Last week Australia reversed its decision to recognize West Jerusalem as its capital, creating a hornet’s nest of comment in the media and social media. But what should we think about this?
Firstly, Israel has every right to determine what their capital is. That is their right as a sovereign nation. Every nation, that is, every people, has the right to self-determination. They get to decide where their capital is, and how foreigners will interact with their domestic politicians. This is the right of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) alone which sets the laws of the modern nation of Israel. We Australians have no right to tell them otherwise, we have no right to interfere in the domestic affairs of another nation, and we would take exception to any other nation doing the same thing to us. It is petty that we do try to tell the Israelis where they can place their capital.
Secondly, Palestinians also have every right to dispute the capital of Israel being Jerusalem. For many centuries Jerusalem was the capital of Palestine. While there is no doubt that the Palestinian people have been captured by violent anti-Israel political powers, the Palestinians themselves are a genuine people with ancient roots in the land of Palestine, which was a legitimate name of that land for much, though of course not all, of its history. As a result there are also many texts which refer to the country of Palestine, as they would any other country. All you have to do is pick up a history book and you will see this is true, especially an older one. For example, Schaff’s A History of the Christian Church, volume 5 first published in 1911, says this:
"Other circumstances gave additional impulse to the movement, such as the hope of securing relics of which Palestine and Constantinople were the chief storehouses; and the opportunity of starting a profitable trade in silk, paper, spices, and other products of the East. These pilgrimages were not seriously interrupted by the Mohammedans after their conquest of Jerusalem by Omar in 637, until Syria and Palestine passed into the hands of the sultans of Egypt three centuries later. Under Hakim, 1010, a fierce persecution broke out against the Christian residents of Palestine and the pilgrims."
No one would ever be taken seriously who said that Syria never existed, at least not by anyone credible. Yet here we have Syria and Palestine spoken of as real geographical places, alongside of Constantinople, places where people lived and breathed and had valuable relics. In fact, Palestine is mentioned as being comparable to Constantinople in its storehouse of relics. And note this important point, Palestine is recorded as a land filled with Christian residents. This has been true of Judea/Palestine since the era of the early church.
For obvious reasons, both Constantinople and Palestine have played a central role in many centuries of Christian history. Many people are aware that Palestine was a province of Rome, then the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), and then the various Islamic Empires. But it is wrong to say this means it was never a nation as well. After all, both Syrians and Palestinians were in a similar circumstance for centuries, both countries have had massive influxes of people from the East and the West, and people of both places now tell us they are either Syrians or Palestinians. The most important principle of nationhood is a self-asserted identity that is commonly held by a people, and this designation, Palestinian, for people in this region can be traced back into the era of the ancient Greeks (though modern Palestinians are not Philistines).
In fact, even the famous Balfour Declaration, with which the British Empire ensured the Zionist Federation that the British Empire would “…use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of…” a “…home for the Jewish people…” noted that said home would be established in “Palestine”. The condition of the British establishing such a home for the Jewish people is interesting though, because it was predicated on “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” What is another name for people in Palestine? Palestinians, except those visiting of course.
Palestinians, therefore, have a legitimate historical claim on the land of their ancestors. There are people among the Palestinians who trace themselves back to the ancient Jerusalem Church, yes, the one founded by the Apostles., There is no place on earth that can claim a more ancient lineage of continual Christian belief, which is remarkable considering how much opposition various ruling empires of that land have had towards Christianity. Genetically there are people there that can be traced back to the most ancient inhabitants of the land, and various genetic studies show how closely related Palestinians and modern Jews are. Indeed, these studies show that Palestinians and Jews have a common ancestor, whom we know is Abraham. Abraham was told his offspring would always inhabit the land (Gen 15:17-21; 17:1-8) and Paul tells us that all Christians believers are Abraham’s offspring (Gal. 3:7, 16, 29). Therefore, Palestinian Christians are physically and spiritually the ancestors of Abraham, and show that God’s promise was fulfilled that Abraham’s offspring would always inhabit the land.
They are also not just "Arabs", as is often asserted, Arabs themselves have different nationalities, just like we Europeans do. Saying Palestinians are just Arabs would be like saying the English are just Germans. So, while we must agree that Israel has a right to assert where their capital is, we should also admit that the Palestinian people have a right to dispute this.
But even if you disagree with this argument, you still don't have a right to determine that the Palestinians are not a people. You can assert it, but your assertion is meaningless. Nationality is a self-asserted right. It is petty that we try to deny it in this nation. Our connection, as Australians, to our land is far less ancient and yet you would not let anyone deny it, would you?
It is between Israel and Palestine to sort out this issue. Israelis of course have deep historical claims to the land of Judea. Anyone who reads the bible can see how the nation of Israel was formed in the promise land of Canaan, and how deeply entwined the identity of the Jewish people is with that land. No one can deny this either. It is so well known to Christians, I see no need to make a detailed case for this. But it is not for Australians to settle this conflict. It is deep, and profoundly complicated and has historical, theological and political implications far above any of our pay grades.
But also, in the Australian political context, who cares? It's kind of ridiculous that a continual conflict in another country far away, where two competing ancient peoples can't agree, has such an impact on Australian politics. Nothing Australia does will actually affect the situation for good or for bad in that disputed land. Issues of Israel, Palestine or most foreign countries (if any) should not have any serious bearing on Aussie politics. We show great hubris to think we can have a swaying opinion in this conflict. You can open up many pages of the Bible and see there is conflict happening in Gaza, and then you can open up many modern news sites and see the exact same thing. This conflict is beyond Australia’s ability or influence to solve.
Australia is not a global power. We should have no pretensions to be one. We certainly have no right to tell Israel what to do, or Palestinians how they should identify, or really any other nation how to conduct their internal affairs. Israel must exist and must be given every chance to succeed. History has proven this. But, even if you dispute the historical claims of the Palestinians to be a nation, when their land was partitioned in 1948 a national identity was surely formed.
The Palestinians identify with that series of events, and if the rest of history isn't enough for you, then without any doubt their collective experience as a people of being disenfranchised in their own land is as clear a national origin story as you'll get. As the Palestinian Christian Kairos Statement says,
“We address ourselves to our brothers and sisters, members of our Churches in this land. We call out as Christians and as Palestinians to our religious and political leaders, to our Palestinian society and to the Israeli society, to the international community, and to our Christian brothers and sisters in the Churches around the world.”
They know who they are, and they call themselves Palestinians. Some of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ, just as we have brothers and sisters in Christ amongst the Israelis. We really should not be seeking to interfere in the self-determination of these two peoples.
In fact, if you pay enough attention to immigration and demographic trends in Australia, it is obvious that we have our own issues of this kind building just over the horizon. That is what should concern us. May the God of peace prepare us to wisely handle that.
List of References
 Philip Schaff 1988, History of the Christian Church, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp222-223.
 Jewish Virtual Library, 2022, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/text-of-the-balfour-declaration
 Palestinian Portal, 2022, https://www.palestineportal.org/learn-teach/israelpalestine-the-basics/palestinian-christians/
 Kairos Palestine, accessed 21/07/2020, https://www.kairospalestine.ps/index.php/about-kairos/kairos-palestine-document.