A Brief Modern History of the Palestine / Israel Conflict

by Yahav Zohar & the Green Olive Team
Ottoman Period
Israel and Palestine are two names for the same place, claimed by both the Zionist and Palestinian national movements. Despite often heard claims, this is not an ancient problem. For hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, the ethnic and religious groups here lived together in relative peace. In the 19th Century, not only was there no Jewish Arab conflict, the two terms were not  seen as mutually exclusive, and members of Mideastern Jewish communities might well identify themselves as Arab-Jews, Just like Arab-Muslims or Arab-Christians.

The modern Israeli Palestinian conflict is a national conflict, and like nationalism itself was imported here from Europe. Zionism, the national movement of the Jews, arose in late 19th century Europe,  largely as a reaction to rising political antisemitism. Zionists held that Jews were not just a religious or ethnic group but a nation that should have its own nation-state in Palestine. The movement was officially founded in 1897 but had little success purchasing land or settling immigrants in Palestine as long as the Ottomans were in power.

British Mandate
In 1917 the British conquered Palestine and issued the Balfour Declaration, which begins: “His Majesty's government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. The new British mandate created Palestine as a separate political unit and allowed the Zionists to buy large areas of land from feudal absentee land lords and evict tenant farmers .

With British support, the Zionists set about creating “facts on the ground” – acquiring and settling as much land as possible along strategic lines, aiming for water resources, ports and fertile land. They set about building exclusively Jewish villages and neighborhoods, where only Jews were employed and, where possible, only Jewish produced goods were consumed.

The perceived threat of Zionism led to the founding of what would become the Palestinian national movement – an attempt to unite the many religious, ethnic and social groups of the country. The Palestinians went to the British demanding limits set on Jewish immigration and land purchases, as well as legal protection for tenant farmers.

Following the outbreak of Palestinian violence in the summer of 1929, the British set some limits on land purchase and immigration. The Zionists saw this as betrayal – political antisemitism was on the rise in Europe, and Palestine was one of the few places Jews could still go. The British found themselves caught between the two national movements.

The problem was further exacerbated in 1933 the Nazis came to power in Germany, and large numbers of German Jews immigrated to Palestine, doubling the Jewish population in just a few years. The great Arab Revolt in Palestine broke out in 1936, targeting primarily the British rule.. Within the next three years some 400 Jews, 200 British, and 
over 5000 Palestinians were killed, as the British, with Zionist help, brought down the revolt with huge force. This included also the exile of most prominent Palestinian leaders, leaving Palestinians with little political leadership.

In the aftermath of the 2nd World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, Zionism was strengthened and the movement brought Jewish survivors to Palestine in large numbers, further stiffening Arab opposition to immigration. Thousands of Jewish soldiers were demobilized by the British and added a trained professional core to the Zionist militias such as the Hagana, Palmach and the Irgun Zevai Leumi.

In 1947 the British formally announced that they were leaving and the UN adopted  resolution 181: the country would be divided in two noncontiguous entities, Jewish and Arab, while Jerusalem and Bethlehem would become an international zone.  The exiled Palestinian leadership rejected partition in principle, while the Zionists, also unsatisfied with the proposal, chose to formally accept it.

The 1948 War
As the British started their pullout, fighting broke out. In the first part of the war, the Zionists, although fewer, had the clear advantage, being better armed and much better organized.  On May 15th 1948 the last British soldiers left and the surrounding Arab countries sent in forces, nominally in order to help the Palestinians.

But at armistice talks held after the war in Rhodes, Palestinians were not invited. Here the Green Line was drawn, making most of what had been British Palestine (78%) the state of Israel, while the parts conquered by the Jordanian and Egyptian armies stayed under those countries' control. The city of Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan.

The 1948 war is known in Hebrew as The War of Independence and in Arabic as The Catastrophe (Nakba). Some 750,000 people, more than half the Palestinians,  became refugees and were settled in camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and surrounding Arab countries. Some of those were actively chased out, most fled in fear. None were allowed to return at the end of the war.  Their land and homes were appropriated by Israel under the Absentee Property Law. The few Palestinians who remained within Israeli borders were placed under military government, and eventually granted citizenship in 1966. By then much of their remaining lands had been confiscated.

The Occupation
In 1967 Israel conquered the remaining parts of what had been the British Palestine Mandate – West Bank and Gaza Strip (In the same war Israel also conquered from Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, which was later returned in a peace agreement, and from Syria the Golan Heights, which were depopulated during the war and later annexed to Israel). Though there were in the West Bank some expulsions similar to 1948, most Palestinians in the newly occupied territories remained in their homes. Israel was now faced with a political problem: the West Bank was of strategic and historic importance, but annexation would mean granting citizenship to so many Palestinians and risk the Jewish majority.

Israel decided neither to annex nor to leave the territories. Except for a small area in and around Jerusalem which was annexed, the territories were placed, “temporarily” under military government. This non-decision created tensions within Israeli society – the far left demanding that the territories be abandoned and the far right that they be annexed. The political mainstream were looking for some sort of intermediary solution, as they still do today.

Those favoring annexation soon started settling in the territories. The Government at first resisted, than allowed and eventually joined and encouraged settlement. The huge growth of state-supported settlement in the 1980s was one of the causes of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, of 1987. The intifada put pressure on the Israeli government and was one of the factors that led Israeli politicians to negotiate with Palestinians.

The Oslo Years
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 under American and European auspices, created a new “temporary” situation. The “core issues” –  permanent borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, water resources, airspace and Jerusalem – were left aside for a later date. In the meanwhile, the Israeli army pulled out of less than 20% of the West Bank, mostly the larger Palestinian cities and towns, and took positions around and between them. The Palestinian Police was to maintain order within the cities, ensuring there was no more intifada.

The Israeli government then built an extensive system of bypass roads around and between the islands of Palestinian autonomy, connecting the Israeli settlements to each other and to Israel. At the same time, the municipal boundaries of the settlements were extended to allow them quick growth. Palestinians would  administer the non-Jewish population, while Israel maintained control of land, water, borders and airspace.

This situation was supposed to be temporary, and in the Camp David Summit of the year 2000 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is said to have made his famous “generous offer”: the Palestinian Authority would control most of the West Bank and Israel would annex the “settlement blocks”. Barak never publicly presented a map , but the blocks indicated continued Israeli control of  movement between North and South West Bank, of access to the Western Mountain Aquifer and of the Jordan Border. In other words, the offer was of a Palestinian “state” where Israel would control the airspace, water-resources, internal movement and borders.

Second Intifada and Beyond
Shortly after the failure of the summit and another round of negotiation in Taba, there broke out the second intifada.  What started as a popular uprising was met with live bullets and soon turned into a campaign of guerrilla warfare and suicide terror attacks. In reaction, Israel launched a major attack, reconquering the cities of the West Bank, and began construction of the separation barrier. With the barrier (fence/wall) Israel is 

unilaterally creating a truncated and utterly dependent Palestinian entity, where Israel controls borders and airspace (travel/import/export) water resources (industrial/agricultural development) and the access to the commercial, religious and physical center in Jerusalem.

The military attack, along with the economic stranglehold, brought an end to the Second Intifada. PA leader Yasser Arafat died under Israeli siege in his Ramallah office, and Mahmoud Abbas was appointed in his place. Abbas adopted a policy of complete compliance with Israeli demands on the ground – an end to violence and PA action against those trying to continue resistance. This approach was popular with Israel, the US and Europe, less so with the Palestinian public.

In the 2006 elections Hammas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, won most of the seats in the Palestinian parliament.  Though international observers declared the elections free and fair, the new Hammas government was boycotted by Israel and the Western countries, aid payments were stopped and  the PA could no longer pay its employees, plunging the territories into economic crisis.

Armed conflict broke out between Fatah and Hammas forces, with Fatah receiving American and British, training, weapons and encouragement. The fighting eventually resulted in a split- Fatah administering the West Bank and Hammas the Gaza Strip.

Israel declared a siege on the Strip until Hammas resigned from power or complied with Israeli demands. Hammas fired home made missiles at Israel and Israel retaliated with assassinations of Hammas leaders,  bombing attacks and eventually a massive bombing and military incursion in December 2008. Despite a prisoner exchange deal in 2011, Hammas and Israel have no official dealings with each other, and Israel still maintains a  siege of Gaza.

Israel, the US and the EU will accept only Abbas and his PA as representing Palestinians. This entity, the Palestinian Authority, is completely dependent on Israeli permits and on American and European financial aid for its survival. Settlement building, land confiscation and house demolitions continue in the West Bank. Today, some still advocate a two-state solution with borders along the Green Line, while others consider that such a division is no longer possible, claiming that the political issues will have to be resolved within one political entity. A third option, a Federation of two states is now also gaining traction.

 - This narrative is a summary of the briefing conducted by the guides of Green Olive Tours before many of our tours, and accompanied by a review of a series of maps and critical commentary. However the text is still a work in progress and your comments and suggestions are appreciated. The text will continue to be refined as needed. 


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