After more than 50 years of war, terrorism, peace negotiation and human suffering, Israel and Palestine remain as far from a peaceful settlement as ever. The entire Middle Eastern region remains a cauldron waiting to reach the boiling point, a potent mixture of religious extremism, (Jewish, Christian and Islamic), mixed with oil and munitions.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major source of Arab and Muslim grievances against the West in general and the US in particular. Over recent decades, Israel has continuously strengthened its influence over American domestic politics and Middle East policy.
Up until 2000, the US was often seen as an independent broker, working to resolve the Mid-East conflict, but in recent years America has abdicated any role in negotiating a peace agreement, while lending tacit support to unilateral Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories. Failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fuel Islamic extremism throughout the Middle East and is a root cause behind Al-Qaeda’s war against Israel and the West.
Middle East Instability
For most people, the Mid-East Crisis has been a fixture on the world political stage for their entire lifetime, from the Arab-Israeli wars to plane hijackings, the Munich Olympic massacre and a seemingly endless series of shuttle diplomacy. Over five decades Israel has grown in size, wealth and power, defeating Arab armies and has become a nuclear power able to dominate the region. Meanwhile, Palestinians remain in refugee camps, resigned to poverty, a people without a country and without hope. The Palestinians have fought back with stones, terrorism and suicide bombs, only to face collective punishment at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
During this time we have witnessed the rise and fall of communism, pan-Arabism and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We’ve seen the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the advent of globalization and the Internet, but Israel and Palestine remain gridlocked. Today, frustration and anger spawned by years of hypocrisy, exploitation and political failure have unleashed a new variant of international terrorism on America and Europe. Although Palestine is a root cause of today’s international terrorism, little, if anything, is being done to find a path to peaceful settlement.
The ancient city of Jerusalem is a religious center of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and the surrounding region of Palestine reflects this religious diversity. In the late 1800’s, a Zionist movement began seeking the creation of a Jewish homeland and state in Palestine, at that time part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was divided into independent states and colonial jurisdictions. Palestine was placed under control of Britain, which issued the Balfour Declaration, promising a Jewish homeland and vowing protection of rights for non-Jewish peoples in Palestine.
While Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan gained independence; Britain retained control of Palestine. The Zionist movement encouraged the migration of Jews to Israel, altering the demographics of Palestine, which had been about 90% Arab. As Britain attempted to control the Jewish migration, Jewish activists supported illegal immigration and the “Irgun” emerged as a guerrilla force, opposed to British rule. Jewish settlers purchased land from wealthy Arab landowners, expelled Arab peasants and established communal colonies (Kibbutzim), protected by armed militias.
The Holocaust of World War II united the Jewish Diaspora and focused international attention on the plight of persecuted Jews. In 1947, reacting to increasing anti-British terrorist attacks by Irgun, Britain sought intervention by the United Nations, and devised a partition plan, establishing independent Arab and Jewish territories, under UN administration. Led by Menachem Begin, the Irgun quickly launched a campaign to consolidate areas under Jewish control, while Arab states threatened invasion. In 1948, the British withdrew and Ben Gurion proclaimed the independent state of Israel, provoking an invasion by Arab armies. The war lasted until 1949 and left Israel in control of 40% more land than agreed under the UN plan and forced the relocation of thousands of Palestinians.
Subsequently, Arab states refused to recognize the state of Israel, or its claims to Palestine. In 1956, after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Israel invaded the Sinai, but later withdrew under pressure from the US and USSR, with US President Eisenhower siding with Egypt. Official US government support for Israel began developingd in the 1960’s, after Egypt aligned itself with Russia.
In 1967, Israel launched the Six-Day War, with a preemptive invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, Palestine, and the Syrian Golan Heights. UN Resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal from the newly occupied territories, but Israel refused, citing the need to maintain a security zone to protect itself from Arab invasion. In 1977, under the Camp David Agreement, Israel finally withdrew from the Sinai, but continues to occupy other territories seized in the 1967 war.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yassar Arafat, continued attacks against Israeli interests and citizens. After the PLO was expelled from Jordan, they resumed operations from bases in Lebanon. In 1982, reacting to continuing attacks from Palestinian guerrillas, Israel forces invaded Lebanon, which had been engulfed in civil war. The PLO was subsequently forced to leave Lebanon.
Palestinians launched the first intifada, a mass insurrection in 1987. This spontaneous outburst brought the Palestinian cause to world attention. Previously, the situation had been seen as a violent, anti-Semitic reaction by regional Arabs states to the existence of a Jewish state. The intifada demonstrated the plight of the Palestinian people, resulting from the Israeli occupation and rule.
In 1989, Arafat’s PLO accepted previous UN resolutions and recognized the state of Israel, a prerequisite to eventually establishing an independent Palestinian state. This action was not universally accepted within the Arab world and hostilities by militant Arab groups continued. Some observers have questioned whether Arafat actually speaks for the Palestinian people, or whether the PLO serves as a proxy for the interests of other Arab countries in exchange for their substantial financial support.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1989, immigration of more than 1.0 million Soviet Jews to Israel accelerated, prompting construction of new settlements in the disputed Israeli occupied territories on the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. This massive immigration was facilitated by the rise of a hard line fundamentalist movement within Israel. The issue of illegal settlements remains at the heart of present day disputes. As Israel solidifies its control of the occupied territories, Arabs view this as permanent annexation, precluding any prospects of a negotiated settlement.
After continued Israeli crackdowns against Palestinian guerrillas, Israel and the PLO agreed to a phased plan for Palestinian autonomy in Jericho, Gaza and eventually the West Bank. New Jewish settlers in the West Bank reacted with anger and Israeli “Kach” extremists attacked Palestinians in Hebron. Subsequently, Israel clamped down on Kach extremists and agreed to the release of Palestinian extremist prisoners.
In 1994, Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza, after Yitzak Rabin and Yassar Arafat agreed to grant autonomy to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. Relations between Israel and neighboring Arab states improved significantly, while internally, conservative Israeli factions increased their influence. Prime Minister Rabin was assassination in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli extremist.
Conservative Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party) was elected Israel’s Prime Minister in 1996 and retreated from the period of relative reconciliation under Rabin’s leadership. Israel adopted a renewed hard-line stance, refusing to withdraw from occupied territories, accelerating construction of settlements in the West Bank and forcefully retaliating for any terrorist attacks.
After Netanyahu dissolved Parliament in 1999, Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister and in May 2000, finally, withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon. In July, US President Clinton convened meetings at Camp David with Barak and Arafat in an attempt to develop a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The result was a relatively positive Israeli proposal to return about 95% of the occupied territories to a Palestinian state over a period of years. Ultimately, Arafat rejected the plan without further negotiations. Subsequently, Israeli leaders and the incoming Bush administration concluded it was impossible to deal with Arafat and decided that he had to be marginalized and removed as the Palestinian leader if there was ever to be a settlement.
The New Intifada
On September 28, 2000, ignoring US pleas, former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon visited the religious site at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, accompanied by about 1000 Israeli Defense Forces troops. This visit provoked violent protests by stone-throwing Palestinians. Israeli forces responded with excessive force and using live ammunition killed 14 Palestinians over the next several days. Mobs of Israeli Jews attacked Arab homes, businesses and mosques near Nazareth. Israeli forces were slow to respond and when they finally arrived, reportedly opened fired on Arab citizens, killing several. The Palestinian uprising, sparked by Sharon, has become known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
Amnesty International reports that over 300 Palestinians were killed, 10,000 wounded and 2000 arrested during 2000. Prime Minister Ehud Barak resigned from office in December, forcing new elections.
Right-winger Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February 2001, vowing to continue a hardline policy of forceful retaliation. Sharon’s election sent a powerful symbolic message to Palestinians. In 1982, Sharon had been in charge of Israeli forces surrounding the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps when the Phalangist militia launched a three-day long massacre of hundreds of defenseless Palestinian women and children. Sharon’s Israeli troops stood by, in effect, sanctioning the massacre. During 2001, Palestinian terrorists launched serial suicide bombings against Israelis, while Israelis continued to level Palestinian homes and expand Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
In April 2001, the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee published a report, prepared under the direction of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who had also orchestrated the Good Friday peace Agreement in Northern Ireland. The Mitchell Plan outlined the grievances of the parties and steps for a new peace process, however with the collapse of all dialogue and Sharon’s attempt to force Arafat from power, the report did little more than gather dust.
In 2002, violence escalated as Israeli forces invaded Palestinian of cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The IDF surrounded and laid siege to Yassar Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, headquarters of the PA government. An estimated 1,600 people died from Israeli attacks and Palestinian suicide bombings, most of them civilians.
In 2003, as violence continued unabated, the US introduced a "road map" to peace that was to lead to a Palestinian state by 2005. Instead of organizing a series of serious diplomatic negotiations, the Bush administration sanctioned Sharon to continue Israel’s military forays into Palestine in the name of "anti-terror" operations. Sharon announced plans to erect a controversial security fence – an Israeli version of a Berlin Wall - criticism from the international community argued that the wall would institutionalize the disputed border in contravention of previous UN resolutions.
Nonetheless, construction of the wall began.
In 2004, Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli civilians continued and major Israeli military operations in the occupied territories killed more than 900 people. In November, besieged Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat died. With Israel’s long-time nemesis out of the way, Prime Minister Sharon proposed a plan to completely withdraw troops from the Gaza strip and dismantle Israeli settlements. Meanwhile, on the Lebanese front, sporadic clashes with Hizbollah continued and Israeli air strikes into Lebanon killed at least 20 people.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally removed ground troops and dismantled its settlements in the Gaza Strip, but continued expanding settlements in the West Bank. In Palestinian elections moderate Mahmoud Abbas was chosen as prime minister. Facing dissension from Israeli hard-liners, opposed to Sharon’s withdrawal program, Prime Minister Sharon quit the Likud party and created a new party, Kadima, triggering elections for early 2006. Soon after Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, fighting resumed and an estimated 300 people, mostly Palestinians, were killed.
After a massive stroke in January 2006, Ariel Sharon fell into a coma and Ehud Olmert became Israel’s prime minister. Also in January, the Palestinians held elections in which Hamas won a surprising and resounding victory. Israel’s strategy of forcing Arafat from power backfired as Hamas, a terrorist organization won a political election that would complicate the prospects for dealing with prime minister Abbas. Israeli reaction was swift and harsh. "Israel will not conduct any negotiation with a Palestinian government, if it includes any members of an armed terror organization that calls for Israel's destruction," said the Israeli Prime Minister’s office. The Israeli government authorized the army to "liquidate" anyone it suspected of being a terrorist. The US government continued a policy of tacit support for Israel and imposed sanctions by withholding foreign aid for Palestine.
Issues & Aspirations
ISRAEL - First and foremost Israel wants to ensure its survival and national security. As an island of Jewish democracy, surrounded by hostile Islamic Arab states this is no small challenge and there are major internal differences about how to maintain security. Many Israeli immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former USSR know and care little about human rights or democracy. These newcomers often settle in the occupied territories and take low-level jobs once held by Palestinians. Politically, they are often hardline conservatives, who approach the Palestinian question with a ‘them or us” mentality. In its most extreme version, some would welcome ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Continuing Palestinian
attacks against Israeli civilians provide the motive and justification for draconian counter-terrorist policies and collective punishment.
Many Israelis doubt that Arabs will ever accept their presence and allow Israeli to live in peace. Israel argues that the Palestinian Authority makes no serious effort to stop the terrorism that threatens Israeli security and that it actually facilitates the activity of terrorist groups.
Beyond security, Israel has other motives, namely land and resource (water) acquisition to support its rapid growth. Despite their agreement to halt the construction of new settlements, construction continues, bulldozing olive and fruit orchards, while expanding Jewish settlements. Allegedly, Israel is prepared to eventually abandon these settlements and relocate residents as part of a long-term peace plan. Palestinians are skeptical of such claims and believe that the Israelis will drive them from their lands by either tanks or bulldozers.
Israel wants full diplomatic recognition by the Arab states and assurances that they will respect Israeli sovereignty and security. Some extreme Jewish fundamentalists seek to gain control over Eratz Israel, the land between two rivers as described in the Bible; this would entail taking the land between the Nile and Euphrates rivers, including portions of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.
PALESTINE - Many Arabs doubt that Israel will ever allow an independent Palestinian state, or withdraw from the occupied territories with the resulting relocation of hardline Jewish settlers. They view the situation as a war of attrition waged by an enemy with far superior firepower and US support. Israel has imposed extreme restrictions on Palestinians, denying citizenship, employment, education, freedom of movement and assembly, or fair judicial process. Israel also maintains a hold on financing for the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians argue that since the Oslo Agreement in 1993, (halting settlement construction) the population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has doubled to over 200,000, with another 170,000 or more in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Finding it impossible to believe that Israel ever plans to withdraw, groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad have no difficulty recruiting supporters.
Israel describes the conflict as “armed conflict short of war,” which justifies their extreme responses. Israel does not automatically investigate deaths of Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and uses lethal force against unarmed demonstrators. Palestinians also argue that Israel has an assassination policy of extra-judicial executions of targeted individuals in violation of international conventions.
Imposition of curfews and travel restrictions has damaged an already weak Palestinian economy, increasing employment. To make matters worse, Israel has suspended payments of taxes and custom fees to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel has also destroyed tens of thousands of olive and fruit trees, imposing a permanent economic hardship.
The Palestinians want an independent state, defined by the borders that existed prior to the 1967 war and IDF withdrawal from this area. This would presumably include a transfer of ownership to the settlements erected in the occupied territories. UN resolutions have called on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 broders, but Israel has refused.
Some Palestinians and their foreign backers, ignoring the facts on the ground, continue to call for the destruction of Israel. Like extreme demands of their radical Israeli counterparts, such demands are a means to rally public support with no prospect of realization.
Excerpt from the Mitchell Report
The following is quoted from the Sharm-el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee Report, dated 23 May 2001:
"During the half-century of its existence, Israel has had the strong support of the United States. In international forums, the U.S. has at times cast the only vote on Israel’s behalf. Yet, even in such a close relationship there are some differences. Prominent among those differences is the U.S. Government’s long-standing opposition to the Government of Israel’s policies and practices regarding settlements."
As the then-US Secretary of State, James A. Baker commented back in 1991:
“Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the pece process, on each of my four trips, I have been met with the announcement of new settlement activity. This does violate United States policy. It’s the first thing that Arabs —Arab governments, the first thing that Palestinians in the territories —whose situation is really quite desperate – the first thing they raise when we talk to them. I don’t think there is any bigger obstacle to peace than settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace.”