A Brief Background to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict has stemmed from several disagreements that all have roots in the past, before spiralling into the current conflict we see in the news. We are constantly bombarded with images of soldiers and civilians, politicians and commentators, Israelis and Palestinians. And, most importantly, everyone tries to decide who is right, who has the moral high ground, and who the villains are in this violent and bloody conflict.

The first layer of the conflict came from the influx of Jews into Palestine in the early 1990s (which was back then controlled by Britain), during a period where anti-Semitism was rife in Europe. British Palestine, already occupied by Arabs, descended into violence as both groups fought for dominance. From the early 1920s to just after the end of World War Two, there was relentless violence between the two sides, attracting extreme militants that succeeded in moving the narrative away from compromise and towards a bloody cycle of attack and retaliation. Unable and unwilling to continue governing a territory in which it was under fire from both sides, the British announced in early 1947 they would withdraw from Palestine. The issue of what to do next became an early test for the newly-created United Nations. In November 1947, the U.N. agreed to a partition plan for the territory that was accepted by the leadership of mainstream Zionist groups. But it was rejected by the main Arab leaders, some Jews and the British. In early 1948, Palestine descended into civil war. On May 14, 1948 the day before the British mandate ended, Israel declared its independence. Though Britain abstained, Israel was quickly recognized by the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. When the United Nations tried to create an Israel for Jews, a Palestine for Arabs, and a City of Jerusalem, Arabs invaded to keep Israel unified. Though Israel won, they ended up taking much of what would have been Palestine. As such, they controlled everything but Gaza and the West Bank, which were controlled by Egypt and Gaza respectively. Most Palestinians fled there.

In the 1960s, Israeli forces put Gaza and the West Bank under occupation, claiming that they needed to protect citizens from hostile Palestinians and foreign invasions. Even when they eventually left, however, the remaining blockades turned the areas into little more than open air prisons. Furthermore, hundreds of Israeli settlers have made their home in the occupied areas, meaning that Israeli military were obligated to protect their people. The June 1967 war, a pre-emptive action by Israel, thoroughly defeated Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces. Israeli tanks rolled to the edge of the Suez Canal, up the Golan Heights and united Jerusalem. But Israel’s swift comprehensive victory left the nation in charge of Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. The 1967 war altered the map in a way that continues to define today’s Middle East. It encouraged Israelis to believe they could settle and absorb conquered territories. Far beyond the Holy Land, the war it discredited the leaders of the pan-Arab dream and shook Arab faith in Soviet armaments. It also bolstered Islamists and others fed up with the Arab world’s ruling elites, creating a dynamic which fuels modern international terrorism to this day. israel-palestine-infographic

Raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine’ – the Hamas covenant, 1988

In 1987, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank attempted to resist by force the Israeli occupation. Although it started with teenagers hurling stones at Israeli soldiers, what became know in Arabic as the intifada or “uprising” grew into a small war between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army. By 1992, Israeli military tactics had worn down the intifada. Yet, Israeli attitudes about occupation of the Palestinian territories changed as a result of the brutal realities of the struggle and wider geopolitical changes, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Gulf War. As such, the intifada helped set the stage for diplomatic initiatives, including a groundbreaking U.S.-PLO dialogue in 1988, that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, establishing Palestinian political autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the intifada also brought a new force into being: Hamas, a radical Islamic movement which ultimately would challenge Arafat’s secular Fatah movement for leadership of the Palestinian cause. Though they were also committed to providing social welfare to displaced Palestinians, their response to the killing of Hamas bomber Yahya Ayyash by Israeli forces by committing suicide bombings won Palestine more enemies than friends. In 1997, Hamas was officially designated a terrorist group by the United States; soon after, Canada, Egypt, the European Union, and several other organisations followed. An attempt by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to resurrect the Oslo Accords – a peace settlement that described a five-year withdrawal – between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak, also failed. However, though several organisations strive to paint Hamas as little more than violent terrorists, they are the only governing force left to Palestinians and are committed to sovereignty of their people. That the dialogue has shifted from peace to violence has caused many to forget this fact.

Israel began a unilateral withdrawal of nine thousand Jews from settlements in Gaza in August 2005. Some settlers accepted government compensation and left voluntarily, while others were forcibly removed by the Israel Defense Forces. The move was designed to diminish attacks on Israel. Within months, much of the optimism surrounding the disengagement was dashed when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffers a pair of strokes, leaving him incapacitated. Ehud Olmert was chosen to head the centrist Kadima Party government and vowed to pursue Sharon’s design for a similar disengagement on the West Bank.

In January 2006, Hamas scored a victory in Palestinian Authority elections, causing the United States, the European Union, and other international donors to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority. The vote also left the Palestinian house divided between Yasir Arafat’s Fatah movement, represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which would control the cabinet and parliament. Efforts at cohabitation failed almost immediately.

Palestine's loss of land

Palestine’s loss of land

The conflict we see today has been born out of these events. It is clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not come from one disagreement, but rather the compounding of several issues that have been left to fester. The lack of defined borders has rendered Palestine and its associated region helpless, enabling both sides to claim it as their own. We have arrived at this stage of the conflict because of a profound lack of trust between the two sides, a mistrust that goes beyond the simple doctrine of putting one’s own country above the needs of all others. The origin of the latest round of violence is the alleged murder of three young Israeli students by Hamas in the West Bank in June 2014; the Israelis responded with air strikes and ground attacks against civilians. The situation quickly devolved into violent attacks and bloody retaliation, with civilians being caught in the crossfire. The current offensive (July 2014) has resulted in around 1000 dead, the vast majority of these being Palestinian civilians.

As important as it is to understand the how of the conflict, it is becoming increasingly important to analyse the why, especially if we want the conflict to end in anything resembling peace. For several decades, but especially in the last decade, violence has been the status quo of Israel, Palestine, and the surrounding areas. Citizens, both civilian and military, are used to peace talks ending in disagreements, leading to more violence, invariably leading to condemnation from the domestic and international communities, forcing more peace talks. The cycle continues, but there seems to be no end in sight. The reason that both sides are trapped in this cycle is because of the prevailing opinion that the opposing side is untrustworthy and wants total annihilation of their people. Indeed, the Interior Minister of Israel Eli Yishai was quoted as saying that Israel aimed to ‘send Gaza back into the Middle Ages’, so that ‘Israel could be calm for 40 years’. After Israeli rockets were fired into Hamas supplies in Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawsi Barhoum replied, ‘Palestinian blood has been spilled…If they want to protect their entity from Hamas’ missiles, they will have to put an Iron Dome on every home in Israel’. Both sides seem to have given up on the prospect of peace, feeling that violence is much easier to manage. Having a superior military, Israel seems content to engage in a war of attrition, gradually wearing down Hamas militants until they are too weak to continue fighting and have no choice but to surrender. Hamas, by contrast, seem reluctant to relinquish their weapons because doing something is better than doing nothing when it comes to fighting their oppressors. Either way, this continued violence will eventually reach a point of no return, a point at which both sides will decide that there is no hope for peace. Unfortunately, we seem to be nearing that point with each civilian killed.

A course of action that has brought little resolution is trying to find the ‘villain’. Palestine and its supporters point to the fact that Israel has a bigger military force and has trapped civilians in open-air prisons, as well as the relentless attacks on civilians. Israel and its supporters point to the brutality of Hamas and the persecution of Jews by Arabs in the area. However, both sides have repeatedly called for the destruction of their opponent, and have intimated that talk of peace is becoming irrelevant.

There are two solutions that are proposed and, though they both come with benefits, they are not without their problems. The first is the one-state solution, wherein both Arabs and Jews live in one state under one nationality. The violent history between Arabs and Jews, and the simple fact that the Arabs would outnumber Jews, means that Israel is unlikely to agree to such a scenario. After working to achieve autonomy, Israel would never settle to become a minority once more. So the obvious solution seems to be the two-state solution, where both sides have their own state. However, this requires several issues to be addressed. What will happen to Jerusalem? Will borders be from before the invasion by Arabs, or the UN-approved borders? What will happen to the refugees, which now number almost 7 million worldwide? And, most importantly, once the dust settles, what will stop each side from attacking the other once again. For the international community, there is no easy solution. International intervention will likely make a complex situation worse.

It is clear that there is no easy solution to this conflict. However, history has taught us that there is no easy answer to any conflict, and the increasing violence illustrates that the world is running out of time to find a diplomatic way out of this eternal fight. If the dialogue does not return back to peace soon, the only Palestine over which either side can argue will be one of bones and ashes.

By Vanessa Ezeh

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Middle East

Subscribe & Connect

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: