/ 18 May 2021

Israel-Palestine conflict: The past laid the violent foundations

Israeli Forces Intervene In Palestinians In Nablus
Israeli forces intervene in Palestinians protesting Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip with tear gas during a demonstration held as part of the 73rd anniversary of Nakba, on May 17, 2021 in Nablus, West Bank. (Photo by Nedal Eshtayah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it has been going on for centuries, fuelled by ancient religious hatreds. In truth, although religion is involved, the conflict is mostly about two groups of people who claim the same land, going back a century to the early 1900s when Europeans took control of the region. 

The result of establishing borders, and control over people inside of them, has had a devastating effect throughout the world. 

From 1299 to 1922, the Ottoman Empire stretched from the gates of Vienna, across Anatolia and down through Arabia to the Indian Ocean. From west to east its territory consisted of what is now Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and parts of Iran. When the Ottomans fell at the end of World War I, the British and French carved up the Middle East. In 1916 the British diplomat, Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, took a pencil and drew a line across a map of the Middle East, which ran from Haifa on the Mediterranean in what is now Israel to Kirkuk in modern-day Iraq. North of the line was to be under French control and south of it under British rule. The Ottomans regarded the area west of the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Coast as a part of the region of Syria. They called it Filistina. After World War I, under British rule, this area became the British Mandate for Palestine.

At first, the British allowed the immigration of Jewish people fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. But as more Jews arrived, tension between them and the Arabs grew. Both sides committed acts of violence and, by the 1930s, the British began to limit Jewish immigration. In response, Jewish militias formed to fight both the Arabs and to resist British rule.

The Holocaust of World War II came, causing many more Jews to flee Europe for British Palestine. As sectarian violence grew with the influx of Jewish immigrants, the British handed over their problem to the United Nations in 1947. The UN decided to divide British Palestine into two separate states, one for Jews (Israel) and one for Arabs (Palestine). The city of Jerusalem, where Jews, Muslims and Christians all have holy sites, was to become a special international zone. The Jews accepted the plan, but Arabs saw this UN plan as another effort by Europeans to steal more land from them. As a result, many Arab states, who had just won independence themselves, declared war on Israel in 1948. 

Israel won the war in 1949 and extended their territory well beyond what was originally established under the UN plan. They took the western half of Jerusalem, and much of Palestine’s land, expelling huge numbers of Palestinians from their homes, forcing them to become refugees in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and Egypt. The descendants of these refugees, who are refugees themselves, number about seven million people today. Egypt and Jordan took control of Gaza and the West Bank respectively. Neither country intended to give the Palestinians living in their new territories citizenship or recognise their statehood as Palestinians

In 1967 another war broke out between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states, lasting only six days. By the time it ended, Israel had taken control of the whole of Jerusalem and its holy sites, the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan and both Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. This meant that there was no land left for the Palestinians.

In 1978, Egypt and Israel signed the United States brokered Camp David Accords, and Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt as part of the peace treaty. This was a highly controversial move by an Arab state, so much so that Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat was assassinated for his support of the peace treaty. Nevertheless, as time went on, the conflict became less about Arab-Israeli relations and more about the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), formed in the 1960s, fought against Israel, seeking a Palestinian state that includes all of the British Palestine territory. This fighting continued for years and, in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to attack the group.

During this time, Israelis started to move into the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. These settlers were followed by soldiers to guard them, and their growing settlements forced Palestinians off of their historic land making the occupation unbearable for them and the idea of an independent Palestinian state inconceivable. In 1987, Palestinian frustration boiled over into the first intifada (uprising). This began with Palestinian protests and ended with Israel responding with extreme force. A few hundred Israelis, and more than a thousand Palestinians died. As a result, Palestinians in Gaza considered the PLO to be too secular and too accommodating and ultimately formed the Iranian-backed Hamas, an armed group devoted to bringing about the end of the state of Israel. 

In the 1990s, leaders from both sides signed the Oslo Accords, which brought about the Palestinian Authority, allowing Palestinians to govern themselves in demarcated areas. Right-wing Israelis opposed the Oslo Accords, and not long after these were signed, a right-wing Israeli assassinated the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in Tel Aviv for his role in the process.  

A second intifada began in 2000, this time much bloodier than the first. Israeli politics shifted towards the far-right, resulting in the establishment of huge, high walls to control Palestinians’ movement. Israel eventually withdrew from Gaza, allowing Hamas to take power. But Israel enforced an economic blockade that resulted in Palestinian unemployment levels rising to 52% in 2018.

The UN General Assembly condemned Israel in a total of 17 resolutions in 2020, three times more than other countries combined, including North Korea, and has declared that “settlement construction is illegal under international law”. Despite this, and actions similar to those committed by the South African apartheid regime under the Group Areas Act, Amnesty International has found that Israel continues to displace hundreds of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, by demolishing their homes and other coercive methods. Amnesty has also found that Palestinians have been indiscriminately killed when they have posed no imminent threat, and Israeli forces continue to restrict the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli authorities have also arbitrarily detained thousands of Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, often holding hundreds in administrative detention without charge or trial. 

Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, prefer to remain silent because of their newly improved relationships with Israel after signing the Abraham Accords in 2020, a deal brokered between the nations under the US’s Trump administration with the assistance of Jared Kushner. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is willing to strengthen its ties with Israel because they share a common enemy, Iran. 

As a result, Palestinians have ultimately lost faith in the Arab League. But President Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who sees himself as a modern day Sultan Mehmed II figure, has vocally been the Palestinian people’s biggest ally alongside Iran. Iran, being more strategic than Turkey, uses Hamas as its proxy to fight Israel, supplying them with weapons and military training

Despite this, the size and sophistication of Hamas’s rockets pale in comparison to the vast arsenal of the Israeli army, a military superpower, which consists of nuclear weapons, fighter planes, the iron dome and more. This has resulted in extremely disproportionate violence, causing many Palestinians to lose their lives relative to Israelis.With Israel being the US’s biggest ally in the Middle East, President Joe Biden has been reined in to contine the pro-Israel stance, condemning the rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel, yet refuses to acknowledge the forced removals of Palestinians from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and the Al-Aqsa mosque raid. Biden has also decided not to overturn Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. With the US as its closest ally, no Arab state would dare do anything to Israel that would jeopardise their relationship with the West. Israel finds itself in a powerful strategic position, which will be unchecked for the foreseeable future. Jesse