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Conflict Over the "City of Peace"

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One tiny city, Jerusalem, again and again finds itself at the heart of international disputes. Mankind's best efforts have failed to resolve the age-old conflicts over this troubled city. But Scripture reveals that peace will finally come to the "city of peace."


Whether we look at last fall's terrorist attacks in the United States, the subsequent war in Afghanistan, continuing strife in the Middle East, or the ongoing war against terrorism, there is one clear common denominator. It is a small piece of property in the heart of Old Jerusalem. Traditionally called the Temple Mount, this 40-acre plot rises above surrounding streets and dwellings.

Much of the current news that you are hearing and reading traces back, in a modern sense, to a series of events that began 85 years ago, in March 1917. The events of the last 85 years are not simply the result of accident or chance. Rather, they are part of a grand design that was declared millennia ago.

The Reshaping of the Middle East

By March 1917, World War I had already been raging in Europe for 2 1/2 years. While the war in Europe was stalemated, events in the Middle East were taking a different turn. In March, British troops from the Anglo-Indian army occupied Baghdad and set the stage for British control of Iraq. At the same time, British forces began advancing north from Egypt, toward Gaza and eventual conquest of Palestine.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ottoman Turks had spread an empire across the Middle East, North Africa and parts of southeastern Europe. Since the 1700s, that empire had been in a state of gradual decay. By 1900, Britain and France had carved out spheres of influence for themselves in this area of the world. Additionally, there was unrest across much of the Arab world fed by rising Arab resentment of their treatment by Turkish overlords. Various Arab leaders and movements were vying for control and influence.

In the spring of 1917, when British troops began advancing from bases in Egypt toward Gaza, they set in motion a series of events that shaped the modern Middle East. In early November, prior to the actual British taking of Jerusalem on December 9, but with that objective clearly in sight, British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour sent his famous letter to Lord Rothschild announcing that the British government would look with favor on the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A mere 31 years later, the independent state of Israel was created.

In the aftermath of World War I, establishing peace and stability in the Middle East proved far more difficult than simply defeating the Turks. Two of the main Arab leaders who had supported the British war effort became locked in a struggle for the leadership of the Arab world. One of these leaders was Hussein, Sherif of Mecca, and the other was Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, king of Nejd. Hussein was the leader of the Hashemite family, which traced its descent from Muhammad. He was headquartered in the Arab holy city of Mecca, and ruled the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. His rival was located in the eastern part of Arabia, bordering on the Persian Gulf. Hussein had proclaimed himself King of the Arabs in 1916, and summoned all of the Arabs to go to war against Turkey. However, by 1919 he was engaged in a losing struggle with ibn Saud. He abdicated in 1924, and by 1926 ibn Saud had united most of the Arabian Peninsula and ruled the territory that was thereafter known as Saudi Arabia. His son, King Faud, rules the country today.

The Hashemite dynasty still had its supporters in the Arab world, whom the British sought to placate by installing Hussein's son Faisal as king of Iraq, and his son Abdullah as emir of newly created Trans-Jordan. Abdullah's great-grandson, King Abdullah II, reigns as king of Jordan today. Between the world wars, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were nominally independent, but closely tied to Britain by treaty arrangement, while Kuwait, the Persian Gulf sheikdoms and Aden were directly a part of the British Empire. Palestine was ruled by Britain under the terms of a mandate issued by the League of Nations. The French controlled Lebanon and Syria as their sphere of influence in the Middle East.

Several of these governments proved unstable from the start. But as difficult as the circumstances in Iraq or Syria might have been, the British found themselves in an impossible situation when they tried to mediate a long-term solution between the Jews and the Arabs regarding the future of the Palestine Mandate. As early as 1921, there were serious anti-Jewish riots rocking the country. The first large-scale Arab attacks on the Jews occurred in 1929, following a dispute involving Jewish use of the Wailing Wall. Such terrorist violence continued throughout the 1930s, but subsided during World War II when the British arrested several of the chief Palestinian Arab leaders because of their pro-Nazi sympathies. Strife flared anew following the war's end, culminating in May 1948. In that year, the British returned responsibility for the Palestine Mandate to the United Nations, which then authorized the establishment of an independent Jewish state. At this point, the Jews proclaimed the birth of the modern state of Israel.

The Arab states immediately responded with an attack on Israel. The combined populations of the Arab League nations outnumbered Israel many times over. But in a dramatic series of events, the Jews fought the Arab League to a standstill and established an independent state. Nevertheless, when the war ended, the "Old City" of Jerusalem was in Arab hands. Jews were then barred from access to the Temple Mount. Nineteen years later, in June 1967, all of this changed during one of history's most remarkable weeks. Surrounded by hostile states, and fighting against overwhelming numbers, the Jewish state expanded its borders eastward to the Jordan River, re-taking Jerusalem and conquering Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Syria's Golan Heights. The Arabs, who had previously rejected Israel's right even to exist—and therefore all attempts at partition of the land—now demanded that the international community make Israel give back all of the territory conquered during the June 1967 "Six Day War," and return to the status quo.

Transition in the Arab World

Dramatic changes have taken place in the Arab world since the end of World War II. In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy headed by King Farouk was overthrown. This led to the emergence of a man who became the world's most visible symbol of Arab nationalism until his death in 1970—Gamal Abdel Nasser. He seized control of the Suez Canal from the British in 1956, and nationalized it. Additionally, he fought and lost two wars with Israel, in 1956 and 1967. His implacable hatred of the Jewish state, and of the Western powers, never cooled. His rise to power was a harbinger of things to come. In the years following Nasser's rise, other younger Arab leaders overthrew monarchies and embraced the concept of socialist dictatorship, as well as the goals of the destruction of Israel, the banishment of British and American influence from the region, and the establishment of some type of pan-Arab union.

Egypt and Syria in 1958 actually formed a union called the United Arab Republic, which lasted for about three years. In 1963, under Nasser's leadership, another failed attempt at union occurred, this time including Iraq along with Egypt and Syria. These attempts at an Arab union represented the second of what have been three approaches to restoring the glories of a pan-Arab empire.

The first efforts started in the waning days of Turkish rule, and were carried out by two men who began their careers as traditional Arab sheiks, but who each aspired to be king over an independent Arab empire. Neither Hussein nor his rival, ibn Saud, were able to bring such plans to fruition in the 1920s. In the years after World War II, a different type of Arab leader appeared on the scene—rising to power through coups while still junior army officers. These men came of age in the final years of the Western colonial empires, and benefited from a Western-style military education. They resented the Western powers, blaming them for Arab impotence, and generally admired the Soviet Union as a model for development. While they remained Muslim, they were more secular in outlook than Hussein and ibn Saud. Men like Nasser in Egypt, and later Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, have each aspired in his own way to dominate the Arab world and punish the West.

This "second wave" of Arab leaders had sought to overthrow their predecessors, disillusioned with the failed attempts to restore Arab glory. Today this pattern is repeating itself, as a "third wave" of leaders is sweeping across the Middle East. Rejecting both the capitalism of the West and the discredited Marxism of the former Soviet Union, these would-be "third wave" leaders have emphasized a fundamentalist brand of Islam that leaves no room for compromise. Looking back to the glory days of Arab conquest and dominance in the first centuries after Muhammad, they also dream of a pan-Arab union. This will not be a union under a monarch from one of the old Bedouin dynasties, or a secular-educated army officer turned dictator, but rather a new Caliph who will unify the Faithful under the banner of purified Islam. This, they reason, is the only way that Western influence can be expelled from their region, and that Israel can be subjugated.

The appeal of militant religion resonates with the younger generation, partly because of a stagnant economy and partly due to growing disrespect for leaders perceived as ineffective and corrupt. A burgeoning youth population, seeing little hope for the future, provides militants ample recruits for their cause—the restoration of Arab glory and supremacy. These militants blame Arab ills on the machinations of the Jews, the British and the Americans. The militants' model is the 12th-century Arab ruler Saladin, who re-conquered Jerusalem for the Arabs and defeated the invading Western armies of the Third Crusade. Once again, it comes down to a 40-acre spot in old Jerusalem. Control of Jerusalem, as in the days of Saladin, is viewed as a symbol of Arab glory, and of triumph over the infidels.

What the Future Holds

The yearnings across much of the Middle East for a new Saladin—one who will restore Arab glory by conquering the Jews and expelling Western influence—were foreseen by Bible prophecy. In Daniel 11:40, we read of a future "King of the South" who will ultimately "push at" a coming European superpower at the time of the end. This individual, called in Bible prophecy the King of the South because his center of power is south of Jerusalem, will undoubtedly be a charismatic person who will whip up much of the Muslim Middle East into a frenzy against Israel and Europe.

The ancient prophet Zechariah foresaw that Jerusalem would be like a bubbling pot in the end times (Zechariah 12:2). Notice the comment of The Expositor's Bible Commentary. "Jerusalem is pictured as a cup 'round which all nations gather, eager to swallow down its inviting contents'.… But as they drink from her, they become intoxicated and reel.… In v. 3 Jerusalem is compared to a heavy, 'immovable rock' that the nations attempt to move but only hurt themselves in the process" (vol. 7, p. 681). Truly, the world does not know how to resolve the issue of what to do with Jerusalem. More than 2,500 years ago, Zechariah wrote that at the end-time, just prior to the return of the Messiah, world attention would be focused on Jerusalem. What an astounding and unlikely prediction for an ancient writer to simply "guess" so many centuries in advance!

The strife over the "city of peace" occurs because the nations of the world are unwilling to accept that the Creator God is the final arbiter of what belongs to whom. Orthodox Jews assert that Jerusalem was given to them by God, to be the eternal and undivided capital of Israel. The Arab world sees Israel's Jews as infidels in their midst, and sees a Jewish-controlled Jerusalem as an affront to rightful Arab glory and dominance. Additionally, the Vatican has put forth its own plan calling for an international city under papal oversight. Most of the secular world does not really care who gets Jerusalem, but just wishes that the problem would go away. However, this problem will remain in the forefront of world affairs—until the feet of Jesus Christ stand on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4), and He settles the issue once and for all.

Many writers have described the conflict in the Middle East as strife between two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, but this is only partially true. While it is true that much of the Arab world claims descent from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, there is another component in the Middle East mixture. Isaac also had two sons, Jacob and Esau. While Ishmael may have taunted and picked at Isaac (Genesis 21:9), we are told that Jacob and Esau struggled from the time they were in their mother's womb (Genesis 25:22). Esau deeply resented and hated his brother and planned to murder him (Genesis 27:41). The Amalekite descendants of Esau launched a terrorist attack against the descendants of Jacob shortly after Israel left Egypt, sneaking up from the rear to attack the elderly and the children (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). Centuries later, it was again the Amalekite descendants of Esau who launched a terrorist attack on Ziklag when David and his men were elsewhere, burning the city to the ground and taking captive the women and children (1 Samuel 30:1-3). It was Edomites, descendants of Esau, who rejoiced when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and urged them to totally destroy it (Psalm 137:7).

Where are the descendants of Esau today? Most are still in the Middle East. The modern nation of Yemen, for instance, takes its name from Teman, the grandson of Esau, and is still called by that name in Hebrew today. Many of the remnants of the Amalekites are found among the Palestinian population, as well as in parts of Libya. Yet another Edomite colony is centered in the Basra region of Iraq, which takes its name from ancient Bozzrah, the capital of Edom.

The story of the Middle East is the story of ancient hatreds and modern intrigues. Jerusalem remains both the center and the symbol of the ongoing conflict—and remains the reason that the problem is beyond human solution. Bible prophecy shows that a European army will eventually invade the Middle East, subjugate portions of the Arab world, take Jerusalem and seize control of the Temple Mount (for more on this aspect of prophecy, please write for our free booklet The Beast of Revelation).

While there remains much blood to be shed over Jerusalem, the "city of peace," Bible prophecy also shows that, ultimately, Jerusalem will be safely inhabited, no longer in fear of terrorist attacks or invading armies (Zechariah 8:3-8). A new world government, administered by the glorified Christ assisted by the resurrected saints, will be headquartered in Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-4; Daniel 7:18). Prejudice against the Jews will then vanish, and formerly antagonistic nations will come up to Jerusalem as pilgrims to worship the God of Israel, to do homage to the Messiah and to observe God's festivals (Zechariah 8:22-23; 14:16).

Then, and only then, will the conflict over the "city of peace" finally cease forever.

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