Israel vs Palestine: another issue in the Middle East that has faded away from the foreground of Western news channels as both the UK and US focus on domestic issues. Whilst coverage of the conflict is not as prevalent in the media today, strife in the area is ongoing. Peace agreements have been in the works since the 1970s but to no avail. To evaluate whether peace can be made between the two sides – and in particular, a two-state peace agreement – the origin of the conflict must be understood.
The conflict began just over a century ago; the region had been under Ottoman Empire rule for centuries before, containing a diverse set of religions that coexisted. Christians and Jews were considered “dhimmi,” or “protected,” under Ottoman law which allowed them to live within the Middle Eastern region for centuries under Islamic rule. However, in the early 1900s there was a surge in Arabs not just identifying as ethnic Arabs, but also as “Palestinians” – which was a distinct national identity. Alongside this, the Zionist movement had been established as a political movement in 1897 after decades of resurgence. Zionism is the Jewish aspiration to “return to Zion”, a biblical event where Jews return to the Land of Israel. This has been a part of the Jewish religion for over a millennium but was not actively discussed until their persecution in Russia and Europe during the late 1800s. This desire to create the Jewish Nation of Israel among the Jewish community clashed with the idea of a Palestinian nation.
After World War One the Ottoman Empire collapsed and was dismantled by the British and French under the Sykes-Picot agreement and, later, by the more official Treaty of Sevres. Britain, taking control of the region, named the agreement the “British Mandate for Palestine”. Under the Balfour Declaration of 1917, made by Great Britain, a national home for the Jewish people was to be supported in the region of Palestine. As a result, Britain accepted thousands of Jewish immigrants in the early years of the 1920s, but as hostilities increased between the Arab and Jewish communities, immigration was limited. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, rioting was carried out by both the Jewish and Arab population in Palestine. The first two-state agreement was proposed under the Peel Commission of 1937 but the refusal of the Arab leadership to negotiate and the outbreak of the Second World War meant the proposal was ruled out.
Following World War Two and the atrocities of the Holocaust, international support for a Jewish state was galvanized. Masses of Jews fled Europe for Palestine following the war. Recognising the potential for disaster in the region, the newly formed United Nations created a committee in 1947 “to prepare for consideration at the next regular session of the Assembly a report on the question of Palestine”. This committee would draw up its first iteration on the split of the Palestinian region.
The UN proposal was successful in accomplishing its planned objectives: Israel and Palestine were now independent states and Jerusalem, a holy site for both Islam and Judaism, was an international city. However, both sides were unhappy with the proposal. Israel felt they had a rightful claim on Jerusalem due to its majority Jewish population. The Arab leadership argued that it violated the rights of the 67% of the region’s population who were non-Jewish. After this proposal, every Arab leader objected to the creation of a Jewish state which escalated the conflict within Israel, against the Arab states situated in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
Since 1947 the conflict has gone through cycles of increasing and decreasing tensions between Israel and the other Arab states. Hostilities peaked during the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and the Six Days War in 1967. Following the Six Days War, Israel has occupied most of the Palestinian-claimed territory. During the 1970s, hostilities diminished between Israel and the Arab states, switching the conflict back to a more localised Israel-Palestinian conflict. Since then Hamas has been formed; an organisation attempting to liberate Palestine. They call their actions “armed resistance” against Israel. These include terrorist acts against civilians, and the international community are divided on recognising Hamas as a terrorist organisation or not.
A quieter method of invasion, arguably conducted by the Israeli government, has been the movement of Jewish people into the occupied Palestinian territory. These ‘settlers’ have made their homes in the West Bank and Gaza regardless of resistance from the native citizens. The Israeli government subsidised the cost to move for the settlers and these new communities have brought along armed Israeli soldiers, forcing Palestinians from their land as a result. There are now hundreds of thousands of settlers in Palestinian territory, which has been condemned by the international community but without provoking further action. A long-term result of this will be increasing difficulty in drawing state borders as Jewish people gradually permeate through the region, making it much less likely for Palestine to have an independent state. As former President Jimmy Carter has said: ‘The pre-eminent obstacle to peace is Israel’s colonization of Palestine.’Carter has identified the movement of Jewish people illegally into occupied Palestine as the undeniable and unmatched factor in preventing peace in the region.
There have been further attempts to implement two-state peace agreements without success; the Oslo Accords and Camp David II, both resulting in failure. More recently the US President, Donald Trump, altered American foreign policy in callous style by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017. Whilst this may seem minor, it goes against the unequivocal international view that the city must remain international or be split between the two states. Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital legitimises Israeli settlement-building in the east of the city and makes any peace talks impossible for years to come. Whether there was any chance before this decision is up to interpretation.
Some consider the two-state solution to be dead for a number of reasons. The Palestinian leadership is divided between two governments that cannot unite – Hamas and the Palestinian Authority – which lacks the political legitimacy to make concessions on behalf of Palestinians. Hamas frequently attacks Israel, a state they do not recognise, which makes it even less open to negotiations than the Palestinian Authority. The current Israeli leadership supports a two-state solution on paper, but in practice seems to oppose it. The Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has expanded West Bank settlements and is in a coalition with right-wing parties opposing an independent Palestine. With the recent missteps made by the US government, who have brokered peace talks in recent years, it is looking increasingly likely that no solution will be enforced. No solution seems to be an awful outcome in this conflict, one that very heavily favours Israel, the occupier of the region. If action is not taken soon, Israeli settlers will continue to populate the Palestinian region, to the extent that an independent Palestine will become near-impossible. Suffering will continue to occur, particularly on the Palestinian side, until peace is made.
A final quote from Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, best describes the worst outcome: “Perpetuating the status quo is the most frightening of the possibilities.”
Written by Laszlo Wheatley
Tessler, Mark. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Caplan, Neil. The Israel-Palestine Conflict, Contesting the Past. England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Gelvin, James. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Schulze, Kirsten. The Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Routledge, 2017.