We explain the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is one of those issues that we see every day in the newspapers, but because of its complexity, we are unable to fully understand it,
Why do they live in permanent conflict? What prevents us from reaching a solution? What reasons does each one argue?
To understand all this, we have to go back to the past.
It all starts after the First World War
The Palestinian region was originally ruled by the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which had the unfortunate idea of allying itself with Germany in the First World War. As a consequence of its defeat during that war, the Empire had to cede the territory to the victors, so that France and England divided the former Ottoman territory and the land on both sides of the Jordan River passed into British hands.
After World War II (between 1939 and 1945), one of the big issues to be resolved was England’s mandate over Palestinian territory.
Arab nationalists thought it logical that Palestine should be declared independent, which the British had promised, but the British Foreign Secretary had also agreed in 1917 to give land in the Palestinian region to the Jews, with whom the Arabs had long-standing religious rivalries.
The World Zionist Organization brought together Jews who fought for the re-establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people through the formation of a modern state in what they considered to be the Jewish Land, until then Palestine. They demanded that England fulfill its promise. The movement called Zionism had begun to form in the late 1800s, influencing many Jews around the world to return to Palestine and claim their ancient right to that land.
Why did the Jews consider Palestine their land?
The Hebrews arrived in Palestine in the second millennium BC. In 930 BC, the Jewish state split into two kingdoms: Judah and Israel. The former was conquered by the Assyrians and the latter by the Babylonians. In later years, the territory was occupied by Persians, Greeks and Romans, until in the year 70 of the Christian era, the latter expelled the Jews from Palestine, beginning their dispersion throughout the world. This is called the Diaspora.
The dream of returning to these lands has been present since those times in Israelite history. The main argument they would have to do so is religious and historical. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo explains the strong religious argument of the Israelites: «The belief in a land promised by God has been a not insignificant part of the essential faith of Israel for almost 4,000 years, although it has not always been lived in the same way. The patriarch Abraham, as early as the 18th century B.C., saw the land as part of God’s promise to him, which would be fulfilled through his son Isaac,» he says.
Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, in addition to the armed conflicts, a mass Jewish immigration began to the lands of Palestine where, in any case, there had never ceased to be a presence of this people. Some arrived fleeing the European anti-Semitism of the time and others as part of the Zionist project.
In 1925, for example, there were already some 100,000 Jews living among 765,000 Palestinians. Immigration continued and by 1940, there were already 400,000 Jews living among 1 million Palestinians.
The Second World War (which included the Holocaust and the decline of Great Britain as an imperial power), eventually precipitated Jewish displacement, at which point clashes and massacres began to affect the two peoples competing for the same territory.
For many experts, much of the blame for what is happening today in the region lies with the Western powers that divided the territory after the First War.
The partition of Palestine and the 1948 war
The situation was already untenable and on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly supported the plan for the partition of Palestine, to be carried out in conjunction with the withdrawal of Great Britain, which was no longer able to contain the situation.
The Palestinian territory was thus separated into a Jewish and an Arab state. Something that in practice was not fulfilled, since only Israel was born, because the Palestinians rejected the organization’s plan. This is when the Arab-Israeli conflict began to be discussed.
Some experts assure that the decision was influenced by feelings of world compassion, due to the persecution and annihilation that the Nazis had practiced against the Jews during the Second World War.
On May 14, 1948, the British withdrawal took place and the creation of the State of Israel was proclaimed. However, it was immediately invaded by the armies of five neighboring countries (Transjordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq), with the aim of destroying it, leading to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which Israel won.
In fact, at the end of the conflict, the Israeli army had conquered 78% of the land (more than what the UN had given them) and the remaining 22% was divided between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The army expelled more than 700,000 Palestinians from the land that would become Israel, preventing them from returning at the end of the conflict.
By the end of that year, Jews were the majority in the territory.
After the war, Jewish immigration continued and Israel soon became a state with high levels of education and institutional development. The Palestinians, for their part, created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, with the aim of returning the borders to those of the British Mandate.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, the Palestinians carried out several attacks on the borders with the help of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. These attacks provoked a response from the Israeli army and the entire border area (especially around Gaza and the West Bank) became a raw and violent scene.
The Six-Day War
In 1967, Israel again faced an Arab coalition formed by the United Arab Republic (Jordan, Iraq and Syria, supported by Egypt), but Israel’s military superiority was evident and the Arabs were defeated. By the end of the conflict, Israel had conquered the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. It meant the flight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who took refuge in Lebanon (400,000) and Jordan (250,000). It must be said that the UN condemned the Israeli occupation of these territories, a position that is maintained to this day.
It was in these areas that guerrilla groups were then formed to regain the lost territories. They were also organized around the PLO, which began a terrorist campaign against Israel, using Jordan as its base of operations and, as its armed wing, the Al-Fatah group.
This war also meant the intervention of the superpowers of the time, which were in the midst of the Cold War. Israel received a lot of help from the United States and the Arab countries were supported by the Soviet Union.
The Yom Kippur coup
After the Six Day War, the Arab countries increased their aversion towards the Jewish State and six years later attacked it in full force during Yom Kippur (October 6, 1973), one of the most important dates for the Jewish religion and one on which most of them were concentrated. Egypt and Syria launched a surprise military offensive. Initially the Arabs won victories on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Peninsula, but the Israelis made successful counterattacks.
The most important consequence of this conflict was that it showed that the violence between the two peoples could not continue. It also led to Egypt and Israel signing a peace agreement that surprised the whole world, and also generated anger among the more radical Arabs.
With the Egyptian threat removed, Israel continued to focus on consolidating itself as a Jewish state. It had to cede the Sinai, with an evacuation of settlers that for them was dramatic and painful. However, it had won the Arab neutralization.
The Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, the so-called «Palestinian territories», went through several stages, but ended in hostility and discrimination. The state continued to colonize Palestinian land.
Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, the Israeli Army conducted numerous incursions into the Strip, set up checkpoints and restricted the movement of Palestinians. Twenty-one Jewish settlements were built in the area, where more than 8,000 people lived. In 2005, however, they were evacuated as a result of the Disengagement Plan. Following this evacuation, the Palestinian Authority (PNA) took control of Gaza and its government has been contested by two Arab political poles.
From 2008 to the present, there have been a series of wars in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Since 1994, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (the Palestinian territories), which were already separated geographically, were also separated politically, due to the conflict of their two political-military organizations: Fatah and Hamas, following the victory of Hamas in the 2005 municipal elections.
The West Bank thus continued to be governed by the Palestinian National Authority (which since 2013 started calling itself the State of Palestine) and was led by Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the more moderate Fatah (today Abbas is considered the first President of Palestine). The Gaza Strip, however, has been controlled since 2007 by the Islamist radicals of Hamas.
This group is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and even some Middle Eastern countries. And although Hamas came to power democratically, Fatah does not support the current escalation of violence unleashed by the group.
Hamas fights the Israeli state using terrorist methods, such as suicide bombings, and Israel holds the group responsible for all attacks in the Gaza Strip. This group also refuses to recognize the agreements previously reached between Palestinians and Israelis, suspending peace negotiations between the two peoples.
The conflict unleashed in 2014
Clashes had not ceased since the conflict broke out – more than fifty years ago – but in 2014 they broke out again, and more brutally.
Israel blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The intense search for these young men ended with the arrest of hundreds of members of this group in the West Bank.
To retaliate, Hamas began firing rockets at Israel, prompting Israel to respond not only with rockets, but also with a ground and naval offensive, in an operation called «Protective Edge».
That escalation of tension was the fourth largest since 2005, in which more than 2,200 people, mostly Palestinians, were killed. The previous ones – in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012 – also left hundreds of fatalities.
The blockade – the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip
Under the pretext of depriving local radicals of materials for weapons production, Tel Aviv (Israel’s second largest city and the country’s economic center) has for the past decade imposed a blockade that tightly controls the borders and airspace of the Gaza Strip.
This situation has greatly worsened living conditions in the territory, as the inhabitants are deprived of employment, education, medical care and other basic necessities.
The construction of a huge wall in the West Bank began in 2002. Its length exceeds 700 kilometers and marks not only the territories, but also the destiny of its inhabitants. Many Arabs involved in the commercial activity of Jerusalem, for example, have been forced to find their own way across this obstacle. In 2004, the Hague court declared this wall illegal, which has now been completed by Israel.
Density in the Strip
Another major problem in the Gaza Strip is the population density. In its main city, there are 5,000 people per square kilometer, one of the highest percentages in the world. This explains the large number of casualties among Palestinian civilians in the midst of the current exchange of attacks between the Strip and Israel, due to the alleged difficulty of hitting Palestinian military targets without causing civilian casualties.
However, some experts criticize Israel for targeting civilians. For example, a July 2014 bombing hit a UN school in northern Gaza and left at least 15 dead and more than 200 wounded, many of them children. A UN spokesman claimed that the Israeli Army knew the exact location of the building.
Despite the fact that the United States and Israel are military allies, in 2016 U.S. President Barack Obama made a decision that aroused the anger of the Israelis, when he was almost at the end of his term in office.
And he had done it before as well by signing the Iran Deal, which Israel considered a historic mistake and a threat, as Iran is one of its great enemies.
You may be interested in: Historic nuclear agreement between the US and Iran: What is at stake?
This time, the action that aroused Israeli resentment was not to veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy, one of the points of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The decision, according to former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams, «did nothing but damage bilateral relations», while, according to the BBC, it would have been a matter of personal legacy, through which he would have expressed his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But with the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House, came a much stronger support for Israel, one of the campaign promises of this new president.
This took shape in 2017, with a decision that has led to one of the biggest escalations of tension in the conflict since 2014, officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It is, according to BBC, a historic decision with which Trump «has put an end to decades of cautious diplomacy by Washington in the Middle East and has made the US the only mediator to recognize such status».
Thus, this country becomes the first to recognize the capital as Israeli, since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, a decision that countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Paraguay have wanted to follow. You can read all the details of the U.S. decision in this previous article in El Definido.
You may be interested in: We explain what the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem means.
The «bloodbath»: the US embassy in Jerusalem.
On May 14, 2018, the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, triggering one of the worst clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the last four years, which also coincides with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.
Demonstrations had already begun in the Gaza Strip every week since March 30, the day of the Great March of Return, the largest Palestinian protest against Israel in four years, calling for the return of what the Palestinians consider their occupied territories. In a single day, Israeli soldiers killed more than half a hundred Palestinian protesters, in addition to leaving more than 2,700 injured, thus transforming it into the day when the most Palestinians have been killed since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Reactions and actions that day were quite contrasting. For Trump, the change «will serve to advance peace,» which was supported by Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the day a «glorious» one. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, on the other hand, «it was a day in which a «horrible massacre» was committed.
And it does not seem that the tension is going to diminish, on the contrary.
It is difficult to reach conclusions on such a complex issue as this, but what is certain is that, although both peoples have had responsibility in the matter, so has the West. So everyone will also have to do their part if we want to finally reach the much sought-after and elusive peace.
How do you see the way out of this conflict? What other information can you give us to understand it?
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