Whose land is it?

A compilation of historical, legal, moral, and pragmatic arguments for whom this disputed land really belongs to.

Abraham and Isaac’ (oil on canvas), Rembrandt, 1634 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Abraham and Isaac’ (oil on canvas), Rembrandt, 1634
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps the biggest surprise of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is how well it is written. The proposed Israel-Palestinian peace plan is officially titled “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People.”
Available in English and Arabic, its clear, crisp use of language organized in a well-developed outline make for a document that is remarkably clear, a feat all the more remarkable considering its complex subject and considerations.
Whoever wrote and edited the plan deserves top marks for hitting the three Cs of good writing. It is clear, concise and compelling. In short, understanding it is not difficult. This may explain reactions to the proposal.
In broad strokes, Palestinians are apoplectic, Israelis cautiously optimistic, Muslim nations weary of Palestinian intransigence and threatened by Iran are open to it as a new starting point, while the imams in Tehran reject it out of hand calling for an intifada, the response of leftward Western nations is tepid rejection while, for their part, Third World countries join the likes of Russia, China and India in a collective shrug.
The plan’s clarity is a possible explanation for these reactions. Another likely one is that many have not read it for themselves, relying instead on the opinions of others.
Having read the plan or not, it is no surprise that the essence of most objections to the plan boil down to one issue: Whose land is it?
Most arguments about the subject are divided into categories like secular and religious, political and cultural, colonial and indigenous, and more. Because of ideological baggage, these tend to become credal echo chambers, on the one hand, and harsh caricaturizations, on the other. Instead of listening to various claims and weighing them on the scales of reason, humility and evidence, ideological categories tempt all of us to reinforce untested assumptions while demonizing those who do not share them.
Changing category labels will not cure this dynamic but, if accompanied by a healthy and growing awareness of the problem, can help to overcome it.
The objective here is to propose a different lens through which to see the arguments and their evidence or, switching metaphors, a different four-sided frame in which to study them. Specifically, they are:
• Historical arguments
• Legal arguments
• Moral arguments and
• Pragmatic arguments
Historical arguments encompass two kinds of forensic evidence: literary forensic evidence and archaeological forensic evidence. The use of “forensic” as an adjective is a way to emphasize that analysis needs to be done under the ideal of objective reality, not subjective, untested beliefs.
When it comes to evidence submitted by the Bible and the Koran, for example, many religious devotees are inclined to a simplistic reaction to given passages without consideration of their literary context, authorship, authorial intent, the social-political context in which they were written, consistency and deviance of interpretations over time, why the author’s intended meaning has been preserved or abandoned, and the credibility of different interpretations.
For too many believers, the attitude toward a passage out of context is, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
For the critically minded, especially those who are agnostic about God’s existence – let alone his literary self-revelation – religious simplistic attitudes are so repulsive, religious texts are dismissed out of hand, regardless of the fact they are centuries, even millennia, old, and so, at the very least, contain historical testimony to cultural archetypes along with legal and cultural structures that have a direct bearing on things today – in this case, the matter of who owns the land.
One example of a forensic analysis of the Bible is its application to the famous promise to Abraham in Genesis:
“‘Go… to the land which I will show you. I  will make of you a great nation. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you....’ ‘I will assign this land to your offspring.” (12: 1-3,7)
Because Abraham fathered both Ishmael and Isaac, the question is, to which of these does this promise apply?
Genesis 17 addresses this very matter. When Abraham suggest that Ishmael is its intended heir, God rejects the notion:
“Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him.” (17:19-21)
Emphasizing his intent, God repeats it in Genesis 21:12: “It is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you.”
For his part, Isaac had a similar problem. To which of his two sons, Jacob and Esau, would pass the inheritance of God’s unique covenant, including the promised land? In Genesis 28:4, Isaac addresses the question when he sends Jacob to find a wife.
“May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.”
In short order, God ratified Isaac’s prayer, telling Jacob, “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.” (28:13)
Forensic analysts of the biblical texts do not have to believe in God in order to conclude that this ancient Magna Carta of the Jewish people is also a deed of claim, designating inheritance of the land to the descendants of Abraham through Jacob, hence exclusively to the Jews. Apart from the issue of divine revelation, believers and agnostics alike can take note that documents from thousands of years ago stake this claim. In and of itself, this literary forensic historical evidence is a powerful precedent that argues for claims to the land made by today’s Jewish state.
Recognizing this, Trump’s plan acknowledges Israel’s “valid legal and historical claims [to territories]... which are part of the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.”
Notably, all written accounts about the land are valid subjects to this kind of analysis, including all written histories and other religious texts, like the Koran. In the latter, holy to Islam, the god of Islam, Allah, is clear: We [Allah] said to the Israelites: “Dwell in this land [the Land of Israel]. When the promise of the hereafter [End of Days] comes to be fulfilled, We [Allah] shall assemble you [the Israelites] all together [in the Land of Israel].” (17:104)
The question of who owns the land is also a matter of historical claims to the land since Israel ceased to be a Jewish state in the early sixth century BCE.
Since then, who has asserted sovereignty over the land promised by God to the Jews? The Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Seleucid Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Umayyad Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire and, ultimately, the British Empire. All of these laid claim to the land as part of their sovereign territory.
During these 2,600 years those who lived in what the Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed Palestine  were known as Palestinians, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of any ethnic or religious affiliation. Accordingly, Palestinian did not describe any one ethnic or religious group. Its definition applied to anyone living in the territory, a certifiable historical fact all the way up to 1948 when Israel was reconstituted as a nation-state choosing to abandon Palestinian as the identifying name of its citizens, choosing Israeli instead. Most Muslims, with a variety of ethnic identities and who remained in the land, kept the Palestinian designation.
One of the clearest observations from historic claims since the sixth century BCE is that, since that time, there has never been a nation-state that identified itself with the land, until 1948, that is. Instead, it was only part of a region traded by competing empires.
In terms of Israel’s existence today, there is also a need for forensic analysis of events that led to its establishment in the demise of the Ottoman Empire. That empire’s decline in the mid-19th century and atrocities it committed against its own Armenian, Persian and Greek subjects all led to its ultimate demise in World War I. Forensic analyses and familiarity with them are essential to understanding how the Ottomon Empire lost sovereignty over its Palestinian portion.
In this context, there is also an attending need for conversant understanding and analysis of key events that formed the legal basis for the modern Jewish state.
Just as modern agnostic analysts need to gain familiarity with biblical arguments for Israel’s right to the land, religious analysts need to gain conversant familiarity with forensic historical and legal analyses of the land from the time of the Babylonian exile to the present day.
Another significant genre that falls under historical arguments is archaeological forensic evidence. Because the science of archaeology is presumed to be valid in today’s world, further mention of it is not included here.
Legal arguments about the land include historical evidence, as noted above. For the most part however, they relate to Western law as it is applied to land ownership and national sovereignty.
At the very least, those arguments encompass the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the San Remo Conference in 1920, the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (Resolution 181), Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, the UN recognition of Israel as a sovereign state when it approved the Jewish state’s membership on May 11, 1949 and the Oslo Accords, one in 1993, the other in 1995.
Israel’s various wars against Muslim states that sought to destroy it are also important, especially its War of Independence from 1947-1949, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, as well as the first and second intifadas from 1987 until 2005. Each of these involved explicit conflict over Israel’s existence and its boundaries.
The legality of Israel as a modern state rests on two things: recognition by regional and global powers as a nation-state and the long-established precedent of international law that territory gained in military conflict, especially in defensive military conflict, is rightfully owned by the nation-state that obtains it in such conflicts.
Moral arguments about the land, what is right and what is wrong, almost all relate to human rights. The irony is that, while Palestinian governments have made the loudest claim to their own collective and individual human rights, they have never asserted the same for Israel and its citizens, especially its Jewish citizens.
For its part, however, Israel’s determination to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership to the point of giving away portions of its biblical heartland, even in the face of chronic terrorism, has long frustrated many of the Jewish state’s supporters, especially conservative Christians.
Although today’s Israel is a secular state, its determination to make peace with its Palestinian foes is rooted in the most repeated commandment in Torah.
Perhaps the most powerful phrasing of that command is this:
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
While Christian supporters of Israel are largely unaware of this command, or minimize it, it is in the DNA of every Jew. It also lies at the root of the Jewish tendency to support social issues that conservative Christians condemn out of hand, things like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and abortion. In the tension between compliance with God’s moral laws and people in violation of those laws, the Jewish inclination, even to a fault, is to stand with people – with the alien.
So too it is with the Palestinians, especially because they are in the land. Whether on a conscious level or not, Jews are more concerned about honoring the injunction about aliens than those aliens’ terrorist conduct.
Pragmatic arguments have to do with what works and what does not, what is doable and what is not, what is wise and what is foolish, what can be done in the now and what can be done in the future.
For better and sometimes for worse, this is a very Jewish sensibility. It underlies the Israeli government’s policy in recent years of managing the status quo in chronic conflicts with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza. In the absence of a manageable way forward – for example, in the removal of Hamas or frustrations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas – Jerusalem has chosen to live with them, doing what it must to eliminate terrorist attacks, but not to the point of annexing Judea and Samaria or taking over Gaza.
Frustrated supporters of the Jewish state who, from afar, find it difficult to understand Israel’s reluctance to do these things should take into account God’s pragmatism expressed in almost the next breath after giving the Ten Commandments: “I will not drive them [your enemies] out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and possess the land.” (Exodus 23:29-30)
The question at hand has been and remains, whose land is it?
Individual arguments about the matter are not new, but they are in desperate need of re-examination in a different context, one that does not lend itself to today’s ideological divisiveness, especially as exemplified in social media. Eschewing categories like religious and secular, political and cultural, colonial and indigenous, one way to do this is to examine and present the evidence in terms of historical arguments, legal arguments, moral arguments and pragmatic arguments, especially in such a time as this.