Gaza: A Religious Conflict?

Hamas named its terror attacks on 7 October ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood’. Hamas believes that Jewish extremists, with the direct and indirect support of the Israeli authorities, pose a threat to, and are plotting to take over, the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.

Israeli police guard a gate to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, sacred to Muslims, on December 2, 2023. Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

The terror attacks led to an outbreak of the kind of religious language that has a mobilizing effect. Hamas knows very well that all Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, regard the Al-Aqsa mosque compound as a national symbol. The Dome of the Rock with its golden dome covering is a familiar and beloved image for Muslims all over the world.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also uses religion, in his case to support of Israel’s war, saying repeatedly: ‘Remember what the Amalekites did to you.’ Here Netanyahu is quoting the Bible (Deuteronomy 25:17). Jewish extremists have long used this quote to call for war against the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s comments cannot be understood in the absence of another quote from the Bible (1 Samuel 15) where God says, ‘I carefully observed how the Amalekites opposed Israel along the way when Israel came up from Egypt. So go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything they have. Don’t spare them. Put them to death – man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike.’ Saul, who was king of the Israelites, obeyed this command, but spared the Amalekites’ King Agag. This decision cost him dearly. Instead of Saul, the prophet Samuel ended up hacking Agag into pieces ‘before the Lord’ and we then learn that ‘the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.’

The Holy Land

The ‘Holy Land’ is ‘holy’ to Jews, Christians and Muslims, but in different ways. Jews cite the Bible (Genesis 12:7), which says that God promised the land to Abraham’s family, as support for their belief that the land was given to them by God. For Christians, the land is holy because according to the faith of the church, it is where God took on human form and it is where the story of Jesus’ life and death unfolded. For Muslims, the land is holy because it is the place from which the Prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven and conversed with God. The land was conquered and became holy Muslim territory. And, once a Muslim Country, it is for ever so.

These theological opinions are reflected in the fact that Hamas never displays a map that shows Israel. It reinforces this approach by saying that the state of Israel must be crushed. Hamas does not believe such a view is antisemitic. Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived in the region for centuries. Both Hamas (and Iran) have said that Jews who were present before 1948 can stay. They are against what they call ‘the Zionist state of Israel’, but the terror attacks of 7 October were accompanied by clearly antisemitic language.

Irreconcilable claims

Netanyahu has said that ‘Judea and Samaria are ours’. By ‘ours’, he means that the West Bank belongs to the Jewish people. At the United Nations, he produced a map that showed the West Bank and Gaza as part of Israel. A map that in fact is exactly the same as the map Hamas uses. He is mobilizing popular opinion with his interpretation of what God said to Abraham: ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ (Genesis 12:7). (A note in parentheses: Ismael, one of Abraham’s sons, is also one of these descendants, and is regarded by Arabs and Muslims as their founding father!)

The claims of Jews and Muslims to the land are apparently irreconcilable. The situation is exacerbated by Hamas, extreme Muslim movements, Jewish settlers, right-wing politicians in Israel and now prime minister Netanyahu. They claim ownership to the same land, use identical maps and are convinced that they have God on their side. Those who may not have such a strong religious faith have undoubtedly realized that religious language is used to mobilize support.

Regardless of what believers may think about their divine right to the land, God cannot be used to displace other people from homes where they and their families have lived for centuries. It has never been the case that the people living in what is now Israel, West Bank and in Gaza have all belonged to the same religion.

Religious leaders have to be involved

In the wake of the Oslo Accords, some people said that they would prefer to put the religious leaders in a room, shut the door and throw away the key. They were afraid that religious absolutists would prevent peace. They were wrong. The current conflict demonstrates clearly that peace negotiations which ignore religion create opportunities for movements that use religion to intensify the conflict and prevent peace.

A wise approach to the conflict must take into account the fact that the Jewish people have connections with the land and Jerusalem through both their history and their religious practices. In the same way, it must also take into account the fact that the land and Jerusalem have a special place in Islamic faith and the religious practices of Muslims. The Christian Church has existed in the land since Jesus left the earth. It is the heartland for Christians across the whole world. If the conflict is to be resolved, religious leaders and other important religious figures will have to be involved. All of them can draw on sources from Jewish and Muslim theology that will suggest that even if the ‘the land is ours’ it can be ‘leased’ by others. Many religious leaders will add that human lives and equal rights are more important than land.

‘God’ is not part of international law

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is about land, water, power, equal rights and occupation. But it is also a conflict with strong religious elements. For this reason Netanyahu is playing with fire when he uses words from the Bible that subsequently can be used to justify genocide or ethnic cleansing. It is also dangerous when Hamas uses God and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound to justify terror.

‘God’ is not part of international law. International law came into existence because warring parts invoked God as a justification to beat each other to death. All attempts to make peace in the Middle East must be based on the system of international law that has so meticulously built up over centuries.

  • Trond Bakkevig is a priest and Dr Theol. He has been associated with PRIO since 2005 and was an Associate Senior Researcher at PRIO 2014-2022.
  • This is an updated version of a text published as an op ed in Vårt Land 27 November 2023
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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One Comment


While there is a lot of religious arguments over the land, the archaeology, historical documents (e.g. those of the Romans), point towards Jews having been resident in the land for a few thousand years, and having established kingdoms. And the destroyed temple that the Dome Of The Rock was built on top of. And then there’s DNA evidence as well. Law should matter, but seems to only matter when it can be applied to false premises. Like, let’s take the most diverse country in the Middle East, the one where it’s ok to criticise the government (and they do), where people can be homosexual, trans or whatever they want to be, the only democracy there, a country where the Arab population have equal rights by law – and then say it’s using apartheid – and once you accept that as the “truth”, the law becomes clearer for the Jew-haters. It seems to me that the whole thing is about perception, of which religion is just one part, whose PR is best, and damn the facts.

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