Uses of The Crusades in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

 Historical Background

The origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is initially traced back to the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century. In Der Judenstaat, Theodore Herzl, a founder of modern political Zionism, expressed the need for a Jewish nation state in either Palestine or Argentina to curtail the worsening persecution of European Jews (Cohen 134-135).  The establishment of Zionist presence in the middle east is generally traced back to the Balfour Declaration, yet the most important event arguably took place on December 11, 1917 with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On this date, some people claim that British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem and declared, “the wars of the Crusades are now complete” (Bazian). Ultimately, this event, referred to by some as “The Last Crusade,” allowed Western imperialists to carry out the Zionist cause and set the geopolitical stage for the following century of conflict in the middle east.

Several key events are worth noting in the build up to the creation of British-mandate Palestine. In 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, promised to support Husain Ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, in his bid to restore an independent Arab Kingdom in exchange for support against the Ottomans (Lacquer 15-16). McMahon’s promise was broken in 1916 with a secret agreement between Britain and France, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, or the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that allocated various parts of the Middle East between the two Western powers (Lacquer 12).  In November 1917 Zionist goals came closer to fruition with the Balfour Declaration, in which the British and U.S. governments stated support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine (Lacquer 17). This declaration was duly motivated by sympathy for the Zionist cause as well as the British imperial desire to secure British influence in the region east of the Suez Canal. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain gained control of Palestine and the area became known as British-mandate Palestine. For the next several decades, British-mandate Palestine was largely characterized by intercommunal violence and unrest between the Jewish and Arab population.

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(The map on the left shows British-mandate Palestine, while the map on the right reveals the 1922 division of the territory into Jewish and Arab Palestine)

In November 1947 the General Assembly of the United Nations sought to end the violence upon the impending removal of British influence in the region by recommending the partition of British-mandate Palestine into a separScreen Shot 2016-05-30 at 3.11.30 PMate Jewish and Arab state. The map on the right shows the UN General Assembly recommended partition plan that gave the Jewish population 55% of the territory and the Arab population 45%.  This proposal was accepted by the Zionist movement, but Palestinians believed that the proposal did not accurately reflect the demographic distribution of the region, as the Jewish population owned only 6% of the territory at the time. In 1948, Zionist leaders launched The War of Independence and established the State of Israel, seizing control of Gaza Strip and allowing Jordan to establish control of the West Bank. This division of territory led to a tumultuous conflict for the next several decades that erupted on June 5, 1967 during what is known as the “Six Day War.” During this conflict Israel established settlements in Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, and the West Bank; biblical lands of the Jewish people that right-wing Israelis called “Judea and Samaria.” In response, the UN security Council passed Resolution 242, which called for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and established the idea that “land for peace” would be the basis of all subsequent peace negotiations in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Like the Crusades, this conflict emerged over questions of borders and territory. (

On October 6, 1973 the conflict once again erupted in violence when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Despite initial gains, the Egyptian and Syrian forces were pushed back by Israeli counter-attacks and failed to regain control over the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights; however, the Arab states saw the war as a political victory that exposed Israeli vulnerabilities. This conflict lasted for three weeks and became known as the Yom Kippur War by Israelis or the Ramadan War by Arabs. The conflict seemed to reach a resolution in the late 1970’s when U.S. President Jimmy Carter succeeded at reaching a compromise during the Camp David Accords. At Camp David, Israel agreed to hand back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for peace and normalization. Arab nations were outraged by Egypt’s negotiations and Egypt was expelled from the Arab League.

The Camp David Accords were a major step towards peace in the Middle East, but by June 1982 violence erupted once again when Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Hezbollah forces from staging attacks against Northern Israeli communities. During this invasion Israeli militias massacred about 2,000 unarmed Palestinians. In 1987, a Palestinian Intifada (uprising) began in the West Bank and Gaza. This Intifada lasted six years, and resulted in the death or injury of over 20,000 people. In 1988, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attempted to end the violence by condemning all forms of terrorism and becoming the first Palestinian leader to recognize the Israeli state. Following suit, Jordan renounced all territorial claims to the West Bank, and the U.S. entered a substantive dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

In 1993 peace talks between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo finally put an end to the existential conflict as the PLO gave up its claim to Israel’s territory as defined by its pre-1967 borders. In return, Israel recognized the PLO and gave them limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza in return for peace. This peace compromise reflected the initial formula of “land for peace,” and represented a major step in the peace process.

Peace talks between Arafat and Rabin culminated in the signing of the Taba Agreement in September of 1995; this allowed for Palestinian elections and self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. However, these peace talks stagnated following Rabin’s assassination roughly a month after the Taba agreement.

Rabin was succeeded by Binyamin Netanyahu who promised that he would only pursue a policy of “Peace with Security.” Netanyahu agreed to hand over 80% of the West Bank to Palestinian rule, but he insisted on retaining the other 20%, which consisted of only a few hundred Jewish settlers among 20,000 Palestinians. In 1999, Netanyahu was replaced by Ehud Barak, who campaigned on a platform of bringing an end to all conflicts between Israel and its neighbors. Barak continued peace talks with Arafat and continues to slowly transfer land in the West Bank back to the Palestinians, until the two sides once again come to a stalemate in May of 2000. At the second Camp David Accords Israel offered to hand over 95% of the West Bank and Gaza to Palestine, but Palestinians believed that anything less than 100% of the territories was unacceptable because it would only comprise a small portion of what was originally Palestine. In September 2000, Palestinians once again erupted in a violent Intifada that formally put an end to the seven years of peace negotiations in Oslo. Since then, neither side has been willing to budge on this issue as Israel feels that retaining some presence in the region is vital to national security, while the Palestinians oppose any agreement that creates a disconnected Palestinian territory. (

This ongoing conflict can be attributed to three main schools of thought regarding crusader phenomena. The first sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as a religious confrontation between Islam and Christianity and the impending Christian crusader threat. The second sees the conflict as an extension of European imperialist goals that first originated during the Crusades. The last interpretation views the conflict as an extension of the ongoing confrontation in the Middle East between East and West that began during the 5th century BCE. (Ohana 134) (This link contains a 90 second summary of the Arab-Israeli conflict)

(This video shows an evolving map of the territory)

Hamas and Palestinian Considerations of the Conflict

The battle between Palestine and Israel is understood by Palestinians as a war against “Zionist occupiers.”  As a battle with a wealth of evidence due to its long duration, we find ties to the Arab understanding of the Crusades and Jihad in a number of different sources.  In this section, we will focus specifically on this Palestinian narrative and understanding, and tie it to the broader context of the memory of the Crusades in this conflict.

To understand the rhetoric used by Palestinian fighters, we turn to Hamas, as the militarized arm of the movement for a separate Palestinian state.  Hamas’ justification of this conflict is understood through religious terms, and it is expressly stated in Article One of Hamas’ charter that their movement “is Islam.”  Hamas also understands the establishment of a Zionist state as an invasion with dire consequences for all Muslims (Article 9).  Crucial to understanding the Palestinian view, however, is the idea that Hamas and its soldiers do not see their battle with Israel as another Crusade.  Instead, the two are deliberately understood as separate, because the Crusaders and the Jews are not the same enemies in the eyes of Hamas.  This is an important distinction because, although Hamas does consider this war a “Jihad” against foreign occupiers, Hamas views the Crusades as a closed chapter in history; as a battle decisively won by Muslim warriors like Saladin (Article 35).

If the Crusades are a closed chapter in history, with different enemies in a different time, why are they mentioned eight times in Hamas’ charter?  The answer is not immediately obvious.  At the end of the charter however, the purpose of these illusions is revealed:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement views seriously the defeat of the Crusaders at the hands of Salah ed-Din al-Ayyubi and the rescuing of Palestine from their hands… The Movement draws lessons and examples from all this. The present Zionist onslaught has also been preceded by Crusading raids from the West and other Tatar raids from the East. Just as the Moslems faced those raids and planned fighting and defeating them, they should be able to confront the Zionist invasion and defeat it.”

In the eyes of Palestinians, the Crusades are more than a moment of glorious victory in the distant past.  Instead, they represent a roadmap for victory in their conflict with Israel.  Hamas asserts that, just as it was in the past, Palestine will be liberated only through Jihad and the return of Muslims to “true Islam” and their traditional customs.  In Hamas’ understanding, the defeat of the Crusades serves as the perfect example of this formula.

How, then, does this ideology play out in practice?  What the observer sees are two very different faces of Hamas and its beliefs.  Hamas’ English publications avoid the Crusader association entirely:

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Instead, all of Hamas’ public pieces paint Palestinians as the occupied and the oppressed.  Although we can only speculate as to why the Crusading association is avoided, it is worth noting that calls for a Palestinian state have grown considerably in the West.  Palestinians could conceivably attempt to cover up their anti-Crusader rhetoric as a means of avoiding antagonism in a moment where public opinion has begun to swing in their favor.

Although Hamas may be disassociating themselves from anti-Crusader rhetoric in their English language publications, they have not forgotten the Crusades as their example of the triumph of Islam internally.  Many Hamas affiliated clerics still preach this exact Jihad theology when out of the public eye:

“The Jews are convinced that their annihilation and the destruction of their state will never be accomplished by secular, reactionary, pan-Arab, or Ba’thist regimes. Their annihilation and the destruction of their state will only be achieved through Islam, by those who bow before Allah.”

It is apparent, then, that the Palestinian fighters do not only look to the Crusades as a precursor to their own victory.  Surprisingly, they also seem very aware of Israeli fear of its own position, the same position in which the Crusader states found themselves during the rise of Saladin.

These are more than haphazard thoughts.  Instead, what readers on both sides of the issue see is a well-developed, highly thought out Palestinian understanding of this conflict that draws deeply upon their cultural memory of the Crusades.

Zionist Response to the Use of The Crusades

In May 2013, Rabbi Eli Kavon closed an opinion editorial with the following sentence: “The myth of the ‘Zionist Crusader’ is a distortion of history that has only yielded lies and misery” (Kavon, “The Myth of the Zionist Crusader”). His case, which culminates in this statement, rests on the assertions that a Jewish state in Israel is neither imperialistic nor foreign and that the events of the Crusades have no bearing on modern Jewish actions. Zionists and Jews all over the world agree that a comparison between crusaders and Zionists is baseless and ludicrous, used by Palestinians in what will ultimately be a fruitless attempt to paint Jews as evil occupiers. The Jewish response to Zionist-crusader comparison approaches the matter with one fundamental assumption: that Israel is the original indigenous Jewish homeland. If Israel is the indigenous homeland of the Jewish population, it is their rightful place; by establishing a state there, Zionists cannot be deemed invaders, imperialists, or crusaders. The symbolic connection to the physical land of Israel that the Zionist community has cultivated since the War of Independence forms the crux of their response to accusations of crusader identity.

One Zionist response to being compared to crusaders is to examine the geopolitical maps of the Crusades themselves. Kavon argues that “while the Islamic world today decries ‘Crusader imperialism,’ the reality is that the West has thwarted the imperial dreams of Muslims to control much of the world” (Kavon). He argues that the disparate and warring Muslim factions of the region during the Crusades has imperialist intentions themselves. As each group sought to expand its control and defeat the other geopolitical powers, often other Muslim sects, they encountered the Crusaders, whose intention during the First Crusade was tied more closely to defending Byzantium and conquering Jerusalem than to imperial rule over Muslims. Throughout the era of Latin Kingdoms in the East, the Muslim-Christian divide was not one of black-and-white antagonism: truces, trade relationships, and alliances between Muslims and Christians were possible. Kavon draws on these elements of the Crusades’ geopolitical history to argue that the Crusades were a far more complicated situation than Palestinian propagandists make it out to be, and that Zionists should be left out of the situation altogether. He argues that the Palestinians have rewritten the history with Muslims in the role of victim to a cohesive force whose goal was their destruction, and that the Palestinians now see Zionists as perpetuating this framework. Neither Muslims in the region nor Christians had such clear-cut roles in the Crusades, he argues, and furthermore, if anyone could be seen as having imperial intentions, it was the Muslim groups that warred amongst themselves at the time. Ultimately, however, Kavon returns to the idea of the Jewish connection to the land. He declares,

Palestine was not the Promised Land of the Christian conquerors. […] Anti-Israel propagandists can continue to rob the State of Israel of its legitimacy by portraying Jews as a foreign, imperialist element in the Land of Israel, yet in the end, the truth will win out. The Zionist movement—an anti-imperialist movement to the core—returned the Jewish people to their homeland.

The connection to the Promised Land is described by Meron Benvenisti as moledet, a Hebrew word that literally means “birthplace” (Benvenisti 19). He explains that moledet has been established by the first generations of Zionist immigrants as a “deep attachment to the country” (Benvenisti 19-20) that must be nurtured in newer generations. As immigrants claiming a spiritual home but leaving behind a physical one, early Zionists found themselves in a foreign landscape. They sought to establish and deepen communal connections to the physical geography of Israel in order to develop a sense of geographical belonging and home in the Promised Land that was analogous to their spiritual one. Programming specifically devoted to this end “in the school curriculum and in army instruction courses” was established early (Benvenisti 19). The Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel considers moledet “a positive act, probably unique, of possessing the land” and immediately began to take efforts to care for and protect the flora and fauna in ways that had not been enacted by the Palestinians previously living there (Benvenisti 23). Benvenisti sums up the message that this is intended to send: “You Palestinians despoil the land indiscriminately because you do not feel for it, ergo it is not your homeland; we look after it, therefore it is ours” (Benvenisti 24). It is this connection to the land, simultaneously deeply spiritual and tangibly physical, that encapsulates Zionists’ belief in their right to it and that renders useless the suggestion that they are invaders. How can Zionists be considered crusaders, they ask, if they are people who are not invading a land with imperialist intentions but rather indigenous people who are returning home at last to care for their beloved country after a long and painful exile? Benvenisti encapsulates this feeling:

How foolish are the attempts to compare us to the Crusaders; how utterly absurd is the perception of us as a bunch of rootless drifters. The seedling, planted almost one hundred years ago, has grown into a robust and ramified tree, with roots deeply thrust in the soil of moledet (33).

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An anomalous, presumably early Zionist poster that paints “the crusader” in a positive light, and thus uses the crusades as an event of valor and bravery rather than destruction and colonialism. The lion in the top right corner is a direct reference to the coat of arms of Richard the Lionheart, King of England. It is unclear whether this poster was intended for a Jewish or European audience.

Zionist Anxiety of the Crusades

Despite the typical insistence that their goals are unilaterally different from those of the medieval Crusaders, Zionists have, throughout the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, used the Crusades to articulate a sense of anxiety towards their existence as a small state, surrounded by antagonistic powers, that survives only through the support of Western entities. In a way, this historical use of the crusades comes from an internalization of the Zionist-Crusader analogy that predicts a second coming of Saladin and his victory at Hattin. As David Ohana summarizes in the chapter “The Crusader Anxiety” from his book Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders, “this anxiety represents a hidden traumatic fear that the Zionist project and the Israeli place might end in destruction” (Ohana 131).

Beyond simply using the Crusades to articulate the precariousness of this situation, however, these historians seek to analyze the Kingdom of Jerusalem in an attempt to avoid the strategic and social errors that led its downfall. Thus, although the Jews are extremely hesitant to draw the Zionist-Crusader analogy (for fear of confirming the Palestinian suspicion of their colonialist motivations), they nonetheless find the Kingdom of Jerusalem useful because it existed in a political situation similar to Israel.

“There can be nothing more dangerous than a historical analogy if it is overstated . . . At the same time, one should not rule out the possibility of learning about an existing situation through a study of similar situations. For that reason, the history of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem has a special interest for the Zionists, although the Latins of the Middle Ages who came to the country to set up a Christian state were Christians, not Jews by religion, and Aryans, not Semites by race” (137 Ohana quoting Menahem Ussishkin)

It seems that Zionist historians have focused on the Crusaders’ unwillingness to settle in the East and create a sustaining agricultural economy. Israeli historian Joshua Prawer called the crusaders “a population of city-dwellers crowded together behind the walls of fortified cities or castles,” and says that their reliance on muslim rather than Christian peasantry engendered ill will towards their rule. Ohana argues that “It was not possible to control the country from stone fortresses without the support of a well-disposed peasantry” (146). The lack of an established system of settlement led to a failure to adopt a strategy of “spatial defense” which would have proven useful in defending the major cities of the Kingdom against Muslim advances.

Perhaps in an effort to not repeat this mistake, the Israeli’s have from the beginning stressed a symbolic as well as literal connection to their land. (having trouble tying up this argument by showing how historians/politicians have actually done this).

A second, but not unrelated anxiety of the Crusades for the Jews was the history of the massacres of 1096 in the Rhineland. This history, more directly translatable than the Zionist-Crusader analogy, puts the Holocaust into a context the 1000 years of anti-Semitic violence in Europe. The Zionists use the Rhineland massacres to justify their moving to the Middle East as an survivalist escape out of an inhospitable Europe. This history demonstrates that the Zionists are not historical parallels to the Crusaders, but rather were attacked and massacred indiscriminately by the Crusaders.

“The main question faced by the crusaders was how to set up in the midst of the oriental Muslim states a Christian centre which would be different from its neighbours in religion, origin, language, and culture – one which sprang from the West and was nurtured by it. The same question confronts the Zionists . . . The Zionists, however, are different from the crusaders” (Ohana 137 quoting Shemuel Ussishkin The West in the East 1931).

As Ohana summarizes, the Crusades were an utter failure, but “this fact only increases the necessity of studying their history in order to examine the reasons for the failure and in order to learn how to avoid the mistakes which had so many fateful consequences” (138).


Yigal Tumarkin, from Belvoir Crusader Fortress sculpture garden, 1994-1996. Image courtesy of Tumarkin, an Israeli painter and sculptor, often uses his art to critique Jewish nationalism from the inside. This use of the Crusades would have thus served to emphasize the military and colonial aspects of Zionism. The combination of crusader imagery with the modern mechanical motifs connects the crusader armies to modern-day IDF.


The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has been characterized by its convoluted and antagonistic nature. Each side deeply feels a connection to the space as a spiritual and physical homeland, and the complex mark that the Crusades left on the geopolitics of this region continues to manifest itself in this conflict. Their legacy is clear in the cultural memory of the Palestinian people, who see themselves as victims of a crusade all over again, as well as in the anxiety of Zionists, who fear a crusader-like failure. Ultimately, the memory of the Crusades rises to the forefront of the conflict by demonstrating that a thousand years later, humans are asking themselves the same questions about faith, home, and conflict: who has claim to this earthly and spiritual space?


Works Cited/Useful Resources

Bazian, Hatem. “Revisiting the British Conquest of Jerusalem.” Aljazeera. 14 Dec. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016.

“Maps of Israel and Palestine.” Maps. Web. 30 May 2016.

Laqueur, Walter, and Barry M. Rubin. The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.

History of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, American Documentary Inc., 2001.

Cohen, Michael Joseph. The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict. Berkeley: U of California, 1987. Print.

Gelvin, James L. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Lukacs, Yehuda, and Abdalla M. Battah. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Two Decades of Change. Boulder: Westview, 1988. Print.

Ohana, David. “The Crusader Anxiety”. Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 131-181.