What's so special about Israel-Palestine? The answer, if you're a pro-Likud fan of hard-nut security policies and a slow, painful dissolution of a future Palestinian state, is simultaneously nothing at all, and everything at once. It's one of many baffling ambiguities in the stance of such people, so don't worry if you're confused.
Pushing the line that Israel-Palestine is a special conflict are those on the pro-Israel side. They use lines like "Israel is the only Jewish state"; "Israel is a beacon of hope in the Middle East"; and "Israel is the only democracy in the region" and then expect nobody in the West to take a special interest in this, or make critiques of such a unique and extraordinary situation which is — as you might have guessed by now — a situation that pro-Israel activists themselves insist is extraordinary and unique. At the same time, the purist "New Anti-Semite" platoon compound this by arguing that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic per se. These hardliners claim that Western human rights activists focus too much on Palestine, and the only possible reason for this could be because Israel is the only Jewish state and so critics of Israel are hotly anti-Semitic. I attempted to debunk these kind of claims recently; the "Western left" have many more interests than just Israel-Palestine, and leftist movements outside Britain and the USA focus on other territorial disputes.
A few months back, I had an interesting exchange with a self-confessed hard-line Zionist. He was refreshingly frank about this, and is an intelligent journalist with a wide range of good ideas; he was also perfectly happy to share more about his views. Regarding the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) and the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis, he told me that, "The attendant expulsions, though very nasty, were at the very least no worse than (and much smaller than) those inflicted on Hindus and Muslims during the partition of India." This is objectively true. He gave other examples: "Those inflicted on ethnic Germans under the Potsdam Agreement around the same time, or the Turkish-Greek exchange in the twenties. Nobody now questions any of those or seeks to reverse them. The victims have been resettled and not turned into hereditary stateless refugees. Why this one exception?" This was again the argument: "What's so special about Israel-Palestine?"
The problem is that the Israel-Palestine conflict is special because it has a religious dimension, while many of these otherwise compelling counter-examples do not. The only exception I can think of is the Chinese occupation of Tibet, where the selection of the next Dalai Lama will most likely never happen, a desperate tragedy for a great nation and an even greater religion. Certainly, Western activists should take as much interest as they once did in Tibet, but for whatever reason, do not. In any case, Tibetans have been occupied, not displaced. The territories disputed thanks to Indian Partition did not regard territory that was itself religious, even if quite obviously there was a religious aspect to the division of the country. The expulsion of ethnic Germans was not only approved or at least not opposed by a vast majority of interested nations, unlike the Nakba it was perpetrated against a Germany which had inflicted untold harm on its neighbours, and it was done so without violence. It contained no religious elements. The 1923 Greek-Turkish exchange was ethno-nationalist in majority, with a light infusing of religion but which, like Indian Partition, did not contain specific concerns over specific religious sites. The Israel-Palestine conflict is special then, because it is a dispute which is inescapably linked to not just incidental sites of interest to Muslims, but also the place where their great Prophet ascended to the heavens during what they believe was a miraculous night journey.
Somehow and tragically, the pro-Palestinian side has incrementally lost this aspect of the debate to religionists on the opposing side. How many times do we hear, in the West, that the Jewish people have a right to a Torah-inspired "promised land" and how rarely do we hear about Prophet Muhammed being "taken by night from Al-Haram Mosque [Makkah] to Al-Aqsa Mosque whose precincts We did bless" as documented in the Qur'an? If the claim about Torah relevance is accepted as valid, why is Qur'an relevance not equally valid? Is the West taking sides here in terms of which religious text is more holy and acceptable?
How often do we hear arguments from evangelical Christians in support of Zionism, citing the Book of Revelations, the Gospels, the Old Testament and other parts of the Bible, and how rarely do we hear about the Prophet's Companions who are buried in Jerusalem and its hinterland, or the acknowledgement of Jerusalem-dwellers about Islamic prophets such as Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus? When Al-Aqsa Mosque is repeatedly desecrated by Israeli settlers, with sponsorship and desperate excuses from the Israeli political and media establishment, the response from the Western commentariat is hardly one of outrage. Jewish settlers enter the very site from where Prophet Muhammed's ascension to the heavens took place but it is barely registered in the West, let alone criticised, yet if the Western Wall were daubed with pro-Palestinian graffiti, it would surely be reported and exaggerated as an unprecedented attack by jihadists of the most extreme kind.
The underlying problem here is both simple and ironic. There is something extremely special about Israel-Palestine that makes it stand apart from all the other territorial conflicts that are superficially similar. It is not just any ordinary territorial dispute, it is a religious issue, and not one over which Jews or Christians can claim a monopoly. Muslims have as much a religious right to Jerusalem, on account of their holy texts, as do the Jews or Christians on account of their own holy books.
The irony though is that by far the most popular local approach to resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict is now Islamism, a religio-political ideology not dissimilar in underlying form, though obviously not practice, to Zionism. You would expect that the rise of Hamas, which makes clear on a local and regional level its religious rights to at least part-ownership of Jerusalem, would have translated to a revival of Western sympathy for the religious claims of Islam to Palestine, including Jerusalem. Of course it has not; the war on terror has put paid to that line of attack. Any Muslims making any religious claim to anything are automatically associated — by the ignorant, bigoted or naïve — with the most extreme forms of political Islam; think Al-Qaeda or Daesh. These slurs are made against religiously-minded political activists of the Muslim faith even if they are making claims based on Qur'anic text which pre-dates by centuries the rise of political Islamist ideology. It seems that while the Israel-Palestine conflict has "Islamised" and moved away from nationalist and Marxist solutions, the rhetoric from the pro-Palestinian movement has stepped back from Islamic arguments.
Perhaps this reticence to use religious rhetoric and its replacement by nationalist arguments couched in Western human rights terminology is not just because of neoconservative and muscular liberal opponents of any form of Islamism, and conservative Islam, but because the greatest support base for Palestine in the West is now from friendly leftists, who have themselves shunned religion. If your enemies say that to cite the Qur'an is violent, and your friends say that to rely on the Qur'an is not modern, is it any surprise that we hear a great more nowadays about religion from one side, the Israeli and Jewish side, and precious little from the Palestinian and Muslim side? It is as much the pro-Palestinian left that may be at fault here.
A concluding remark might be that it is no longer acceptable for pro-Israel activists to claim a religious monopoly on Jerusalem. If that line of attack can be reclaimed by Palestinians, it might also go some way to disputing the argument that there is "nothing special" about Israel-Palestine. It is a very special place indeed, and a very special conflict, incomparable to any other and of prime importance to the future of the Muslim world, the West, and at least three great religions. If you are a pro-Palestinian atheist (like me), don't forget religion; it's why we're all here in the first place.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.