Whose Land Is It?

Whose Land Is It?

What it means and why it matters, in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

If you ever wish to encapsulate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an easy way to do so is to ask some Israelis and Palestinians whom the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to. Almost inevitably, some from each group will claim that “it’s ours, not theirs”. Now, obviously they can’t both be right. But, they can both be wrong.

As it turns out, everywhere around the world, land has existed long before human beings. These days, we human beings are able to move mountains (such as in Appalachia), create new islands (on multiple coasts), and “reclaim” land from the sea (such as in the Netherlands). Yet, even in such situations, the soil still predates the people.

So, what does it even mean for land to belong to someone? After all, anyone anywhere can claim that a piece of land belongs to them and none other. Anyone can claim that the Moon belongs to them and none other. Yet fundamentally, such claims have little to do with the land and everything to do with the person making the claim.

If there is to be any meaning whatsoever to the notion that “it’s our land”, it cannot be that the land belongs to the people so much as that the people belong to the land. In other words, one can be indigenous to the land but the land does not inherently belong to anyone at the exclusion of anyone else, because ownership of land does not exist in nature. “Owning land” is merely a concept that people tacitly agree to for the sake of convenience, much like money. In comparison, for something to be indigenous is for something to have evolved within its environment. Plants and animals are considered indigenous when they are located in the environments in which they evolved. Nonindigenous plants and animals are merely ones that evolved outside of the environment they are in.

In North America, for example, the vast majority of the human population is nonindigenous, which is to say that the physical and cultural characteristics of most people in North America did not evolve within the local ecosystem where those people reside. Rather, the human population of North America is predominantly comprised of people whose physical and cultural characteristics are evolutionarily adapted to Eurasia and Africa. Similarly, the vast majority of the population of North America speaks only nonindigenous languages, such as English, Spanish, or French, rather than indigenous languages, such as Yuchi, Natchez, or Zuni. North American laws and customs are also derived primarily from European ones rather than indigenous ones.

As for the Middle East, it should come as no surprise that Arabs are indigenous to Arabia (located on the Arabian Peninsula) while Jews are indigenous to Judaea (the Roman name for a region incorporating what was previously the Kingdom of Judah). While the Arabic language and Islamic religion are indigenous to the land of Arabia, the Hebrew language and Jewish religion are indigenous to the land of Israel (a region incorporating what was previously the Kingdom of Israel, from which the Kingdom of Judah seceded around 931 BCE). Because the Kingdom of Judah survived being attacked by the Assyrian Empire, whereas the Kingdom of Israel did not, the remaining descendants of the Kingdom of Israel came to be known as Judeans (later shortened to “Jews”) rather than Israelis.

Yet, when it comes to answering the question of whose land it is, the answer is not simply that the land belongs to the Jews and not the Arabs, given that the Jews are indigenous and thereby belong to the land. This is because, as a consequence of a series of failed revolts, the vast majority of the indigenous population of Judaea was either forced into exile or killed by the Romans in the first and second centuries of the common era. The “success” of this genocide (which literally means “nation killing”) led the Romans to rename Judaea as Syria Palaestina, meaning the Palestinian portion of the region of Syria, based on the Greco-Roman term “Palaistinê” which was used to label the coastal region spanning from what is currently northeastern Egypt to the coast of Lebanon. The English “Palestine” was subsequently derived from the Greco-Roman term.

Immediately prior to the Roman genocide, at the time that Jesus of Nazareth lived there, the population of Judaea is reasonably estimated to have been well over a million people, a threshold that it would not reach again until around 1930. Yet, despite the land of Judaea becoming a substantially depopulated backwater of the Eastern Roman Empire for several centuries, there were certainly plenty of people living there, both Roman Christians and returning, albeit highly persecuted, Judeans.

After the land of Judaea was overtaken by the Arabic-speaking and Islamic-worshiping Rashidun Caliphate around 640 CE, the land of Judaea experienced a process of Arabization that lasted until the land was invaded by Latin Christian forces during the Crusades, starting around 1095 CE. During this early period of Arabization, the population of the land became majority Muslim through a combination of colonization and conversion to Islam by portions of the local Judean and Roman Christian populations. However, the ensuing two centuries of extensive warfare between Latin Christian and Muslim armies led to a substantial depopulation of the land.

It was only after the Mamluk Turks, based in Cairo, took control of the region, starting around 1290 CE, that a second period of Arabization began to occur. This second era of Arabization continued long after the Ottoman Turks, based in Istanbul, overtook the region in 1517 CE and proceeded all the way up until WWII. It is from this second era of Arabization that modern day Palestinian Arabs factually claim their ancestry.

During Ottoman rule, the land of Judaea was known mostly as a Christian pilgrimage site, a small part of a vast and populous empire, similar in some respects to a lightly populated county in the United States. It wasn’t until after 1865 CE, when equal rights were granted to all citizens of the Ottoman Empire, that the population of the land of Judaea began to increase notably. As to why, apparently historians are not in agreement, with pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist historians painting notably different pictures. So, it’s helpful to look at both perspectives and compare them.

A pro-Zionist interpretation is that the granting of equal rights led to an influx of Judeans who, for the first time in roughly 1,700 years, were allowed to own land in their own homeland. This led to the construction of Judean neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, followed by the creation of new Judean towns, such as Petak Tikva in 1878 and Rishon LeZion in 1882. This was the start of what, in 1890, would be termed “Zionism”, the national movement for the return of the Judean people to their homeland and the resumption of Judean sovereignty. The notable influx of Judeans in the late 19th century and early 20th century also attracted a notable influx of Arabs (both Muslims and Christians) seeking to benefit from increased economic activity and relative stability during a period of prolonged economic hardship, wars, and ethnic rebellions throughout the Ottoman Empire.

An anti-Zionist interpretation is that improvements in agriculture, irrigation, sanitation, and medicine, as a result of the Tanzimat period of Ottoman reformation and modernization between 1839 and 1876, were the sole cause of substantial population growth in the area. Jewish immigration was limited to merely several thousand people, many of whom fled or were forced out during WWI due to their having foreign nationality. By comparison, the Arab population experienced a surge of hundreds of thousands of people during the last half of the 19th century.

Presuming that the truth is hidden somewhere in between the two perspectives, it then becomes easier to understand how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arose after the land was overtaken by British forces in 1917. Namely, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is due to the conflicting agendas of Arab nationalists, who sought to assert Arab supremacy over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire that were temporarily being overseen by the British, and Judean nationalists, who sought to reestablish Judean inhabitancy and national sovereignty in their homeland. As both Arab nationalism and Judean nationalism are still active, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also still active.

So, to answer the question, “Whose land is it?”, the answer is simply that the land belongs to both Israeli Judeans and Palestinian Arabs because both identify as belonging to the land. Put differently, the land of Israel has hosted both peoples for at least several centuries in different eras, such that each identifies as belonging to the land. Therefore, they both belong to the land, because it’s up to them to decide where they belong. In the same way that it is not up to Arabs to decide whether Judeans belong to the land, it is not up to Judeans to decide whether Arabs belong to the land. Rather, it is up to each person and ethnic group to both decide where they belong and to share the land they live on as equals.

Because superiority is a judgment — and judgments always depend on who is doing the judging, no ethnic, religious, national, or other group is inherently superior to any other. Rather, we are all inherently equal, always have been and always will be. To claim otherwise is merely a delusion of wishful thinking, a wanting to be better, a wanting to be superior.

Without the acceptance of our inherent equality, conflict is both inevitable and perpetual. Without the understanding that land does not exist merely to serve people but rather that people exist to serve the land, both people and land are doomed to suffer. Instead, what both people and land need in order to thrive is the peace of the living, as compared with the peace of the dead. What both people and land need to thrive is the peace that enables prosperity. And, to bring that peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all that’s needed is for Israelis and Palestinians to accept their inherent equality. How they choose to share their land, as equals, is up to them.

For more information on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, please go to

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