Since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948, the Arab-Israeli conflict has dominated the political landscape of the Middle East. More specifically, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute has taken centre stage as the paramount problem facing not only parties in the region, but the international community itself.
This essay seeks to explore in more depth, the main milestones in the emergence of the Palestinian problem, as well as examining more broadly the underlying issues which has left the majority of the Arab world in conflict with Israel since the late 1940s. Firstly, by looking at the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict pre-1948 War of Independence and then by analysing the key events since then, we will start to tackle what is a hugely complex and endlessly debateable topic.
The nineteenth century was the century of nationalism and its later decades saw the development of a new nationalist framework – Zionism. Key figures in the Zionist movement, Moses Hess and Theodore Herzl, called for a “Return to Zion” and the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in the Holy Land. As immigration to the area increased, Arab anxiety and opposition also emerged.
That said, it is useful to establish the strategic context within which these events unfolded, the first of those being the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence of 1915-16. This came in the form of an exchange of letters during World War One between the Hejazi leader Hussein ibn Ali and Sir Henry McMahon, concerning the future political status of Arab lands of the Middle East. Essentially, McMahon pledged immediate Arab independence on the agreement that there was a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In the correspondence, however, an ambiguity lay over the land of Historic Palestine. Britain affirmed that land which “cannot be said to be purely Arab” was excluded from the agreement, while Hussein considered Palestine to be just that – purely Arab. Herein lay the initial grounds for discontent and disillusionment. This was further exacerbated with the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which was a secret understanding between the governments of Britain and France defining their respective spheres of influence in the post World War One Middle East.
However, the most significant agreement at this stage was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild – leader of the British Jewish Community. It stated the British government’s support for Zionist plans for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, with the condition that nothing should be done which might prejudice the rights of the existing communities.
Nonetheless, British mandate over Palestine remained controversial and by 1947, the United Nations had agreed on a partition plan, which would partition Palestine west of the Jordan river and make Jerusalem an international area. This was rejected by the Arab powers and on Britain’s withdrawal from the land in May 1948, the Zionists declared an independent state of Israel. The result of this was a declaration of war by the neighbouring Arab states which saw the new Jewish state emerge, leaving the post-war landscape scattered; Jordan occupied what is now the West Bank, Gaza was administered by Egypt and Jerusalem was cut in half and was not an international area.
The current impasse faced in both the Arab-Israel conflict and the Israel-Palestinian dispute is filled with a plethora of contextual problems. It is necessary to explore these milestones to better understand the complexities of the conflict. The first of these is a long-standing history of distrust, broken agreements and wars.
Alongside the previously mentioned War Of Independence of 1948-9, the Egypt-Israel war of 1956 (Suez), the ‘Six Day War’ of 1967, the Egypt-Israel War Of Attrition of 1968-70, the October War of 1973, the Israeli’s occupation and war in Lebanon of 1982-85 and the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 all do very little to build a culture of trust and cordiality. This is not excluding the military behaviour of both sides to a lesser scale and the two Palestinian intifidas of 1987 and 2000, which shall be discussed in more detail in forthcoming sections.
That said, one undeniably significant milestone came with the 1967 ‘Six Day War’ which saw Israel launching a pre-emptive strike on Egyptian air forces after fearing attack themselves due to increased military build up by Egypt on the Sinai. The lightening strike, which saw targets in Egypt, Jordan and Syria all hit in the same day, crippled Arab air support and they were easily defeated within six days. This campaign, as well as astounding the world and gaining Israel a new strategic ally in the form of the United States, resulted in the occupation of the territories of the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan and Jerusalem.
Without question, this brought great strategic depth for the Israelis – the same strategic depth which they would attempt to use in ‘Land for Peace’ deals with their Arab neighbours. However, at the same time they took on a sizeable and hostile Arab population to administer – what many have referred to as a dagger at their own heart. Nevertheless, one of the cornerstones of the 1967 War was the emergence of UN Resolution 242 calling for withdrawal from the territories occupied in the recent conflict and the termination of all aggression, as well as the acceptance of the territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area . It is this which has stayed at one of the pillars of efforts at peace and security in the region since.
The idea of land for peace, essentially enshrined in 242 was first a success in 1979 with the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty which saw the return of the Sinai in exchange for a cessation of hostilities between the two sides and an Egyptian recognition of the right of the state of Israel to exist. Essentially from this moment, the broader Arab-Israeli conflict changed into a more specific Israeli-Palestinian one.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, set up in early 1964 as an umbrella organisation at the instigation of the Arab League was essentially funded and encouraged by Egypt to control Palestinian resistance. Fatah, the party from which Yassir Arafat emerged, was established in 1958 in Kuwait and had a creed for revolutionary violence. Its initial objective was a Palestinian state in the whole of British mandate Palestine, however in 1974 accepted the notion of a state in the West Bank and Gaza as a transition state in all of mandate Palestine and so by 1979, the Palestinian movement had evolved greatly.
The PLO at this time had been forced out of Jordan by the Hashemite monarchy on the basis it was gaining too much clout within Jordan itself. Resultantly, it took refuge in Southern Lebanon and Beirut. It was this, which led to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The strategic perception was that the PLO were again growing too strong within Lebanon (and taking advantage of the Lebanese Civil War for their own goals) and if they could be expelled from the country, a peace treaty could then be signed with a post-war Lebanese state. However, the Lebanon conflict turned out to be the longest and most controversial in Israeli history. Its plans for a limited operation in scope, purpose and duration were not to be. Having publicly stated it would move only 40 kilometres into Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian infrastructure, Israel moved all the way to Beirut. The campaign saw Israel portrayed as the aggressor for the first time. Two other issues emerged from this Israeli operation; the creation of Hezbollah in South Lebanon, replacing the vanquished PLO, and the Palestinian intifada of 1987, which saw the emergence of Hamas.
By the time of the Algiers conference in 1988, the PLO were weak and on the fringes. Having been exiled in Tunis after the Lebanon conflict, the PLO renounced terrorism and announced a willingness to negotiate. Resultantly, as soon as the PLO seemed to be less radical, 70 world governments accepted the PLO as a state in exile.
The Madrid Process of 1991 was also an early attempt by the international community at a peace process through negotiations involving Israel and the Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians in the aftermath the Gulf war of 1991. It was here that back-channel talks between the Palestinians and Israelis took place evolving into the Oslo Accords of 1993 – an official exchange of letters with the PLO recognising Israel as a state and the Israelis recognising the PLO as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people. Some authors argue that Oslo was also an attempt by the PLO to move away from Hamas’ more radical stance and an attempt by Israel to negotiate with the PLO before having to deal with the more radical Islamist threat of the emerging powerful Hamas.
Unfortunately, as time passed, little movement was made on the Oslo process and the core issues of the accords were not dealt with. By 2000, the Camp David Accords, the most radical proposal to date was placed on the table by the Israelis – essentially it was a final status proposal. For a number of reasons including Territory, the right of return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem and Temple Mount, the Palestinians rejected the proposal. Its aftermath would lay the setting for what exists today.
Escalation and In-Fighting
September 28th 2000 saw controversial opposition leader Ariel Sharon take the “provocative stroll” to the Al-Aqsa mosque area of Temple Mount and the next day the Al-Aqsa intifada had begun. This time, it took the form of far more militant behaviour as opposed to the “intifada of stones” of 1987. When Sharon was elected in February 2001, a tough new line was taken by Israel. No new deals were to be cut and through Israeli eyes, Arafat would not be dealt with having rejected all offers at peace, preferring to return to terrorism.
The discovery of the Karine A and Iranian weapons movements to the Palestinian Authority in January 2002 did little to help the culture of distrust between the two parties and as the number of suicide attacks in Israel and incursions into Palestinian territories increased in 2002, the number of casualties on each side also increased. This lead to the construction of the controversial fence in the West Bank, which the Israelis claim is to, deter terrorist attacks against them. The Palestinians insist it simply another injustice geared at illegally preventing them from crucial access to land and water as well as to employment.
Optimistically, April 2003 saw the development of a Road Map by the international community and by February 2004, there were proposals for a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. After the death of Yassir Arafat in November of that year, an agreement was made in March 2005 to end the intifada, which led to the withdrawal in 2005 of Israeli troops from Gaza and four small West Bank settlements.
This history of distrust is now, however, at its all time peak with the elections of Islamist movement Hamas to the Palestinian leadership in 2006. Their inability to work with Fatah leader, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas has caused tension and recently, has led to internal skirmishes of an extremely violent nature between the Palestinians themselves. Crucially, Israel now fails to recognise Hamas as legitimate leaders of the Palestinian people, on the basis Hamas rejects the right of Israel to exist and calls for its destruction in its very charter. Israeli – Hamas cross border violence has also taken place in Gaza.
This all leads us to another key contextual problem – that of national expectations. The Israelis are looking for security, which if one considers the hostility surrounding them, is an unrealistic goal. The Palestinians under Hamas leadership have the ultimate aim of the “establishment of an Islamic State” ranging “from the River Jordan to the sea” . In this conception, there is no space left for Israel as an independent national entity.
Overall, some core issues remain in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Firstly, is the topic of Jerusalem, where even if a deal were to be cut, the questions of who controls the holy sites, access to them etc would remain contentious. Second, is the issue of settlements and borders – if there were to be a two-state settlement, what would happen to the thousands of Israeli settlers? The calls for a return to the 1967 borders is also a complex one as nobody had legal sovereignty over the West Bank, despite Jordanian claims of sovereignty post 1967.
All in all, the nature of the final status of a Palestinian state itself would be a massive issue. Would it be allowed its own foreign and defence policy with the right to sign treaties with whomever they like, including a potentially hostile state such as Iran? What form of governance would it take? The West would surely demand a transparent democracy but is this likely when a non-secular movement such as Hamas is in power?
In summing up, the Arab-Israel conflict is one which has many milestones. Its roots are in the pre-WW1 declarations of the Western powers regarding the state of Palestine. Its evolution sees it move through a period of thirty years of war between Israel and its neighbours to a period of concentrated conflict in Palestine itself after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Today, Israel sees itself working with a Palestinian Authority less likely to be ready for peace than it has been for decades as well as a hostile Hezbollah on its northern border. Overall, though the Arab-Israeli dispute has evolved and become more concentrated into a Palestinian-Israel dispute, for the aforementioned reasons of territory, settlements and borders, refugees and Jerusalem alone, a solution is unlikely to be attained any time soon.