic goal of a ‘Palestine from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea’—that is, a Palestine in place of Israel.”

As the Oslo Accords were implemented, the euphoria turned to harsh reality.  In May 1994 Israel withdrew from Jericho and Gaza City, the first step in the agreement.  Jordan embraced the spirit of Oslo and signed a peace treaty with Israel on 26 October 1994.  By September 2000, the Palestinian Authority (the PA) had gained control of about 40% of the West Bank, including Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho.  Both the Israelis and the Palestinians were frustrated by the absence of significant progress in serious negotiations on the next phase of the Oslo Accords—the more acute issues dealing with the borders and the status of Jerusalem.  But with the 1999 election of the former Israeli Defense Force chief of staff, Ehud Barak, hope increased in Israel, for Barak proposed a peace strategy that included a final status agreement with the Palestinians and settling the ongoing Lebanon crisis.

In the summer of 2000, President Bill Clinton of the United States summoned Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to Camp David for the express purpose of negotiating a final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  After marathon negotiations, Barak agreed to recognize a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and give the PA about 95% of the West Bank, even agreeing to dismantle many Israeli settlements on the West Bank.  He also agreed to allow up to 100,000 Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and would financially compensate other Palestinian refugees who had lost land when Israel was created in 1948.  Amazingly, Barak also agreed to share sovereignty over Jerusalem with the PA.

Arafat’s position evidenced no desire to compromise.  He demanded the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel.  He demanded that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders and he insisted on total sovereignty over Jerusalem.   During the negotiations, Arafat rejected any notion that Jerusalem had ever been the site of the Jewish Temple—“a modern invention,” he insisted.  In fact, Arafat personally banned Palestinian historians and archeologists from admitting that there had ever been a Jewish Temple on Temple Mount.  The negotiations had failed!  A typical Palestinian commentator placed this in a Palestinian historical context:  “If time constitutes the [criteria of] existence, then Israel’s temporary existence is only fifty-two years long while we, the Palestinian Arabs, have lived here for thousands of years, and we, the indigenous population, will eventually expel the invaders, however long it takes.”

Yasser Arafat died in November 2004 and was succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas, who has orchestrated a reduction in the violence against Israel.  His enemy is also Hamas, which seeks to destabilize his rule over the West Bank areas the PA controls.  Negotiations with Israel for a final settlement continue, but Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current Prime Minister, faces the growing threat of Iran, which is on the verge of nuclear weapon capability.

So, this is Israel in the early 21st century:  A lethal enemy to its north (Hezbollah), with which it fought a deadly, but short conflict in 2006, and a terrorist state to its west (Hamas), which remains bent on its annihilation.   Further to its north is Syria, which is recovering from a cruel civil war.  And, of course to its east are Iran and its nuclear project.  In addition, Israel faces the chaos of the Arab world and the persistent, ongoing Palestinian rejection of its legitimacy.  This is Israel’s neighborhood, one in which it daily faces the issue of survival—the brutal reality of this amazing nation since it was founded in 1948.

See Isabel Kershner in the New York Times (30 June 2023) and James P. Eckman, A Covenant People: Israel from Abraham to the Present for the documentation and sources for all the quotations, pp. 291-326.

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