Most of what you have been told about the Palestine-Israel conflict is at best misleading, and much of the rest has no basis in fact. One common false claim involves the cause of the conflict. The underlying source of the conflict is not territory, human rights, or political autonomy; it is religion. The hundred-year Arab-Jewish war is a religious war.
None of the claims about the major sins of Israel stand up to a minimal scrutiny of evidence. The idea that there has been a genocide of Palestinians is contradicted by the major increase in the Palestinian population. The claim that Israel is an apartheid society is refuted by the full citizenship of Arab Israelis and their participation in every aspect of Israeli society.
The designation of Jews as settler colonialists cannot stand given that Jews are the indigenous population of the Holy Land, living there more than a thousand years before the Arab invaders arrived in the 7th century. These weak arguments are put forward because the true religious and tribal reasons for Palestinian and Arab opposition to Israel are politically incorrect and could gain no support in the powerful West.
Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah), an offshoot of the absolutist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, committed to destroy Israel and kill all Jews around the world, as it promised in its founding Charter, not on a whim nor on regional conditions in the Levant. Rather, Hamas' exterminationist terrorism is firmly based on Islamic religion and Islamic history, as it understands it.
Palestinian leaders explain the Palestinian-Israel conflict to Americans, Europeans, and others in terms that Westerners will understand and accept: the regaining of lost territory, the need for political autonomy, and the establishment of civil and human rights. But when they speak in Arabic about the conflict, it is phrased in terms of religion: Muslims vs. Jews. This is indicated by the very names chosen by the Palestinian resistance/terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (Palestinian Islamic Holy War).
Israel has offered repeated concessions of land and a formal state to the Palestinians, each and every one rejected because it was alongside a Jewish state. The first offer was from the United Nations, which proposed Jewish and Arab countries occupying the areas where their population was greatest. The Jews accepted the U.N. plan; the Palestinians rejected the plan, after which Israel declared its statehood and five Arab national armies invaded in order to destroy the nascent state.
The 2000 Camp David offer was rejected, as was the 2008 offer. The 2014 negotiations, under President Obama, could have led to a state but failed. These offers included most of the land in Judea and Samaria (the "West Bank"), the home of ancient Israel, which the Israelis had taken back in an Arab-initiated war.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 followed up on the Camp David Accords of 1978 between President Sadat of Egypt and President Begin of Israel. The Oslo Accords were formal acceptance by the Palestinians of Israel's right to exist and Israel's acceptance of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority government in a large part of Judea and Samaria. The hope was that this would lead to peace between two states for two peoples.
But Yasser Arafat, the long-time Palestinian leader and terrorist, and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas (in the fourteenth year of his four-year term), responded to offers of peace with the subsequent intifada, rebellion, which featured, as always throughout the 100-year Palestinian war against the Jews, attacks and murders of Jewish civilians. To this day, Abbas promotes his "pay for slay" program, in which Palestinian murderers of Jews are rewarded by large pensions to their families, pensions that have been funded by the Obama and Biden Administrations, and by the European Union.
What lies behind the Palestinian hatred of Jews is the strong Islamic vilification of Jews as enemies of God, as malicious people, as untrustworthy and dirty. This is remarkable, given that so much of Islam is borrowed from Judaism, and that Mohammed regarded himself as the ultimate and final prophet of the long line of Jewish and Christian prophets.
Mohammed expected the Jewish tribes in Arabia to accept him as their prophet and was unhappy with them when they refused. The Jews were also economic competitors with Mohammed's followers in Medina and not military allies. Mohammed exiled two tribes, the Qaynuqa in 624 and the Nadir in 625, confiscating their property. In 627, he attacked the last large Jewish tribe in Medina, the Qurayza, beheaded the men and pubescent boys, and enslaved the women and children.
This mass murder and enslavement of the Medina Jews was a forecast of the fate of indigenous populations as the Bedouin tribal armies of the Islamic Empire spread north to Palestine, east to Persia, Central Asia, and India, west through Egypt to the Maghreb, and north to Spain, Portugal, and Sicily. Local peoples were slaughtered and enslaved in vast numbers.
In India, for example, hundreds of thousands of local warriors were slain, and local women were carried off to be sex slaves for Muslim soldiers and dignitaries. Arabic language and Islamic law were imposed, and Arabs formed the governors and elites of their colonies. Later Islamicized Turkish tribes spread through Greek Anatolia and destroyed the Christian Byzantine Empire, then extending the Ottoman Empire into the Christian Balkans, with the usual rivers of blood and enslavement.
Although Jews are despised in Islamic texts and law, they are not always subject to slavery and death. Jews and Christians are, due to being People of the Book (the Bible), dhimma, protected. What this means is that they are allowed to pay blood money, jizya, on an annual basis, in order not to be murdered. On the occasion of payment, they must by Islamic law be ritually humiliated (struck, beard pulled, or some other indignity) to demonstrate their inferiority.
In societies with Islamic governance, Jews were second-class citizens in many ways: forced to wear distinctive clothing, have less weight in judicial testimony than Muslims, not allowed to own weapons, forbidden to hold public office, required to house and feed soldiers, required to provide labor for public projects, and other legal disabilities. (Pagans, not People of the Book, could by Islamic law be slaughtered, enslaved, or ransomed at will.)
The Islamic view is that Muslims must always be superordinate and in power, while Jews (and Christians, Hindus, et al) must always be subordinate to Muslims and never have power over Muslims or be independent and autonomous. The Quran is quite explicit in its view of Jews: "And abasement and humiliation were brought down upon them [the Jews], and they became deserving of Allah's wrath; this was so because they disbelieved in the communications of Allah and killed the prophets unjustly..." (Quran 2:61). "Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low" (Quran 9:29).
So too are respected Traditions and Commentaries clear: "Love of the Prophet requires hatred of the Jews" (al-Maghili, 15th century). "Whenever a Jew is killed, it is for the benefit of Islam" (Sirhindi, 17th century). All quotes, and many more of similar sentiment, can be found in "The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism," Andrew G. Bostom, editor.
Islam both literally and figuratively means "submission," submission to Allah in the first instance and submission to Islamic law and authority in the second instance. This is what the Islamic Republic of Iran has in mind for its Arab neighbors. Iran is Persian-speaking and follows Shi'a Islam, while Arabs speak Arabic and mostly follow Sunni Islam. The Iranian Islamic Republic is a theocracy, governed by religious authorities, the Ayatollahs, according to the Shi'a version of Islamic law. Its goal is the spread of Islam, particularly the Shi'a version of Islam, throughout the Middle East and around the world.
When Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the IRI, was asked whether he was worried that the U.S. would drop nuclear bombs on Iran, he answered, "We don't love Iran; we love Allah." The IRI also doesn't love the non-Shi'a minorities in Iran — the Sunni Arabs in the southwest, the Sunni Baluch in the southeast, the Baha'is, and the Jews — but they really do not like any of their subjects that do not conform to their version of Islamic law, such as teenage girls who do not cover their hair sufficiently.
As a result of all of these background influences, Israel offends the Arab and Muslim sensibilities in a number of ways:
First, Jews, if allowed to live, are supposed to be subordinate at best, and instead, in Israel, Jews are in charge, not only autonomous in themselves but also having authority over a minority Arab and Muslim community.
Second, Israel exists on territory once governed and dominated by Arab and later Turkish Muslims. The Arab invasions in the 7th century displaced and replaced the Jews who were the majority population, those who survived the wars of the Romans against the Jews. Almost a thousand years later, the Ottoman Turks became the rulers of the Holy Land. According to Islamic law, land once governed by Muslims is owned by Muslims forevermore. Notwithstanding the Jews' prior occupation of the Holy Land, Muslims regard the region as theirs and theirs alone and Israel as having stolen their land.
Third, central to the tribal foundation of Arab culture is honor, and the honor of every Arab rests in his duty as a warrior. The Arabs have never forgiven themselves for losing wars and thus their honor to the lowly Jews, in 1948, in 1967, in 1973, and in not prevailing in 1982. The subsequent peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan are deemed by many Arabs as dishonorable.
Fourth, as some of their Muslim opponents put it, the Israelis love life, while Muslims love death, fighting for Allah (and going directly to heaven). Israelis are seen as soft and without honor, notwithstanding their military victories.
The result of these factors is the almost limitless fury felt by many Muslim opponents toward Israel and Jews, fury that was overtly expressed during the October 7 invasion of Israel by Hamas and Gazan civilians, in the sadistic atrocities that they committed, and their celebrating and recording them for posterity and expressed in the West by the tearing down of posters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
Philip Carl Salzman is emeritus professor of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, and past president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.