Conflict over the Biblical lands

Early this month the government of Israel announced that it was going to build more places for Jewish settlers from Israel to live on the West Bank. These new buildings are known as Israeli settlements.

The West Bank here actually refers to the west bank of the Jordan River. People don't often give the full name, because the West Bank is in the news so much that people automatically know that when you say West Bank you are referring to this area. (The river is sometimes referred to in biblical language as the river Jordan.)

This river is of great importance to the religions of Judaism (the religion of the Jews) and Christianity. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. In the Old Testament, Lot settled in this area. Elisha and Elijah were known to have crossed the river. The Bible also tells us that Naaman, the Syrian, was healed of leprosy when he washed in the Jordan seven times.

The Jordan is also thought to be unlike all other rivers in the world in this important respect: As far as it is known, no other river travels below the level of the ocean as much as the Jordan does on its winding 200-mile journey.

The river runs between two important bodies of water. They are the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south.

The Sea of Galilee may also be known to you as Lake Tiberias, Lake Gennesaret , or Lake Kinneret. The area near the Sea of Galilee was the center of Jesus' ministry. Such well-known Biblical places as Cana and Capernaum are situated quite close to the sea. However, Jesus' home, when he was growing up, was farther south in Nazareth.

The Dead Sea, better known in the Bible as the Salt Sea, is 1,292 feet lower than the level of the ocean. The water is so salty, because of the surrounding soil, that eggs will float on its surface. The salt content of the Dead Sea is much greater than that of the ocean.

It is called the Dead Sea because it is so barren and because the area supports very few forms of life. At one time it was thought that nothing would live there, but this is not true.

Between Lake Galilee and the Dead Sea is the West Bank, or what has been known since 1967 as the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Until 1967, the West Bank belonged to the country called Jordan (now east of the Jordan River). But in that year a six-day war was fought between the Israelis and the Arabs (the Jordanians, Egyptians, and Syrians were the main Arab armies). The Arabs lost, and Jordan was no longer able to hold the West Bank. The Israelis, as the winners, took control of, or occupied, the West Bank.

There is a big push now by all the Arab countries and many other countries of the world to make Israel give up the West Bank. Even in Israel this is a stormy issue. About half the population is unhappy with the idea of Israel building more settlements. One of the reasons, though, why some Israelis are not eager to give up the West Bank is that they feel this land really belonged to them in the first place. In biblical times - thousands of years ago - the West Bank was part of areas called Judea and Samaria. In those days Judea and Samaria together made up the old Israelite kingdom, also known as Palestine.

Many stories about this kingdom, found in the Old Testament, are among the reasons why the West Bank area is important to Jewish people in Israel today. It is also, in part, because of their religious attachments to the Old Testament Jewish landmarks (not the Christian or Muslim ones) that many modern Israelis don't wish to hand over the occupied West Bank either to Jordan or to some kind of Arab Palestinian state headed by Yassar Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Historically, many Israelis also regard the West Bank area as their geographical homeland.

But a look at a map will show that many places made famous in Bible times now lie in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and are important to Christian and Arab peoples, not just to Israeli Jews:

* Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus is 5 1/2 miles south of Jerusalem.

* Jerusalem. The eastern or Arab part of Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule until 1967, but it is now part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The western part of the city remains part of the original state of Israel. Jerusalem is regarded as sacred by three world religions - Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

* Jericho. One of the very oldest cities in the world, Jericho dates back to 6000 BC. Joshua sounded the signal that caused the walls of this ancient city to fall. The story of the good Samaritan took place on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. And Jesus restored the sight of blind Bartimaeus in Jericho.

* Bethany. On the slope of the Mount of Olives near this town, Jesus ascended. It is also the town of Lazarus and of Martha and Mary.

* Bethel. Jacob saw his vision here, and erected a pillar to mark the spot.

Actually the West Bank refers to more than just a strip of land along the west bank of the Jordan. It also includes a chunk of land, almost 50 miles wide at one point, that extends westward into Israel and comprises well over 1 million acres. In this area live some 800,000 Palestinian Arabs under Israeli military law. Altogether, several million Palestinians have been scattered throughout the Arab world.

These Palestinians became scattered when they lost their land to make way for the new Jewish state of Israel, which was created in 1948. Since then, what land they had left was taken away after Arabs fought and lost more battles with Israel.

Most of the publicity today about the West Bank is essentially over whether Israel, the occupying power, should continue to set up new Jewish settlements in this disputed territory. At the moment 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish settlers from Israel are living in 110 settlements there.

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