The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is one of the longest and most brutal wars that the modern world has ever witnessed. Casualties number in the tens of thousands and human rights abuses have played a central part of the fighting for some time. Life in the conflict zones, especially the Palestinian Territories, is becoming unbearable and the conflict shows no end in sight.
Not only is it impossible to find unbiased information about the causes and effects of the conflict, it’s also impossible to find a concise history. One can either read through hundreds of pages of a textbook, or get their history from the mainstream media. I prefer neither, and so what I’ve done here is put together a rough and brief timeline of the fighting, beginning with the 19th century Jewish immigration to Palestine, all the way through to the present day (December 2014).
While this post is long, it is by no means a complete account. One would do well to read Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine for a much fuller picture.
- The 19th Century: Ottoman rule and the British takeover.
- The early 40’s: World War II.
- The mid 40’s: The end of the British Mandate.
- The late 40’s: The first Arab-Israeli War.
- The 50’s and 60’s: The Suez Crisis and the Six Day War.
- The 70’s: The creation of Fatah and the Yom Kippur War.
- The 80’s: The Lebanon War and the First Intifada.
- The 90’s: The Oslo Accords.
- The early 2000’s: The Second Intifada and the Disengagement Plan.
- The late 2000’s: Hamas vs. Fatah, the Gaza War, and Binyamin Netanyahu.
- The early 2010’s: The Gaza Flotilla Raid, Palestinian Non-Member Status, and Operation Protective Edge.
- Present day: December 2014.
- The Gaza Strip: A small strip of land to the West of Israel. Borders Israel, the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt. 360km2 in size. One of the most densely populated places on Earth with 1.8 million people. De facto ruled by occupying Israel.
- The West Bank: A large expanse of land to the East of Israel. Borders Israel, the Caspian Sea and Jordan. 5,640km2 in size. Population of over 2 million. Mostly de facto ruled by occupying Israel.
- Jerusalem: A holy city with great significance for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Claimed as a capital city by both Israel and Palestine, although Israel owns the Western half.
- Sinai Peninsula: The Easternmost strip of land that belongs to Egypt. Borders The Gaza Strip and Israel.
- Golan Heights: A region in the Levant that officially belongs to Syria but is de facto ruled by occupying Israel.
- Zionism: The belief that the Jewish people should have a national homeland in the territory defined as the Land of Israel in religious texts. Also known as Jewish nationalism. Can either be cultural or political, secular or religious. One does not need to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and vice versa.
- Arab nationalism: The belief that Arab language and culture is unique, and that the Arab people should be free from oppressive foreign interference. Can either be cultural or political, secular or religious.
- Jewish diaspora: Refers to the exodus of Jews from the historical land of Judea once it became a protectorate of the anti-Semitic Roman Empire. Jews not living in Israel are considered diaspora Jews.
- Yishuv: Refers to Jewish residents of Palestine before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
- Anti-Semitism: Any belief or action that discriminates, stereotypes, or damages Jewish people.
- Arabophobia: Any belief or action that discriminates, stereotypes, or damages Arab people.
- The IDF: The Israeli Defense Force, Israel’s combined military powers.
- Hamas: First a political movement for an independent Palestine and now a political party that currently has de facto rule over the Gaza Strip.
- Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades: The armed paramilitary wing of Hamas.
- Fatah: First a political movement for an independent Palestine and now a political party. Makes up a sizeable portion of the PA.
- The PLO: The Palestinian Liberation Organization, one of the first and most popular organizations for an independent Palestine.
- The PA or PNA: The Palestinian (National) Authority, the official government of the Palestinian territories. Only currently has limited rule over parts of the West Bank.
The 19th century: Ottoman Rule and British takeover.
As anti-Semitism began to stir across Europe in the 19th century (1800-1899), Jews in diaspora felt increasingly under threat. Many were becoming unsettled at not having a homeland in which to protect themselves and in which to establish an international recognition of Jewish rights.
Jump forward to the end of the 19th century, and European Jews had endured over 100 years of persecution by various European powers (especially at the hands of the genocidal Russian Empire). In 1896, Austro-Hungarian activist Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat, a pamphlet which urgently called on Jews to migrate to the land known as Palestine, which was under the control of the Ottoman Empire and was home mainly to Arabs and Muslims. His pamphlet was incredibly influential and awoke huge swathes of Jews in diaspora to their plight, although the Ottomans restricted immigration into Palestine.
(The Ottoman Empire at its territorial peak)
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the 19th century, the British swooped in to claim the spoils of war, establishing control over Palestine under the British Mandate. Understanding the legacy of European anti-Semitism, the British offered the Jews a homeland in Uganda (which was also under British colonial rule) but they declined, so the British offered them Palestine instead. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 formally established Zionism into British foreign policy.
- Note: Jewish immigration into Palestine was ongoing throughout this period, but following the Declaration, huge numbers of immigrant Jews began to pour into the British Mandate of Palestine in what is now called the the First Aliyah and Second Aliyah, buying up tracts of land upon which to create Jewish communities.
The native Arab population had resisted Ottoman control of Palestine, and now resisted both British colonial rule and the influx of Jews because they thought the land was rightfully theirs. They thought this because of the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, a series of letters between the Sharif of Mecca and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, who promised that if native Arabs living in Palestine rose up against the Ottomans (The Arab Revolt), the British would recognize Arab independence in the region. This directly contradicted the Balfour declaration.
In short, the British promised Palestine both to the natives and to the settlers, but ultimately opted to support the Zionist goal, leaving many Arabs who fought with the British feeling deeply betrayed.
The native Arabs reacted violently to the huge influx of diaspora Jews, culminating in events such as the Nebi Musa riots. Tensions weren’t helped by the inept rule of colonial Britain which completely failed to understand the people they ruled over, both Arab and Jewish alike. By 1922, Jewish immigrants (the Yishuv) accounted for 11% of Palestine’s 750,000+ population.
Most of the Middle East was ruled by colonial Western powers at this point, and they constantly reshuffled ownership of territories, shipped resources back home and drew up borders without care for the populations that they cut in half. Palestine was no exception. By the early 1930’s, the native Arabs had finally had enough of this, and the Great Uprising raged for three years (1936-39) with the primary goal of getting the Brits out and the secondary goal of voicing their discontent with the huge influx of Jewish immigrants.
At the start of the revolt, the Brits undertook the Peel Commission to find out how to solve the problem. The Commission recommended cutting Palestine in half; one half for the Yishuv and the other half for the native Palestinian Arabs. After the Brits had suppressed the fighting and the revolt was over, the Peel Commission was abandoned and Parliament passed the White Paper of 1939 instead, which basically announced that the Brits were abandoning rule of Palestine and recommending that it be ruled both by the Yishuv and Palestinian Arabs. It also placed a limit on Jewish immigration, the second contradiction of the Balfour Declaration.
The early 1940’s: World War II.
Although the Brits were tired of trouble in Palestine and were ready to leave, they realized that they might be leaving behind a situation that could come back to haunt them. So instead of leaving without a goodbye, they tried to host conferences between Jews and Arabs with the intention of reaching a power share agreement. But it was too late: both sides hated the White Paper and militant groups sprung up all over Palestine to get the Brits out as fast as possible, to land-grab as much of Palestine as they could, and drive the other side out (Yishuv or Arab). As World War II looked imminent, the Brits implemented the White Paper’s temporary reduction of Jewish immigration as a last-ditch attempt to solve the fighting, and turned their attention to Germany.
Despite feeling betrayed by the Brits, the Yishuv in Palestine sided with the Allied Powers during World War II, with the head of the World Zionist Organization David Ben-Gurion famously stating: “We will fight the war as if there were no White Paper, and we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war”. Palestinian Arabs had no one unifying response to the war, and while some fought with the British, many thought an Axis victory was imminent and may do away with British rule in Palestine once and for all. However, neither Jews nor Arabs could stay neutral in WWII after Italy bombed Tel Aviv in 1940.
As the Holocaust raged on, an enormous exodus of European Jews began, leading the British government to further limit immigration into Palestine. Jews caught illegally entering Palestine were rounded up by the British and detained in detention camps in places like Cyprus and Mauritius. Unforgivably, some fleeing German Jews were even sent back to Nazi Germany, leaving the Jewish population to feel utterly betrayed by the Brits.
The Allies ultimately won the war, but Britain’s reputation had been trashed due to its detention and refoulement of fleeing Jews, and its crackdown of the Zionist movement in Palestine. In response, the United States pressured Britain to open Palestine’s doors to Jewish immigrants, and the British Labour Party attempted to rescind the White Paper, although its immigration clause remained in effect until the British finally packed their bags and left Palestine in 1948. After the war, the Zionist cause gained international popularity.
- Note: One of the main reasons that Britain finally left Palestine was that the United States was withholding a massive post-war loan that would save Britain from bankruptcy. The U.S. would only give Britain the money if Britain allowed 100,000 Holocaust survivors to emigrate to Palestine, something it was dragging its heels on.
Realizing that Palestine was more trouble than it was worth, the Brits formally made plans to terminate their rule and asked the United Nations General Assembly to come up with a plan that both immigrant Jews and native Arabs would be happy with.
At the time when British colonial rule over Palestine ended, the Jewish and Arab factions were brutalizing each other while an influx of Holocaust-surviving Jews were seeking refuge.
The mid 1940’s: The end of the British Mandate.
The UN General Assembly stepped in as requested, coming up with the Partition Plan which would divide Palestine into two states; one Arab, one Jewish, with the city of Jerusalem being placed under UN control as corpus separatum, since it had such massive religious significance both for the Yishuv and for Muslim Arabs. The UN’s plan was somewhat similar to the recommendation of the British Peel Commission twelve years earlier.
(The UN Partition Plan hoped to solve the conflict by cutting Palestine in half)
Both sides were dissatisfied with the Partition Plan. Native Arabs objected to giving the Yishuv over half of the land, and the Yishuv objected to handing over sacred Jerusalem to the UN, which by this point had a high Jewish population. The Yishuv reluctantly accepted the plan as the bare minimum, while the native Arabs rejected it outright. Under the plan, Jewish immigrants, who made up 32% of the population, would get 56% of Palestine.
The Partition Plan was never implemented by the UN, as the 1948 Palestine Civil War broke out shortly after it was recommended. The British had recently pulled out of Palestine, leaving a power vacuum and no authority to quell the violence. Although the British forces were always terrible at controlling the fighting, they did have enough power to prevent all-out civil war. Jewish paramilitary organizations had the upper hand whilst many Palestinian fighters were hindered by the terrain.
From the early outset of the Civil War, surrounding Arab nations (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon) were sympathetic to the Palestinian nationalist cause and were not in favour of the UN’s Partition Plan. After witnessing at least 16 confirmed incidents of genocide against Palestinian civilians at the hands of Jewish militants, including the horrendous Deir Yassin massacre, the Arab League made no disguise of its intent to invade Israel to liberate the Palestinians and put an end to talk of partition, once and for all.
The late 1940’s: The first Arab-Israeli War.
In 1948, a day before the official expiration of British rule (although their military forces were long gone), David Ben-Gurion (who was mentioned earlier) officially declared independence and established the State of Israel in the lands promised under the UN Partition Plan but with the addition of Jerusalem, with immediate recognition coming from the United States and the Soviet Union (Ben-Gurion would later become Israel’s first Prime Minister). The Arab League refused to recognize Israel’s existence and invaded, resulting in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. The Arab League’s intention was to start the statehood process for what was left of Palestine, doing so through the All-Palestine Government, in order to put Arabs on a level playing field with Israelis.
- Note: Jewish immigrants are now no longer referred to as the Yishuv. They’re referred to as Israeli Jews.
Despite having larger numbers, more weaponry and a coalition of allied forces, the Arab League committed a series of strategic blunders, failed to properly co-ordinate their armies, and squandered rare opportunities to strike. Not only did the new State of Israel maintain all the land promised to them under the UN Partition Plan plus Jerusalem, but by the end of the war they owned 78% of the land of Palestine, although they lost the Gaza Strip to Egypt and the West Bank area to Jordan.
- Note: The United States had been looking for a strategic ally to combat Soviet intervention in the Middle East, and after witnessing Israel’s overwhelming victory, they were impressed.
The Arab-Israeli War created an enormous refugee crisis on both sides. Around 750,000 Palestinians fled Israel in what’s now known as the 1948 Palestinian exodus, and around 856,000 Jews were forced to flee Arab League nations due to aggressive anti-Semitism, in what’s now known as the Jewish Exodus from Arab and Muslim Countries. 600,000 of the Arab-Jewish refugees reached Israel by 1972.
(Israel’s territory expanded by around 19% after the first Arab-Israeli war)
The war was brought to an end with the 1949 Armistice Agreements, whereby Israel negotiated borders with its Arab neighbours, although hostilities never formally ended as both Israel and the Arab League violated various parts of the agreements. For the most part though, the war was over, with a decisive Israeli victory and a Palestinian population feeling even more hopeless than before the war.
The 1950’s and early 1960’s: The Suez Crisis and the Six Day War.
The events listed in this section deviate slightly from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but are nonetheless important to understand how the conflict evolved after the 1940’s. Read or ignore at your own volition.
Things were somewhat quiet until 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (who had fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war) nationalized the Suez Canal, an artificial waterway and vital transport short-cut. The West had controlled the waterway and used it extensively to cut days off their shipping journeys to Asia (the only other route was to go all the way around or ‘under’ Africa). When Nasser tried to bring it back under Egyptian control and get better terms from the foreign powers that used it, Israel, Britain, and France (the Tripartite) attacked Egypt to restore free use of the Canal and remove Nasser from power, culminating in the Suez Crisis.
The Tripartite quickly achieved their military objectives but the United Nations, the USSR, and the U.S. demanded that their forces retreat. The failure of the Tripartite to keep control of the Canal is seen as a turning point for Britain’s reputation as a world power, although the three aggressor powers did secure trade navigation through the Canal once the crisis was over.
The Crisis resulted in thousands of Egyptian civilians and soldiers dead, and created a refugee crisis within the Egyptian Jewish community. Outraged at the invasion and smug at his victory, Nasser used the Crisis to crack down on civil liberties, perform mass arrests and initiate a widespread persecution against Jews in Egypt, who he branded as “Zionist enemies of the state”. Jewish bankers had their assets seized for no reason, while Jewish doctors, teachers and engineers were fired from their jobs. At this time, Israeli-Egyptian relations reach their all-time low.
- Note: Around this time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is formed, a political movement which begins militant attacks on Israel in response to Israel’s poor treatment of Palestinians.
Utilizing his new-found political power, Nasser allowed the UN’s Emergency Forces to station themselves along the Sinai Peninsula to make sure all parties abided by the 1949 Armistice Agreements, and to monitor the situation in the Gaza Strip, which was becoming a hotbed of Palestinian resistance against Israel. Things again remained relatively quiet until 1967, when Nasser received faked reports from the USSR that Israel was preparing for an attack on Syria.
Egypt had a mutual defence pact with Syria (which would later become a short-lived political union, the United Arab Republic), so Nasser ordered the UNEF’s forces to leave so he could replace their posts with his own troops, at Sharm el-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula, to deter Israel from attacking Syria. Sharm el-Sheikh sits on the edge of the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s only Southern sea route, and Israel didn’t take kindly to Nasser amassing a military presence there.
Israel warned that any Egyptian blocking of the Straits of Tiran would be considered an act of war. Nonetheless, Nasser declared that Israel could not use the Straights, while Jordan amassed a military presence in the West Bank with Iraqi support. Fearing a second Arab coalition attack was coming, Israel launched an enormous pre-emptive strike against Egypt’s air forces, codename Operation Focus, officially starting what would become known as the Six Day War.
- Note: It is at this time that the Israeli settler movement begins. Israeli civilians start building communities on land that Israel seized through war, something that continues to be incredibly controversial in the eyes of the international community. Settlers begin building in the West Bank, and on the Sinai Peninsula until it is given back to Egypt (see below).
(Maps showing Israel’s Six Day conquest of the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, the last three of which it still has de facto rule over today)
Operation Focus was devastating for the Egyptian military and gave Israel the immediate upper hand. Israel wasted no time conquering the Sinai Peninsula, and later, conquering most of the West Bank from Jordan, which was reluctant to enter the fighting. Humiliated and fearing the Arab coalition was about to collapse, Nasser lied to Syria and told them he’d defeated Israel on his end. Syria was now ready to enter the fighting, but strategic and terrain-related blunders prevented them from making any gains, and served only to turn Israel’s wrath against the Golan Heights, which it also conquered.
- Note: By the time a ceasefire was reached, Israel had tripled in size and brought around 1 million Arabs under its rule. However, a third refugee crisis was caused: Approximately 300,000 Palestinian Arabs fled the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, mobs drove Jews out of Arab countries and an anti-Semitic purge occurred in Communist countries.
- Note: Throughout this period, regular terrorist attacks occur in Israel and the Palestinian territories, perpetrated by Israeli Defense Forces (the IDF) and various Palestinian organizations.
The late 1960’s and the 1970’s: The creation of Fatah and the Yom Kippur War.
Israel’s victory again caught the admiration of Western powers like the UK and U.S., who were looking for an anti-communist ally in the region. But the UK had less political muscle and backed off from publicly praising Israel as so not to offend oil-exporting Arab countries. For Palestinian Arabs however, the situation looked dire: Israel had just humiliated Nasser beyond repair, and he went from one of the most prominent pro-Palestinian figures to an inept anti-Semite with no political sway anywhere. The Arab states had now failed twice to liberate the Palestinian people, who were looking for a new leader.
Enter Yasser Arafat, an Egyptian-born militant who had been expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause as far back as the Suez Crisis. Arafat befriended various Palestinian refugees and together they formed the Fatah movement (which would later be semi-incorporated into the multi-party PLO). Before the Six Day War, most Palestinian activists believed that a united Arab coalition was the only way to achieve statehood and their civil rights. Fatah was unique in that it was the first movement to try without help of external forces, and became one of the most dominant Palestinian liberation movements once Nasser was shamed.
After an Israeli school bus ran over a mine in 1968, the IDF engaged Fatah in the Battle of Karameh, and while Israel did capture many prisoners and destroy most of the Fatah headquarters, Fatah’s popularity with Palestinians received an enormous boost. Under Arafat, Fatah’s political philosophy was best described as ‘liberation through armed struggle’.
While the PLO was bringing together various militant groups, consolidating power and retaliating to Israeli aggression, the surrounding Arab nations were getting frustrated that Israel still held Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights, and were concerned that the Arab-Israeli conflict had never formally been declared over. In Egypt, Nasser had died and was replaced with Anwar Sadat, who demanded that Israel revert to pre-1967 borders (before the Six Day War) and remove its military from the Palestinian territories, the Golan Heights, and Sinai.
Israel refused, despite the pleadings of the U.S. and the USSR, who were both anxious to stop the fighting in case the region’s natural resources were threatened. Unlike the last time Arab nations attacked Israel, there were deep divisions between Israel’s neighbours this time, some of whom wanted to strike Israel (like Prime Minister of Syria Hafez al-Assad and Egypt’s Sadat) and some who did not (like King Hussein of Jordan). The PLO was also experiencing problems with King Hussein, who wanted to incorporate the West Bank into Jordan, while in Egypt Sadat has promised Yasser Arafat that he could have it. To throw another problem into the mix, the Egyptian economy was in the toilet, and Sadat desperately needed Soviet military backing to invade Israel with any chance of success, something the Soviets weren’t giving.
Despite a deeply divided Arab world and a well-defended Israel, Egypt and Syria began goading Israel into striking by performing joint military exercises near its borders. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not to perform a pre-emptive strike this time around, to which she complied, but six hours after she was assured that war was not a certainty by her advisers, Egypt attacked the Sinai, and Syria followed suit in the Golan Heights, in what is now called the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Although King Hussein of Jordan tried his best to keep out of the fighting, he reluctantly sent troops to bolster Syria’s offensive.
- Note: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is remembered not only for being the “Iron Lady” of the Middle East, but also for her highly controversial statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most notably “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children”.
At the end of the war, Israel had lost a small part of the Sinai to Egypt, but gained more of the Golan Heights. Psychologically, the Arab states felt that the war was a success because although their conquest had failed, it seemed to finally put them on a level playing field with Israel, internationally speaking. Israel considered it a defeat because although they defended their territory effectively, its people were deeply upset at the surprise attack, weakening their resolve. The Palestinians viewed the war favourably because it finally disrupted Israel’s apparent dominance in the immediate Middle East (the PLO had provided some troops to Egypt).
The UN brokered a ceasefire, Syria and Israel signed a disengagement treaty and crucially, five years later, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the 1978 Camp David Accords. These were crucial for two reasons: They formed the basis of the first long-lasting and established peace between Israel and an Arab neighbour, and directly laid out the future of the Palestinian territories.
Egypt and Israel agreed that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank should eventually become autonomous regions ruled over by Palestinians. Once a self-governing authority is elected in both territories, Israel would have five years to completely remove its military presence “in order to provide full autonomy to the inhabitants”. Israel also agreed to return control of the Sinai to Egypt. Jordan’s King Hussein was not consulted about the fate of the West Bank.
The Egypt-Israel peace deal marks the end of the unified Arab world’s response to Israel. Furious at the political alliance, the PLO denounced Egypt and abandoned any hope of retaking Palestine through joint co-operation with Arab states.
- Note: Up until now, Western praise of Israel was muted, for nations like the U.S. and the UK were worried that allying with Israel would result in anti-Israel oil-exporting Arab countries shutting off the pump. Now that Israel had made peace with Egypt and ruled out further Syrian tensions, the West was free to publicly support Israel, which it had eye-balled for years as a potential bulwark against Soviet-induced Communism.
The 1980’s: The Lebanon War and the First Intifada.
Having failed to take over the West Bank, the PLO resided in Jordan for years, until they were forcibly relocated to Lebanon after the Jordanian government got sick of their criminal activities. They established an unofficial state in Southern Lebanon, engaging in periodical border clashes with Israel in what’s now called the Palestinian insurgency in Southern Lebanon. Southern Lebanon was soon invaded by Israel after Menachem Begin blamed the PLO for an attempted assassination on Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to the UK (Ironically it was the PLO’s sworn enemy, the Abu Nidal Organization, that was responsible for the assassination attempt). This led to the 1982 Lebanon War, and resulted in the expulsion of the Fatah section of the PLO from Lebanon, which relocated to Tunisia.
- Note: It is also around this time that Syria refuses to support the PLO or any affiliates like Fatah.
- Note: As part of the peace deal, Lebanon agreed to create a buffer security zone along its border with Israel to stop the various other non-PLO Palestinian militias from entering and attacking Israel.
Throughout the early 80’s the PLO and the IDF routinely targeted each other through terrorist means. However it is not until December 1987 that the situation came to a head with the First Intifada (Intifada means “uprising” or “rebellion”). After an IDF truck deliberately killed four Palestinians in the Jabalia refugee camp, Palestinians in the area began performing widespread and routine acts of civil disobedience.
In the early days of the Intifada, civil disobedience included boycotting, striking, rock-throwing, refusing IDF orders, graffitiing, and barricading roads. The truck killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the Intifada spread like wildfire until the entire Gaza Strip and West Bank were rebelling.
- Note: One of the key elements of early Intifada civil disobedience was refusal to pay taxes to Israel. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously declared “We will teach [Palestinian tax avoiders] there is a price for refusing the laws of Israel”. He ordered that Palestinian homes and businesses must be ransacked and vandalized if their owners were behind on taxes.
In the late days of the Intifada, Palestinians reacted to IDF terrorism by adopting more brutal means, including fire-bombing, shootings, suicide bombings and hijackings, prompting an even harsher IDF reaction.
The PLO was not expecting the grassroots uprising, and could do little while it was in Tunisian exile. Fearing that his organization would be forgotten, Yasser Arafat made a bold move – he declared an independent State of Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders (the Palestinian Declaration of Independence) with Jerusalem as the capital, and recognized Israel’s ‘right to exist’ (the first Palestinian organization to do so). The U.S., which saw itself as a broker between Israelis and Palestinians, agreed with these conditions and allowed diplomatic relations to begin with PLO officials.
- Note: As the Intifada’s violence continued and the IDF cracked down on protesters, intra-Palestinian violence occurred, whereby Palestinian militants attacked other Palestinians if they suspected them as being Israeli spies. Intra-Palestinian violence becomes an integral part of the most extreme militant groups from here on, but is denounced by most mainstream Palestinian activist groups.
- Note: It is at this time that Hamas is founded by long-term activist and militant Ahmed Yassin, carrying out its first kidnapping in 1989 (Hamas will become relevant later).
At the end of the First Intifada, with 1,000 Palestinian civilians killed by the IDF, Israel’s international reputation began to crumble and sympathy for the Zionist cause was waning.
The 1990’s: The Oslo Accords.
Both the PLO under Arafat and Israel under Rabin knew the violence was severely disrupting the lives of civilians on both sides, and decided to meet in secret in Oslo, Norway, to discuss the governance of the remainder of historic Palestine: The Gaza Strip and the West Bank. These negotiations resulted in the 1993 Oslo I Accords, a series of agreements that kicked off the modern Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
(The Accords signing ceremony at the White House. Left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, PLO leader Yasser Arafat)
The agreements were as follows:
- The West Bank is to be split into three zones: One fully controlled by the newly created PA, one jointly controlled by the PA and Israel, and one completely controlled by Israel.
- Therefore a Palestinian Authority (PA) should be created, first as an interim government to transition power from Israel to the Palestinians, and then later, as the full governing body, with free and fair elections.
- Israel must remove its forces from parts of Palestine within five years, but in the meantime, may temporarily step up its military presence for Israel’s national security.
- Both the PLO and Israel must mutually respect the other’s right to exist and to be secure, and the PLO must renounce the use of terror.
- Questions of borders, the right of Palestinian refugees to return, the governance of Jerusalem, the question of Israeli settlements, and relations with Arab neighbours would all be negotiated in the five year interim period.
- Israel must treat the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a single entity i.e. as Palestine, and Palestinians must be assured safe passage between the two when passing through Israel.
- Yasser Arafat must be allowed to return to Palestine.
Hamas strongly objected to the Accords, and stepped up attacks against Israeli settlements when the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre occurred, setting the stage for Hamas’ long battle against the Israeli government. While both Israelis and Palestinians were suspicious about the Accords, they were generally seen as a historic step towards peace and were the subject of Nobel Peace Prizes. The 1995 Oslo II Accords were signed two years later, which refined the original agreements and gave Palestinians self-rule in small parts of the West Bank.
- Note: It is at this time that Israel builds the Gaza Strip wall as allowed under the Accords.
In November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Israeli extremist who opposed the Oslo Accords. Rabin was succeeded briefly by Shimon Peres, who was succeeded by Binyamin Netanyahu (who will become relevant later) who was then succeeded by Ehud Barak.
- Note: Israeli settlement building in the West Bank is continuous throughout this period. Peres tried to slow down the process in order to maintain relative everyday peace with the Palestinians, but Netanyahu attempted to accelerate and expand settlement building (although he was blocked).
The early 2000’s: The Second Intifada and the Disengagement Plan.
The Oslo Accords had failed to materialize a Palestinian state and Israel had not withdrawn any forces out of security concerns. This stalled the peace process until the 2000 Camp David Summit, an attempt by Bill Clinton to broker a new deal between Arafat and Barak and to discuss the issues of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, settlements and borders. The agreements utterly failed, and resulted only in a declaration by both sides that they’d ‘never been closer’ to solving the conflict.
- Note: It is around this time that Yasser Arafat decides to postpone the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state under UN approval. This is seen by some as a excruciatingly wasted opportunity, as the political climate has never been the same since.
In September 2000, then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon embarked on a trip to the Jerusalem Temple Mount, the home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism). His stated intention was to assert the right of Israelis to visit the site, and, not wanting to be seen as handing it over to the Palestinians, the Barak government approved the visit. Sharon had assurances from the PA Defense Chief that no violence would be started on their end, but Yasser Arafat pleaded that Sharon cancel the visit out of fear that Palestinians would see it as a provocation.
The visit went ahead, and although Sharon did not go into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalemite Palestinians did indeed see it as a deliberate provocation, and some responded by rioting and clashing with security forces. These riots escalated across Jerusalem and the Palestinian outrage intensified after Israeli police switched from using rubber-coated bullets to live ammunition. This marks the beginning of the Second Intifada.
- Note: Tensions with Sharon were already high, as Palestinians had just observed their annual memorial day for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in occupied Lebanon, a massacre that then-Defense Minister Sharon was found to have been ‘personally responsible’ for ignoring.
Similar to the First Intifada, spontaneous uprisings, acts of civil disobedience and riots begin springing up all across the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with Hamas playing a central role. These acts escalate into a full conflict over the coming months. When Israel elects Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in 2001, he refused to meet Yasser Arafat and opts for a purely military solution to the Intifada, i.e. suppressing the violence with tanks, helicopters and missile strikes. Many Palestinian militants responded with suicide attacks in restaurants, train stations and buses.
- Note: The 2001 Taba Summit hoped to end the Intifada, but negotiations broke down after Ariel Sharon was elected as Israeli Prime Minister and decided not to pursue further talks.
In 2003, while the fighting rages on, an Israeli intelligence report claims that Yasser Arafat and Fatah has donated thousands of dollars to the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, who use suicide bombing as their main form of resistance, allegedly proving that Arafat had not truly renounced the use of violence as he had stated in the late 80’s. This led the U.S. to call for democracy in the Palestinian territories and for an election that would be independent of Arafat’s rule. Arafat reluctantly appoints Mahmoud Abbas as Prime Minister of the PA.
Desperate to resurrect a united Arab solution to the Intifada and the conflict in general, the Arab League came up with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which basically stated that all Arab nations would normalize relations with Israel and formally end the Arab-Israeli conflict, in return for Israel’s total removal from the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights, and a fair resettlement of Palestinian refugees.
Sadly, the initiative was published a day before the Passover massacre, where Hamas killed over 30 civilians in a hotel suicide bombing. This was the final straw for Ariel Sharon, who launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank between March and May 2002, which resulted in over 200 Palestinians dead and thousands arrested as terror suspects. Yasser Arafat is also placed under siege in his Ramallah compound during the Operation.
- Note: Operation Defensive Shield further damaged Israel’s international reputation. The EU considered placing economic sanctions on it, while human rights groups such as Amnesty International accused Israel of war crimes.
- Note: It is at this time that Israel begins building the West Bank wall to prevent terrorist attacks. It has been successful in reducing the number of suicide attacks but Palestinian activists argue it’s another way for Israel to expand its borders into the West Bank (the wall is mainly inside the 1949 Armistice Lines).
In November 2004, Yasser Arafat dies in Paris due to a stroke, leading to widespread mourning in the Palestinian territories and sporadic outbursts of violence against the IDF. Mahmoud Abbas, who had repeatedly come into conflict with Arafat over power share agreements, becomes the President of the PA shortly after.
To try and end the Second Intifada, Ariel Sharon made a bold move to “unilaterally disengage” from the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the West Bank in 2005. The idea was to strengthen Israel’s national security by removing all its military forces from Gaza, as well as forcibly evicting thousands of Israelis living in the Strip (and later compensating them). Under the disengagement plan, Israel would still control Gaza’s coastline, borders and airspace, and have de facto rule over it, but would not continue to station troops in the territory. The IDF would also demolish the Israeli-owned homes in Gaza as it retreated its forces.
(An infographic detailing the specifics of the disengagement plan)
Sharon faced internal opposition and accusations by Palestinian activists that the plan was an attempt to bypass international agreements and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, while still looking like an attempt at making peace. Noam Chomsky also criticized the plan as a way to stall the long-term peace process.
Following the disengagement, Palestinian militants from Fatah, Hamas and other groups stepped up rocket attacks against surrounding Israeli towns, resulting in Israeli retaliations such as Operation Rainbow, Operation Days of Penitence, and Operation Summer Rains, all resulting in hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead and international condemnation each time.
The late 2000’s: Hamas vs. Fatah, the Gaza War and Binyamin Netanyahu.
After the death of Arafat in 2004, Palestinians were mournful but were also disillusioned over increasing allegations that he and the PA had squandered and hoarded millions of dollars in international aid. Indeed, Arafat was a billionaire at the time of his death, and the PA was viewed as an inept self-serving organization, instead of a representative of the Palestinian people.
Enter Hamas, that had long been fighting for control of Palestine with a more hardcore and extremist stance than the PA, the PLO or Fatah. Hamas was seen as far more efficient and practical than other organizations, and realising this, they embarked on a mission to present themselves as a political option, not just a militant one.
In 2006 the Palestinian Legislative Council (The PLC, Palestine’s version of Parliament or Congress) had its first elections, which were widely praised by the U.S. and many EU countries. The elections resulted in a win for Hamas under Ismail Haniyeh, who became the majority. The West, which had previously hailed them as free and fair elections, now threatened to cut off all funds to the PA for voting the wrong way in a free election, and announced that it would only keep funding the PA if Hamas unconditionally renounced the use of violence recognized Israel’s right to exist. Hamas refused, and the money was cut off.
Simultaneously, Israel refused to negotiate with Hamas since Hamas had never removed their declaration that Israel must be ‘destroyed’ from their charter and had a handful of high-ranking officials calling for the ‘destruction’ of Israel within the party.
- Note: It is shortly after Hamas emerges victorious from the elections that the Gaza-Israel conflict begins between the IDF and Hamas.
- Note: It is also around this time that Israel begins developing the Iron Dome system, a comprehensive missile defense system that currently shoots down about 90% of rockets coming from the Gaza Strip. It was made possible by generous ‘foreign aid’ from the U.S. which totals around $3 billion a year.
- Note: Ehud Olmert becomes the Israeli Prime Minister in 2006 too.
(The make-up of the PLC after 2006 – Hamas is in dark green and Fatah is in yellow)
Ismail Haniyeh forms a government with Fatah and the minor parties (at the request of Abbas), called the Palestinian March 2007 National Unity Government.
The Annapolis Conference is held shortly after, where both Israel and Palestine agree (with the help of the U.S.) to engage in “good-faith bilateral negotiations”. The Conference has largely been lost to the annals of history due to the legislative win for Hamas: Fatah had always maintained good relations with the Israeli Government, but Hamas has not. Released papers show that Britain’s MI6 made plans to degrade democratically-elected Hamas and restore Fatah’s power in the PLC at this time.
- Note: Around this time, Hamas offered its first peace deal to the world: A 10 year truce if Israel agreed to completely abandon the West Bank along pre-1967 borders, stop the Gaza blockade and recognize the rights of Palestinian people. Israel refused.
Tensions between Hamas and Fatah soon escalated. Hamas decided to create its own security services, a move denounced by Mahmoud Abbas as unconstitutional, and Fatah forces refused to take orders from Hamas legislators. This culminated in a disagreement about how power would be shared in the National Unity Government, and led to all-out war in the Fatah-Hamas conflict of 2007, after both sides amassed forces in the Gaza Strip.
This factional conflict erupted in the Battle of Gaza, whereby Hamas ended Fatah’s control, splitting Palestine into two sections: Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, and Fatah-governed West Bank. As a result, the National Unity Government dissolved at the request of Mahmoud Abbas.
The Mecca Agreements were held with the help of Saudi Arabia, where both sides agreed to lay down arms and reconcile, starting off the on-going rocky Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process that is still happening today. Agreements aside, Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the National Unity Government and formed his own government in the West Bank.
As a result of Hamas’ Gaza Strip takeover, Israel decided to initiate a blockade on the Gaza Strip, limiting and sometimes outright stopping the importing of food, construction materials and other goods into the Gaza Strip as a way to punish Palestinians for bringing Hamas into power. The import limits include measures like banning tin cans in case they are made into weapons, making it hard for Palestinians to preserve imported food.
- Note: At the Egypt-Gaza border, Egypt begins building a separation wall to completely seal off Gaza from the outside world, out of concerns that the Fatah border guards were now gone and refugees might come flowing into Egypt.
In 2008, at a time of on-going rocket attacks from Gaza to Israel and vice versa, a six-month ceasefire and truce was reached, with Hamas promising to stop other groups from firing rockets, and Israel promising to hold Hamas personally responsible for any rockets that entered Israel. The truce created the first ‘lull’ in hostilities for decades, but expired when the two sides couldn’t reach an extension agreement and when the IDF violated the agreement repeatedly.
In December 2008, Israel initiates Operation Cast Lead (also known as the Gaza War), beginning with air-strikes, naval operations and later, a ground offensive with the stated goal of rooting out militants and stopping rocket attacks into Israel. Although Israel distributed leaflets warning civilians about upcoming bombing campaigns, they also used white phosphorous cluster bombs on civilian populations, much to the disgust of the international community (minus the U.S.). Ironically, the Operation leads Hamas and other groups to step up rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets.
- Note: Both Hamas and Israel are accused of using human shields during the Gaza War.
In January 2009, a ceasefire was reached between the two sides. At the end of the war, 10 IDF soldiers and 3 Israeli civilians were dead, and 1,417 Palestinian civilians were dead and a further 50,800 Palestinians became refugees.
In March 2009, Binyamin Netanyahu was re-elected as Israeli PM after voters got fed up of the corruption of Olmert’s government. He delivered his Bar-Ilan University speech in which he made clear his requirements for a two-state solution (after previously rejecting all talk of peace). His conditions were as follows:
- Palestine must completely abolish its military.
- Palestine must allow Israel to continue building settlements in the West Bank.
- Palestine must allow Israel to continue to exercise control over its airspace.
- Palestinian refugees must renounce their demands for the right of return.
- If these conditions are met, Israel will recognize the State of Palestine and make peace.
(Binyamin Netanyahu giving his Bar-Ilan speech)
The conditions were lambasted by Palestinian groups and Arab League politicians as entirely unrealistic. Under pressure from the U.S. Obama administration, Netanyahu also placed a 10 month freeze on all West Bank settlement construction in order to kick-start the process, under pressure from newly-elected President Obama. Palestinian groups flat-out rejected the conditions of the Bar-Ilan speech and refused to negotiate with Israel despite Obama’s pleadings.
2010 to Present day: The Gaza Flotilla Raid, Palestinian Non-Member Status, and Operation Protective Edge.
In 2010, the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish İHH organized the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, an attempt to smuggle construction materials and humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Under normal circumstances, all aid into Gaza is inspected by Israeli officials before they decide whether to allow it in or not. While the flotilla ships were sailing in international waters, the Israeli navy launched a raid of the civilian ships, shooting dead 9 Turkish activists and injuring a further 10. The flotilla ships were towed to Israel, with some activists being deported while others were detained.
The incident sparked international outrage, creating many diplomatic crises with Latin American nations, grassroots protests across the globe, and causing Turkish-Israeli relations to reach their nadir. In response to their now-trashed reputation, Israel and Egypt decided to slightly ease its blockage on the Gaza Strip, promising to make the process in which goods enter Gaza easier.
In 2012, the PA officially sought member status before the UN with the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. The UN has yet to vote on whether Palestine should be granted full member status, but granted non-member observer status in General Assembly resolution 67/19. The U.S., Canada, Czech Republic, Panama and Israel were the only major member states to vote against the measure. The resolution puts Palestine on the same platform as the Vatican City and major international organizations.
(Vote count of UN Resolution 67/19. Green nations are yes votes, red ones are no votes, yellow ones are abstentions and blue ones are no-shows)
That same year, Netanyahu launched Operation Pillar of Defense, a massive missile offensive against the Gaza Strip with the stated aim of halting Hamas’ rockets from firing at Israeli civilian targets. The offensive lasted 8 days until Egypt brokered a ceasefire. Both sides claimed victory and claimed that the other side specifically targeted civilians instead of military installations. The UN held an emergency meeting about the situation but failed to reach an agreement. Canada, the U.S. and the UK all expressed support for Israel’s offensive, and at the end of the Operation over 200 Palestinian civilians were dead.
In June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank as they were hitch-hiking home. Israel immediately accused Hamas of the crime, although it was later revealed that a Hamas splinter group had performed the kidnappings. Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnappings and promised to work with Israel to find and return the boys. At the end of June, the boy’s bodies were found, Israel demolished the two suspects’ homes and national mourning began.
A day after the burial of the three Israeli teenagers, a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped in East Jerusalem, apparently in retaliation. Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s burnt body was recovered the same day as his abduction, prompting widespread mourning across Palestine. Israeli media was accused of planting rumours that Khdeir was gay and was killed by his family as an honor killing. Media outlets which suggested this version of events were deeply condemned by both Israelis and Palestinians as an attempt to absolve the presumed-Israeli kidnappers of any responsibility. Secret footage later showed the IDF brutalizing Khdeir’s Palestinian-American cousin, and another of Khdeir’s cousins is in prison for protesting without Israeli approval.
Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks in response to the kidnapping, prompting Israel to undertake Operation Protective Edge on the 8th of July to root out Hamas militants, first with air-strikes and later with a full ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. The Operation took the usual form, but was especially brutal this time around, resulting in over 2,100 dead Palestinian civilians, a sizeable number of which were children. An estimated 83,000 Palestinians sought refuge in UN facilities during the fighting, although many UN sanctioned schools and hospitals were destroyed by IDF attacks. A homelessness and starvation crisis was caused due to damage of internal structures, over $7 billion in damages were sustained, and an estimated 373,000 Gazan children were in need of psychosocial counselling by the time the Operation was over. President Obama urged restraint but recognized Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks.
On the 23rd of July, the UN Human Rights Council voted to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. is the only nation to vote “No”, while Germany, France and the UK abstain from voting.
Present Day, January 2015.
Latest negotiations have largely broken down between Palestine and Israel, despite the efforts of Egypt and the U.S. to secure a ‘peace’ deal. West Bank settlements (which are illegal under international law) continue to be built, and the Gaza blockade is ongoing, as are sporadic acts of terrorism by Palestinian militants and institutional acts of terrorism by the IDF.
Meanwhile, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu is pushing through a bill which would make Arab-Israelis second-class citizens (which some consider an act of segregation, or Hafrada), and is seeking an early election due to opposition from within his own government. His government is also planning to withhold tax revenue collected from Palestinians due to the PA’s moves to join the Hague, or the International Criminal Court (ICC).
On the 17th of March 2015, Netanyahu won a fourth term, and vowed never to allow a Palestinian state to exist.
A Third Intifada is also ongoing, but is different from the previous two as it has not grown so exponentially and is mostly occurring within Jerusalem.