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The Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

1948: The Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  • As in Ireland, India and Cyprus, British colonial "divide and rule" tactics culminated in November 1947 in the partition of Palestine into two newly independent states — one Palestinian Arab and one Jewish.

  • UN Resolution 181 allotted Jews, who were less than one-third of the population and owned only 8 percent of the land, 56 percent of the territory of Palestine. Palestinians saw the partition plan as a grave injustice, especially since most Jews in Palestine were recent arrivals. Fighting broke out between Jewish forces and local Palestinian militias.

  • In May 1948, the British evacuated Palestine, and Israel declared independence. Several adjacent Arab countries declared war against the new state. During the war, Israeli forces destroyed over 500 Palestinian villages and captured 78 percent of historic Palestine.

  • By the war’s end, 70 percent of all Palestinians had been made refugees. In December 1948, the United Nations passed Resolution 194, stating that, "The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date...compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return." But this resolution has never been implemented.

1967: Israeli Occupation — 37 Years and Counting

  • In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, putting Israel in possession of the remaining 22 percent of historic Palestine.

  • Israel tried to portray itself as a "benign occupier," but Palestinians demanded self-determination and statehood. In order to maintain its military rule, Israel has resorted to grave human rights violations including: deportation, land confiscation, house demolitions, the construction of settlements, arbitrary arrests, denial of due process and assassination of Palestinian leaders.

  • In 1987, Palestinians began a popular uprising, or Intifada, for self-determination in an independent Palestinian state.

1993: The Short-lived Hope of Peace

  • In 1993, the U.S. brokered an agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in Oslo, Norway. The Oslo Accords were intended as a framework to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the terms were so heavily weighted in Israel’s favor that the Agreements enabled Israel to consolidate its control over the West Bank and Gaza under the banner of the "peace process."

  • Under Oslo, Israeli settlements have been expanded into large blocs and a massive road network (directly funded by U.S. taxes) has been built exclusively for Israeli settlers — all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. A maze of roadblocks and permanent military checkpoints is used to police Palestinian movement and to bar Palestinians from reaching their jobs, schools, hospitals and places of worship in Israel proper and Jerusalem. Israel controls all travel between the West Bank and Gaza, and the territories themselves have been truncated into a dozen isolated cantons, separated by Israeli-controlled areas. Large portions of Palestinian territory are still patrolled by Israeli soldiers and occupied by hostile settlers. In fact, the number of settlers doubled between 1993-2000. Palestinians are unable to move freely between their towns and villages or control their borders, economy or natural resources.

September 2000: the Second Palestinian Uprising

  • The failure of the peace process to guarantee basic Palestinian human rights and political independence fueled frustration and despair that ignited a second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000.

  • Israeli forces have responded to Palestinian demands for independence by attacking towns and villages with U.S.-made Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets and using heavy weapons, including tanks, against civilians.

  • Palestinian communities are under siege:

    • large areas are under 24-hour or dawn-to-dusk curfews;

    • people cannot move between villages and towns and goods cannot be transported;

    • schools and universities are closed;

    • tanks and armored personnel carriers surround homes and neighborhoods;

    • in some areas, food and fuel supplies have run dangerously low;

    • vaccination programs and primary health care systems are frozen;

    • sewage and garbage go uncollected, posing a public health threat;

    • Israeli soldiers have denied passage to ambulances, even those carrying critical cases;

    • dozens of Palestinians have died because they cannot reach hospitals;

    • patients in need of kidney dialysis and cancer treatment cannot receive care;

    • and numerous women have been forced to give birth at army checkpoints on the way to the hospital.

The U.S. as an Obstacle to Peace

  • Although the U.S. has claimed to be an "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians, it has provided the weapons, funding and political backing for Israel to maintain the occupation.

    • Weapons: U.S. weapons transfers to Israel actually increased during the current crisis, with the decade’s largest sale of Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters. These have been used to fire antitank missiles into Palestinian homes, government offices, schools and hospitals.

    • Funding: U.S. military aid to Israel has also increased, along with Israeli human rights violations. Israel has long been the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The more than $3 billion in military and economic aid that Israel gets annually is nearly 40 percent of the entire U.S. aid budget. Meanwhile, Israel represents only 0.1 percent of the world’s population.

    • Political Backing: The U.S. has used its veto on the Security Council of the United Nations to block nearly half of all UN resolutions condemning Israel for human rights abuses against Palestinians and violations of international law. Since September 2000, the Bush Administration has twice vetoed the creation of an international observer force to the region, a key demand of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists.

  • The U.S. has clearly forfeited its role as a broker for peace. Future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership should therefore be held under the auspices of the United Nations, not the U.S., and all future agreements must meet standards of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Why Does the U.S. Provide So Much Support for Israel?

  • Since World War Two, U.S. policy in the Middle East has focused on securing access to the region’s oil reserves, which are the richest in the world. Access to oil is defined as a matter of national security since the U.S. economy and military depend on the flow of cheap oil.

  • As the designated "watchdog" of U.S. interests in the Middle East, Israel’s role has been twofold:

    • to thwart the rise of political movements (like the secular Arab nationalism espoused by most Palestinians) that might jeopardize U.S. access to oil. In the past, governments led by nationalists (e.g., Egypt under Nasser) have asserted that control over Middle East oil should be in the hands of the region’s governments. Some have even talked about using oil revenues to benefit ordinary people in the Middle East instead of a small U.S. and Arab elite.

    • to dominate the Middle East militarily so that no government in the region can challenge U.S. control of oil resources.

  • We often hear about Israel helping to "maintain stability" in the Middle East. For people in the region, that means preserving a status quo in which corrupt and undemocratic governments (like Saudi Arabia) reign unchallenged in exchange for granting the U.S. access to oil. The big losers are ordinary people in the Middle East, who remain impoverished and without basic human rights.

Isn’t the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict an Ancient Ethnic/Religious Rivalry?

  • Despite attempts on both sides to mobilize people on the basis of ethnic and religious identity, the conflict is fundamentally political: a dispute over territory, who controls it and who inhabits it.

  • Misconceptions about the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes stem from the fact that Israel’s representatives encourage a conflation between Zionism (Israeli nationalism) and Jewish identity. For example, Israeli leaders routinely claim to act "in the name of the Jewish People."

  • But Zionism is a political ideology, while Judaism is a religion and a cultural practice. Not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews.

Palestinian Children on the Front Lines

Palestinian youth have played a key role in confronting Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza. In the U.S., some mainstream media has uncritically echoed Israeli claims that Palestinians deliberately place their children in front of Israeli troops in order to profit politically from media images of Israeli brutality. This is an unfounded accusation that blames Palestinians for their own deaths and presumes that Palestinian parents willingly sacrifice their children's lives. The notion that these parents protect or love their children any less than other mothers and fathers reflects the dehumanization of Palestinians in the U.S. media. It is always disturbing to see children engaged in political turmoil created by adults. Yet their participation in the conflict should be understood in a historical context. Youth have been on the front lines of demonstrations for national independence and struggles for social justice worldwide. Children killed by South African police at Sharpsville and Soweto and those attacked by U.S. police during civil rights protests were, like Palestinian youth today, considered heroes who were fighting for a better future for themselves and their community. The real question is not why so many young people are protesting, but why the Israeli military is reacting to stone-throwing youth with live ammunition and antitank missiles.

On Media Bias

U.S. headlines and opinion pieces have presented a false symmetry between Israelis and Palestinians in the current confrontations. The reality is that one of the world’s best equipped armies is confronting mostly young, unarmed stone-throwers with massive military force. Yet most media coverage in the U.S. would lead us to think that two equal forces are confronting each other. Some U.S. media have gone so far as to imply that Palestinian civilians are the aggressors and the Israeli army an embattled underdog. We see this inversion of reality in statements like that of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who remarked at the beginning of the uprising that Palestinians have "placed Israel under siege" and that the Israeli army is defending itself (NBC’s "Meet the Press,"10/8/00). Comments like Albright’s simply ignore Israel's 34-year, illegal occupation and the litany of human rights violations that have accompanied the occupation. To ignore the occupation is to erase both the context and the content of Palestinian grievances, making it seem as though Palestinians are protesting for no reason. Armed attacks by Palestinian groups are similarly presented without any context and with no reference to Israeli violence. Usually, Palestinian attacks are portrayed as arbitrary and unprovoked incidents, while Israeli military violence is portrayed as purely retaliatory.

What is Washington Report on Middle East Affairs’s Position on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

  • As in other national conflicts, international law and international human rights standards must be respected by all parties and should serve as a basis for finding a solution.

  • That means that Israel is accountable to the same human rights standards as all governments and is obligated to:

    • Withdraw fully and unconditionally from all of the territories occupied in 1967;

    • Comply with United Nations resolutions aimed at resolving the conflict, including:

      • UN Resolution 242, mandating an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem;

      • UN Resolution 338, calling for negotiations to establish "a just and durable peace in the Middle East";

      • UN Resolution 194, providing the legal foundation for the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

    • And end policies that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

  • The Palestinian leadership and other Palestinian factions are also accountable to international standards of human rights and humanitarian law. That means:

    • An end to the targeting of Israeli civilians. Violence against civilians, whether perpetrated by Israeli or Palestinian forces, is a grave violation of human rights that must be opposed;

    • The promotion of democratic policies and institutions within Palestinian society, including an end to policies that discriminate against women.

Is There Any Hope for Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

  • Yes! Fair-minded and realistic proposals for ending the occupation and resolving the core issues of the conflict have been put forward by progressive Palestinians and Israelis. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs’s partners and friends in the region are those Palestinians and Israelis who are working toward coexistence based on equal rights.

  • Progressive Palestinians and Israelis understand that negotiations are the only alternative to violence. Many of them reject the terms of the Oslo Agreement, which was forced on Palestinians by Israel and the U.S. Instead, peace activists are calling for talks geared toward a just and sustainable settlement that can achieve peace and security for both peoples.