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The Historical Perspective Behind The Latest Israel-Hamas Conflict

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The recent war between Israel and Hamas was part of a cycle of violence, and that cycle includes recurring sources of conflict - settlements. Hamas is the Palestinian militant group and political party in Gaza. It launched rocket attacks on Israel, claiming to be responding in part to a dispute over settlements. In East Jerusalem, Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah are facing forced removal by Israeli settler organizations. Needless to say there's a lot of history here, and this morning, we have one perspective on that history, one of many that we hear on this program over time. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei are the host of NPR's history podcast Throughline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: What's happening in the community of Sheikh Jarrah now really began decades ago before 1948, the year the state of Israel was founded.

RASHID KHALIDI: The idea was to go and found a nation-state, which would be a Jewish state, a Jewish majority state.

ARABLOUEI: This is Rashid Khalidi, a preeminent historian who's studied, researched and written widely about this history and this conflict. He's also the director of the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

KHALIDI: What happens in 1948 involves something that was necessary for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, which was to decrease the Arab majority and increase the Jewish minority.

RUND ABDELFATAH: A United Nations resolution that called for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states - this was just a couple of years after World War II and the Holocaust.

KHALIDI: Antisemitism in Europe was so virulent, was so murderous. Given that reality, that lived reality of Eastern and Central Europe in particular, the idea that Jews could not live in Christian Europe and had to find an alternative seized many Jews.

ABDELFATAH: But Arab leaders in the region rejected the proposed Arab state, believing it to be an unfair deal. The U.N. granted 55% of the country to the Jewish minority, who, by 1948, owned around 6% of the land in Palestine, which meant...

KHALIDI: You have to do a lot of ethnic cleansing, and you have to do a lot of dispossession of people of their property, which is what happens in 1948. Three-quarters of a million Palestinians, approximately, are driven from their homes or flee in terror, including about 300,000 who leave even before the state of Israel is created, while Britain is nominally in control of Palestine, before the Arab armies enter what becomes the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. So the cities of Jaffa, of Haifa, the Arab neighborhoods of West Jerusalem are depopulated. Their people are driven out, and the property is taken.

ABDELFATAH: Why were people fleeing? And in that moment, were they worried that their lives were going to be in danger if they stayed?

KHALIDI: They were fleeing because, first of all, in places like Jaffa and Haifa, they were under constant bombardment. They were encouraged by a few exemplary massacres - Deir Yassin, April 10, 1948, and a few others. And where people wouldn't leave, a few men would be taken out and shot, and then everybody would run.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALIDI: And that takes us to Sheikh Jarrah and takes us to 2021 in the sense that the people who were threatened with dispossession and eviction in the weeks leading up to this war that was started against Gaza more recently were people who were themselves refugees from Jaffa and Haifa. They were people who had property and lived in homes in Jaffa and Haifa, which they were not allowed to return to, which they were not allowed to reclaim and which, under Israeli law, they had no right to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALIDI: Whereas Jewish settler organizations that claimed they had title to land in occupied Arab East Jerusalem were using the might of the Israeli state to dispossess them. So this triggers among Palestinians a memory of the trauma of 1948, of the injustice of settler groups being able to make a claim - whether legitimate or not is not the point - on property in East Jerusalem, whereas Palestinians are not allowed by Israel to make a claim to their property in West Jerusalem or anywhere else. So that's what ties the Nakba of 1948 to Sheikh Jarrah.

ABDELFATAH: Nakba, by the way, means catastrophe in Arabic.

KHALIDI: For Israelis and for most other people who know only the Israeli narrative, 1948 represents the miraculous establishment of a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust. For Palestinians, it represents the destruction of their society and the right to self-determination and the expulsion of most of them and the expropriation of the property of most. That's why it's a catastrophe for Palestinians.

ARABLOUEI: After the 1948 war, the Jordanian government ended up in control of the eastern part of Jerusalem, where Sheikh Jarrah is located. Israel ended up in control of the western part of Jerusalem.

KHALIDI: Some Jewish residents were driven out of East Jerusalem.

ARABLOUEI: Losing some of the land in Sheikh Jarrah that was owned by two Jewish associations prior to 1948.

KHALIDI: So many, many Arab - 30,000 Arabs were driven out of Arab neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. The Jordanian authorities had to deal with all of these refugees, and so they resettled some of them by building homes for them in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. And these are homes that have been now taken over systematically. As a piece in Haaretz put it, what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine, too.

ABDELFATAH: Israel took control of Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 war. The United Nations has called this an illegal occupation. An Israeli settler organization started trying to claim land in Sheikh Jarrah and these territories.

ARABLOUEI: What is the claim right now? Like, how has the claim evolved from the Israeli perspective? So, you know, I think one of the things that's, for me, often hard to understand is what's the central argument for, for example, being able to take the homes in Sheikh Jarrah? Like, what is the argument that the settlers and the Israeli legal system is making?

KHALIDI: Well, in 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed a law, the Jewish nation-state law, which argued that settlement - it should be a task of the state. The state should actively pursue Jewish settlement. It also states that there is only people - one people has the unique right of self-determination in Israel, which is the Jewish people. In other words, there is no Arab people, and it doesn't have a right of self-determination. And given that Israel controls the entirety of the country, and as far as Israel is concerned, all of it is the Greater Land of Israel, what this essentially means is that there is a claim that, first of all, there's no such thing as occupied territories. They're disputed, and Israel's claim is superior to them. And that's the basis of the claim. This land is our land. God gave this land to us, and there's one people with the right of self-determination in Israel, period.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "UNTITLED")

INSKEEP: Rashid Khalidi speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you hear podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.