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Israel-Palestine Conflict: A Comprehensive History

The Israel-Palestine conflict dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, with the birth of major nationalist movements among the Jews and the Arabs. Palestine, a region of the Middle East, was then controlled by the British Empire.

The Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917 announced support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The British government hoped that the declaration would rally Jewish opinion to the side of the Allied Powers against the Central Powers during World War I (1914-18). This event was the start of the world’s most intractable conflict in Israel and Palestine.

Public declaration of claims over Palestine by Zionist leaders in the early 1900s and the 1917 Balfour Declaration created tensions in the region. It was also the beginning of significant Jewish immigration into then Palestine.

Tensions erupted between both communities as the migration of Jews continued during the period of Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. Even as Hitler massacred millions of Jews in concentration camps, the cry for a Jewish homeland in Palestine began to take shape.

A 1936 caricature published in the Falastin newspaper on Zionism and Palestine
 A 1936 caricature published in the Arabic-language Falastin newspaper on Zionism and Palestine | Issa El-Issa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Background to the Israel-Palestine Conflict

In 1947, with the culmination of World War II, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan, which sought to divide Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and the City of Jerusalem.

Six months later, in May 1948, neighbouring Arab states, under the banner of the Arab League(the coalition of Muslim nations of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria), rejected the U.N. plan for Palestinian partition.

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was created, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. The war ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory, and the territory was divided into 3 parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip.

The conflict gave rise to tensions in the region, particularly between Israel and the Arab League. Through the 1950s, Jordan and Egypt supported the Palestinian Fedayeen militant cross-border attacks in Israel.

Hagana Ship Jewish State at Haifa Port 1947
Hagana Ship – Jewish State at Haifa Port | Unknown source, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 1956 Suez Crisis led to Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, later restored. In 1964, Yasser Arafat formed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognized by the Arab League.

In June 1967, following a series of manoeuvres by Abdel Gamal Nasser, the then-Egyptian President, Israel preemptively attacked Egyptian and Syrian forces, leading to the Six-Day War.

After the war, Israel gained control over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Six years later, in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise two-front attack on Israel to regain their lost territories. The war began on the day of fasting in Judaism, known as Yom Kippur. However, the war did not result in a significant gain for the countries involved.

Peace Negotiations in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Finally, in 1979, following a series of peace negotiations, representatives from Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty that ended the conflict between Egypt and Israel.

But, the question of Palestinian self-determination remained on a cliffhanger. Later in 1987, thousands of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose against the Israeli territorial occupation in what came to be known as the first Intifada.

The 1993 Oslo Accords began the peace process between Israel and Palestine when Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands after signing the peace accords.

Bill Clinton Yitzhak Rabin Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993 09 13
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. | Vince Musi / The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The accord enabled mutual recognition for Israel’s government and the newly established Palestinian Authority.

Developments Since the 2000s in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Dismayed by Israel’s control over the West Bank, the Palestinians launched the second Intifada until 2005. In response, the Israeli government built a barrier wall around the West Bank in 2002, despite opposition from the major powers and the U.N. Bodies.

The 2013 United States efforts at reviving the peace process between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank were thwarted by Hamas, a Palestinian political party sanctioned as a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997.

Settlers taking a walk on Shuhada Street. Settlers often bring their assault rifles around – photo by Stella | ISM Palestine, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, clashes in the Palestinian territories precipitated a military confrontation between the Israeli military and Hamas, killing 73 Israelis and 2,251 Palestinians.

Later in 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Palestinians would no longer be bound by the territorial division created by the Oslo Accords. Israel and the Palestinian conflict have thrived at the cost of civilian casualties.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the total number of fatalities since 2008 is 5,733 Palestinians and 251 Israelis.

What is the Israel-Palestine Conflict All About?

The Israel-Palestine conflict is rooted in a century-long territorial dispute over the Holy Land, a region with great religious and historical significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The first and foremost aspect of the conflict is the claim over territories. Having two separate nations, one Israeli and the other Palestinian is called the two-state solution.

The claims to Jerusalem are the second source of contention. The Holy Land, as it is known, is a sacred site for three different religions. The contested city is divided into East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem by Israel’s and the West Bank’s borders.

The third issue is the illegal settlement of Israeli communities in disputed Palestinian territories. The fourth problem is Hamas, which has vowed to destroy Israel at all costs. The fifth issue in the dispute remains to be a lack of consensus on proposed solutions for the peace-building process.

What Are the Proposed Solutions for the Israel-Palestine Conflict?

There are three proposed solutions: One-state, Two-state, and Three-state.

The one-state solution is a proposed approach that seeks to unify all the disputed territories into one state of Israel with equal rights for all inhabitants regardless of ethnicity and religion. The solution seeks to create a unitary, federal or confederate Israeli-Palestinian state encompassing all territories of Israel and Palestine.

Critics have, however, argued that no matter the composition of the proposed one-state, we will also have one minority who would feel isolated. Several others have argued that the one-state solution is not viable because of Arab unwillingness to accept a Jewish national presence in the Middle East.

In his 2000 interview with Edward Said, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, whom he calls ‘one of the intellectual fathers of one-statism’, asks whether he thought a Jewish minority would be treated fairly in a binational state. To this, Said replied: “It worries me a great deal. The question of the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I don’t know.”

Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the most important jewish religious site with al-Aqsa mosque (right) and Dome of the Rock (left) on the background. | Sheepdog85, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

The two-state solution envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The proposal for creating two states was first made in the Peel Commission Plan of 1937. The two-state solution is one of the most embraced solutions by international players.

It is also one solution that endures because there is no other viable solution. Critiques of the two-state solution have argued that Israel is far too powerful to allow the formation of a Palestinian state.

Yusef Munayyer writes: “The simple truth is that over the decades, the Israelis developed enough power and cultivated enough support from Washington to allow them to occupy and hold the territories and to create, in effect, a one-state reality of their devising.” 

Now, there is the three-state solution, which notes that there are three states in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Israel.

What is the Political Context of the Current Clashes?

For almost two years, Israel has been unable to form a majority government, leading to elections and political uncertainty – most notably for the acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The latest Israeli election on March 23 reflected the divisive sentiment within the votes as no political bloc could secure enough seats in the 120-member parliament, Knesset, to secure a majority.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit his deadline to stitch a new alliance on May 4, six weeks after the country’s fourth election in less than two years.

In the present conflict, Netanyahu finds an opportunity to assure his people that only a strong leader like him can quell the guns from across the borders and protect them.

Writing for The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman notes, “Netanyahu is interested in seeing his rivals fail to form a new coalition to unseat him. He would like Israel to go to a fifth election — giving him a chance to hang on and maybe avoid jail if he is convicted in his current corruption trial. One way Bibi could do that is by inflaming the situation so much that his right-wing rivals have to abandon trying to topple him and declare instead that this is no time for a change in leadership.”

Palestine is in political turmoil, divided between the radical group Hamas in the Gaza strip and President Abbas’s Fatah in Ramallah. Abbas, ageing with time, has fewer cheerleaders in the Middle East and is challenged by the friction within his party.

On May 22, the elections were to be held in Palestine, resulting in widespread popular enthusiasm. But, Abbas later announced that the elections would be postponed as the Israeli government would not allow ballot boxes in East Jerusalem.

But, the announcement was widely seen as an excuse to avoid elections, as Abbas’s Fatah Party was expected to fare poorly against Hamas. With the current conflict, Hamas seem to emerge as a popular force among Palestinians angered by Israel. According to Hamas, “There is no solution to the Palestine problem except by Jihad”.

What is the International Response to the Conflict?

Recently, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel amid escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians and assured his “unwavering support” for Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Biden, in his statement, condemned the rocket attacks on Israel and refrained from criticizing Israel for its actions.

Seeing the United States take the Israeli side was unsurprising, but the narrative Washington maintained in the conflict was quite surprising. Later, the United States also blocked the UNSC meeting on the Israel-Palestine conflict, stating it won’t support deescalatory efforts.

The Arab Nations have always shown their support for the Palestinian cause. However, the numbers seem to be shrinking by the day. The Abraham Accords engineered by the Trump administration have normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

They have shown the world that the Palestinian cause is a lost one. Of what was left, the Arab League has written a strong-worded condemnation stating that deadly Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip as “indiscriminate and irresponsible.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also faced criticism for its weak response to Israel’s attacks on Palestine. The United Nations Secretary-General has issued an urgent appeal for all parties involved in escalating violence in Palestine and Israel to “immediately cease the fighting.”

However, there seem to be no takers of the call in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

What do you think is the best solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Cover Photo: Fallaner, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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