The Israel-Palestine Conflict: A Brief History

Fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militants have intensified in the last few days, with Hamas launching hundreds of rockets from Gaza and Israel responding with airstrikes. Rioting and mob violence between Arabs and Jews ripped through the unsettled borders of Israel and Palestine. As the conflict escalates, over 100 civilians have been killed and thousands more have been injured on both sides. Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks raged through the week with no sign of abatement, further causing a new storm in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

How Did the Conflict Begin to Escalate?

Three weeks before the first rocket was fired from Gaza, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, swept aside the Palestinian attendants, and strode through its vast limestone courtyard. Then they cut the cables to four mediaeval minarets’ loudspeakers, which transmitted prayers to the faithful.

This happened on the night of April 13, the first day of Ramadan, and coincidently Memorial Day in Israel. On the day, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was to deliver a speech at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site. And the police officials were concerned that the Ramadan prayers would drown it out. This was the first trigger to an all-out conflict situation in the region.

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Palestinians shout slogans during a rally in Gaza city condemning overnight clashes in east Jerusalem. Photo: AFP

Weeks later, in another instance, the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah became the centrepiece of the conflict with Palestinians rallying around its residents to resist the Israeli settlers’ encroachment on East Jerusalem. Palestinians believe that the area is the burial ground of Sheikh Jarrah, a physician to Saladin, an Islamic military leader of the 12th century. Following Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli settler groups have been encroaching into the neighbourhood of Palestinians.

The effort to evict six Arab families from Sheikh Jarrah drew attention to the Israeli encroachment into the Palestinian neighbourhoods, leading to widespread protests across the region. Protesters in Sheikh Jarrah have clashed with riot police and far-right Israeli groups over the past weeks. Clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians erupted on Friday (May 07, 2021), as thousands of worshippers leaving Friday prayer hurled stones at Israeli police officials, who threw stun grenades and fired rubber-coated bullets, leaving nearly 300 people injured. This clash prompted an offensive from Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, leading to widespread killing of civilians on both sides.

What is the Historical Context of the Conflict?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, with the birth of major nationalist movements among the Jews and the Arabs. Palestine region of the Middle East was then under the control of 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.

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In this May 14, 1948 photo, cabinet ministers of the new State of Israel are seen at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Art Museum marking the creation of the new state, during prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s speech declaring independence. Photo: AP

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 the tensions in the region, particularly between Israel and the Arab League. Through the 1950s, Jordan and Egypt supported the Palestinian Fedayeen militant’s cross border attacks in Israel. 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), which was recognized by the Arab League.

In June 1967, following a series of manoeuvres by Abdel Gamal Nasser, the then Egyptian President, Israel preemptively attacked Eqyptian and Syrian forces, leading to the Six-Day War. After the war, Israel gained control over the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and 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.

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

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President Bill Clinton stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin as they shake hands at the White House after signing the historic Oslo Accords, on September 13, 1993.

Dismayed by Israel’s control over the West Bank, the Palestinians launched the second Intifada that lasted 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.

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

What is the Israel-Palestine Conflict All About?

The Israeli-Palestinian 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. The notion of having two separate nations, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, referred to as 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 Israel-Palestine Conflict?

There are three proposed solutions: One-state solution; Two-state solution; and Three-state solution. 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 without regard to 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 what the composition of the proposed one-state is, 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. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in his 2000 interview with Edward Said, whom he calls as ‘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 what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know.”

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The Palestinian Historic Compromise From 1947 to till Date

The two-state solution envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The proposal for the creation of 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 own devising.”  Now, there is the three-state solution, which states that there are three states in the whole 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 now, Israel has not been able to form a majority government, leading to a series of elections and political uncertainty – most notably for the acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latest Israeli election held on March 23, reflected the divisive sentiment within the votes as no political bloc was able to 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 has an interest 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, divided between radical group Hamas in Gaza strip and President Abbas’s Fatah in Ramallah is in political turmoil. Abbas, ageing with time, has fewer cheerleaders in the Middle East and challenged by the frictions 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 were to 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 had spoken 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. It was unsurprising to see the United States take the Israeli side, but what was quite surprising was narrative Washington continues to maintain in the conflict. Later, the United States also blocked the UNSC meeting on the Israel-Palestine conflict, stating it won’t support de-escalatory efforts.

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Biden and Netanyahu at a meeting in Jerusalem in 2016.

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 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 the escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel to “immediately cease the fighting.” However, there seem to be no takers of the call.

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