Israel and the Palestinians
Overview of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians
Israelis call the 1948 Arab-Israeli War the “War of Independence”; Arabs refer to the creation of Israel and the exile of the Palestinians as the Nabka, or “the Catastrophe.”
Ever since Jewish immigrants to Palestine began to displace Arabs, in the early 20th century, the Arab nations have rejected the idea of a Jewish state in their midst. Wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973—each precipitated by an attack or threatened attack by its neighbors—left Israel in possession of more territory than the U.N. had originally allotted it. American presidents have brought Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table, but no resolution to the conflict is yet in sight.
On the Israeli side, many have lost faith in the peace process due to the continuation of terrorist attacks even after Israeli concessions, such as the withdrawal of soldiers from the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank has led the majority of Palestinians to believe that Israel has no intention of ever giving up this territory for a Palestinian state.
Each side has its own version of history, and denies the facts on which the other side bases its claims. (For examples, compare Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel with Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine.) Decades of violence have embittered both sides to the point where each despises and distrusts the other, and can recite a history of grievances as evidence.
Both sides have agreed—on paper, at least—that an eventual peace will be based on the “two-state solution,” i.e., an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Disagreements remain over the details, however, and peace negotiations have stalled in recent years. Obstacles to renewed negotiations include the continuing construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and popular support among the Palestinians for Hamas, a political party that has not recognized Israel’s right to exist, and that continues to sponsor terrorist attacks on Israel.
Recent history, 1987 to present
1987: The First Intifada. Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank after the Six-Day War in 1967. After 20 years of Israeli rule, Palestinians in these two territories revolted. The Intifada (“uprising”) consisted mainly of low-level violence: young men and boys throwing rocks at soldiers. The uprising faded away by 1991, but the resentments would resurface less than a decade later in a second Intifada.
1989: PLO recognition of Israel. For the first time, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized Israel’s right to exist. This led to secret peace talks, which in turn led to…
1993: The Oslo Accords. Officials led by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat agreed that the time had come to “strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement.” The Accords called for a transitional period of five years, during which Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories and a Palestinian Authority would be set up. Final details— included the status of Jerusalem—would be worked out later, after smaller, trust-building steps.
1994: Peace with Jordan. Israel and Jordan sign a treaty normalizing relations between the two countries. (Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations that have established normal diplomatic relations with Israel.
1993-2000: The Failure of Oslo, and Assassination of Rabin. Hard-liners on both sides denounced the compromises in the Oslo Accords. Hamas, an Islamic militant group, sent suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians; harsh Israeli retaliation inflamed Palestinian resentment. In 1995, a right-wing Israeli (who opposed giving land back to the Palestinians) murdered Rabin.
2000: Camp David. Hoping to salvage progress toward peace during the last year of his presidency, Bill Clinton brought Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak together at Camp David, a presidential retreat in Maryland. In the end, the two sides failed to agree on the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. When Arafat rejected the Israeli offer, President Clinton reportedly asked him to make a counter-offer, but Arafat never did. (Clinton blamed Arafat for the failure to accept a compromise, but Palestinians say that the terms offered were unacceptable, because the Palestinian state would have consisted of four geographically separate enclaves, and because Israel would have continued to control the new state’s borders, airspace, and water.)
2000: The Second Intifada (or Al-Aqsa Intifada). After Camp David, Arafat called for a new uprising. Over the next four and half years, more than 1,000 Israelis would die in the violence, along with nearly 5,000 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military response.
2001 to present: Rocket attacks. Since 2001, Palestinian militants have launched more than 8,600 rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The rockets, called Qassams (after the armed branch of Hamas) and aimed at civilian areas, have been condemned as terrorism by the U.N. and defined as war crimes by human rights groups. The attacks led to Israeli military reprisals, and a brief blockade of Gaza (12/08-1/09).
2002: The “Road Map.” The next attempt to restart the peace process came when the newly-formed Quartet on the Middle East (the U.S., European Union, the U.N., and Russia) drew up a “Road Map” for peace. The plan called for the Palestinian Authority to take serious steps to prevent violent attacks on Israelis; next, Israel would have to dismantle its newer settlements, freeze all settlement construction, end curfews on Palestinians, and ease restrictions on Palestinians’ movement and commercial shipping. The more difficult issues (i.e., the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements) would be left to resolve later. Israel demanded specific changes to the terms; the Palestinians found these changes unacceptable. Neither side has fulfilled the Road Map’s requirements.
2004: Arafat’s death. According to medical records, the Palestinian leader died of a stroke resulting from a bleeding disorder. Many Palestinians believe he was poisoned by Israelis, but doctors who examined the records ruled that out.
2005: Withdrawal from the Gaza Strip: After 38 years of occupation, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Defying opposition from his own party and settlers, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon removed all Israeli settlements from the Strip. Administration of the area was turned over to the Palestinian Authority; but Israel retained control of the borders, coastline, and airspace.
2006: Fatah defeated in legislative elections. Palestinian voters handed a victory to the militant Islamic party Hamas over the more moderate and secular Fatah party. The defeat has been attributed to widespread frustration with living conditions among Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority’s reputation for corruption, and a preference for a more unyielding stance toward Israel. Hamas has also won supporters by providing needed social services.
2010: Direct Talks. In September, 2010, President Obama tried to revive the peace process by bringing together Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for the first direct talks since 2008. The goal was to settle differences and at last create an independent Palestinian state. The negotiations ended within a month, when Netanyahu refused to continue a freeze on West Bank settlement construction unless Abbas recognized Israel as a Jewish state, and Abbas refused to continue talks unless Israel extended a freeze on settlement construction.
2011: The Arab Spring changes everything. Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt was one of only two Arab nations to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel. Mubarak’s overthrow has unleashed anti-Israel sentiment that he had suppressed for decades. In September, 2011, Egyptian demonstrators attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Challenges to old regimes throughout the Arab world have led to similar outpourings of anger at Israel.
September, 2011: A bid for statehood at the U.N. After frustrating years without progress toward statehood, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sidestepped direct negotiations and applied to the U.N. Security Council for statehood. The U.S. and Israel strongly opposed this move, saying that statehood should only come after agreement on borders and other points of contention. (For more on the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N., see Business Week.)
Two points of view, at war with each other
The Israeli perspective
From Israel’s point of view (and that of most Jews), the Holocaust proved beyond any possible doubt that the Jewish people needed a homeland of their own if they were to escape the bloody persecution that had plagued them for centuries. (For a brief outline of this history, go here.) Following are the justifications for establishing this state in Palestine:
• More than 2,000 years ago, Jews controlled Jerusalem and the lands to the north and south.
• The Jews have had a continuous presence in the region ever since that time. For many decades before 1948, they were a majority in the city of Jerusalem.
• Jews have continued to declare their emotional attachment to the Holy Land for centuries. Around the world, they end the Passover Seder each year with the hopeful words, “Next year, in Jerusalem.”
• When the Jews began to return to Palestine, they did so by peacefully purchasing land there.
• The Palestinian Arabs came to the area much later than the Jews. A migratory people, they never had a state there.
• The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British Foreign Minister in 1917 and made part of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, stated, “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Though there is disagreement about exactly how much was being promised, Jews based their hopes for a future Jewish state on this statement.
• Arab countries cover millions of square miles in the Middle East. The Palestinians could easily have resettled in these countries, rather than fighting for the tiny patch of land claimed by Israel, had they and the Arab nations agreed. Instead, they chose to shed blood endlessly in the hope of driving the Jews out.
• According to the Bible, God promised this land to Abraham and his descendants. (Hence the phrase “the Promised Land.”) For some Jews, that promise carries more weight than other considerations. (Fundamentalist Christians also support the state of Israel for their own reasons, which have to do with fulfilling Biblical prophecies.)
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the Jews have struggled for peace and security, and achieved neither.
• Arab leaders across the Middle East have rallied their citizens to hatred against Israel in order to distract them from their own poverty and oppression.
• Israel’s history is one of hard work and tremendous achievement. In a desert environment with few natural resources, and despite continuous violent attacks, Israelis have created a thriving democratic society with a free press, a comfortable standard of living, and top-notch educational and health systems. Israel is also a world leader in technological and agricultural innovation.
• Many people say that Israel should simply return to its pre-1967 borders, giving up the West Bank for a Palestinian state. But when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, that territory instantly became a base for Palestinian attacks on Israel. If Israel believed that leaving the West Bank would end the violence, it would have left long ago; unfortunately, it’s likely that attacks will continue and even escalate once the occupation ends. And, if Hamas becomes the ruling party of a new Palestinian state, then all of Israel’s compromises would have been for nothing, and Israel will still be under attack.
• No other country in the world has its right to exist forever challenged. Every time Israel responds to terrorist activity, or attempts to pre-empt it, a chorus of condemnation goes up—but any other country would respond just as forcefully to similar provocations. No other country is judged by the standard applied to Israel. Some of this disapproval comes from well-intentioned sympathy for the Palestinians, but much of it is anti-Semitism in disguise.
The Palestinian perspective
• Arabs have made their home in Palestine for more than 1,000 years.
• The European Jews who migrated to Palestine in order to create a Jewish state were outsiders (regardless of their distant ancestry) who callously dispossessed the people who lived on the land. Cultural differences between these European Jews and the local Arabs made peaceful coexistence virtually impossible.
• In 1917, when Great Britain, the governing power, declared its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, there were ten times as many Arabs as Jews living there.
• After World War I, all “subject peoples” formerly ruled by the defeated Central Powers were promised self-determination, i.e., independent nations of their own. That promise was kept for other Arabs, but broken for the Palestinians.
• At no point did the Palestinian Arabs consent to become second-class citizens in their own homeland. The idea that they should simply move to other Arab countries is offensive and insensitive. No people should be forced from its home.
Since 1948, the Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation, or else as refugees. A minority have turned to terrorism against Israel; but Israel’s policy of collective punishment has made all Palestinians suffer.
• Israel has restricted Palestinians’ political, economic and civil rights. Israel seems to have intentionally made life so difficult and hopeless for Palestinians that they will give up their aspirations and emigrate.
• Even if the Jews suffered from cruel persecution for centuries, that doesn’t justify their making victims of the Palestinian people.
• What Palestinians fear, and fight against, is their annihilation as a people. Israel has reduced them to stateless refugees, buying a partial peace with the constant promise of a state sometime in the future, while gobbling up more and more of the land that was supposed to become that state.
• In the name of security, Israel has assassinated Palestinian leaders, bulldozed homes, killed or arrested innocent civilians during military operations, and forced an entire population to live under the oppression of an occupying army. Israel boasts of humane policies that distinguish combatants from civilians, but in reality, innocent Palestinian civilians die routinely in retaliatory operations
• By creating more and more settlements in the occupied West Bank (about half a million Jews now live in these settlements), Israel has continued to take land from the Palestinians—often the best land, with the best access to precious water. No Israeli government has ever stopped the expansion of settlements. Despite Israel’s claim to accept a two-state solution as the basis for peace, the continued growth of the settlements shows that Israel will never give up the West Bank for a Palestinian state.
• If many Palestinians have resorted to violence, that’s an inevitable response to the frustration of living without a homeland, under oppressive and demeaning conditions. The Jews, too, used violence to gain their independence: their underground armies drove the British out of Palestine and terrorized Palestinian civilians so they would flee their homes.
• Why support terrorist acts that target civilians? Because that’s the only way Palestinians can put pressure on Israel. And casualty figures show that far more Palestinians than Israelis have died in the conflict, including many innocent civilians.
• Just as the Jews wanted a homeland, a place where no one could persecute them, so the Palestinians—dispossessed, stateless, subject to oppressive treatment by an occupying army—want their homeland.
• If Israel genuinely wants peace and security, the best way to achieve it would be by negotiating and establishing a Palestinian state. The biggest threat to peace is not violence from the Palestinians, but the occupation itself, which breeds more resentment and frustration with each passing day.
Key issues remaining to be resolved
Since the Oslo Accords of 1993, both sides have agreed on the goal of eventually creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The remaining ‘final status’ issues include:
• Who will control Jerusalem? Israel wants Jerusalem—home of holy sites in Judaism, Christianity and Islam—to remain undivided under its control. The Palestinians want control of East Jerusalem, which belonged to Jordan before the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel worries that Jewish holy places would be barred and/or desecrated under Palestinian control, as they were under Jordan, and that Jewish residents of neighborhoods under Palestinian control would be targets for violence.
• What will happen to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank? After the Six-Day War in 1967, and especially since peace negotiations began in the 1990s, Israel has been building settlements in the West Bank that are now home to about half a million Jews. Because the West Bank is presumably the site of a future Palestinian state, these settlements have become a major obstacle to peace. The U.S. considers a complete freeze on the building of new settlements an indispensable step toward peace, but Israel has refused to commit to such a freeze.
• Will Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes? During the 1948 war, more than half a million Palestinians fled from their homes. Whether most of them left in fear for their safety or were forced out by Jewish militias is a point of disagreement. In the years since 1948, the number of people defined as Palestinian refugees has grown to more than four million. Israel accepts the right of these refugees to return to a new Palestinian state, but refuses to allow them to return to the original homes of their forebears within Israel, because that would quickly make the Jews a minority in their own country.
• Israel’s security. Since 1948, terrorist violence against civilians has plagued Israel. Because Islamist groups have never accepted Israel’s right to exist, Israel insists that any resolution of the conflict must include measures that will allow it to protect itself from continued attack. A current bone of contention is Israel’s refusal to return to its pre-1967 borders, which included a stretch of land only ten miles wide north of Tel Aviv: a military weak spot that might enable an invading army to divide the country in two. (See this map of Israel and the West Bank.)
• The borders of a Palestinian state. The areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority—which would most likely form the core of a new Palestinian state—are separated by zones controlled by Israel. Palestinians protest that they can’t make a nation out of small enclaves.
The disputed territories
As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, three areas came under Israel’s control: The West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.
• The West Bank: The West Bank separates Israel from Jordan (which controlled the area prior to 1967.) The territory extends from the eastern border of Israel to the west bank of the Jordan River; hence the name. This is the largest and most populous of the disputed territories, and it includes East Jerusalem, home of the Old City, an area of less than one square kilometer that houses sites holy to three religions. Between 1.5 and 2.3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, along with half a million Jews in settlements.
The security barrier: In 2002, to protect itself from suicide attacks, Israel began building a barrier in the West Bank alongside the border with Israel. The barrier consists of high concrete walls and fences up to 26 feet tall, with trenches and no-man’s-lands alongside them. The space between the barrier and the border is a closed military zone that encompasses 8.5% of the West Bank; tens of thousands of Palestinians live in this area. Israel says the barrier reduced terrorist attacks by 96% between 2001 and 2007. Palestinians say the barrier hurts their economy by making it more difficult to cross into Israel, where many of them work. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that that the barrier is illegal and should be taken down, but Israel’s Supreme Court disagreed.
• The Gaza Strip: This narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea’s eastern coast juts into Israel from the Egyptian border. Its main city is Gaza. Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005; after Hamas won control of the region in the 2006 elections, however—and rocket attacks on Israel more than quadrupled—Israel tried to pressure the Palestinians to reject the militants by blockading the Strip. Imports and exports were banned, and the flow of fuel and electricity was reduced to a bare minimum, crippling the economy. Palestinians point out that, although Israel has ended its military occupation, it still controls the airspace, water, and borders of the Gaza Strip. Dire living conditions have only hardened anti-Israel attitudes among Gaza’s residents.
• The Golan Heights: This rocky plateau to the northeast of Israel, less than 700 square miles in area, belonged to Syria before the 1967 war. The area provides a buffer with hostile Syria, whose military formerly fired at Israelis civilians from here. The region also supplies 15% of Israel’s water. Most of the international community considers Israel’s occupation of the Heights illegal, but many acknowledge the region’s importance to Israel’s self-defense. Since 1967, Israel has explored the possibility of returning the area to Syria in exchange for peace, but no agreement has been reached.
11/29/12: Defying opposition by the U.S. and Israel, the U.N. General Assembly raised the status of the Palestinian Authority to “non-member observer state” (the same category as the Vatican). For details, see CNN.
10/18/11: Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas in 2006, has been freed in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. For details, see CNN.
Leaders and parties on both sides
Major political parties include Likud (conservative), Kadima (centrist/liberal), Yisrael Beiteinu (nationalist), and Labor (social-democratic).
Benjamin Netanyahu: Prime Minister since 2009 (he also served from 1996 to 1999), Netanyahu heads a right-wing coalition primarily concerned with Israel’s security.
Ehud Olmert (Prime Minister, 2006-2009)
Ariel Sharon (Prime Minister, 2001-2006) has been a hardline conservative political leader, following a military career that began as an underground fighter for Israeli independence and culminated with a tide-turning victory in the Yom Kippur War (1973). A special commission found him indirectly responsible for a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Despite his hard-line politics, it was Sharon who decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and allow Palestinian self-rule there.
Ehud Barak (Prime Minister, 1999-2001)
Yitzhak Rabin (Prime Minister, 1974-1977 and 1992-1995) negotiated the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat, and was assassinated soon after.
Shimon Peres has been an important figure in Israel’s government since independence. Long associated with the Labor Party, and instrumental in many of Israel’s peacemaking initiatives, Peres has served as both President and Prime Minister. He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize (along with Rabin and Arafat) for helping to negotiate the Oslo Accords.
For a more detailed overview of Israeli political parties and leaders, see Wikipedia.
Among the Palestinians
Hamas: A militant Islamist organization formed in 1987, Hamas includes both military and political branches. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and its militants are the main perpetrators of terrorism against Israel, including suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and shootings. The U.S. and other countries consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas now has the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, and has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Most of Hamas’s funding comes from Iran, Syria, and the Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Palestinian Authority, the PLO, and Fatah: The Palestinian Authority (which now calls itself the Palestinian National Authority) is the administrative organization created to govern the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. It was established in 1994 to fulfill the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO. The Authority is responsible for providing services such as education, criminal justice and health care in the West Bank (except in Jewish settlement areas) and the Gaza Strip.
The PLO, founded in 1964, consists of different guerrilla and political factions. The Fatah faction (founded in 1958 by Yasser Arafat) has long dominated the PLO; Arafat served as PLO chairman from 1969 to 2004. Although Fatah and the PLO launched terrorist attacks on Israel for decades, Arafat later recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced terrorism.
Arafat appointed the original members of the Palestinian Authority, but the PA has since become independent of the PLO.
Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Arafat as PLO chairman after Arafat died in 2004, and was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005. He is considered by many to be the “brains” behind the PLO, and is politically moderate, favoring a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel. Though Abbas is respected by U.S. and Israeli leaders, many Palestinians see him as too conciliatory toward Israel.
Khaled Meshaal is the main leader of Hamas. Though militant, he has expressed willingness to accept a two-state solution, despite the Hamas charter’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist.
The U.S. relationship with Israel
When Israel declared its independence, the U.S. was the first nation to recognize it. (In making this decision, President Truman overruled his closest advisors.) Since then, Israel has been our closest ally in the Middle East, and U.S. economic and military aid has enabled Israel to survive. Despite the fact that the Arab nations control most of the world’s oil, and that our support for Israel has put us at odds with them, every American president since Truman has reaffirmed our commitment to Israel. Israel receives more U.S. foreign aid than any other country (about $3 billion per year), as well as our consistent support at the U.N.
Why has the U.S. jeopardized its relations with the oil-producing Arab states to support Israel? During the Cold War, the Arab states leaned toward the Soviet Union, while Israel was our ally. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., President Clinton attributed the continuing close relationship to “the shared values, the shared religious heritage, the shared democratic politics.” Finally, it’s important for us to have a reliable ally in this unstable part of the world, and Israel has worked closely with the U.S. to protect our mutual interests in the region. (Examples: sharing technology and intelligence; conducting joint military exercises; collaborating on anti-terrorism strategies.)
Some critics, however, attribute the close relationship to the “Israel Lobby”: a group of organizations that work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. (A 1997 Fortune magazine article rated AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the second most powerful lobby in the country, after AARP and ahead of the National Rifle Association.) AIPAC, according to this article from the London Review of Books, “makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the many pro-Israel political action committees. Anyone who is seen as hostile to Israel can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to his or her political opponents”; but Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor and prominent defender of Israel, dismisses the article’s arguments as biased and inaccurate. (You can read some of his objections here.)
The U.N. and Israel
The U.N.’s former Secretary General, Kofi Annan, said in 2006 that Israel’s supporters “feel that it is harshly judged by standards that are not applied to its enemies. And too often, this is true, particularly in some U.N. bodies.” More than half of the resolutions ever passed in the General Assembly have been condemnations of Israel. (This happens, in part, because the Arab nations have voted as a bloc together with Third World states and, formerly, the Soviet Union and its satellites.) In 1975, for example, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling Zionism a form of racism; the resolution was revoked in 1991. Friends of Israel point out that nations with disastrous human rights records, such as China, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and North Korea, have not been criticized nearly as much, and attribute the double standard to anti-Semitism.
In the U.N.’s Security Council, on the other hand, the U.S. has the power to shield Israel from condemnation. Between 1973 and 2003, the U.S. vetoed 37 resolutions critical of Israel.
Mustafa Barghouthi, “Peaceful Protest Can Free Palestine,” New York Times, 2/22/12: The release of a Palestinian hunger-striker from an Israeli prison shows that non-violent protest “could free Palestinians from nearly 45 years of occupation and Israelis from being part of the last colonial-settler system of our time.”
Ehud Olmert, “Peace Now, or Never,” New York Times, 9/22/11: “The parameters of a peace deal are well known and they have already been put on the table. I put them there in September 2008 when I presented a far-reaching offer to Mr. Abbas…. These parameters were never formally rejected by Mr. Abbas, and they should be put on the table again today. Both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu must then make brave and difficult decisions…. The window of opportunity is limited. Israel will not always find itself sitting across the table from Palestinian leaders like Mr. Abbas and the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who object to terrorism and want peace.”
Fareed Zakaria, “I oppose the Palestinian U.N. bid for Practical Reasons,” cnn.com, 9/22/11: “I am opposed to the Palestinian effort at the United Nations because I think that it is going to get them nowhere. This is not the time for romantic gestures. This is the time for them to do something that will actually help them get a Palestinian state… The practical path has to be to sideline Hamas in some way or another.”
Alvaro de Soto, “In Support of Abbas’ Hail Mary pass,” cnn.com, 9/22/11: “U.S. and Israeli officials have chastised Abbas for what they call a “unilateral action” that will endanger prospects for peace. This is difficult to swallow for Palestinians, who feel that they are entitled to achieve statehood in the same way that Israel achieved it. And with Israel pursuing its unilateral effort to settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the bilateral peace process at a dead end, they see little choice but to go to the United Nations… it just might bring about the change of context that is necessary for peace.”
Nicholas Kristof, “Is Israel Its Own Worst Enemy?” New York Times, 10/5/11: “Netanyahu is isolating his country, and, to be blunt, his hard line on settlements seems like a national suicide policy. ¶Nothing is more corrosive than Israel’s growth of settlements because they erode hope of a peace agreement in the future.”
Thomas Friedman, “Bibi and Barack,” New York Times, 5/17/11: “With a more democratic and populist Arab world in Israel’s future, and with Israel facing the prospect of having a minority of Jews permanently ruling over a majority of Arabs — between Israel and the West Bank, which could lead to Israel being equated with apartheid South Africa all over the world — Israel needs to use every ounce of its creativity to explore ways to securely cede the West Bank to a Palestinian state… Israel is in a dangerous situation. For the first time in its history, it has bad relations with all three regional superpowers — Turkey, Iran and Egypt — plus rapidly eroding support in Europe. America is Israel’s only friend today.”
Richard Goldstone, “Israel and the Apartheid Slander,” New York Times, 11/1/11: “In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: ‘Inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.’ Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.”
John Dugard, letter to the New York Times, 11/2/11: “There are distinctive similarities between apartheid in South Africa and Israel’s practices in the West Bank. Israel discriminates against Palestinians in favor of settlers. Its restrictions on freedom of movement resemble the pass laws of apartheid South Africa… Torture of Palestinians is rife; houses are destroyed, and there are more political prisoners in Israeli jails than there were in South Africa under apartheid. Israel seizes Palestinian land for settlements and for the construction of the wall.”
Gabriel Latner [from a debate at Cambridge University, 2010]: “Israel has a better human rights record than any of its neighbours. At no point in history, has there ever been a liberal democratic state in the Middle East — except for Israel… Out of every country in the Middle East, only in Israel do anti-government protests and reporting go unquashed and uncensored.”
An unsolicited suggestion
A new and unorthodox approach to achieving peace would be for Israel and the international community to work together to create a Palestinian state with a strong economy, comprehensive social services, and decent living standards. This wouldn’t eliminate the problem of jihadists who refuse to accept Israel, but a thriving Palestinian state would offer much less support for terrorism.
For more information
For the conflict in a nutshell: Mideast Web
For a full history: Mideast Web
For a brief timeline of the conflict, from 1917 to 2005, see Mideast Web
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Last updated, 4/2/13
Even More Information
Historical background, through 1987 This brief outline omits much. For a fuller history, visit Mideast Web.
Ancient history. The Romans conquered Judea, ancient home of the Jews, and called it Palestine. Arabs conquered the region during the 7th century, and have lived there ever since.
Late 19th Century: The Zionist idea. In response to persecution, European Jews revived the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Theodore Herzl organized the first Zionist Congress in 1897. Soon, European Jews began to migrate to Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. By 1914, there were 60,000 Jews in Palestine, along with more than 700,000 Arabs.
1917: The Balfour Declaration. Responding to lobbying by Britain’s Zionist organization, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour stated that Britain supported the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
1917-1948: The British Mandate. Under the treaty that ended World War I, Britain was put in charge of Palestine. Jewish immigration was encouraged (up to a point), but the new settlers began to clash with the Arab inhabitants of the region. The Grand Mufti Hajj Amin El Husseini rallied his followers to riot against the Jews. In 1939, Britain issued a White Paper severely limiting further Jewish immigration to Palestine. A British commission decided that dividing the area into Arab and Jewish sectors was the only realistic solution.
1947: U.N. Partition Plan. Finding it impossible to govern Palestine, the British handed the responsibility over to the newly-created United Nations. The U.N.’s General Assembly voted to divide Palestine into a Jewish state, to be called Israel, and an Arab state. At the time, there were about 600,000 Jews in Palestine (nearly all of them living in lands allotted to the new Jewish state or in Jerusalem) and about 1.2 million Arabs. According to the plan, Jerusalem would be an international zone, ruled by neither country. The Jews accepted this plan; the Arabs bitterly opposed it. Clashes broke out between Arab and Jewish military groups, and Arabs left their homes to escape the fighting.
1948: Independence and war. On May 14, Israel declared its independence. Soon after, neighboring Arab countries (Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq) invaded, intending to rid Palestine of the Jews. Jewish underground militias united to form the Israel Defense Force (IDF).
1949: Armistice, and the refugee problem. When the fighting ended, Israel occupied more territory than under the original U.N. partition plan—including land where Arabs were a majority. More than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled (the Palestinians say they were driven out intentionally by Jewish violence) and became refugees in neighboring countries. More than 800,000 Jews fled the Arab countries at the same time, leaving their property behind. The Arab nations refused to recognize the new state of Israel.
1948-1967: The growth of Israel. Within four months of independence, 50,000 immigrants reached Israel, many of them Holocaust survivors. By the end of 1951, immigration had doubled Israel’s Jewish population. With support from the U.S. and Jews around the world, the new country quickly built the infrastructure of a modern society: housing, roads, industry, electrical power.
1967: The Six-Day War. Twenty years after partition, tensions between Israel and its neighbors erupted in war. Egypt had blockaded Israeli shipping into the Red Sea, and Egypt’s President Nasser broadcast statements promising a war to destroy Israel. In response, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack, destroying more than 400 enemy aircraft within hours. Jordan attacked from the east. After six days of fighting, Israel emerged victorious and in possession of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the entire Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. Along with this territory came about a million Palestinian Arabs.
1973: The Yom Kippur War. Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Syria and Jordan joined in the attack. Though overwhelmed at first, the outnumbered Israelis called up their reserves and turned back the attackers. The U.N. arranged a ceasefire after less than three weeks of fighting. (To punish the U.S. for supporting Israel, Arab states led by Saudi Arabia reduced their oil production for six months after the war, leading to a gasoline shortage, price hikes, and long lines at the pumps.)
1979: Peace Treaty with Egypt. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter brought Egypt’s President Sadat together with Israel’s Prime Minister Begin at Camp David for talks that led to a 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. In exchange for the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt, Israel received diplomatic recognition from a major Arab nation, and the right to use the Suez Canal.
1982: Lebanon conflict. The expulsion of the PLO from Jordan brought a flood of Palestinian militants into Lebanon. The Palestinians used southern Lebanon as a base for terrorist attacks on Israel. Israeli troops entered Lebanon many times in response. After the assassination of an Israeli ambassador in London by Palestinians, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. A massacre by Lebanese Christians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps—which was either ordered or allowed by the Israelis—killed 700 Palestinians. Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon in 1985, but kept some troops in the south for nearly 20 more years.
Divided opinions, endless disputes Both Israelis and Palestinians have their moderates and their uncompromising hard-liners. Partisans on both sides dispute the claims of the other group. This has taken some to grotesque extremes. President Ahmadinejad of Iran is one among many enemies of Israel who have expressed doubts that the Holocaust really happened, saying it may have been a hoax to justify the creation of a Jewish state.
• Divisions among Palestinians: PLO leader Yasser Arafat renounced terrorism in 1988, recognized Israel’s right to exist, and pursued negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. The Fatah party, long associated with Arafat and now led by Mahmoud Abbas, continues that policy (though some party members say that recognizing Israel is only a temporary tactic). Hamas, a more militant, Islamist party that has neither renounced terrorism nor recognized Israel, defeated Fatah in the 2006 parliamentary elections. The two parties have clashed both politically and militarily, but reached a reconciliation in 2011. (For background on the two parties and their reconciliation, see The Guardian.)
Opinion surveys of Palestinians reveal important differences of opinion:
June, 2011: Responding to a statement by President Obama that a permanent peace should be based on the principle of two mutually recognized states for two peoples, 51% of Palestinians agreed, but 47% disagreed. In the same survey, 60% of Palestinians said they believed Israel wants continued control of the West Bank and hopes to expel its Arab citizens.
According to a different survey cited by the Israel Democracy Institute in January 2011, the majority of Palestinians view the two-state solution as a temporary stage, and believe the conflict will only end when a Palestinian state replaces what is now Israel and the West Bank.
For more on political opinions among Palestinians, visit the website of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
• Divisions among Israelis: In a 2010 opinion poll, 55% of Israeli Jews agreed that the two-state solution is essential to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state, while 36% disagreed. Nevertheless, 68% of Israeli Jews believe that, even if a peace agreement is signed, the Palestinians will continue their struggle to create a Palestinian state that would replace Israel.
Jewish Israelis disagree on President Obama as well: they rated him the world’s third most admired leader, but also the second most disliked.
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