A Guide: 100 Years of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


After its founding in 1948. Israel has been through a myriad of wars with its neighbours, and to this day, Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of the most polarizing questions both in the Middle East and the rest of the world. The following guide is just one of the numerous views and approaches to the wider Israeli-Arab conflict and serves as a background for the articles which discuss present situation in the region on a daily basis.


Israel

  • Population: 8,643,600 (74.8% Jews, 20.8% Arabs, 4.4% other)
  • Capital: Jerusalem (disputed)
  • Government: Unitary Parliamentary Constitutional Republic
  • President: Reuven Rivlin (Likud)
  • Prime Minister: Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud)

Ruling coalition:

  • Likud (center-right/right-wing) – chaired by Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Bayit Yehudi (far-right/Orthodox Jewish/religious Zionist) – chaired by Naftali Bennett
  • Kulanu (centrist) – chaired by Moshe Kahlon
  • Shas (ultra-Orthodox religious) – chaired by Aryeh Deri
  • United Torah Judaism (ultra-Orthodox) – alliance of Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel parties, chaired by Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni
  • Yisrael Beiteinu (secularist/right-wing nationalist) – chaired by Avigdor Lieberman

Opposition:

  • Yesh Atid (center) – chaired by Yair Lapid
  • The Zionist Union (center-left) – alliance of Israeli Labor Party, Hatnuah and Green Movement – chaired by Isaac Herzog
  • The Joint List (various) – alliance of Arab parties Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al – chaired by Ayman Odeh
  • Meretz (left-wing, social-democratic) – chaired by Zehava Gal-On

Palestinian Authority (interim self-governing body)

Formed in 1994 in accordance with Gaza–Jericho Agreement following Oslo Accords signed in 1993 by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the government of Israel.

West Bank

Three administrative divisions: Area A (full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, currently 18% of the territory), Area B (Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, currently 22% of the territory) and Area C (full Israeli civil and security control, currently 60% of the territory)

  • Population: 2,657,029 (including 389,250 Jewish settlers)
  • Capital: Jerusalem (disputed)/Ramallah
  • Government: Semi-presidential – Palestinian Legislative Council (elected 132 representatives), an executive president (elected), and a prime minister (nominated by president, confirmed by the Palestinian Legislative Council) leading a cabinet
  • President: Mahmoud Abbas (Fatah)
  • Prime Minister: Rami Hamdallah (Fatah)

Palestinian Legislative Council

  • Fatah (Palestinian nationalist/secular: 45 seats) – chaired by Mahmoud Abbas
  • Hamas (Palestinian nationalist/Islamic extremist: 74 seats) – chaired by Ismail Haniyeh
  • The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (Marxist-Leninist/revolutionary socialist: 3 seats) – general secretary Ahmad Sa‘adat
  • Third Way (center: 2 seats) – chaired by Salam Fayyad and Hanan Ashrawi
  • Palestinian National Initiative (left-wing/center-left: 2 seats) – chaired by Mustafa Barghoutti
  • The Alternative (socialist/dissolved: 2 seats) – alliance of several socialist groups
  • Independent (4 seats)

Gaza Strip

  • Population: 1,650,000
  • Capital: Gaza City
  • Prime Minister: Ismail Haniyeh (Hamas)

Under air, naval and land blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

Israel with West Bank and Gaza Strip, 2017.

Palestine Before the Creation of Israel

Ottoman Rule and World War I

In late 19th century, what is known as Palestine was a very poor area ruled by the Ottoman Empire, mostly inhabited by local farmers who didn’t have much use of corrupt in what was relatively irrelevant pocket of the Ottoman territories. What is today known as Israel, and earlier as Palestine, was split between three major administrative units — the Vilayet of Beirut (Acre, Beirut, Nablus), the Vilayet of Hejaz (central and southern Negev, Sinai Peninsula and western Arabia) and the Mutasarrfate of Jerusalem.

The Arab population of Palestine numbered 446,000 in the late 19th century, and it was heterogeneous, divided, isolated and poor. The land was usually owned by powerful Arab families, who had farmers (fellahin) working for them. When Jewish immigration began with the First Aliyah, there was very little sense of nationalism among Palestinian Arabs — most of them were Sunni Muslims loyal to the sultan, while Jews, on the other hand, suffering persecution and pogroms in Western and Eastern Europe, already had developed Zionist ideas. The dawn of broader Arab nationalism came with the Turkish revolution in 1908, as Arabs sought independence from the Ottoman Empire, feeling a growing national conscience additionally intensified by the accelerated arrival of Jews in the region. Their population had risen to 60,000 by the beginning of World War I. By 1914, both Jews and Arabs had their own self-determination goals and made their convincing claims.

The Map of the Ottoman Empire

Despite the fact that the territory they were contesting was still controlled by Istanbul, partition of the Ottoman Empire was already planned among the Allies even before the outcome of the war was known, yet it was this outcome that set Jews’ and Arabs’ respective destinies in stone. The meandering and confusion of subsequent British colonial politics can be explained by three documents: the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.

  1. The main point of British-Arab misunderstanding and broken promises was correspondence between Sherif Hussein of Mecca, powerful Hashemite ruler of Hejaz, and British high commissioner in Egypt Henry McMahon. Its purpose was discussing Arab independence and restoration of the caliphate in exchange for support against the Turks. Hussein laid claims on Arabic-speaking Western Asian provinces of the Ottoman empire, excluding: Egypt and Aden, southern parts of Iraq from Basra to Baghdad, the vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut, as well as northern and western portions of Syria. What was Palestine in all of that? It was not a province per se — it consisted of the Sanjak of Jerusalem and part of the vilayets of Beirut and Hejaz. The subsequent disagreement arose over what was said to be a semantics misunderstanding, at least in the words of British, over what a vilayet is and what a district is, since these words were used interchangeably in correspondence in Arabic. In their own interpretation of written text, British excluded certain parts of Levant, meaning areas west of the districts of Aleppo, Hamma, and Homs, and the Ottoman administrative division of Syria, which meant that Palestine was also excluded from the agreement. The Arabs thought that vilayet meant four of the aforementioned towns, which would make Palestine part of the deal. The correspondence never mentioned Palestine or the Sanjak of Jerusalem by name, so it was never specifically excluded from Arab claim. Before the misunderstanding arose, however, in June 1916, an Arab revolt led by Feisal, son of Sherif Hussein, took place, as the Arabs expected their share from the British for helping the Allies and diverting the Turkish forces in battles. Subsequent declarations made by Britain and the United States addressed Arabs’ concerns and promised them governing authority over conquered territories.

The map showing modern Palestine split between different administrative units within Ottoman Empire, with McMahon’s promise to Hussein

  1. Then came the agreement between the British and French — Mark Sykes and Charles Francois George Picot. It divided the Levant and Iraq areas into zones, where in the areas of indirect colonial control, semi-independent Arab states could be established. Regarding Palestine, the territory west of Jordan River, including Jerusalem, but not Negev, would be under international administration. The towns of Homs, Hama, Damascus and Aleppo would belong to the Arabs, but under French supervision. This heavily contradicted the terms of the first agreement.

  2. The final nail in the coffin of Arab expectations was the Balfour Declaration, a public statement of foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, head of the British Zionist Organization. It favored the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, and Arabs were not even mentioned by name, only addressed in the provision that “nothing should be done that might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” Despite doing a certain amount of favor to Jews, the vague definition of what is supposed to be Palestine geographically, as well as ignoring Arabs’ economic, citizen, political and national rights was the hot potato thrown into the hands of Jewish leaders. This was a British concession to Zionists in an effort to appeal to numerous Jews among Russian leaders in order to keep them part of the war and Allied forces, as well as appeal to American Jews to advertise the war effort of the United States. Their own personal wish was to establish a protectorate and keep control of the eastern part of Suez Canal — it was an important link to India, oil and air transport.

As soon as the war was over, broken promises and the problems that came with them surfaced. France started contesting vast territories in Levant coast, viewing the Maronite Christian population as their legitimate claim. This prompted Feisal Hussein and Chaim Weizmann to meet and discuss the new situation. They agreed that Arab rights must be respected, and that there would be no restrictions on religious freedom, and in exchange, Arabs would be ready to work with Jews to implement the Balfour Declaration. The agreement was rather practical and showed a great deal of compromise between the two nations that came to be in such a perpetual conflict — there was good will to create a Jewish state in Palestine alongside an Arab state. The Jews would help less developed areas to introduce economic modernization, which seemed like a possibility for cooperation and resonated with initial Zionist ideals. However, the condition that Feisal put was that Arabs wouldn’t accept the agreement unless they had their independence.

In the end, the Allied powers made a compromise between local wishes for self-determination and their goal to keep control in the region by neutralizing each other’s power and forming mandates. That meant that promises to Arabs and Jews were either dropped or postponed for an unknown period. The mandate territories were Syria and Lebanon — awarded to France — and Iraq, along with an entity called Palestine, which was awarded to the British.

British Mandate Palestine

In 1920, the Allied Supreme Council (the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan) met at San Remo to allocate mandate territories, defining exact Palestine borders for the first time as the land on both sides of the Jordan River, in present-day Israel and Jordan. Arab nationalists rebelled — Feisal Hussein proclaimed himself king of Greater Syria, which resulted in the French expelling him from the country. His brother Abdullah started gathering the forces to reclaim Syria in his name, but the British solved this by installing Feisal as a monarch in Iraq and delivering a gift to Abdullah: the part of Palestine east of the Jordan River, which would be called Transjordan. The rest of the Palestinian Arabs remained divided by tribes and clans, and without Feisal, powerful Palestinian families started concentrating on the idea of Palestine as a national entity in its own right. Another grievance of Arabs was the 1922 preamble of the Palestine Mandate, which included the Balfour Declaration, giving it the status of international law. Once again, the Jewish right to reconstitute their national home in that country was recognized, and Arabs weren’t even mentioned by name, even though they were 85 to 90 percent of the population in that area.

Palestine under British Mandate, divided into Transjordan and present-day Israel and Palestinian territories

This was the core of a bitter conflict that has spanned decades, up until the present: the realization of both sides that the eventual outcome of this uncertain situation would be determined by demographics and the ownership of the land. The way they reacted set in stone their respective situations in the following decades. The Jews, once again, decided to be practical — Chaim Weizman was active in Britain, keeping a close eye on London’s decisions, and David Ben Gurionwas present in Palestine. Jewish communities (Yishuv) elected their assembly. Histadrut, a previously apolitical federation of labor and trade union organizations, established a system of universal medical care, developed a network of schools and controlled several industries. Defense organization Haganah was formed, and educational institutions were thriving, among them Haifa Technion and Hebrew University. Yishuv had its own courts and tax collection, kibbutzim and moshavim, which supported local people. In other words, Jews decided to build a nation and institutions and work within that framework as long as there was even a vague possibility that it would end up as an independent state. However, politically, Yishuv was rather divided on the question of relations with Arabs. Labor Zionists wanted good cooperation with Arabs and truly believed that Zionism was something they could benefit from, although the goal of developing a state was still unarticulated. Revisionist Zionists led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, on the other hand, never accepted the partition of Palestine in 1921 and persistently demanded a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan River. Their attitude was that the moral right of Jews was greater than the moral right of Arabs, pointing out that Arabs had many states they could go to, and Jews only one. They also formed a military arm Haganah Bet, later called Irgun Zvai Leumi, which retaliated fiercely against Arab marauders. In the end, Brit Shalom advocated a bi-national state.

Girls on the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem, in 1938.

Arabs were not that flexible and open to compromises — a mistake that became clear to them almost 20 years later. They opposed both the mandate and Zionism, understandably, considering the promises given in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. They were in a far worse position than Jews, and they made it even more difficult with a lack of organization and the all-or-nothing attitude of their leaders. While Yishuv formed their representative body, Arabs decided not to do it, arguing that a representative body would give legitimacy to both the British mandate and the Zionist community. So, without a single Arab word in the process, the British retained the previous administrative Ottoman millet system, dividing the territory into self-governing confessional units, which only reinforced differences among the population. Despite better living conditions, not enough was done for these millets. Many people kept their old, traditional way of life and saw little of the modernization that was taking place in other administrative units. Palestinian Arabs, in particular, were plagued by disagreements between the Husseinis and Nashashibis, two powerful Jerusalem families. The Husseinis were, at the time, in a better position when Hajj Amin al-Husseini was appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem despite not having enough votes. This was seen as British concession of impartiality, since the mufti was violently anti-Zionist. The Nashashibis also opposed Zionism, but still cooperated with the British to achieve Arab objectives. During this time, the Arab population of Palestine doubled, partly because of better living standards, better medical care, better housing conditions and a more successful economy. These things attracted many immigrants.

Fakhri Nashashibi stands between two of his chief supporters, tribal heads from the Hebron District, in Jerusalem, in 1938. (Photo: AP)

British rule of the mandate was efficient and responsible, but the lack of a clear strategy and broken promises kept heating up the tensions to the point where ad hoc solutions in the form of white papers couldn’t sustain their rule anymore. The beginning of the mandate era saw Arab attacks on Jewish settlements and riots in Jerusalem. Commissions made clear what some already knew: Arabs feared Jewish economic and political influence. When Winston Churchill addressed these fears, halting immigration, the Jewish reaction was immediate and efficient, so the plan was quickly dropped. The dedication to the Balfour Declaration was reaffirmed, again only with a vague mention of other Palestinians’ rights. Again, there was another vague statement, which was that Jewish immigration should not exceed “the economic absorptive capacity of the country.” This was open to interpretation, so the Jews interpreted it in a way that suited them, as an invitation for continued immigration sustained by stronger economic development. Again, Arabs benefited from that, but still remained opposed to any compromises, without any self-governing or representative institutions, and often under the influence of events in other Arab countries.

By 1935. there were 400,000 Jews in Palestine, about a third of the entire population. Violence started spreading, and Arabs now had tangible reasons to fear for their future and feel disappointed when it came to political and national goals. The Arab rebellion that took place between 1936 and 1939 started with separate acts of violence, but soon turned into mob attacks, riots and a general strike in the form of civil disobedience, nonpayment of taxes and shutting down municipal governments.

British soldiers and Palestinian prisoners during the revolt

That was when the Arab Higher Committee was formed. Another commission report proposed that the territory be separated into separate Jewish and Arab states, and the Arab state would be merged with Transjordan, which fit into the interests of Emir Abdullah, who wanted Greater Syria. This proposal ended with the murder of the British district commissioner, dissolving the Arab Higher Committee and Supreme Muslim Council, putting Arabs in an even worse position. However, the rebellion ended with the first concession to Arabs in the form of the 1939 White Paper, which completely denied the Balfour Declaration. It created an independent Arab Palestinethat would be allied to the British Empire for 10 years. Jewish immigration was limited to 75,000 over the following five years, with Arabs’ consent being needed after that, and land sales to Jews were also reduced. This came at the worst possible time for Jews, many of whom were fleeing Europe in the wake of World War II, when immigration became a question of life and death. This set off Jewish insurgency against the British, who stuck to their decision even during the World War II, when the situation for Jews in Europe reached rock bottom.

The aftermath of the terrorist attack, committed by the Zionist underground organization Irgun, in King David hotel in 1946. (Photo: AP)

However, with insurgency and weakening of the British grasp over Palestine, Arabs had no ground that they could stand on. They were leaderless, without any institutions, unable to seize the opportunity of self-determination and independence. After World War II, that chance was out of reach, and the Arabs realized too late the importance of taking part in the decision process that had been happening without them for decades.

The aftermath of World War II, when the question of a Jewish state became a moral and political obligation of the powers that had interests in the Middle East, the Jewish Agency and Arab Higher Committee each presented their cause and claim to the United Nations. It was too little, too late for the Arabs, who got much less than what they were bargaining for: a partition plan, with 55 percent of the territory going towards a Jewish state. However, the plan was worrisome for both Zionists and Emir Abdullah of Transjordan, with both sides wanting to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state headed by violently anti-Zionist mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, who had cooperated with the Nazi regime. Zionists were opposed to this for obvious reasons, and Abdullah was opposed because he wanted that territory for himself.

In subsequent meetings with Golda Meir, there were talks of the annexation of Arab Palestine to Transjordan in return for peace with Jews and compliance with the formation of a Jewish state. However, the pressure from Arab states was too strong, and Abdullah joined the Arab Legion. This legion consisted mainly of soldiers from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while very few Palestinian Arabs joined, uncertain about their own position and suspicious of other Arab states’ goals.

State of Israel

1948 Arab-Israeli War

After its founding in 1948, Israel has been through a myriad of wars with its neighbors. The first conflict happened immediately after the proclamation of the state’s independence, when an Arab coalition including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel. The 1948 war solidified Israel’s position and revealed a decades-long buildup of Arabs’ internal problems and liabilities. Without organization and clear goals, the Arabs lost the war despite having a dominant position in arms and numbers.

The Arab Legion and Iraq went into the Arab areas of Judea and Samaria. Egypt went to Gaza and Beersheba. Lebanon went to Arab Galilee, and Syria remained at the border. The strategy after infiltration was covering the roads, cutting the lines of communication, and isolating the villages and settlements from the main centers of the Jewish population. Soon, favor turned to Haganah, which managed to capture Haifa, Jaffa and the greater part of Eastern Galilee. This is when the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs started getting bitter. Some Arab towns were completely evacuated and their inhabitants displaced. This also marked the beginning of terrorist activities from both sides. In the case of Israel, there were the Irgun and LEHI groups. Within a few months, Haganah had military control of territory that was close in size to the UN planned state.

Each Arab country went to war for its own, often conflicting, reasons. King Farouk of Egypt didn’t even have a proper reason, but he felt pressured by domestic popular opinion, which was in favor of restoring Arab honor. He feared that his rivals might capitalize on his lack of action. Syria wanted the Arab areas of Palestine, which was what its ally Transjordan also wanted. Transjordan, supported by the influential Nashashibi family, didn’t want this territory to go to Syria or the notorious Mufti Al-Husseini, who was, again, supported by Egypt. Abdullah of Transjordan eventually made an agreement with David Ben Gurion. In exchange for peace, Israel was ready to not go for expanding the territory further to the east, which was the soil that Abdullah wanted for himself. The territory in question was West Bank, which Ben Gurion did not want within borders of Israel, as it would put Palestinians and refugees under Israeli responsibility, forming a state that would have Arabs outnumbering the Jews.

An Israeli soldier, armed with a sten gun, picks her way through the shattered walls of Sulimans Way, in the old city of Jerusalem, July 20, 1948, which forms a front line between the Arabs inside and Jewish forces outside the walls (Photo: AP/Pringle)

In 1949, Egypt signed armistice agreement with Israel, and armistices with Lebanon and Syria followed. From those agreements, Israel increased its territory by 20 percent. Transjordan occupied, and later annexed, Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem, forming the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Egypt retained and administered the Gaza Strip, which would soon turn out to be a problem. Following this and subsequent wars, 850.000 Jews were expulsed from Arab and Muslim countries.

Despite solving the first on the list of Israel’s problems, this war created a problem that still plagues the Middle East to this day: more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees, who were displaced, pushed under the carpet and used as a manipulation device or bargaining chip between other Arab countries and the international community. Arabs suffered a lot of damage to their infrastructure during British suppression of their revolt. The already-mentioned problem of leaderless Palestinians contributed to desperate farmers and labor workers who relied on landowners. Giving property back to refugees was an acceptable option only within the process of direct peace negotiations, something the Arabs refused again. Zionist leaders were prepared to accept the proposed Arab state in Palestine and the internationalization of Jerusalem, but the proposal was refused.

A group of Arab refugees walking from Jerusalem to Lebanon, carrying their belongings, in 1948. (Photo: AP/Pringle)

In the aftermath, 320,000 Palestinians moved to Transjordan (the only state that granted them citizenship and full rights). 210,000 remained in camps in the Gaza region. 100,000 Palestinians went to Lebanon, and 75,000 to Syria. Eighty percent remained within the boundaries of the previous mandate territory. Israel, the Arab States and the international community did not view the refugee problem as something that would stretch as a long-term question, and after the war, no one did much to address the issue. Refugees refused to do anything about the decline of sanitary and medical standards in the camps or consider resettlement, emphasizing that they viewed their refugee status as temporary. The conditions of the Arab population in Israel, while better than that of their counterparts in many other countries or refugee camps, were substandard. The Nationality Law was extended to all citizens, giving Arabs the same rights as everyone, with the exception of military service. However, Arabs contested that they were placed under military rule and forbidden to move without permits or form their political parties.

The Suez Crisis

The next conflict took place in 1956, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, which previously had belonged to French and British companies, barring Israel from using the canal.

The move came after Nasser made an agreement with Great Britain to evacuate British troops from the Canal Zone. This agreement, however, had a very important clause for the outcome of the future war with Israel. In case of an attack on a state member of Arab League or Turkey, Britain or its allies were allowed to reinstate military in the area. As the Cold War was heating up, the United States started looking for allies in the Middle East to spread its doctrine of containment of communism, and rightfully feared the possibility of the Soviet Union exerting its influence in the region. As Soviet influence materialized through arms trade with Syria and Egypt, the United States offered to send aid for building the Aswan Dam on the Nile River, but soon pulled it, angering Nasser, who in turn nationalized the Suez Canal.

This was a red line for the British and French. The British had their economic interests in the Suez Canal, and the French were losing patience for Nasser’s support for liberation movements in their colonies, such as Algeria. In this equation, Israel joined, airing its grievances over what it considered to be a very unbalanced arms race with Egypt, as well as the economic boycott that had already been imposed on them for a few years. Israel was also wary of Western attempts to appease Arabs and continuous ignoring of Israel’s wish to become a member of NATO. Additionally, with the removal of British troops from Canal zone, Israel was much more prone to attacks from the Palestinian militants stationed behind Egyptian border.

Gamal Abdel Nasser

After Israel struck a deal with France and Britain, and in 1956, Israeli paratroopers dropped deep into Sinai. Egyptians responded and a full-on war broke out, giving the French and British an excuse to go back to the Canal Zone. Asked to halt hostilities and withdraw troops, Nasser refused. Under pressure from the UN, the British agreed to cease fire, while Israel conquered all of Sinai and took control of positions in Sharm el-Sheikh, overlooking the Strait of Tiran.

The Soviets took this opportunity to reinforce their position in the Middle East and also offer the Egyptians aid for the Aswan Dam, while the United States got closer to Israel. Israel soon withdrew from Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and in return got the freedom of passage through the Gulf of Aqaba. UN forces were placed in the Sinai Peninsula, thus solving the problem with cross border attacks.

Although defeated in military terms, Nasser and the Egyptians were political heroes of the hour, who fought for pan-Arabism and successfully and proudly stood against imperialists, colonialists and Zionists. Yet this stand-off also left Nasser emboldened and eager for revenge.

The Six Day War in 1967.

The Six Day War in 1967. was a defining point in the Israeli-Arab conflict and shaping the modern Middle Eastern political landscape. Israel came out of it as an unquestionable regional power. Often hailed as a miracle victory, it was simply another gain against a disorganized enemy whose rhetoric did not match the situation on the ground.

In 1958, Egyptian president Nasser established the United Arab Republic with Syria and Yemen. As a result, when minor attacks were launched from Syrian soil, leading to Israeli air strikes and threats, Egypt was obligated to act. The Soviets, Nasser’s strong ally, were worried about the situation in Syria, since its unstable regime and constant tensions with Israel undermined Soviet role and the stability that they were striving for. Nasser felt that Soviet pressure was a guarantee that he was 100 percent backed by Moscow in case he did decide to act against Israel.

By mid-1967, Egyptian armed forces were on the move, and they crossed Suez into Sinai. The government asked the UN to move their troops from the Gaza Strip and UAR territory. The UN complied immediately, in spite of Nasser’s hope that they would linger and buy him some time. The next move was the closing of the Strait of Tiran, completely sealing off Israel’s freedom of shipping. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol publicly described this as an act of aggression. Israelis were warned that this might happen, but until this point, their role as defensive underdog was still strong in the minds of the people and political establishment. This resulted in a very tight, clinched position after Nasser’s economic move. Nasser was expecting another Israeli retaliation for this act, but when it failed to happen, he felt encouraged by Israeli indecisiveness and decided to push the conflict to its end. King Hussein of Jordan signed a defense pact with Egypt, allowing Iraqi troops safe passage through Jordan, as well as placing his army under Egyptian authority.

Israeli soldiers observe the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, just prior to their attack on Jerusalem’s Old City, during the 1967 war. (Photo: Reuters)

The government of national unity, with Moshe Dayan as the defense minister, decided that Israel should be the one to strike the first blow, since the opposite situation was deemed too risky for a country completely surrounded by enemies. With that state of mind, unity and considerably solid arms force, Israelis destroyed most of the Egyptian air force in a surprise attack, which was followed by seizing of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan was offered to pull out of the pact with Egypt. Jordanian troops responded with  fire from the borders, thus giving Israel an excuse to seize West Bank and Jerusalem. Syria had its fair share in this defeat, losing the extremely important strategic point of Golan Heights.

While capturing the Syrian and Lebanese part of Golan Heights proved to be a strategic success that majorly reduced security threats, capturing the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and Gaza and Jordanian West Bank proved to be a liability, as millions of Palestinian refugees became both Israel’s responsibility and potential security threat, leading to a prolonged occupation with no end in sight.

The Yom Kippur War, 1973

After the Six Day War, Egypt was in a bad position, as Israel’s seizing of Sinai and Suez was economically devastating. Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat, felt the psychological and practical need to address the 1967 defeat.

Prime Minister Golda Meir accompanied by her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, meets with Israeli soldiers at a base on the Golan Heights after intense fighting during the 1973 Yom Kippur War

Despite a few peace agreement offers to Israel, it was clear that the two countries’ interests and wishes were incompatible in the long run. However, Sadat was ready to go for the lost territories and use either diplomatic or military ways to get them back. After constant constraints and lack of support from the Soviets, he removed their military personnel from Egypt, dismissed his Russian advisors and successfully bluffed. Israel and United States saw this as an act of opening up to the West, as they believed that Sadat would never go to war without Soviet support. He did hope for U.S. support, by way of influencing Israeli decisions, but he soon learned that the United States can influence its ally, but not make decisions for it.

At that point, both the Soviet Union and the United States sent arms to their respective allies. The Egyptian plan was an attack on two fronts, which meant that it needed Syria, which wanted back the strategic territory of Golan Heights, to be involved. Despite all the intelligence reports pointing to Egypt planning war, Israel, still blinded by the success and strategic depth they had gained with new borders, did not prepare or expect an attack. The Yom Kippur War started on October 6th, 1973, and proved to Israel that it was not invincible, as well as that the Arabs were capable of a unified and well-executed war operation. There were many fierce battles, and Israel almost lost its entire ammunition before the United States interfered. The conflict was concluded with both countries signing a ceasefire with Israel.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter (centre), Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (left), and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sādāt (right) clasping hands on the White House lawn after the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, March 26, 1979.

The Arab oil embargo was also part of their success, when OAPEC (Organization of Arab Oil-Producing Countries), including Saudi Arabia, imposed an embargo on oil exports to the United States and other European countries that supported Israel, and then went on to increase the price. This had severe consequences for support to Israel, making oil a good bargaining chip for further negotiations in the Middle East.

Despite the military victory, the human and monetary losses were not something that Israel could afford. Sadat achieved significant positive psychological effect, as well as a diplomatic victory. He shook off the Soviet Union’s influence and drew the attention of the United States. In 1979, Egypt and Israel established diplomatic relations, with Israel returning the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt not being interested in getting Gaza back.

First Lebanon War

Lebanon and Israel haven’t always been neighboring states at tremendous odds. Despite its involvement in the first Arab-Israeli War, Lebanon’s role remained mostly defensive—seeing two sides ending the war in 1949, an armistice agreement with mutually recognized mandatory borders, and steady security cooperation. This came to an end after the Six Day War in 1967, when Palestinian armed resistance factions started operating against Israel from Lebanon and Jordan. The retaliatory actions of Israel were harsh, with the goal of showing its neighbors that supporting or at least tolerating armed groups within its borders came with a big price.

Israeli troops in First Lebanon War 1982-1985.

Despite the Lebanese government’s awareness that this price was more than it would like to pay, and attempts to curb Palestinian armed groups’ activities in its territory, Palestinians enjoyed great support among Lebanese Sunni Muslims and other Arab States that exerted heavy pressure on Beirut. Israel saw this caving in to these pressures as a sign of weakness and sought to take security matters in Lebanon into its own hands. Seen as a great mistake which allowed future foe Hezbollah to flourish and heavily reduced the Lebanese government’s capability to exercise sovereignty in security matters, the occupation of Lebanon lasted until 1985, irreversibly damaging what used to be a solid cooperation and relatively stable relationship between the two countries. After 1982, Hezbollah had a chance to develop its ties with Iran, becoming a powerful tool of their foreign policy, as a “forward operating base” and “strategic depth” in Lebanon, supposed to deter an Israeli attack on Iran.

First and Second Intifada

Between 1987 and 2006, Israel saw two major uprisings from Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the First and Second Intifada. The first one ended with the historic signing of the Oslo Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yassir Arafat, which saw the PLO demilitarize and accept Israel’s right to exist. It also gradually created Palestinian autonomy through establishing the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, authorized by the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement. The Oslo Accords have never been accepted by the other major Palestinian political faction, Hamas, which staged a number of terrorist attacks across Israel following the signing, further strengthening Israeli opposition to the agreement, seeing the rise of current Prime Minister Netanyahu. The move ultimately cost Rabin his life – he was assassinated by Jewish right-wing extremist Yigal Amir.

Young Palestinians throwing stones during demonstrations in January 1988.

As tensions mounted in the following years, the “interim” character of the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 in Washington, DC and 1995 in Taba, Egypt, proved to be a great source of frustration for Palestinians, resulting in the final diplomatic stand-off in 2000 at the Camp David Summit. When a compromise wasn’t reached, the Second Intifada was set in motion. Over the several years, the death toll reached 3,000 Palestinians, 1,000 Israelis and 64 foreigners – both military and civilian victims. In 2005, the Israeli military withdrew from Gaza and dismantled all of the Jewish settlements in the Strip. The move brought neither stability nor peace to the region – the Strip in particular. Initial problems between the Palestinian Authority and Israel on managing borders and activities in Gaza were soon sidelined by Hamas’ electoral victory that saw a near civil war between Hamas and Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and the final ousting of Fatah in its entirety from the Strip.

The aftermath of the terrorist attack on pizzeria Sbarro in Jerusalem in 2001, leaving 15 civilians dead and 130 wounded.

Second Lebanon War

In 2006, Israel missed another opportunity to put an end to Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon. Just as disarming them was about to be discussed in Beirut, several Hezbollah fighters crossed the “Blue Line,” attacking an Israeli military patrol and kidnapping two soldiers, hoping to provoke a conflict that would reinforce their purpose and significance. Israel walked into that trap. Instead of demanding the immediate implementation of UNSCR 1559, the removal of Hezbollah fighters from the border area, and the return of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, or giving Lebanon an ultimatum to restrain Hezbollah, Israel, still reeling from Second Intifada, retaliated immediately.

Israeli soldiers return from southern Lebanon on August 14, 2006, after a UN-imposed ceasefire went into effect bringing an end to the Second Lebanon War. (Photo: Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

Israel carried out airstrikes and opened artillery fire on targets that included both Hezbollah military and Lebanese civilian infrastructure. The follow-up was the ground invasion of Southern Lebanon, as well as the air and naval blockade of the entire country. Hezbollah responded with rocket attacks on Northern Israel. The end to conflict was brokered by the UN Security Council, whose resolution called for withdrawal of IDF from Lebanon, deployment of the Lebanese Army and UN forces in Southern Lebanon, and the disarming of Hezbollah. Despite heavy losses to Hezbollah and Lebanon, Israel could hardly claim a victory in this war, apart from further giving Hezbollah reason not to disarm. The remains of two abducted Israeli soldiers were returned only two years later in a prisoner exchange.

Israel vs. Hamas vs. Fatah

After Hamas took over Gaza, armed conflicts with Israel became a relatively regular occurrence. During a three-week conflict in 2008 and 2009, an all-encompassing air, naval and ground offensive was launched on Gaza in order to stop weapons smuggling and indiscriminate Palestinian rocket fire into Israel. Some of the targets were among heavily populated areas in Rafah, Gaza City and Khan Yunis. The conflict resulted in between 1,166 and 1,417 Palestinian deaths and 13 Israeli deaths, with Israel issuing a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal a few days later. According to the UN Special Mission “Goldstone report,” both Palestinian militants and Israeli Defense Forces committed war crimes during the conflict. Two years later, the author, Richard Goldstone, stated that he didn’t believe Israel intentionally targeted civilians, which was rejected by the other authors of report. The number of rockets launched from Gaza was heavily reduced after the conflict, and the Gazan industry and economy were left in shambles.

Airstrike on the Gaza Strip in 2009.

After several incidents such as the 2011 cross-border attacks against Israeli civilians, in March 2012, IDF killed alleged perpetrators in a targeted air strike. Palestinian militant groups, officially excluding Hamas, retaliated with indiscriminate rocket attacks. After a ceasefire was brokered, another round of fighting followed in November 2012, with more than 100 rockets launched from Gaza at Israel in one day. The retaliation by Israel took off with the killing of Ahmed Habari, chief of the Gaza military wing of Hamas, and continued with strikes on 1,500 targets throughout Gaza Strip – on military, government and civilian infrastructure. Over 1,400 rockets were fired into Israel, with many of them falling inside Gaza. A ceasefire was mediated by Egypt, with both sides claiming victory.

The last conflict between Israel and Gaza happened in 2014. After three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas members, IDF launched an operation to arrest militant leaders. Hamas responded by firing rockets into Israel, to which Israel responded with airstrikes and a ground invasion with the aim of destroying Gaza’s tunnel system. Over the course of the conflict, more than 4,500 rockets were fired into Israel by Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza, while IDF attacked more than 5,200 targets in Gaza. During the conflict, more than 2,200 Palestinians died, 65 percent of which were civilian deaths. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and five civilians died.

Rockets fired out of Gaza into Israel in 2014. (Photo: Nati Shohat/ Flash90)

In spite of IDF’s attempts to warn civilians before attacks in residential areas through calls, SMS and roof knocking, Israel was accused of not taking needed precautions to avoid civilian deaths, disproportionate use of force and even deliberate attacks against civilian targets. On top of indiscriminate attacks on Israeli infrastructure, Hamas was accused of various violations in Gaza – mainly using human shields and civilian, medical and humanitarian infrastructure for military purposes, as well as urging or forcing civilians to stay in their homes after IDF issued warnings of attack. Ultimately, Hamas did not achieve its goal of forcing Israel into lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Once again, the conflict left Gazans on a verge of a humanitarian disaster and dried out Hamas’ weapon stocks. Since then, Israel has seen a relative period of calm, recognizing Hezbollah in Lebanon as its main threat and source of concern.

The Peace Process

Throughout most of the 20th century, both during British Mandate rule in the region and after the establishment of Israel, Palestinian Arabs had an all-or-nothing approach toward Palestinian statehood, on a few occasions rejecting lucrative offers. After 1948, the Palestinian cause mainly advocated for total destruction and dismantling of the State of Israel and underlying “rejectionism” of the Palestinian approach towards a peace process is still one of the main obstacles perceived by Israeli side. The Oslo Accords were the PLO’s official recognition of Israel’s right to exist within 1967 borders, with Gaza Strip and West Bank constituting provisional future Palestinian state in exchange.

The Oslo Accords laid a groundwork for the Gaza–Jericho Agreement, which saw the creation of an interim self-governance body, the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority was supposed to gradually increase its civil and security control in the West Bank and Gaza, but over the course of 24 years, Israel completely withdrew from Gaza, yet the ratio between Israeli and Palestinian control in the West Bank remained virtually unchanged. Despite the Oslo Accord’s interim character, which expired in 1999, the peace process is still based on Oslo Accords formulas.

U.S. President Bill Clinton standing between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin after signing the Oslo agreement in 1993. (Photo: FILE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Camp David Summit in 2000, which was supposed to wrap up the process, ended in failure. While Palestinian negotiators insisted on full sovereignty over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and showed some willingness to have land swaps, Israel wanted to annex a number of settlement blocks with large Jewish populations, citing security concerns as a reason. Israel’s final offer was 73 percent of the West Bank (with gradual expanding of sovereignty to 92 percent of the territory) and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip, yet according to calculations by the Palestinian side, the final offer actually constituted only 86 percent of the West Bank. The plan also proposed several Israeli-controlled roads in the West Bank, with safe passage for Palestinians, yet allowing Israel the right to close them in the case of emergency, citing that this kind of governance would cantonize and divide West Bank. Palestinians also objected to Israeli sovereignty over the road that would connect Gaza and West Bank through the Negev Desert.

Israeli proposal to Palestinians in Camp David.

The negotiations also dealt with the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Their approximate number in 1948 was 720,000, but with their descendants, their number rose to 4 million – Palestinians remain the only refugee group in the world whose status of “refugee” is transferred to the descendants. While Palestinians insisted on the right of return for all of them, the Israeli side pointed out that this would make Jews a minority in Israel, offering the right of return for a limited number of refugees for purposes of family reunification and different forms of compensation to the others. Arafat rejected the plan and didn’t propose a counter-offer, with the Second Intifada soon bursting out in the streets of Jerusalem. A subsequent plan outlined in a rush in the Clinton Parameters offered around 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, and at the Taba Summit, the offer was stripped of “temporarily Israeli-controlled” areas from the West Bank, with the Palestinian side accepting this as a basis for further negotiation, yet these talks ended without an agreement.

The Second Intifada undoubtedly dealt a serious blow to the peace process. From 2006 to 2008, negotiations started again, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offering PA president Mahmoud Abbas a permanent border and Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank with land swaps and a road link with Gaza, as well as an Israeli armed presence in the future Palestinian state. Both leaders agreed on questions of shared economy and industry, but the final agreement was never reached, and the situation got further complicated after Hamas took over Gaza and renounced the legitimacy of Fatah and Abbas leading the Palestinian Authority. Further attempts at reaching the agreement in 2010 and 2013 to 2014 ended in failure and continued stalled negotiations.

West Bank

After winning the elections, Netanyahu, previously known for his opposition to Oslo in the 1990s and early 2000s, endorsed the two-state solution, yet at the same time stepped up building in the West Bank settlements, a move considered illegal by international law. Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition with a strong settlement lobby paired with Barack Obama’s attempts of thawing U.S. relations with Iran through negotiating The Iranian Nuclear Deal escalated to one of the greatest rifts between the two traditional allies in the past few decades. The tension culminated when the U.S. failed to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The settlements remain one of the main obstacles to continuing the peace process, according to Palestinians. On the other hand, rejectionism, incitement, violence and terrorism, sponsored and vocally supported by PA officials, further undermine Israeli trust in Palestinians as partners in negotiations. The Palestinian side also accuses Israel of undermining economic development in Gaza and West Bank, using security concerns as an excuse, as well as disproportionate use of force in the conflicts. Currently, the peace process is further complicated by the lack of unity between Gaza, essentially ruled by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which escalated PA president Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to impose sanctions on the Strip.

The issues that remain to be resolved before the final peace agreement are borders and land swaps, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, security concerns, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

( Source: Intelligencer Post )


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