Ruben Kon, Fall 2014 Intern at The Eisenhower Institute’s DC office
Of all world conflicts, none seems to be as explosive and insoluble as the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Since being conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E., the region, now known as Palestine, has had a tumultuous history under the control of numerous empires, including the Islamic Empire, Egypt, the Fatimids, the Great Seljuq Empire, the Crusaders, the Ayyubids, the Ottomans, and even the British. For the Palestinians, the last 100 years have been characterized by colonization, expulsion, and military occupation.[i] For the Jewish people, Israel has brought stability to their lives after centuries of persecution.
While the media is bombarding us with news on air strikes in Israel and Palestine, it is critical to remember the core of the conflict. Many opinionated articles seem to lack a historical context for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, it is worth refreshing our memories about the last century of history in the Palestine region.
The first groups of Jewish immigrants came to the region that is now Palestine at the end of the 19th century, while it was still under Ottoman rule. Around 1914 the region had a total population of 722,000 of which 60,000 were Jewish. In the midst of World War I, in 1916 the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire started because of the Arab national consciousness of a destiny apart from the Turks. Because it denounced the Ottoman Sultan, the revolt was of great value to British and French forces engaged in battle with the Turks. In the 1917 Balfour Declaration the British government stated it saw fit the establishment of a Jewish nation in the region.
While fighting back the Turkish-German army, the British Army captured Jerusalem, and around 1918, they captured the rest of what would later be called Palestine. The League of Nations divided the territory of the Ottoman Empire into mandated territories. The British received mandate over the region that now makes up Jordan and Palestine. This was the first time in modern history that the region was called Palestine. After the British government decided to hand over the mandate to the United Nations in 1947, Palestine was divided into two states: one for the Jews and one for the Palestinian Arabs. Jerusalem became an international enclave. The partition plan was led by David Ben-Gurion and accepted by the Jews, but rejected by the Palestinian Arabs.
With the independence of Israel in 1948, forces from neighboring Arab countries marched into the Palestinian territory. During the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt, the Gaza District. However, Israel occupied most of the region, including parts designated to the Palestinian state, resulting in around 700,000 Arab refugees. Afterwards the relationship between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab neighbors has been characterized by unremitting, low-key conflict. The simmering conflict erupted several times during the Suez War in 1956, the 1967 War, the Six-Day War of that same year, the War of Attrition of 1969, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the Israel-Lebanon War of 1982. These land grabbing wars were fought between Israel and the Arab nations Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and in the last war, Lebanon.
In 1987, a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed by an Israeli soldier after the teenager threw a Molotov cocktail at an IDF patrol. He was part of the mass riots that broke out after an Israeli salesman was fatally stabbed and four Palestinians were killed, allegedly by Israeli forces as an act of revenge. The 17-year-old’s death triggered the First Palestinian Intifada, engulfing the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. After the Intifada ended in a stalemate in 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) agreed to recognize and make peace with Israel. The P.L.O. established a self-governing entity in a small part of Palestine. Israel recognized the P.L.O. and evacuated most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. recognized the P.L.O. and Jordan gave up its control over the West Bank. This was the start of a Palestinian state.
The years that followed were characterized by treaties and agreements between the countries in the region. In 2001, However, Ariel Sharon’s, a member of the Knesset, visit to Temple Mount, one of the most important religious sites for Palestinian, was wrongly seen as highly provocative and triggered a new uprising against Israeli occupation. Up to 2005 suicide bombings, gunfire, tank fire, air attacks, and targeted killings ended up killing around 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.[ii] In 2005 Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, agreed to a ceasefire.
Hamas is a Palestinian Islamic political organization with a military wing. It is designated as a terrorist organization by others the E.U. and the U.S. After Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and a unitary government with Fatah did not work out, Hamas forcefully took control of the Gaza Strip. As a response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip Israel started bombarding and invading the Gaza Strip in 2008 with the objective to deter further rocket fire from Hamas. Israel also set up air, land, and sea blockades, sealing off all borders of Gaza except the one with Egypt. In 2009, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, leaving the Gaza Strip in ruins with over 1,300 Palestinians killed. The blockade was left intact.[iii] In 2012 Israel launched a new offensive against Gaza, attacking “terrorist targets” and weapons aimed at Israeli citizens.[iv] Between 2007 and 2012, 1,128 rockets have been fired towards Israel according to the IDF. After peace talks in 2013 and an announcement of Hamas and Fatah to form a Unity Government in 2014, Israel launces a third assault on the Gaza Strip mid-2014 in response to 150 rockets from Palestinian militants.
In the meantime, Israel has been expanding its settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The Israeli settlements of occupied territory are considered illegal and are condemned by the international community. As retaliation against the new Palestinian Unity Government, which includes Hamas and has been accepted by the U.S., Israel publicly announced it will not stop constructing hundreds of Jewish settlements, calling it “an appropriate Zionist response to the establishment of the Palestinian terror government.”[v]
However, the Palestinian government is made up mostly of nonpartisan professionals. The government is an outcome of Hamas’ and Fatah’s efforts to form a Unity Government since April 23, 2014. The government claims to follow a peaceful program and to be committed to the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Hamas, however, has not accepted those principles.
The Israeli blockade of Gaza from 2007 to the present has kept Gaza almost completely sealed off. Combined with Egypt’s almost incessant blockade of the Rafah border, Israel’s blockade is condemned by the international community. Israel claims the blockade is necessary to stop Palestinian airstrikes from Gaza, but the vast majority of Gazans, are women and children.[vi] Besides, most Hamas leaders have taken refuge in Turkey, where a lot of Hamas activity is now directed. Hamas is said to be the second most well-financed terrorist organization in the world, mainly because Qatar and Turkey are Hamas’ key funders. Israel and the U.S. are incapable of stopping the finance of Hamas because they would also be depriving Gaza from money.
The historic background shows that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian people have a better claim to the land. Even if either party had a stronger claim, it is simply too late to make decisions on the basis of historical facts. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are so rooted in both the region and the conflict that historic claims hardly seem to matter. With Hamas firing rockets from Gaza to Israel, and Israel expanding its settlements in occupied territories and sealing of the whole of Gaza with land, sea, and air blockades, no one seems to have the moral high ground either. This, more than anything else, is the reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so volatile and destructive to the region.
ProCon’s website on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been very useful for writing the historical analysis. For a better understanding of the details of the conflict this is a website worth visiting.
[i] Masalha, Nur. “The Palestinian Nakba: Zionism, Transfer and the 1948 Exodus.” Centre for world Dialogue. [http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=236]
[ii] “Terrorism Against Israel: Comprehensive Listing of Fatalities (September 1993 – Present)”. Jewish Virtual Library. [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Terrorism/victims.html]
[iii] BBC, “Last Israeli Troops ‘Leave Gaza’,” Jan. 21, 2009. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7841902.stm]
[iv] BBC News, “Q&A: Israel-Gaza Violence,” bbc.co.uk, Nov.19, 2012. [http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-20388298]
[v] Kershner, Isabel, and Jodi Rudoren. “Israel Expands Settlements to Rebuke Palestinians.” The New York Times, June 5, 2014. [http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/06/world/middleeast/new-israeli-settlement-plans-draw-swift-condemnation.html]
[vi] Ellison, Keith. “End the Gaza blockade to achieve peace.” The Washington Post. [http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/keith-ellison-end-the-gaza-blockade-to-achieve-peace/2014/07/29/e5e707c4-16a1-11e4-85b6-c1451e622637_story.html]