"It's all about religion. They have always been and will always be at war with each other." --People Who Don't Know Better
It seems like every few months, the Israelis and Palestinians begin fighting again. For one reason or another people are arrested, others get stabbed, walls are put up, and rocks are thrown. News articles then quickly follow about the intractability of the current Palestinian-Israel conflict, usually focusing on how both sides are guilty of making things worse (often implying that shared guilt means equal guilt). Or even worse, we see news stories pretending that Israel is completely justified in all of its actions against the Palestinians, or that Palestine is just the poor victim of completely unreasonable tactics (neither of these are completely true). And then finally, we see the ever present (and extremely misguided) belief repeated again and again that the current Palestinian-Israel conflict is part of some eternal struggle between Jews and Muslims that always has (and always will) be waged. It's time to set the record straight.
To even pretend that all Muslims and all Jews are part of monolithic groups destined to fight one another is extremely simplistic. Individual Muslims and Jews have lived in peace in many places throughout the world. In early Muslim societies, Jews (and Christians) were given special treatment as "People of the Book." For over a thousand years, most Muslim-run places treated Jews relatively well (compared to other groups at least). Now this wasn't exactly the best way to live, the People of the Book were still treated as second class citizens and were subject to a special tax (called the Jizya). But this was much better than the treatment most other groups received after being conquered by other groups throughout history (think mass rape, slavery, and executions). Of course, there were some instances of this too in early Muslim societies, but the same can be said for almost every society before the "Modern" era.
It's no surprise that many groups have persecuted Jewish people before (and Muslims too for that matter). But many are quick to forget that Christianity shares in the persecution of Jews throughout history. The Christian Crusades, for instance, were particularly brutal towards Jewish populations in the Levant (modern day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan). There is substantial evidence that Jews and Muslims even fought side by side to defend Jerusalem from the Crusaders! The United States, prior to the revelation of the horrors of the Second World War, was not exactly known for its hospitality towards Jews either. However, Americans are quick to forget our own anti-Antisemitism. Rather than face the reality that nearly all competing religious groups (and nearly all other ideologies) have fought one another throughout history, we pretend that only the Jews and Muslims are guilty of not learning how to coexist.
So why are we seeing continual religious violence in the Levant (especially when so many other religious groups and places have learned to get along)? Well what we are always seeing on TV in Israel and Palestine only become an issue about one hundred years ago. Contrary to what many people want to believe, the conflict is only somewhat related to religion. It's all mixed up in politics, territory, and broken promises. Here is a (very brief) rundown of the beginnings of the conflict...
Late in the 1800s, places like Russia were (once again) persecuting Jewish populations (remember that at this time most Jews lived in Eastern Europe and only about 40,000 lived in the Middle East). Some influential (and yes, fairly wealthy) Jewish individuals formed what become known as the World Zionist Organization. This was basically like a lobbying group to the world community which advocated for Jewish people all over the world. When the First World War broke out, the Ottoman Empire (which controlled the Levant) sided against the British and French (the side America eventually joined). When the British and French defeated the Ottomans, they carved up the Levant and created a special territory specifically for Palestine. With pressure from the World Zionist Organization, they designated Palestine as a future homeland for the Jewish people. It should be noted that the many Arab and Muslim leaders agreed to this at the time. They stated that, so long as the incoming population did not displace those who already lived in the region, they would becooperative to take in Jewish immigrants.
However, as Britain tried to manage the transfer of Jewish populations to Palestine, things began to get out of hand. The policies of Nazi Germany pushed many Jews to break Britain's quota limits for immigration. As can be expected when large numbers of people migrate to a small area, people began to fight over the same tracts of land. This escalated significantly during the Second World War, and the Jewish population (who had been recruited by the British to help in the war effort and to help put down an Arab rebellion during the war) quickly turned against the British after they refused to increase the quota of Jewish immigration in light of the Holocaust. By 1946, the Jewish population had reached around 650,000. Once the Nazis were defeated, things became even worse.
Britain was severely weakened after the Second World War (they got bombed pretty hard by the Nazis after all). England had begun to withdraw from its empire in all corners of the world. Still upset over British management in Palestine, some Jewish groups began an open insurgency. The British attempted to negotiate a withdrawal which was amenable to both the Jewish and Arab populations, but no acceptable solution could be found. The Jews didn't want to be ruled by the Arabs (understandable given previous persecution by others), and the Arabs didn't want to cede large amounts of land to people who had (predominantly) lived elsewhere for centuries. When the last British troops left Palestine (with no transitional government in place), armed Jewish and Arab groups scrambled to gain territory and install a government. Neighboring Arab nations like Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon all participated as well (with some annexing territory in the process). Israel quickly proclaimed its independence as a nation, but the Palestinians were not yet organized enough to do the same.
Here we see the primary motivator for this conflict: territory. In the decades since, several other wars have broken out to try to gain territory. Religion does play a big part, but only so far as it is related to territory. Since the holy city of Jerusalem was split in two between Jews and Arabs, each side has a strong motivation to continue fighting. Several other wars have broken out (either started by Israel or its neighboring nations), but the Palestinians have never gained statehood. It is this development, probably more than any other, that continues to cause problems today. The Palestinians do not feel the sense of empowerment and pride from having their own country. Religion is often used as an excuse for the violence, but without the problems of territory, statehood, and self-government, it is highly unlikely that the conflict would have lasted as long as it has. Indeed, there are large populations of Muslims and Jews living as Israeli citizens who are not constantly trying to kill each other.
There is certainly an argument to be made that Muslims not directly involved in the conflict can be motivated by religion in the conflict. Nations like Iran love to stoke the fires of anti-Antisemitism which do exist among some communities. But overall, most Muslims (the Arab ones at least) are upset at Israel not because of its religion, but because of its policies toward the Palestinians (with which many Arabs sympathize). Several predominantly Muslim nations (like Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey) have full diplomatic relations with Israel. The world's most populous Muslims country (Indonesia) has also established upgraded relations with Israel as of 2012. It's clear that most nations (except maybe Iran) do not really care so much that Israel is a predominantly Jewish nation, they take issue with Israel's policies of building settlements and walling off portions of Jerusalem. In short, the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict has nearly everything to do with territorial and political problems from the 1940s, and very little to do with religion.
It is essentially impossible to determine what exactly kicked off this latest round of violence. For every incident involving a Palestinian stabbing someone, there was an earlier incident of a Palestinian's house getting seized by Israel. For every Palestinian killed by Israeli police, there was probably an earlier event where an officer was jumped and beaten by a Palestinian. You can point to the statements made by Palestinian Authority (the closest thing Palestine has to a government that isn't the extremely violent Hamas of the Gaza Strip) President Mahmoud Abbas that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1992 no longer apply as an incitement of violence. Or you can point to Israel's refusal to halt the settlement program as tacit support for continued efforts to undermine Palestinian statehood. The hard truth is that the reason the conflict continues is because Israel continues to build settlements and prevent Palestinian statehood (because it can't control its most vocal and violent supporters who will accept nothing less than full Palestinian capitulation) and because the Palestinians don't do enough to reign in violence among their own ranks (because they can't control their most vocal and violent supporters who will accept nothing less than full Israeli capitulation).
Are there any prospects for future peace? Maybe, but it doesn't look good in the short term. The peace talks which were championed by John Kerry in 2014 have completely fallen apart. Instead, the Palestinians are making significant progress toward gaining statehood in the United Nations. Israel is very opposed to this as full statehood would mean clearly delineated territory and sovereignty. Meanwhile, Israel is continuing to build a separation wall in East Jerusalem to restrict Palestinian movement. The Palestinians naturally don't like this since Israel can place these anywhere it wants to separate or isolate communities. When decades of peace talks have failed, can we really be surprised when people once again turn to violence to solve their problems?
In all, remember that these are people. People with (often) legitimate grievances who see no other means but violence to achieve their goals. To reduce this to an intractable and eternal conflict between Jews and Muslims cheapens the real problems of the conflict. The Palestinian who just had his home demolished doesn't care that it was (likely) done by a Jewish company. He is mad that his house was destroyed. The Israeli whose friend was stabbed to death doesn't care that it was (likely) a Muslim who did it, she is just mad that her friend was killed. As hard as it may seem, there are still ways to solve this problem. But we won't get anywhere if just give up and pretend that this conflict is about Mecca and Menorahs when it's a whole lot more complicated than that.
TL;DR: In Israel and Palestine, religion is mostly used as an excuse to mask the underlying territorial and political issues which started nearly one hundred years ago.