A guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

By Thomas Williamson

US Secretary of State John Kerry is leading yet another attempt to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The harsh reality is that like so many more before him he will probably fail to broker a lasting peace, due to the thicket of issues that surround the conflict. The dispute is a complex one, with short, medium term and longer term issues all combining to make peace  difficult to achieve, more so than in Northern Ireland. In this article I will aim to try and unravel some of those issues for those who know nothing about it, although it is not possible to fully comprehend a conflict of this magnitude in an article of this length.

A brief history of the conflict

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 had both long term and shorter term causes. In the longer term its creation lay in hundreds of years of persecution of the Jewish people, both the pogroms of Eastern Europe and legal discrimination in countries such as Britain. The conflict also has its roots in the 19th century Zionist movement, founded by Theodor Herzl, which campaigned for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The movement organised the emigration of European Jews to Palestine, and won an agreement from the British government that they would support the creation of a Jewish State- in the form of the 1917 Balfour declaration.  In the shorter term its creation lay in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Given their failure to prevent this crime against humanity, the Allied Powers felt that they had no choice but to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and then to back that state to the hilt in the years afterwards.

Following its foundation, Israel fought major wars with its Arab neighbours in 1948, 1953, 1967, 1973 and 1982. The history of the Jewish state has been one of commando raids, air raids and other military incursions against those deemed to pose a threat to its existence. Despite their smaller numbers, their superior military capability courtesy of their American backers allowed the Israelis to see off the Arab threat to their existence. The result of this has been that for the lat thirty years the Arabs have grudgingly had to accept that Israel is here to stay, and Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties.

One of the key shifts in the conflict in the last thirty years has been its switch from an ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs to a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims for control of what both view as their “holy land”. This means that it is well arguable that the conflict in 2013 is about the fact that both Jews and Muslims want all of the land all to themselves. There are many reasons for this switch from an ethnic conflict to a religious conflict. One is the increase in the religious Jewish population in Israel, due to their large families and the consequent rise in religious soldiers in the Israeli Army. Another is the 1979 Iranian revolution, which created a hard-line Islamic regime willing to support Anti-Israel Islamist forces throughout the world, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.  This switch to a religious conflict has made the conflict much more difficult to solve because it means that each side is much more reluctant to give ground.

Another important issue in the conflict is the role of the worlds only superpower. Ever since Israel’s founding in 1948, the United States has been an ardent supporter of the Jewish State, although not always it’s most important ally- shown by the fact that Israel fought the Suez war with Britain and France not the United States. There have however been bad moments in the relationship, including Benjamin Netanyahu’s poor relations with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but the overall trend has been for good relations. The Israeli Defence Forces have top-of-the-range American weapons and the state receives billions of dollars in aids each year.

Anti-Semites will tell you that America supports Israel because the Jews control the US government and media. This is of course absolute nonsense. America’s support for Israel lies in its view of the Jewish state as a trustworthy and reliable ally in the Middle East. The growing importance of Evangelical Christians in US politics has also had an impact on the relationship as they are typically strong supporters of Israel. As the Christian Right has become more organised, so politicians have been under more pressure to be supportive of the Jewish State. This is especially true of George W Bush who won a lot of support from very religious voters and felt obliged to support Israel unconditionally in return. In fact the Bush presidency shows the irrelevance of American Jews to US-Israel relations, because in both of his elections three quarters of Jews voted against him.

The important thing to note is that America could, if it wanted force the Israelis to come to an agreement. However the fear the loss of their biggest and most reliable ally within the generally hostile Islamic Middle East makes them reluctant to do so.


What are the key issues?



The city is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. The Jewish Temple Mount and Western Wall are on the same site as the Muslim al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and the place where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven. It is important to note that both are in East Jerusalem, the hypothetical capital of a future Palestinian state. This is why Israel was keen to capture East Jerusalem in 1967.  This means any agreement would have to allow both sides safe access to their religious sites. It is also significant to note that West Jerusalem has a Jewish Majority while East Jerusalem has a Muslim majority, but that there has been a movement by Zionist groups to move  Jews into East Jerusalem. The demographics of Jerusalem explain why an West/East split is envisaged in a two state solution. This however would probably not be accepted by either side. In Israel, the number of religious Jews is growing and the number of secular and Liberal Jews declining, due to the Orthodox community’s much higher birth rate, meaning that they wield ever-larger clout over Israeli government policy. They would not tolerate giving up half of what in their view is an “indivisible capital”.

Settlements and Borders

Religious Jews view the whole of the “Holy Land” as having being given to the Jews by God. They therefore believe they have the right to settle Gaza and the West Bank. Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai Peninsula in the Six Day War in 1967, and began to construct settlements on this land. It withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 and from Gaza in 2005. Many in the international community as well as the Palestinians believe that settlement building is and was a violation of international law that forbids people from moving their civilian population onto territory captured in war, although Israel disputes this. The settlements are part of the key issue of what the borders of Israel would be in a two state solution- the Palestinians want Israel to go back to its pre-1967 borders, while the Israelis want to keep some of the larger settlement blocks on the West Bank while compensating the Palestinians with land from Israel in return.



When Israel was created in 1948, many thousands of Palestinians were forced out and became refugees in the surrounding Arab countries. Today they and their descendants still live in these same places. A second wave of refugees was created after Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. After all these years many still hold deeds and keys to houses that they were forced to leave The Palestinians wish for them to be able to return to their houses, many of which are now occupied by Israelis. For the Israelis the influx of so many Arab Muslims would have an unacceptable effect upon the demographics of their country.



Israel holds many thousands of Palestinians in prisons, including many who have killed Israeli civilians. The Palestinians would like them all back, but for many Israelis this would be hard to stomach. The hard-line Jewish Home party is currently in coalition with the main centre-right Likud party, and will not be keen on any mass prisoner release. However, the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict involved the release of murderers such as Michael Stone; similarly the release of Nelson Mandela was important to ending the conflict in South Africa.  A resolution of this dispute may have to involve something similar.


What are the possible solutions?


One-State solution

This solution would involve the creation of one strictly secular state encompassing Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, where all had equal rights. This idea would probably involve some sort of power-sharing agreement akin to the situation in Northern Ireland. Such an idea may seem absurd, but so did the idea of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sharing power in the 1980s, or the idea of Nelson Mandela seamlessly taking over from F. W. De Klerk. Despite having some advantages: the issue of Jerusalem would be neutralised for example, it is probably a non-starter. This is because the Palestinians would almost certainly end up as the majority in the state due to their higher birth rates, so would control the direction of the country. This means that the Israelis are unlikely to ever agree to it. There are however some interesting “what ifs” for this solution. Would religious hardliners on both sides come together due to their shared moral values? Similarly would secularists and liberals on both sides unite? Would they eventually split anyway as was the case in Yugoslavia?


Two-State solution

This is the solution which all these negotiations currently aim towards. Despite some of its strengths, we can very well interpret the failure to achieve this solution as being evidence of its weaknesses. Israelis fear for their security in this situation- they worry that Hamas or other worse would control the new country and use it to attack Israel.

Now as I mentioned before this is a brief overview of some of the issues involved, and there is plenty of material to read to find out more. There are many other issues involved, such as the way the conflict has been a proxy war for bigger countries.

By Thomas Williamson

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Categories: International politics

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One Comment on “A guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”

  1. August 22, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    The possible solutions are not limited to one-state or two-states. A variety of options that involve Jordan as a component of the solution have been proposed. Jordanian responsibility for the majority of the Arab population of Judea and Samaria is the most likely path to peaceful solution of the conflict, as these people are Jordanian citizens.

    Also, the demographics of both Arabs and Jews are subject to major changes, and the numbers are not what some claim them to be. In particular, in the last 10-15 years there has been a sharp drop in Muslim birth rates and an increase in the birth rates of secular Jews. Also, there are indications that a landslide drop in the birth rates in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox community has begun. For those interested in the details, there is a recent research paper on the topic – http://www.izs.org.il/papers/demographijuly13.pdf (in Hebrew).

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