The Palestinian-Israeli conflict
Across the Muslim world it is a common refrain that “Palestine is the mother of all problems.” (Atran & Ginges: 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/opinion/25atran .html) That these claims could be made about such a small piece of land, particularly one which has so little oil is extraordinary, serving only to highlight the importance of finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To date, the numerous attempts at ‘solving’ the conflict have all ended in failure. The prospects for a peaceful solution in the foreseeable future look bleak, with a wide range of factors contributing towards this, most notably the role of extremists, the failure of the peace process, actions of the Israeli Government, splits among the Palestinians and the actions of outside parties who benefit from the continuation of the conflict, as well as more fundamental underlying disagreements, particularly the refugee problem and the sovereignty of East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Israeli conflict is primarily a dispute over the control of land. It has been described by Amos Oz, an Israeli journalist and author, as a “tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim.” (Oz: 2002: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_ east/jan-june02/oz_1-23.html) In 1947 the UN passed a ‘partition plan’, attempting to find a solution to both of these claims, however this was rejected by the Arabs of Palestine and civil war broke out between them and the Jews of Palestine. (McDowall: 24: 1995) After Israel declared its independence on 14th May 1948, many of the surrounding Arab countries sent forces to attack the new state of Israel. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel gained the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. (Smith: 2004: 279) Having returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1979-1982, in 1993 Israel and Palestine signed the Oslo Accords, which agreed Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, as well as for Palestinian self-government within those areas. (Smith: 2004: 438) Despite strong hopes for a final status agreement at the Camp David Summit in July 2000, this was not reached. After the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out later that year and the subsequent deterioration in Palestinian-Israeli relations, agreement presently looks a long way off.
The ‘two-state solution’ is the consensus solution to the conflict, with polling indicating that it has the support of the majority of both Palestinians and Israelis. (Pallister: 2009: http:// www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/22/israel-palestine-poll) Neither sees this as their ideal solution; however a majority of both recognise it is the only realistic way for peace to occur.
Extremists on both sides present a constant obstacle towards solving the conflict. Rather than accepting that compromises are necessary, they are dismissive of the other side’s right to exist. In Israel, there are organisations, including members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s current cabinet, that still believe that the Jewish State should include most, if not all, of ‘Greater Israel’, which among other areas, contains the West Bank. (Zakaria: 2010: http://www.cnn. com/2010/OPINION/03/18/zakaria.israel.mistake) Among Palestinians, extremists reject Israel’s right to exist and work to stop the possibility of peaceful coexistence. They have launched suicide attacks against Israeli civilians in their attempts to disrupt peace negotiations.
Part of the reason peace has been difficult to achieve post-2000 has been the change in opinion among Israeli citizens that peace is a realistic possibility. When the Oslo Accords were signed, Israelis saw that by allowing Palestinians to self-govern, they were taking large risks and making a significant compromise. They tend to perceive the Camp David offer to the Palestinians as fair and just, and blame the lack of peace on Yasser Arafat for refusing to take it. (Morris: 2009: 135) With the Al-Aqsa Intifada beginning in late 2000 and causing the deaths of over a thousand Israeli civilians, (Catignani: 2008: 103) Israelis increasingly began to see the Palestinians as unwilling to make the compromises necessary for a two-state solution, destroying the belief of much of Israeli society in the possibility of peace. (Catignani: 2008: 103) This was only confirmed by the comprehensive victory of Hamas over the more moderate but corruption ridden Fatah in the Palestinian legislative election of 2006. Although also a social organisation, Hamas had perpetrated numerous suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, and rejects any attempt at a political settlement with Israel. (Mishal & Sela: 2006: 52) In this context, many Israelis have concluded that they do not have a partner in achieving peace. Given that allowing the Palestinians to self-rule under the Oslo Accords had created areas from which it was significantly easier to plot attacks on Israel, (Catignani: 2008 131) they are incredibly wary of giving the Palestinians control of more land, questioning whether organisations such as Hamas will ever cease to attack Israel.
Post-2000, the actions of the Israeli government have also made an end to the conflict significantly more difficult to achieve. Thousands of Palestinians have died at the hands of the Israel Defence Forces, with more suffering serious injuries. In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, however the area has been under blockade since 2007, preventing the access of vital food and medical supplies. In May 2008, even before the more recent Gaza War of 2008-09, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that over 70% of Gazans were living in poverty. (ICRC: 2009: http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html /palestine-report-260609) In the West Bank “the almost decade-long downturn has been largely a result of Israeli closure policies…which disrupted labor flows, manufacturing, and commerce, both external and internal. (CIA World Factbook: 2010: https://www.cia.gov/libr ary/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/we.html)
Since 2002 the Israeli Government has been constructing the West Bank Barrier. Built to protect Israeli citizens from attacks, it has succeeded in vastly reducing the number of Israeli civilian casualties. (Gelvin: 2007: 249) Controversially, however, rather than being built following Israel’s 1949 Armistice lines, it deviates into areas captured by Israel in 1967. The International Court of Justice proclaimed that “construction of the barrier is contrary to international law” (ICJ: 2004: http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?pr=71&p1=3&p2=1& case=131&p3=6) and it has also been criticised as an Israeli attempt to create an illegal unilateral solution, which severely restricts the lives of those living inside the barrier. (Shindler: 2008: 326)”I loved to play football with my friends. I told the doctors that I wanted to be able to walk again – they promised that I would.”
Ghassan, 14 years old, Gaza City. His older brother was killed and he himself was wounded during the military operation. He is waiting to be fitted with artificial limbs for both legs.
The continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem also contributes towards making the conflict increasingly difficult to solve. Deemed as illegal by numerous UN Security Council Resolutions, (Qurie: 2008: 166) each new settlement is another settlement which may have to be dismantled in any realistic peace deal, and to continue building them shows a clear lack of commitment to peace.
The actions of the IDF and the Israeli Government have helped created a generation of Palestinians that hate Israel and Jews. To those living inside the West Bank wall or in poverty-stricken Gaza, the message of extremists resonates. Israeli action is thus helping cause the circumstances from which extremists and potential suicide bombers emerge, creating a cycle of violence which is difficult to reverse. (Kamrava: 2005: 238)
Splits among the Palestinians have also made it more difficult to end the conflict. Starting in December 2006, and continuing on-and-off to the present day, there has been a Civil War between Hamas and Fatah. Currently, Hamas control Gaza, whilst Fatah control the West Bank. This lack of unification within the Palestinians makes an end to the Palestine Israeli conflict impossible. For peace, a Palestinian leader would have to accept a deal which would to some extent not entirely fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and this leader would have to successfully convince them that taking it was their best option. Before his death in 2004, Yasser Arafat might possibly have been able to do this. Currently, there is no-one. Even before the Hamas-Fatah conflict, Israel had complained that there was no one to talk to among the Palestinians. (Gelvin: 2007: 246) Until the Hamas-Fatah conflict is to some extent resolved, there is no one that the Israelis can talk to about a deal.
On the assumption that Palestinians and Israelis could be bought together for serious and meaningful negotiations, there are numerous disputes which would be very difficult to solve. Two of these, the refugee problem and the dispute over East Jerusalem, seem particularly difficult to resolve.
In 1948, approximately 700,000 Palestinians became refugees after either fleeing or being forced to leave, with many more becoming refugees after the Six Day War. (Morris: 2004: 604) Many of them live in the West Bank and Gaza, but they have spread amongst the Arab World. Despite this, they have never been truly assimilated into the populations of these other countries; with Jordan being the only Arab state to have allowed large numbers of them to gain full citizenship. (Miller & Samuels: 2009: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/ middle-east/no-way-home-the-tragedy-of-the-palestinian-diaspora-1806790.html)
Palestinian refugees claim that the UN guarantees their “right to return” under UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Israel has rejected this interpretation of the resolution and has never complied with it. They also argue that an acceptance of the Palestinians “right to return” would bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish State. Whilst few of the 1948 refugees are still alive, their descendants have spent their whole lives fighting for what they see as rightfully theirs, and will not give this up without significant recompense. Disagreement on the issue of the refugees is one of the central reasons for the failure of the Camp David Summit. (Smith: 2004: 498)
Of all of the territorial disagreements, Jerusalem is the most difficult to solve. Even assuming that agreement could be reached on all other territorial disputes, it is difficult to envision agreement over Jerusalem. From 1948-67 West Jerusalem was under Israeli control, with East Jerusalem under Arab (Jordanian) control. East Jerusalem contains the Temple Mount, the site of the ancient Jewish Temple. The site of the two ancient temples, tradition states that it will be the site of the third and final temple. It is considered the holiest site within Judaism, so holy, that many Jews will not set foot on it. To Muslims, the Temple Mount is the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque and of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. It is widely regarded as the third holiest site in Islam. (Shindler: 2008: 282)
Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged that “A united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Jerusalem was and will always be ours. It shall never be divided.” (Reuters: 2009: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSLL96214120090521) This highlights quite how far away the current Israeli leadership is from meaningful and realistic peace discussions. However it is still almost impossible to comprehend that any Israeli leader would negotiate away The Temple Mount and the Western Wall.
It is equally impossible to imagine any Palestinian leader relinquishing their claims over the Temple Mount. Palestinians feel that by accepting Israelis right to exist and a state broadly along the 1967 borders, they are making huge concessions. Giving up The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque is something that is just one step too far. Even if a Palestinian leader were to make an agreement, it is virtually impossible to imagine that they would persuade the rest of the Palestinian people to accept it peacefully.
Lastly, there are outside actors that benefit from the continuation of the conflict. Palestine would also be removed as an issue over which the Islamic world could unify, whereas hatred towards the USA and Israel would begin to disappear. If a peace effort led by the USA was achieved, this would be a major diplomatic victory for them. Regardless of statements suggesting they would support a two state solution, (Spillius: 2009: http://www.telegraph.co .uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/5225705/Irans-President-would-support-two-state-solution-for-Israel.html) this would be undesirable to the Iranian leadership. Syria, which has its own territorial dispute with Israel, would not allow any peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel to occur unless its dispute with Israel was settled. The Iranians and Syrians will thus continue to assist and fund groups that help keep the conflict going.
To conclude, there is a wide variety of reasons, some ancient, some more recent, that have made the Palestinian Israeli conflict so difficult to solve today. After so much promise during the 1990s that a deal could be reached, the chances of an end to the conflict have taken several steps backwards over the last decade. Despite this,
The two-state solution remains the only viable solution. Its pitfalls are numerous and significant. However, as the Israeli President Shimon Peres argued last year, a one-state solution “has enough intrinsic flaws to render it no solution at all…. signifying the end of the existence of a Jewish state” (Peres: 2009: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/09/AR2009020902098.html) Whilst there was much hope that movement towards the opening of meaningful negotiations would be re-started with the election of President Obama, this hope has largely evaporated, resulting in the continuation of the conflict for the foreseeable future.
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