Short history of a long conflict: Palestine and Israel
December 5, 2023
Luca Mazzacane
(Pavia, Italy)
Edoardo Tagliati
(Siena, Italy)

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is no news. The international dispute has festered unresolved for more than 75 years.


Driven by the economic necessities of post-war reconstruction (given Britain’s economic losses in World War II) and the complexity of the situation on the ground in Palestine (resulting from the Great Arab Revolt), London decided to put the decision back to the United Nations, which had replaced the League of Nations. The League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine gave Britain administration of the territories of Palestine and Transjordan, both of which had been conceded by the Ottoman Empire following the end of World War I in 1918.


A quick review.


It started in 1947, following the Second World War.  The partition of land as proposed by the United Nations (General Assembly Resolution 181) foresaw two entities: 56 percent of the territory of Jerusalem going to the Jewish people, with the rest to the Palestinians. And in the middle, the city of Jerusalem would be administered by the UN. The Palestinian community, influenced by the Arab League of States, rejected the plan, and civil war broke out. This was a prelude to the turmoil and conflict that would characterize this area for the next 70 years.


The 1920 British Mandate over Palestine allowed the first Zionist settlers to come to the region. Zionism is a nationalist movement for self-determination and a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, an area corresponding roughly to what many Jewish people considered the biblical Promised Land. In 1948 the British Mandate came to an end, and on May 14 of that year, the State of Israel was born. The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq immediately attacked. 


For the Jewish people led by David Ben Gurion, the eviction of the Palestinian Arabs began. For the Palestinian people, it was the exodus: the Nakba or “catastrophe,” with 700,000 either evicted or fleeing for safety.


In 1949, after a year of fighting, Israel extended its borders to the Eastern Galilee, Negev and West Jerusalem. Much of the land originally intended by the 1947 UN General Assembly Resolution for the Palestinians was instead now occupied either by Israel or by Arab allies: the West Bank by Jordan, the Gaza Strip by Egypt.


In 1967, Security Council Resolution 242 established the "land for peace" principle: sovereignty, integrity and independence for all, with Israel withdrawing from the occupied Palestinian territories. A translation problem, however, made things complex: “some” territories according to the English version of the text, and “all” according to the French version. Israel, under the lead of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, rejected the conditions of the resolution — the withdrawal of Israel's armed forces from the territories occupied in the recent conflict, and the recognition of sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence for Palestine. 


In 1973 came the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptians and Syrians took Israel by surprise, but after an initial lurch, an Israeli counter offensive turned the tide. The UN secured a ceasefire, and Resolution 338 determined negotiations for what was hoped to be a just and lasting peace. 


U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's mediation and the Geneva Conference (1973) inaugurated "small-step diplomacy." Then, not until 1993 did the Oslo accords renew hope with three international resolutions, all of which however resulted in ultimate failure. The agreement brought together for the first time Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was founded within the Arab League with the goal of emancipation of the Palestinian people. The agreements called for the Palestinians to make a series of difficult concessions immediately (recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence), while the Israelis were to make their difficult concessions later (completing the withdrawal of troops from the rest of the occupied territories). Almost all of the more complicated issues, including the legal status of Jerusalem, were not discussed during the negotiations and were postponed to later meetings. 


In 1996, the Likud Political Party won the elections and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister as head of a nationalist and religious right-wing coalition. Netanyahu had repeatedly called the Oslo Accords a mistake, and during his governments he never made efforts to implement them. In the decades that followed, all other meetings that were supposed to resolve those issues left unresolved by earlier agreements have failed. Among the main reasons for this failure is the fact that Israel's settlement expansion on Palestinian lands has never stopped. Last June the latest government led by Benjamin Netanyahu announced the construction of 5,700 new settler homes in the West Bank, bringing the number of planned settlements this year to over 13,000. The record had previously been 12,159 new settler homes (in 2020). The Israeli decision to push ahead with settlement expansion has been heavily criticized by the international community as making it increasingly difficult to achieve peace by way of a two-state solution.


The brightest light came in 2000 with US efforts at Camp David. Bill Clinton, Palestinian President Yassar Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with the idea of sealing a deal once and for all. Barak offered Palestinians partial refugee return, up to 91% of the West Bank, and for the first time questioned Israeli control and sovereignty over East Jerusalem. According to Israeli jurisprudence, Jerusalem is the de facto capital of the state of Israel. The Palestinian National Authority, however, claimed (and claims) East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine. De jure, most members of the UN and international organizations do not recognize the annexation of East Jerusalem to Israel, nor do they recognize Jerusalem as a state capital. The Camp David summit was a failure.


In 2002, Ramallah, Jericho and Tulkarem in the Palestinian West Bank were reoccupied by the Israeli army. The EU/U.S./Russia/U.N. Quartet Road Map (2002-2003) presented by George W. Bush did not even pass the first of the three steps programmed in the roadmap. The failure of the road map resulted from the bias of the requirements on the parties, and the lack of clarity of the document. The demands upon the Palestinians were clear:  to put in place a government defined by the U.S. as democratic, to organize three security forces seen by Israel as reliable, and to crush terrorism. Once those requirements were fulfilled, the third phase was to begin, in which the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land would miraculously end. But the document placed no requirements on Israel in that third phase. Still, in 2005 Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip.


Most recently was an attempt by the former Trump administration to normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world by leapfrogging over the Palestinian issue, effectively greenlighting Israeli settlements on Palestinian land that would make a contiguous Palestinian state unviable. It kicked off in 2020 with the Abraham Accords, designed and promoted by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Bilateral understandings were reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, and reached the negotiating stage with Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian issue had all but disappeared. For the UN, Israeli settlements on Palestinian land remain illegal, because by obstructing Palestinian territorial contiguity they make the two-state solution impossible. 


The absence of strong, competent leadership for Palestinians, and the recent entry of the most extreme right-wing nationalist government in Israel's history under Benjamin Netanyahu, has made the situation yet more difficult. The Netanyahu government has encouraged the dramatic expansion of Israeli settlements on land meant to be part of a Palestinian state, and settler violence has been pushing Palestinians off their land and out of their homes. The Palestinian Authority has been seen by Palestinians as collaborating with Israel for their own financial benefit. The Palestinian Gaza strip has been under a crushing blockade by Israel since 2007. And while the militant group Hamas took political control of the Gaza strip in a 2006 vote that was barely a plurality, no election has been allowed in the occupied territories since that 2006 election. Thus, the civilian population of Gaza has effectively been a prisoner of both Israel and Hamas. 


This situation can at best be seen as an impasse, punctuated by 7 wars between Hamas and Israel from 2007 to date. That impasse has now been broken with Hamas’ savage assault on Israel in the desert of Negev on October 7, 2023, and Israel’s brutal retaliatory bombing of Gaza. 


The issue of Palestinian sovereignty and a two-state solution is once again before the international community.



Log in to comment.

Deep Dive