Unholy wars in the Holy Land

Katie Silvester

Arena Politics

When Israeli bombs and Palestinian rockets explode on to international TV news channels, it’s hard for outsiders to grasp the origins of the strength of feeling on both sides that has led to so much bloodshed. A look back at the history of the land that became modern-day Israel, and its people, helps put it into context

Israel provoked perhaps the strongest international condemnation in its checkered 66-year history so far when it repeatedly dropped bombs on Gaza in the summer of 2014, hitting schools and hospitals, killing women, children and the elderly. In the bombings, which lasted seven weeks, more then 2,100 Palestinians were killed. By contrast, there were 68 Israeli fatalities during the same period, most of which were soldiers. How could any state so wilfully target civilians? And why did the most militant Palestinians keep goading their much more powerful neighbour with rocket strikes that only prolonged the bombings?

The immediate trigger for the hostilities had been the kidnap and murder of three young Israelis, followed by the revenge killing of a young Palestinian. But, in reality, the conflict was just the last in a long line of clashes between the Israelis and Palestinians in which the stakes seem to grow ever higher. Yet, for all the loss of life, little seems to have changed and a lasting peaceful resolution to the Israel–Palestine conflict seems as far away as ever.

Marwan Darweish, principal lecturer in Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, says: “The key drivers of this conflict, in my view, are the end of the occupation and mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians that will allow them to live as two separate entities. Without that it’s not possible to find a sustainable solution.” But, he adds, Israel’s current focus is simply to contain the situation – there is no real drive to move forward and find a solution. And the Palestinians don’t have the leverage to bring about change without international backing.

To really understand the Israel–Palestine conflict, you have to look further back in history – much further. For the last few thousand years, the area known today as Israel has been of great interest to most of the major civilisations, so power struggles are nothing new. Israel, and its surrounding area, is in a key geographical location at the gateway between Africa, Asia and Europe, which has seen it conquered many times over by empires wanting to take advantage of its strategic position. Since the first civilisations emerged in Asia thousands of years ago, governance of the region has passed back and forth between Egypt, Turkey, Persia and Arabia, with a long period of Roman rule and a brief British presence. Napoleon even had a short stint of leadership, as did Alexander the Great.

The Jewish religion came into being around 2000 BCE in a region known as Canaan, part of which is now modern-day Israel. Since then, there has almost always been a Jewish presence in the area, but Jews have frequently been in conflict with the ruling powers. The Jewish population has been exiled several times, with some individuals always managing to return – Jewish migration back to Israel has usually peaked when persecution against Jews increases in other countries. At several junctures during the last 4,000 years, Jews have tried to form their own state, but – until 1948 – their efforts had been shortlived.

Today’s Palestinians are Arabs, culturally and linguistically, as a result of the gradual Arabisation of the Middle East. Though predominantly Muslims – mainly Sunni – some are Christians and a few are Druze or Samarians. Analysis of the DNA of Muslim Palestinians, undertaken in the USA, reveals that they are descendants of Christians, Jews and other earlier inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Prior to World War I, Palestine was fairly undeveloped, with most of the population living in single-storey mud houses in villages. In cities, including Jerusalem, typhoid, smallpox, diptheria and other epidemics were common. In 1911 Jerusalem had a population of 60,000, including 40,000 Jews, 7,000 Muslims and 9,000 Christians. The Zionist movement – which saw Israel as the land that God had promised to the Jews – had begun in 1891, increasing the steady trickle of Jewish immigrants escaping persecution elsewhere. Although the new arrivals themselves were often impoverished, the Zionist movement brought donations from rich Jews abroad, helping to buy land and establish more Jewish settlements.

The Ottomans had been ruling Palestine since 1840, but Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, making its empire a target for the British army. Britain subsequently broke up the Ottoman Empire, with Palestine becoming a British protectorate. The background to the forming of the modern state of Israel really begins with the start of the British mandate in 1922, when governance of the region was granted to Britain by the League of Nations. Initially, this settlement included Jordan, but Jordan was given independence in 1946.

In 1921 Britain’s Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour gave his name to the Balfour Declaration, which promised a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. However, a year earlier the British government had also promised the Arabs their own state and the Balfour Declaration appeared to contradict this. Meanwhile, rising anti-semitism in Germany led to more Jews arriving in Palestine prompting the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, which saw Arabs protesting against British colonial rule and Jewish immigration. In 1947 Britain declared its intention to pull out of Palestine, with the United Nations General Assembly proposing to divide Palestine into two independent states – one for Jews and one for Arabs.

The Arabs rejected the UN partition plan and a war ensued in 1948, in which the Jews ended up with far more land than they had been allocated by the UN, declaring an independent state of Israel in 1948 – the beginning of the modern country of Israel. During the war, more than 700,000 Arabs were driven out of their homes and hundreds of Arab villages were flattened. Many of these refugees had gone to neighbouring Arab countries, hoping to return to Palestine after the war.

Since the formation of the state of Israel, further wars have seen border changes, usually in Israel’s favour, leading to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza (see box on page 39). The first Intifada (literally ‘the awakening’ in Arabic), beginning in 1987, saw unrest that brought the plight of the Palestinians to international attention. This led to the Oslo Agreement in 1993, which was meant to pave the way for a two state solution. But before the agreement was finalised, the frenzied building of new Jewish homes took place in the occupied territories by Zionists, who were convinced that God had promised the Jews the West Bank as well as Israel proper. The Oslo Agreement was the start of the withdrawal of the Israelis from Gaza and Jericho and saw the formation of the Palestinian National Authority, which would take over a number of municipal functions from Israel.

Coventry University’s Marwan Darweish believes that this period was the closest the two sides have come to finding a lasting peaceful solution since Israel’s independence. “Images of young people throwing stones were a shock to people internationally and even in Israeli society,” says Darweish, who has also worked in Israel and Palestine as director of the Israel–Palestine Centre for Research and Information. “The significance of that was that the Intifada got strong support from the Israeli peace movement and Israeli liberals.

“For any possible change you need sectors from the, let’s say, oppressors’ society to be able to raise their voices and criticise the policies of their own government. So that is what took place and there were lots of meetings and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, leading to the Oslo Agreement. In principle that was a turning point – it brought a lot of hope and inspiration. It seemed then that it was all possible within five years, but more than 20 years later, we’re not much further forward.”

Even after the Palestinian territories gained autonomy, life was not easy in the Gaza strip. In this small, densely populated area (just 32 miles long and seven miles wide, at its widest point), most residents are still dependent on Israel for work, medical care, food, and access to the wider world via Israel’s roads and airports. The Egyptian border with Gaza remains sealed most of the time, so access to Israel is vital for the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza. But Israel frequently closes the border, sometimes denying access to emergency ambulances. Even in times of relative peace, living standards in the Palestinian Territories are far below those of Israel.

Since the Oslo Agreement, there have been hostilities between Israel and Palestine on many occasions, including the second Intifada, which began in 2000, born out of Palestinian frustration with lack of progress following the Oslo process.

Today both sides agree that international intervention is key to finding a lasting solution. A survey of both Palestinians and Israelis by Coventry University found that the majority of respondents from both groups believed that pressure from other countries was likely to be the most influential factor in persuading Israel to change its policies in such a way that a lasting peace could be achieved. Indeed, the rest of the world is taking an increasing interest in Palestine’s plight. MPs in Britain voted in October 2014 to recognise Palestine as an independent state, though the vote has yet to be carried over into policy. Sweden has just become one of the first European countries to recognise Palestine as a state, following many other UN countries.

The imperative for other countries to take a close interest in the ongoing conflict is not just a moral one, there is also an economic angle – taxpayers in other countries frequently have to fund the clean-up after Israel’s bombing campaigns.

“This is the third time that DFID [Britain’s Department for International Development] money has gone to the reconstruction of Gaza,” says Darweish. “For British taxpayers, there is a need for accountability there.”

On the many occasions that Israel and Palestine have sat around the negotiating table together, sticking points have included the return of Palestinian refugees, illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and how to divide up Jerusalem – both sides want as much of it as possible, including the bits with their respective religious sites. Of course, there are also specific problems between the Israeli government and Hamas, the Islamic party that currently governs Gaza – Israel sees Hamas as a terrorist organisation and Hamas refuses to recognise Israel as an independent state.

Darweish believes that negotiators have come very close in the past to finding an acceptable plan for to how to divide Jerusalem and a solution for the many Palestinian refugees who would like to return. But the continued building of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories is proving to be the biggest problem – there are now more than half a million of them. “With the settlements and the settlers, it’s growing, it’s a stronger movement – they are in government, they have the resources. People forget that this is in violation of UN resolutions and international law.”

He stresses that international pressure on Israel is the only way to bring about progress. “Really the bottom line is that the Palestinians don’t have the leverage to do anything. They can try again with civil disobedience, but that’s not enough. Without the international backing to translate that into political actions, the Palestinians are not in a position to be able to achieve real change.”

Northern Ireland’s problems were eventually solved with the support of other countries helping to mediate between the two sides and formulate a plan that could be taken forward. Plenty of other countries have been involved in the past in trying to help Palestine find a solution, particularly Egypt and the USA. Let us hope that the outrage provoked by the Gaza bombings last summer will finally translate into action this time, so that a lasting two-state solution can be found.

About the author:

Katie Silvester is the Executive Editor of Global - the International Briefing


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