Home       Blog       Other Writings       About Me       Contact & Inquiries

A Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Holy Land changed hands many times through history -- from the Canaanites to the Israelites, Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, British, and so on. But the modern phase of the conflict began in the late 1800s, when a Viennese journalist named Theodore Herzl witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and concluded that the best solution would be the mass exodus of Jews to a state they could call their own.

His movement slowly gained steam and became known as Zionism, 'Zion' being one of the Biblical names for Jerusalem. The First Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 and established the World Zionist Organization to create the economic foundation for a Jewish state in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Herzl was elected president and spent years trying to enlist financial and political support for his dream.

In 1904, a Russian chemist named Chaim Weizmann moved to London and became active in Zionist affairs. He believed large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine combined with great power support for Zionism was the way to realize Herzl's vision. During the First World War, British policy gradually warmed to Zionism even though it contradicted promises made to both the French and the Arabs. It was made official in 1917 in the form of a letter known as the Balfour Declaration -- the first recognition of Zionist aims by a great power. At the time, Jews comprised less than 10% of the population of Palestine.

Jews had lived in relative peace among their Muslim neighbors in the Middle East for centuries. But as waves of them began to immigrate to Palestine from Europe -- many of them desperately fleeing Nazi persecution -- Palestinians became worried that Britain, which held Palestine under Mandate authority after World War I, would make good on its promise to hand most or all of Palestine over to the newcomers. Between 1936 and 1939, Palestinians organized civil and armed resistance against repressive British land laws and European Jewish colonization in a conflict known as the Arab Revolt in Palestine. When the uprising was crushed, Palestinians were largely stripped of their arms and leaders, and the Jewish and Palestinian populations became further isolated and alienated from each other.

Zionist militias also engaged in terror attacks against both Palestinians and the British occupiers. The most notorious was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, which was then the site of the British Mandate authority of Palestine. Ninety-one people were killed in the bombing including 28 Britons, 41 Arabs, and 17 Jews.

Britain eventually handed the fate of its unruly province over to the UN. In 1947, in a narrow vote dominated by Europeans nations and former colonies, the UN voted to allocate 55% of Mandatory Palestine for a Jewish state and 45% for a Palestinian state. By now Jews made up one-third of the population of Palestine and owned 7% of the land. They comprised a bare majority within the convoluted borders of the area they were to be given, but it was anticipated that many more Jews would immigrate to the new state. For the Zionists, this 'partition plan' represented the creation of a safe haven from centuries of persecution in Europe. Israel would be the new center of Jewish life, a long-sought opportunity for self-determination.

Palestinians, however, saw it as a European giveaway of their land to Europeans in order to atone for European sins and advance European aims -- another in a long line of bitter European betrayals.

When the British withdrew in 1948, the Israelis declared independence, which sparked a region-wide war. Arabs vastly outnumbered Jews, but the Zionists were better-armed, better-funded, and better-organized. When the dust settled, the new state of Israel controlled 78% of historic Palestine, Jordan ruled the West Bank, and Egypt had control over the Gaza Strip.

More than 750,000 Palestinians -- half the native population of Palestine at the time -- fled or were expelled from what became Israel and were prevented from returning home by force of arms. The refugees now number in the millions and constitute the largest and longest-suffering refugee population in the world.

In June of 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt after Egypt's President Nasser blockaded the Straits of Tiran (Israel's only access point to the Red Sea) and amassed troops in the Sinai. Jordan and Syria were drawn into the conflict as well. At the end of the so-called Six Day War, Israel had captured and occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and the Syrian Golan Heights.

(Read the fabulous book
The General's Son, written by the son of an Israeli general involved in the Six Day War, to learn more about the motivations and machinations behind this conflict.)

The details of this war are complex and hotly-disputed. What's not in dispute is that most Israelis genuinely believe they would have been under existential threat if their government hadn't acted first, and most Arabs genuinely believe it was an Israeli war of aggression and expansion. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which called for peace between Israel and its neighbors in exchange for Israel giving back the land it had acquired during the Six Day War. Negotiations about how to implement it went nowhere. The Sinai was returned to Egypt under a separate peace deal in 1979, but the Golan Heights and the Palestinian territories remain under occupation.

The Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza were not given citizenship in Israel or equal protection or benefits under the law. The Israeli government also violated the Geneva Conventions by confiscating Palestinian land and water resources and building settlements on the West Bank and Gaza. For twenty years, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza were a traumatized, defeated, docile population, routinely humiliated by soldiers and used as cheap labor in the Israeli economy.

Then in 1987, the Palestinian population collectively rose up against Israel's repressive policies. The uprising, which became known as the first Intifada, was characterized by mass civil disobedience, general strikes, boycotts, refusals to pay taxes, and Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli tanks and soldiers. The word intifada means 'shaking off,' and this was the Palestinians' first attempt to assert their own national identity rather than waiting for Arab armies or the UN to do it for them. More than 1,100 Palestinians and 150 Israelis were killed in the ensuing five years, and tens of thousands more Palestinians were injured or arrested.

The conflict was a public relations disaster for Israel. Videos were shown around the world of Palestinians armed only with flags and slingshots facing down tanks, and of Israeli soldiers beating terrified Palestinian children. Israel began to lose its cherished image as the David against the Arab Goliath. Instead it began to be seen as the Goliath against the Palestinian David. Israelis also began to realize that the occupation could not be maintained indefinitely without cost. Many on the Israeli left began to oppose the occupation.

The Intifada also worried Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a coalition of Palestinian nationalist resistance groups with Fatah at its center. Founded in 1964, it was admitted to the UN with observer status in 1974 and was regarded as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It initially operated out of Jordan and Lebanon, engaging in guerrilla tactics in an attempt to regain Palestine by force of arms. It was expelled from Jordan in 1971 by King Hussein, then expelled from Lebanon in 1982 by Israel, at which point it fled to Tunisia. By the time the Intifada broke out, the PLO was largely out of touch with life in the Palestinian territories. It had played no part in leading or organizing the Intifada.

In 1988, in order to gain recognition for the PLO and save himself from irrelevance, Arafat agreed to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism. It was a historic compromise. He unilaterally surrendered Palestinian claims to 78% of historic Palestine and agreed to focus aspirations for Palestinian statehood solely on the remaining 22% -- the West Bank and Gaza.

Five years later, in 1993, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, hailed as a blueprint for peace between the two peoples. It was the first time Israelis and Palestinians publicly recognized each other as partners for negotiations toward peace rather than enemies who might be defeated by force of arms. (In October 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, leaving Syria and Lebanon the only countries bordering Israel still in a state of conflict with it.) After that, the 'two-state solution' became the mantra of the mainstream.

The Accords created the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Arafat and his associates and based in Ramallah. It had limited administrative and security duties in the West Bank and Gaza while Israel retained control of water, airspace, borders, imports, exports, residency, travel, taxation, currency, etc. This arrangement was supposed to last for a five-year period during which Israel and the PA would engage in trust-building measures and negotiate final-status issues such as East Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and settlements. It was hoped that an independent Palestinian state -- and peace -- would follow.

Two years later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli who opposed the Oslo Accords. Rabin's replacement, Shimon Peres of the Labor Party, was narrowly defeated a year later by Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party. Netanyahu opposed the Accords, rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, and intensified settlement building in the occupied territories. In all, 380 Palestinians and 260 Israelis were killed during the 'Oslo peace years' of 1993-2000, and the settler population surged from 250,000 to more than 400,000.

In July of 2000, the Labor Party was back in power, and Israeli public opinion had moved away from Netanyahu's hard line approach, which soured relations with the Western and Arab worlds without any benefit to security. But Israelis were wary because Hamas and Islamic Jihad had committed fourteen suicide bombings during the Oslo years. And Palestinians felt betrayed because instead of retreating from the occupation as promised, the Israelis had only intensified it. Tensions were high.

President Bill Clinton, in his final months in office, met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David, Maryland, for a last-ditch effort to negotiate a two-state solution. The talks failed spectacularly. From the Israeli perspective, Barak made a 'generous offer' -- including more than 90% of the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem -- which went further than any other Israeli leader had been willing to go. Arafat had snubbed it, proving he was 'no partner for peace.'

In the view of the Palestinian delegation, Palestinians had already conceded 78% of their homeland. Barak's 'offer' was to annex additional highly sensitive areas of the West Bank (including most of East Jerusalem), deny Palestinians genuine sovereignty, and totally ignore the refugees and their legitimate rights under international law.

(For a fairly centrist explanation of what went wrong in the negotiations, see: Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, "Camp David: The tragedy of errors," New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001.)

In any case, each side blamed the other, and trust broke down completely. The explosive atmosphere reached a flashpoint in September of 2000, when the second Intifada erupted. Soon afterwards, Israelis voted in a new Prime Minister -- Ariel Sharon of the right-wing Likud party. The unrest spiraled from Palestinian protests and deadly Israeli repression into riots, assassinations, suicide bombings, and massive Israeli military incursions. The conflict became known as the second Intifada.