In the heart of the Middle East, where ancient tales of conquest and coexistence intertwine, there exists a conflict that has captured the world’s attention like no other – the Israel-Palestine War. This decades-long saga, characterized by its intricate historical roots, unending turmoil, and global ramifications, stands as a testament to the complexities of our shared human history.
The struggle between Arabs and Jews over ownership of the Holy Land dates back more than a century and has given rise to seven major wars. The latest broke out Oct. 7 when the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and which the US and European Union have designated a terrorist organization, attacked southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,300 people in towns, kibbutzim, army bases and a music festival in the desert. More than 3,000 people have died in Israeli reprisals.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has become a symbol of enduring tension in the modern world, captivating both scholars and ordinary people alike. It is a conflict marked by a web of cultural, religious, and political threads that stretch far beyond the boundaries of the tiny piece of land it centers upon.
To truly understand this conflict’s profound significance and the reasons behind its ongoing endurance, one must embark on a journey through time, spanning millennia of human experiences, each layer adding complexity to the narrative. So, let us begin our exploration of the history behind the Israel-Palestine War, a story that has shaken the world and continues to shape the course of global events.
What are the roots of the conflict?
Arabs and Jews living in the Holy Land were ruled by the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, when the UK, one of the war’s victors, took over. During this period, Jewish immigration from Europe to what was then called Mandatory Palestine greatly increased, especially in the 1930s given the Nazi persecution of Jews. Resistance to Jewish immigration and rising nationalism among the Arabs led to a revolt in the late 1930s. To stop Arab-Jewish social violence, a British commission in 1937 recommended partitioning Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The United Nations embraced a different partition plan in 1947. The Arabs rejected both plans, leading to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 and the first Arab-Israeli war. That period produced more than half a million Arab refugees.
How Two Peoples Could Have Split the Holy Land
Who are the Palestinians?
In a 1967 war, Israel captured, among other territories, the Gaza Strip from Egyptian control and the West Bank from Jordanian control. It put the Arab Palestinians who populated those two areas, widely known by this time simply as Palestinians, under military occupation, further fueling nationalism and resentment among them. A large majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. A minority are Christians.
What is Hamas?
The Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, was founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation. It was a spinoff of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religious, social, and political movement. It initially gained popularity among Palestinians by establishing a network of charities that address poverty as well as healthcare and educational needs. It later gained notoriety for a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.
What Does Hamas Want?
The main goal of Hamas, as articulated in a revised charter issued in 2017, is the destruction of the state of Israel. The document describes all of the Holy Land as “an Arab Islamic land” and says Hamas rejects any option but its “complete liberation.” According to the revised charter, the group’s conflict is with “the Zionist project,” not with Jews, per se. The original charter of Hamas said, “The day of judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”
The newer document says “Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws.” An early September poll in the Gaza Strip and West Bank suggested that, if given a choice in legislative elections, 34% of Palestinians would vote for Hamas, versus 36% for Fatah, the main faction of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the former guerrilla group that made peace with Israel in 1993.
What is a Zionist?
The Zionism movement, originating in late 19th century Europe in response to antisemitism, supported the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. It was named for a hill in Jerusalem in the Old Testament. Since the movement has achieved its aim, a Zionist today is someone who supports the development and protection of the state of Israel.
What was the UN Partition Plan?
- By 1947, the Jewish population had ballooned to 33 percent of Palestine, but they owned only 6 percent of the land.
- The United Nations adopted Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.
- The Palestinians rejected the plan because it allotted about 55 percent of Palestine to the Jewish state, including most of the fertile coastal region.
- At the time, the Palestinians owned 94 percent of historic Palestine and comprised 67 percent of its population.
The 1948 Nakba, or the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
- Even before the British Mandate expired on May 14, 1948, Zionist paramilitaries were already embarking on a military operation to destroy Palestinian towns and villages to expand the borders of the Zionist state that was to be born.
- In April 1948, more than 100 Palestinian men, women, and children were killed in the village of Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
- That set the tone for the rest of the operation, and from 1947 to 1949, more than 500 Palestinian villages, towns, and cities were destroyed in what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic.
- An estimated 15,000 Palestinians were killed, including in dozens of massacres.
- The Zionist movement captured 78 percent of historic Palestine. The remaining 22 percent was divided into what are now the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.
- An estimated 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes.
- Today their descendants live as six million refugees in 58 squalid camps throughout Palestine and the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.
- On May 15, 1948, Israel announced its establishment.
- The following day, the first Arab-Israeli war began and the fighting ended in January 1949 after an armistice between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
- In December 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which calls for the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The Years After the Nakba
- At least 150,000 Palestinians remained in the newly created state of Israel and lived under a tightly controlled military occupation for almost 20 years before they were eventually granted Israeli citizenship.
- Egypt took over the Gaza Strip, and in 1950, Jordan began its administrative rule over the West Bank.
- In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed, and a year later, the Fatah political party was established.
The Naksa, or the Six-Day War, and the settlements
- On June 5, 1967, Israel occupied the rest of historic Palestine, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War against a coalition of Arab armies.
- For some Palestinians, this led to a second forced displacement, or Naksa, which means “setback” in Arabic.
- In December 1967, the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was formed. Over the next decade, a series of attacks and plane hijackings by leftist groups drew the world’s attention to the plight of the Palestinians.
- Settlement construction began in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. A two-tier system was created with Jewish settlers afforded all the rights and privileges of being Israeli citizens whereas Palestinians had to live under a military occupation that discriminated against them and barred any form of political or civic expression.
The First Intifada (1987-1993)
- The first Palestinian Intifada erupted in the Gaza Strip in December 1987 after four Palestinians were killed when an Israeli truck collided with two vans carrying Palestinian workers.
- Protests spread rapidly to the West Bank with young Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli army tanks and soldiers.
- It also led to the establishment of the Hamas movement, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that engaged in armed resistance against the Israeli occupation.
- The Israeli army’s heavy-handed response was encapsulated by the “Break their Bones” policy advocated by then-Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It included summary killings, closures of universities, deportations of activists, and destruction of homes.
- The Intifada was primarily carried out by young people and was directed by the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, a coalition of Palestinian political factions committed to ending the Israeli occupation and establishing Palestinian independence.
- In 1988, the Arab League recognized the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
- The Intifada was characterized by popular mobilizations, mass protests, civil disobedience, well-organized strikes, and communal cooperatives.
- According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, 1,070 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during the Intifada, including 237 children. More than 175,000 Palestinians were arrested.
- The Intifada also prompted the international community to search for a solution to the conflict.
The Oslo years and the Palestinian Authority
- The Intifada ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the formation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), an interim government that was granted limited self-rule in pockets of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
- The PLO recognized Israel based on a two-state solution and effectively signed agreements that gave Israel control of 60 percent of the West Bank, and much of the territory’s land and water resources.
- The PA was supposed to make way for the first elected Palestinian government to run an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem, but that has never happened.
- Critics of the PA view it as a corrupt subcontractor to the Israeli occupation that collaborates closely with the Israeli military in clamping down on dissent and political activism against Israel.
- In 1995, Israel built an electronic fence and concrete wall around the Gaza Strip, snapping interactions between the split Palestinian territories.
The Second Intifada (2000)
- The second Intifada began on September 28, 2000, when Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound with thousands of security forces deployed in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.
- Clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces killed five Palestinians and injured 200 over two days.
- The incident sparked a widespread armed uprising. During the Intifada, Israel caused unprecedented damage to the Palestinian economy and infrastructure.
- Israel reoccupied areas governed by the Palestinian Authority and began construction of a separation wall that along with rampant settlement construction, destroyed Palestinian livelihoods and communities.
- Settlements are illegal under international law, but over the years, hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers have moved to colonies built on stolen Palestinian land. The space for Palestinians is shrinking as settler-only roads and infrastructure slice up the occupied West Bank, forcing Palestinian cities and towns into bantustans, the isolated enclaves for Black South Africans that the country’s former apartheid regime created.
- At the time the Oslo Accords were signed, just over 110,000 Jewish settlers lived in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Today, the figure is more than 700,000 living on more than 100,000 hectares (390sq miles) of land expropriated from the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Division and the Gaza Blockade
- PLO leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004, and a year later, the second Intifada ended, Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip were dismantled, and Israeli soldiers and 9,000 settlers left the enclave.
- A year later, Palestinians voted in a general election for the first time.
- Hamas won a majority. However, a Fatah-Hamas civil war broke out, lasting for months, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians.
- Hamas expelled Fatah from the Gaza Strip, and Fatah – the main party of the Palestinian Authority – resumed control of parts of the West Bank.
- In June 2007, Israel imposed a land, air, and naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, accusing Hamas of terrorism
What’s the Gaza Strip?
The Gaza Strip is a small enclave—bounded by Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea — where 2 million Palestinians live in crowded and impoverished conditions, most of them refugees. For about a decade, Gaza was governed by the Palestinian Authority, the body responsible for limited Palestinian self-rule under the Oslo peace accords signed by Israel and the PLO. In 2005, Israel withdrew troops from Gaza and abandoned settlements of Israeli citizens there. In Palestinian legislative elections the next year, Hamas defeated the PLO’s Fatah faction, which dominates the Palestinian Authority. After months of fighting between the two groups, Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Israel maintains control of Gaza’s airspace and maritime territory and, along with Egypt, has long enforced a blockade of the territory.
The Wars in the Gaza Strip
- Israel has launched four protracted military assaults on Gaza: in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed, including many children, and tens of thousands of homes, schools, and office buildings have been destroyed.
- Rebuilding has been next to impossible because the siege prevents construction materials, such as steel and cement, from reaching Gaza.
- The 2008 assault involved the use of internationally banned weaponry, such as phosphorus gas.
- In 2014, over 50 days, Israel killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians and close to 500 children.
- During the assault, called Operation Protective Edge by the Israelis, about 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, 20,000 homes were destroyed and half a million people were displaced.
Why are There so Many Refugees in Gaza?
Many of the Arab refugees from the 1948 war and its aftermath fled to Gaza. Their descendants are counted as refugees today because no permanent solution for them has been found. Palestinians argue that in addition to thousands of the original refugees who are still alive, some 5 million of their descendants — in Gaza, the West Bank, and abroad — are entitled to the “right of return” to Israel. Israeli officials disagree. They worry that with such an influx, combined with the nearly 2 million Arabs who are already citizens of Israel, the country’s 6.7 million Jews could become outnumbered, defeating the purpose of creating a Jewish state.
What’s the Situation in the West Bank?
The West Bank is a landlocked block of territory west of the Jordan River where 3 million Palestinians live. It’s also home to some 460,000 Jewish Israelis living in so-called settlements. Some Israelis argue that because the West Bank — which they refer to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria — was part of the historic homeland of the Jews, Israel should annex it. The Palestinian Authority exercises limited autonomy in the West Bank and Israel has overall control there, as laid out in the Oslo Accords. The agreements were meant to establish interim arrangements while the two sides negotiated a final status agreement, which presumably would have established a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
What Happened to the Peace Talks?
The two sides repeatedly failed to resolve issues standing in the way of a final status agreement, including where to draw borders, how to share Jerusalem, and the status of Palestinian refugees. The last round of talks broke down in 2014.
What’s a Kibbutz?
Several of the towns Hamas fighters struck were Israeli communities called kibbutzim, the Hebrew plural for kibbutz, which means gathering. A phenomenon unique to Israel, a kibbutz is a collective community, typically engaged in farming. The first was established in 1910, and today there are about 250 of them. The early kibbutzim were radical experiments in egalitarianism, with residents pooling all income and sharing it equitably, eating all their meals together, and sometimes raising their children in group houses. Today, many of the kibbutzim have departed from those practices, but they still preserve elements of communal living.
Why Does the US Support Israel?
After the Hamas attacks, the US moved additional warships and aircraft into the region to show support for its ally and promised to ensure Israel had the weapons and munitions it needed as the conflict unfolded. Since World War II, Israel has received more US aid than any other country—some $158 billion in assistance and missile defense funding. For the first two decades after its birth in 1948, Israel wasn’t an especially close ally of America. The US drew Israel close partly as a result of Cold War calculations, as the Soviet Union supported its Arab enemies in the 1960s and 1970s. By the time the USSR collapsed in 1991, the US-Israel relationship had developed new underpinnings. Israel enjoys popular support in the US. American Jews, who became outspoken as antisemitism declined, expect Congress and the White House to keep Israel close. So do evangelical Christians, who believe Israel’s creation foretells the second coming of Christ.
US President Joe Biden has arrived in Israel for a diplomatic scramble to prevent the Gaza war from spiraling into an even larger conflict, a challenge that became more difficult as outrage swept through the Middle East over an explosion that killed hundreds in a Gaza Strip hospital on Tuesday. Descending from the plane amid a large security contingent on Wednesday, Biden embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. “Welcome, Mr President. God bless you for protecting the nation of Israel,” Herzog’s office quoted him as telling Biden.
Hundreds of armed police and troops were stationed around the seafront Tel Aviv hotel where Netanyahu and Biden hold talks, with snipers on the roofs of nearby villas.
US Green Light
Speaking at a news conference alongside Netanyahu, Biden said: “I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion of the hospital in Gaza yesterday, and based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.” “But there’s a lot of people out there not sure, so we’ve got a lot, we’ve got to overcome a lot of things,” Biden added. “The world is looking. Israel has a value set like the United States does, and other democracies, and they are looking to see what we are going to do.”
In a social media post following the meeting, Biden said he asked “tough questions as a friend of Israel” and would “continue to deter any actor wanting to widen this conflict”.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Tel Aviv, said Biden was giving Israel the green light to act as it sees fit. “When the Americans said that their national security team would investigate the cause of the Gaza hospital explosion on Tuesday night, many thought there would be an extensive inquiry,” he said.
Their Republican leanings made support for Israel—originally a Democratic cause due to Jews’ links to the party and Israel’s early leftist orientation—bipartisan. Iran’s Islamic Revolution and attacks by Islamists on US targets, including those on Sept. 11, tended to make Americans unsympathetic to Israel’s enemies.
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