If the importance of historical studies is ever in question, and we should certainly hope it isn’t, then it only takes a moment of particular significance in current affairs to illustrate its undeniable value.
At present this has come in the form of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. Though never far from the headlines, the latest string of atrocities has divided opinion in the media and among the public. Crucially, however, the current situation cannot be understood without an appreciation of the historical back-story that has led us to this point.
It is a complicated story that cannot be done justice in a blog post but the Gaza conflict has its origins at the end of the 19th century. To start with the fundamentals though; Gaza, or the Gaza strip as it is often referred to as, is located on the Mediterranean coast, and shares a border with Egypt to the south and is engulfed by Israel on all other sides. It is one of the most densely packed places on Earth with 1.8 million people living in just 139 square miles. Technically part of the Palestinian Authority, it has been governed since 2007 by the militant group Hamas.
Gaza has played host to a conflict between Palestine and Israel, between Arab Muslims and Jews for over 100 years. In the 19th century Palestine owned what is modern day Israel, with most Jews living across Europe at the time. However, the Zionist Jews wished to return to the Promised Land – the land God had promised them upon leaving Egypt, as story in the Torah/Old Testament goes. The Zionists wished to create a nation state and stop living as discriminated against peoples in other countries.
When the Zionist movement came to Arab lands around Palestine the Arabs retaliated with violence and so tensions began to rise. By 1914 the Jewish population in Palestine had risen to over 60,000.
After World War One, in which the Arabs and Jews in Palestine had joined the Ottoman Empire against the allied forces, Britain gained control of the region of Palestine (what is now Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza). Little was done, or indeed could be done, to resolve the ever-present Arab-Zion tensions and matters worsened in the 1920s and 30s; riots and violence became commonplace as both laid claim to the land.
The tension gave birth to the Peel Commission of 1937, wherein Britain looked to create two states in the area: an Arab one and a Jewish one. It was promptly rejected by the Arab leadership in Palestine. The alternative solution proposed was to limit Jewish numbers in Palestine by implementing a quote of Jewish immigrants. The foundations has been set for a conflict that was to rage on to the modern day, with the small plot of land known as Gaza becoming a focal point of the conflict, changing hands many times after WWII.
Indeed, this is merely an overview of the beginnings of the conflict that has evolved massively in the intervening 80 years and has gone on to dominate the news for decades. It is a clash that has 150-year-old roots and so to mistake the events happening in the Middle East now as a modern phenomenon would be highly ignorant. Two nations, two races, two religions, each with a dislike of the other and a deep-set belief that they have the right to the land.
Other nations have become entrenched in the conflict throughout history and so it is unsurprising that it still carries such global significance and involvement today. But the underlying message is that no action can be taken, resolution found and opinion fairly formulated without an understanding of why things are the way they are. As such these unfortunate events serve to illustrate the immovable importance of the discipline of history.