The “Holy Land” is home to more than 12 million people and a significant place for at least the half of humanity that is Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is a beautiful and conflicted land treasured by so many. I am mindful that I am neither a native nor a resident of the land, nor am I Jewish or Muslim like the majority of those who live there. My hope is that I might help “my people” (Christians outside the land) to at least not make things worse, and instead – where possible – to help those who are working for peace for all. We need a basic framework from which to begin. At the risk of over-simplification, this is my attempt to provide one.

Between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf was a “Fertile Crescent” watered by the Nile, Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A succession of empires sought to dominate the Crescent as they expanded their territories across more or less of Central Asia, North Africa and Europe. The narrow strip of land (approx. 100 x 400km) between the Mediterranean Sea to the West and the Jordan River to the East has been a key connecting point and an important crossroads for trade. This is the place we have come to know as the Holy Land, in an area sometimes called Canaan, Israel, Palestine and the Levant.


Jewish people, Muslims and Christians work with the stories as they are presented in their scriptures, as well as leaning on the diversity of interpretative traditions within their various communities. Jewish understanding is primarily drawn from the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), known to Christians as the Old Testament to which was later added the New Testament. Muslim understanding is drawn primarily from the Quran, which it is believed supersedes the Old and New Testaments and corrects the corruptions in both canons of God’s original revelations.

The first half of this framework (before the Common Era) is mainly based on parts of the Old Testament records which I understand are not contentious for Muslims. The second half (Common Era) is based on what seem to be generally accepted facts from extra-Scriptural records.


Jewish people, Muslims and Christians all consider themselves to be the biological and/or spiritual descendants of Abraham. Sometime before 2000 BCE God called Abraham to leave the Sumerian city of Ur at the south-eastern end of the Crescent and to move round to the Holy Land, where he lived among the various other peoples in the area who were collectively known as Canaanites. All these people spoke mutually intelligible Semitic languages and developed Egyptian symbols into the abjads which evolved into the majority of the alphabets we are familiar with today – including Latin, Hebrew and Arabic.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household, to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12:1-3

Abraham had two sons. Issac became the father of the Jewish people; Ishmael of the Arab peoples. Isaac’s son Jacob was given the name “Israel,” meaning “wrestles with God.” He had 12 sons, whose families would become the Twelve Tribes of Israel. A famine drove Israel and his family down to Egypt, where they initially prospered with Joseph (the eleventh son) serving as the Prime Minister. But as their numbers grew, the Pharaohs enslaved them for 400 years (Exodus 1 / 12:40).


Around 1400 BCE, the Israelites were miraculously led to freedom by Moses – an event commemorated annually in the Passover festival.

There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.

Exodus 12:37-38

The people were subsequently led by Joshua into the Holy Land to take territory for each of the Twelve Tribes by force and settle there. Over the next 400 years, the people went through a succession of cycles of flourishing, degradation, remorse and restoration under a succession of Judges.


Around 1000 BCE, Saul was anointed as king over the people of Israel. He was succeeded by David, who made Jerusalem the kingdom’s capital. His son Solomon built a Temple in Jerusalem and expanded the bounds of Israel’s kingdom to their fullest extent.

After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split – the two tribes in the south were known as the Kingdom of Judah (from which we get the term “Jew”) and retained Jerusalem as their capital with its Temple; the ten tribes in the north were known as the Kingdom of Israel and established a new capital in Samaria. A succession of kings ruled each of the two kingdoms and were continually advised and challenged by prophets.


In 722 BCE, the Assyrian empire overran the northern Kingdom of Israel and took the majority of its people into exile. The Jewish people that remained – or later returned – inter-married with the other people who lived in or moved into the area, becoming the “Samaritans” of the New Testament.

In 597 BCE, the Babylonians (who had swallowed up the Assyrian empire), took the southern Kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem and its Temple. Again, the majority of the Jews were taken into exile.


70 years later, the Persians had swallowed up the Babylonian empire and allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem if they wished, where those who did return rebuilt the city and the Temple. But the people were never again an independent nation in the Holy Land.

The historical events related in the Hebrew Bible end in the Persian era. The Greeks swallowed up the Persian empire, and the Romans swallowed up the Greek. In 20 BCE, the Roman client king of “Judea” (which included most of what we call the Holy Land) began to expand the second Temple and transform it into a wonder of the ancient world. The events recorded in the Christian “New Testament” are centred on Jerusalem and the Holy Land within the Roman empire during this era – up to the end of the first century CE.


The Jewish people responded to foreign control in a variety of ways – some doubled down on the observance of their religion, some withdrew from society, some sought to find a way to work with the imperial powers, others sought to overthrow them with violent rebellion. Three major revolts broke out. In 70CE, in response to the first revolt, the future emperor Titus destroyed the Temple and much of Jerusalem. At the end of the third revolt, the emperor Hadrian in 136CE slaughtered a huge proportion of the Jewish people, banished those who survived from the capital, and renamed the land “Palestine” after their continual enemies, the Philistines.

In the 4th century, the Holy Land came – completely or in part – under the control of the Byzantines (the continuation of the eastern part of the Roman empire); then of early Muslims in the 7th century; of Crusaders in the 11th; of Mamluks in the 13th; and of the Ottomans in 16th. The primary inhabitants of the land through all these centuries were non-Jewish descendants of Canaanite and other semitic peoples, who we generally refer to today as Arabs.

For nearly 2000 years, the Jewish people were scattered across the globe and their communities were repeatedly the target of vicious persecution. Towards the end of the 19th century, in response to a rising tide of anti-Semitism, a Zionist movement emerged campaigning for the establishment of a permanent homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. In 1917 the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, issued a declaration of the British Government’s support for the proposal.


At the end of the First World War, the League of Nations dismantled the Ottoman Empire for having sided with Germany and gave responsibility for Palestine to the British empire in 1922. Over the next quarter of a century, many Jewish people migrated to the Holy Land. With the horrors of the Holocaust in the Second World War, huge numbers of Jewish people fled there as refugees. The British tried to impose quotas and effectively lost control, eventually pushing responsibility for Palestine back to the United Nations.


In 1947, there were about 800,000 Arabs and 400,000 Jews in the Palestine. The United Nations adopted Resolution 181 which called for a partitioning of the land into two separate states with the borders drawn on the map as a Green Line. The resolution was rejected by the Arab community but taken as a legal basis for the establishment of the State of Israel. In the violent clashes which ensued – Jewish people desperately seeking to establish a secure home for themselves and indigenous Palestinians desperately seeking to hold onto their existing homes – some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee, either to the territories in Gaza and the West Bank that had been designated by the United Nations for the State of Palestine, or to neighbouring Arab countries. Israel declared independence on 14 May 1948 but tensions between predominantly Jewish and Arab communities (both inside and outside the Holy Land) continue to this day.

From the start, the State of Israel and its predominantly Jewish population have felt themselves to be under perpetual threat from the Arab peoples in Palestine (of which about 85% are Muslim and 15% Christian) and other nations in the region. A state of war existed between Israel and Egypt until 1979; Jordan until 1994; and still exists with Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, which has repeatedly called for the State of Israel to be wiped off the map.

In 1967, Israel started a military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank – including “East Jerusalem” where the Old City is located, which was previously controlled by Jordan – and took the “Golan Heights” in the north from Syria. Since then, Israeli citizens have begun to establish settlements inside the State of Palestine, displacing local residents, and have restricted (in 3 levels of severity: A, B and C) the autonomy of the Palestinian people even within their own territories.

In 2002, Israel began to erect a 9 metre high concrete separation wall around Gaza and the West Bank, controlling the movement of people and resources in and out of the State of Palestine.

Today, 85% of the United Nations’ member states recognise the State of Israel (almost all except Arab and predominantly Muslim countries) and 70% recognise the State of Palestine (almost all except North America, Western Europe, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand), although it is officially classified as a non-member observer state.

The separation wall, Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and the Israeli settlements there are illegal under international law.