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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

"Claims to the same land." Key points in Israeli-Palestinian history 1917-2023

Israeli Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel, Thursday, Oct.19, 2023.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP
The Israeli Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel, on Oct.19. By Israeli military estimates, Hamas has fired 7,000 rockets into Israel during the current conflict. Israel has also continued to bomb Gaza in the latest chapter of a long history of violence in the region.

As the conflict between Hamas and Israel continues, people in both Israel and Gaza are dealing with loss, destruction, pain, and fear.

The current violence is the latest part of a long cycle in the region.

For some perspective on what that history can tell us about the current moment, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou spoke with Mostafa Hussein, an assistant professor at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.

A classroom watching the world

For years, Hussein has taught a course titled "Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land" and he has been teaching it this fall during the latest violence between Israel and Palestine.

"I start at the late 19th century, in late Ottoman Palestine and end with the Abraham Accords," Hussein said. "My students usually come from different backgrounds. I have students from a Jewish background, from Muslim and Arab background, and I have students from neither, and they are excited to learn about the relationship between both of them."

"It goes in a cycle because both people continue to have claims to the same land."
U of M assistant professor Mostafa Hussein on the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine

But after Hamas invaded Israel on October 7, Hussein noticed a change in the tone of students' discussions and participation in class.

"I found some sort of disappointment and frustration clouds my students' interest. I began feeling silence from some students who began feeling not comfortable dealing with certain issues because [the students] are pulled towards a certain side," he said.

"I tried my best to tell them that what is going on. It's like a cycle. It happened in the past and it is likely, unfortunately [to] happen again unless there is a break out of this cycle of violence by providing a just and peaceful arrangement for the situation over there."

The origins of the disputed territories

Much of Hussein's research focuses on the historical relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine. The modern roots of today's conflict date back to World War I and decisions made in 1917.

"The British took over Palestine and they doubly promised the land to two nationalist movements. They promised Arab nationalists to take Palestine as part of a larger Arab state. And they promised Zionists — at the same time — a part of Palestine to establish a national home for Jews," Hussein said. "The French and the British divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire among themselves, and they promised their allies — Arab nationalists and Zionists — territorial compensations if they were to support them during World War I."

Hussein says there's a common misperception that the contention in the region is based solely on religion.

"Many people, during this cycle of violence, have begun revisiting this conflict, thinking it's a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims that goes back centuries," he said. "But when we take a look at the situation in late Ottoman Palestine, we realize that Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived next to one another in a coexistence where they were cognizant of one another's religious identity and accepting one another."

A cycle of violence

Hussein makes the case that there's a recognizable cycle to the violence between Israel and Palestine.

"After the Balfour Declaration [of 1917], we see that starting from 1921 onward that Jews and Arabs in a narrow scale, not in large-scale, began clashing [with] one another. We see that in 1921 and again, in 1929. That intensified in what is called [the] Arab Revolt in 1936 that lasted for three years. And that developed into a civil war in 1947, after the partition plan of the United Nations [Resolution] 181. And that escalated it into a state war. Arab states against the nascent state of Israel in 1948 that lasted until 1949," Hussein said.

"Within the boundaries of Israel [and] Palestine, we continue to witness this violence again in 1967 and during the first intifada of 1987 and in the second intifada in 2000. So it goes in a cycle because both peoples continue to have claims to the same land."

Michigan Radio reported on a rally organized by anti-Zionist Jews in Michigan on Oct. 16. One speaker, Lior, who only shared their first name because of concerns about safety, said multiple generations of their family had been killed in the Holocaust.

"I'm a child of the Holocaust. And my family's story is being weaponized right now to justify genocide. There's a photograph on the mantle of my parents' home of my mother's father's family. There's about 20 people in the picture. Mostly young people. Six years later, only three survived. This is what we're doing to Palestinian families today," Lior told the crowd.

The United Nations has said with Israel's bombing of Gaza and the possibility of a ground invasion, there's a grave risk of mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

From a historical perspective, Hussein says the same concern has been raised before.

"We need to educate ourselves about the situation, if we want to find a solution, by trying to dispel some myths surrounding this conflict, that this conflict is not a religious conflict."
University of Michigan assistant professor Mostafa Hussein

"Arab historians, and some Jewish historians, as well, think that U.N. [Resolution] 181, when it gave the territories to the Israelis, almost 400,000 Palestinians were living under these territories allocated to the Jewish state. The Zionists [totaled] about 800,000 Israelis or Zionists. They wanted to make sure that the state is a Jewish state, [and] the majority are Jews. So they were not happy with the prospect of having all these number of Arabs living inside Palestine," Hussein said.

According to Hussein, that set the stage for violence that some have called ethnic cleansing.

"There was a policy in the Israeli army, it's called Plan D [also Plan Dalet]. It instructed the soldiers to target those Palestinian villagers who resisted the army. They should be displaced, if they resisted militarily. If not, they should stay," he said.

"But we see during the 1948 war, a massacre called the Deir Yassin massacre. Deir Yassin is a village in Jerusalem. They accepted the peace with the Israeli soldiers [then members of Zionist militias], but they were killed. Some historians claim that what happened was ethnic cleansing to maintain the Jewish majority in the territories allocated to the Jewish state according to U.N. 181."

Hope in understanding

Hussein has spent his academic career studying the history of the region and teaching students about the complexities. Does he believe a deep and nuanced understanding of the history and culture of Arabs and Jews could help move toward peace?

"We need to raise our awareness and we need to educate ourselves about the situation, if we want to find a solution, by trying to dispel some myths surrounding this conflict, that this conflict is not a religious conflict. It's a conflict between two communities that claim the right to the same land," he said.

"By learning about this, we will be able to show empathy to the other side. It is not a zero-sum game. There is room for both people to live together in this region. Once we are knowledgeable about this situation, we should push policymakers to do something meaningful about this."

Despite the current violence, Hussein is still optimistic that peace is possible.

Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Radio during the summer of 2023.
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