Palestinians and Israelis have been locked for decades in an intractable struggle. Its roots lie in history, religion and national identity.
By Pauline Bock
Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting for more than half a century over land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.
It is one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. A lasting resolution has escaped many a statesman and yet would mark a major turning point in history.
What is the problem?
The birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, the region has been ruled down the years by Assyrians, Romans, Ottomans and Britain before the modern-day conflict emerged with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Israel and the Palestinians are in dispute over the establishment and borders of an independent Palestinian state.
Many Palestinians seek to create a state out of the West Bank (which borders Jordan), Gaza (next to Egypt) and East Jerusalem. They say Israel has denied them a state and continues to build Jewish settlements on land it has occupied in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967.
Israel says it needs to protect its citizens against neighboring states that want to destroy it and that the Palestinians must stop rocket attacks on Israel and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Creation of the state of Israel
Palestine is one of the world’s oldest inhabited regions, defined roughly as the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.
It passed from Ottoman to British control after World War One, its population two thirds Muslim with Christian and Jewish minorities.
With the rise of Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, fueled in part by antisemitism in Europe, the British in 1917 said they supported the establishment in Palestine of a national home for Jewish people.
The Holocaust in World War Two, in which six million Jews were killed, stirred the world’s conscience and paved the way to a United Nations recommendation in 1947 that Palestine be split into independent Arab and Jewish states.
Arab nations did not agree to the partition plan. After Israel declared its independence in 1948, an Arab-Israeli war ensued, leading to an armistice a year later giving Israel a third more land than under the UN recommendation.
Jordan controlled the West Bank, and Egypt held the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean. More than half a million Palestinians fled their homes and became refugees in neighboring Arab countries.
In 1967, Israel fought its Arab neighbors again, winning an emphatic victory in the Six Day War. It captured the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights overlooking Syria.
After Arabs were unsuccessful in winning back territory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat under the Palestine Liberation Organization launched an armed struggle against Israel.
The struggle eventually took the form of intifadas, or uprisings, by Palestinians, with boycotts, strikes, throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails, and increasing violence. Palestinian suicide bombing campaigns prompted Israel in 2002 to start building a wall in the West Bank with the stated aim of keeping out bombers.
Violence between Palestinians and Israelis has been punctuated by efforts to reach peace. Some major moments:
- Madrid (1991) – Washington brokered a conference between Israel and Arab nations.
- Oslo (1993) – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat shook hands as the two sides agreed a framework for future relations.
- Camp David (2000) – U.S. President Bill Clinton convened a summit between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
More recently, peace efforts have been complicated by a split in Palestinian leadership. Fatah, once the largest Palestinian political party, now controls only the West Bank, while the Hamas Islamic organization is in charge in Gaza.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has engaged in peace talks but has struggled to speak for all Palestinians since Hamas has emerged. The West regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Israel will not deal with it. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
In mid-2014, fighting in Gaza between Hamas and other militant groups on the one hand and the Israelis’ army on the other killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, the majority civilians, and 73 Israelis, all but five of them soldiers.
A move to the right by the Israeli electorate has made it more difficult for Israeli leaders to offer meaningful concessions to the mainstream Palestinian leadership, while continued settlement building means more than 500,000 Israeli Jews live on territory seized in 1967.
The last round of U.S.-backed negotiations collapsed last year. Today, the outlook for peace is clouded by decades of mistrust, deep political divisions on both sides, regional rivalries and armed conflict and rebellion in neighboring states.