A brief Introduction to the Israel-Palestine Conflict



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A Brief Introduction to the Israel-Palestine Conflict

The historical land of Palestine is now comprised of the state of Israel (so-called “Israel proper”) and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (the West Bank, the Gaza strip and East Jerusalem). The area was a part of the Ottoman Empire up until the First World War, after which it became a British protectorate. In 1917 (before Britain in fact had jurisdiction over the area), Zionist lobbying efforts resulted in the Balfour Declaration in which Britain commits itself to the establishment of a national homeland for the Jews on this land. In 1916, however, they had promised national independence for Arab former colonies of the Ottoman Empire. There were already a small amount of Jews living in Palestine, however in the 1920s and 30s hundreds of thousands came to settle, largely encouraged by the Zionist movement realising the necessity of a great Jewish population in the area in order to make the promise of the Balfour declaration a reality.


Establishing the state of Israel

The establishment of the state of Israel was founded on the particular politics of the days, namely a combination of a surge in nationalist ideals as the natural state-idea and the European colonisation and command over large areas of the world, including the Middle East.



The Zionist movement organised itself formerly for the first time in 1896 in Vienna, as the First Zionist Congress, under the charismatic Jewish nationalist Theodor Herzl. Their goal was to establish a homeland for the Jews, who were experiencing persecution in Europe and was a paria in their existing countries of residence. The rationale behind this idea was the same, ironically, as the philosophy which made life increasingly difficult for Jews in Europe: the homogenous nation-state. Herzl subscribed to the dominating ideas of the time, namely that a nation-state is an organic whole and that “foreign” elements disturb the harmony and should be removed. He supported the notion that Jews should leave their European homes (where they were “foreign”), but that the Jews needed their own land on which to establish their nation-state based on these exact ideals. Initially, the main point was to establish a safe home country, and several possible geographical options were on the table, but the historical significance of Palestine made this the natural focus. Soon, the slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land” came to reflect the essence of the Zionist claims. However, Palestine was inhabited by Palestinian Arabs with a strong connection to the land and an identity of themselves as the Palestinian nation1. As mentioned, the Balfour declaration of 1917 was a huge leap forward for the Zionist’s ambitions. The state of Israel was essentially to be a state for all Jews, and an essential feature was that the whole Jewish diaspora was to have the right to citizenship.
When the influx of Jews to Israel gained momentum in the 1920’s this was strongly resisted by the existing population, and a number of violent events took place in this period. In 1947, the British transferred their mandate to the UN, who supported the establishment of the Jewish nation state. A Partition resolution, granting a bit over half of the land to the Jews and the rest to a Palestinian state was adopted, but it was rejected by the Palestinians and never adopted. Hostilities broke out in 1948, at which point Britain was, to put it crudely, fed up with the situation. The State of Israel was proclaimed on the 14th of May 1948, and came into effect the next day as the last British troops withdrew. The next year was marked by an effective policy of ethnic cleansing in which the Israeli army and some irregular armed groups, most notoriously Irgun and Stern Gang, conducted massacres against Palestinian villages. The tactics were based on an idea of scaring the Palestinians to flee through examples of brutality, which proved to be rather efficient. An estimated 750 000 Palestinians fled to nearby Arab countries and to the parts of the territory designed to be part of the future Palestinian state. Forces from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq challenged the Israeli forces, but were defeated. This caused Israel to expand its border to 75% of what used to be British Mandate Palestine, against ca 55% as granted by the UN. Jordan annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem while Egypt kept the Gaza Strip.
The next relevant historical benchmark was the 1967 war in which Israel took the areas controlled by Egypt and Jordan, in addition to Sinai and the Golan Heights, replacing another 500 000 Palestinians in the process.
Intifadas and negotiations

The first Intifada in 1987 was a bit of a turning point, forcing the Israelis to go into dialogue with the Palestinians. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) came to be recognised as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and in 1993 talks start in Oslo in an attempt to reach a solution to the conflict. The peace agreement gave the Palestinians self-rule of Gaza and Jericho, but the situation was marred by violence and lack of goodwill from both parts. Between 1996 and 1999 the peace agreement was in a deadlock, and suicide bombings and Israeli military attacks on both Palestinian areas and a three-week bombardment of Lebanon sums up this period. The peace accords received a final, lethal blow in 2000 when the second Intifada started.


Ethnic aspects

Ethnicity is essential to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The raison d’etate of Israel is that it’s to be an ethnically exclusive state where citizenship is founded on the principle of jus sanguinis. This creates problems for the peace process as it leads to an absolute refusal to deal with some of the issues that are feeding the conflict. One of these is the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to where they fled from, as recognised by international law (ICCPR art. 12(4)). Additionally, even though Palestinians residing in the state of Israel enjoy most citizenship rights, they are still treated and regarded as second-rate citizens, for example when it comes to the right to acquire land. Palestinians on the other hand still demands the right to return for all the refugees, even though the PLO has had to waiver this claim in peace negotiations. There is a significant imbalance of power between Israel and the PLO in these negotiations, materialised in the fact that while the Palestinian claims to self determination and their fundamental claims to rights to land are a constant issue of debate and refusal, the basic claims of Israel to an ethnically defined state is never challenged.


Issues to consider before the lecture:

  • What is the status of the Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 and 1967? Which rights do they have?

  • The Demography of both Israel proper and the Occupied territories are constructed in a way which will create significant irridentas on both sides of any of the suggested state borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state. What is the significance of this for the structure of a post-conflict state order?



1 This has often been challenged by scholars and politicians seeking to support the Zionist cause, and for this reason merits a mentioning.


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