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The Truth About The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Essay, Research Paper

The past two centuries have been plagued with conflicts arising from groups of people identifying themselves as nation, with unalienable rights to govern themselves. This concept of national self-determination is a product of the Enlightenment, a movement that began in Europe and spread throughout the world, destroying alliances and tearing down empires. The ideas of territorial allegiance in a state and the right of sovereignty over that state, combined with national identity, became the driving forces behind the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most classic examples of a nationalist conflict. For over seventy years, this conflict has been described as a religious, ethnic and civilizational based on the variable that presented itself on the surface. By acquiring a deeper understanding of the nature of the conflict and its possible solutions, it is possible to characterize it as a fight for national sovereignty over the same piece of land.

The different descriptions of the conflict can be attributed to the major differences between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Israelis are Jews, while the Palestinian Arabs are either Moslem or Christian. The Israelis are overwhelmingly descendants of European or Slavic Jews while the Palestinians are completely Arab. Israel is considered a Western state, with values and goals similar to those found in Europe or the United States. The Palestinians are part of the Islamic world and members of the Pan-Arab nation. All these contrasts contribute to the misinterpretation of the conflict as being something other than nationalist. On the other hand, while these individual attributes do not define the conflict, they have contributed to its prolongation by providing a forum for its misperception.

Despite all the misconceptions associated with the conflict, it is at the core, a conflict between to national movements competing for total sovereignty over the same territory. This is a contemporary controversy, as it did not exist before the late 19th century. Contrary to popular belief, Arabs and Jews have not been mortal enemies since the fall of the Tower of Babel. They have, in fact, been able to peacefully coexist for centuries prior to the rise of their respective national movements. The dispute began with the formation of the Zionist movement and the declaration of the Jewish nationalists to build a Jewish homeland in the area known as Palestine. Irrespective of the indigenous population living there, the Zionist rallying cry for a Jewish state in Palestine was ‘a people without a land for a land without a people’. There was no conscientious animosity towards the Arabs living in Palestine, but the idea of a national movement is an inherent level of selfishness regarding the right to self-determination. “Nationalist movements are usually focused on their own people’s problems and aspirations and only rarely take into account the injustices they may be doing to others,” (Vitalis, p. 291). By pursuing a Jewish homeland (and state) in Palestine, the Zionists ignored the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and ignored their claim to the land of Palestine. In the 1880s and 1890s, Jewish migration to Palestine became an organized invasion, spurred by state-sponsored pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe and sudden demonstrations of racism towards Jews in Western Europe (i.e. the Dreyfuss affair). In response, the Arabs began to form their own national movements in order to counter the thousands of incoming Jewish immigrants. Although there were already Jews living in Palestine, they were small autonomous settlements that had good relations with the Arabs. The new Jewish settlers had no intention of developing good relations with the Arabs living there; they were viewed as an occupying entity. This controversy is the very basis of the conflict as seen today.

At the end of WWI, the conflict escalated under the auspices of the British government. Promised independence at the end of the war, the Arabs assisted the British in overthrowing Ottoman rule in the Middle East. When it became evident that the allied powers were to divide Eastern Asia into spheres of influence among themselves, nationalist movements were formed to facilitate the formation of independent states. While the Arabs in Palestine were originally part of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement under the Ottoman Empire, they were compelled to construct a distinct campaign for their independence based on the claim to the land of Palestine. While the interest of other Arab national groups included Arab possession of Palestine, they were preoccupied with enhancing their own situation and achieving independence and statehood. Due to the lack of direct support from the Arab world, Palestinians were forced to develop a national identity that would manifest their aspirations of independence and sovereignty. Even so, the movement remained strongly tied to the national aspirations of the rest of the Arab world; conversely this important step started the Palestinian people on the path towards a separate national identity. Part of this augmentation of self-determination was in response to the Balfour Declaration; a British proclamation of the eventual configuration of Palestine, which supported a Jewish homeland but included the reinforcement of the rights of the ‘non-Jewish’ groups residing there. This public announcement strengthened the necessity for a separate Palestinian national movement on one hand, and sanctioned the goals and desires of the Zionist movement on the other. The open support of Western powers legitimized the Zionists claim to the land and the establishment of a Jewish homeland as a reasonable solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ in Europe. With the backing of the British government, and the fact that the British controlled the land, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased substantially and political, economic, and social institutions were established in order to further the goal of a Jewish state in Palestine. Although the Zionists were not placated with only the endorsement of a Jewish homeland, the Balfour Declaration was interpreted as a step towards the eventual establishment of a Jewish state. The motives of the Western powers were, to prevent Pan-Arab nationalism by severing their common goals and to establish a Western community in the land bridge between Asia and Africa. “A Jewish homeland would therefore serve to protect Western interests in the region by adopting foreign policies similar to those of Europe and the United States,” (Gerner, p.15). These objectives, combined with the heightened perception of the authenticity of the Zionist and Palestinian national movements, proved to be the ingredients for an increasingly violent conflict.

The next major event that helps explain and characterize the conflict today is the war in 1948. After years of destructive policies in Palestine and from the economic exhaustion of WWII, England transferred control of the Palestine mandate to the newly formed United Nations. After extensive research of the history and many debates, the committee that was to decide the fate of Palestine proposed a partition of the land into two distinct sovereign states. The newly independent Arab nations and the Palestinian Arabs rejected this recommendation outright. The whole of Palestine had been the homeland to Palestinian Arabs for generations while the ‘historic’ Jewish claim was almost two millennia old. Arabs also claimed that although the atrocities suffered by the Jewish people in the Holocaust was enormous, they were not committed by Arabs, but by the same Europeans that were now forcing them to give up the land. The partition was unequal, in that it gave more land, fertile land, to the Jews, and it was illegal because it contradicted everything stated in the UN charter, the very same authority that the international community drew permission from to decide the issue. Ironically, the Zionists were not thrilled about the proposal either. The original Zionist claim was to establish a Jewish state in all the Palestine mandate, including the area designated for the Palestinian state as well as parts of Jordan. They were unsatisfied with the boundaries drawn by the UN, but unlike the Arabs, the Zionists worked together under a realist position to take what was given now and work for the rest later. The resolution barely passed in the UN; when it did, the debate over what to do was replaced with the question of how to implement it when the British mandate was legally and officially turned over to the UN in May of 1948. In anticipation, Zionist military groups were already physically or psychologically forcing the Palestinian Arabs out of the area that was to become the Jewish State. Indecisiveness and inaction by the international community silently acknowledged the impending conflict; when on May 14, 1948 Israel declared its independence, five Arab nations declared war and invaded the newly formed state.

For almost two years the war raged on, and when the cease-fire agreements were finally signed, Israel occupied more than 70% of the original British mandate. Moreover, the West Bank and Gaza were controlled by Jordan and Egypt respectively. The land of Palestine had ceased to exist on the modern map. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the Israeli owned areas, because they were either forced out or they fled in fear. The refugees were refused entry into Israel to return to their homes, many of which were now occupied by Jewish immigrants, and they were refused compensation for what they had lost. Forcing these people into exile reinvigorated the notion of a Palestinian national identity, especially in light of the failure of their Arab brothers to destroy the Jewish State. For the Zionists, their victory in the UN and the subsequent War of Independence reaffirmed their belief that a Jewish state in Palestine was predestined. Zionism had achieved the ultimate objective of the Jewish people living in exile for two thousand years, a state of their own in the Promised Land.

For almost twenty years following the Nakhba (Disaster), the Palestinian national movement was still only part of the agenda of the other Arab states and had no political forum at all. The reliance on the other Arab states to provide the necessary weight to counter Israel in pressing the claims and rights of the Palestinian people was deleterious to their national cause. The Arab states knew that they were not a military match against Israel, who had the backing of the U.S.; thus they were unwilling to provoke the Jewish state into conflict. In the late 1950s, Palestinian refugees transformed their movement from one of passive victim to national activist. Yasir Arafat was one of these galvanized people; he formed Fatah, the Victory Party, which called for the armed struggle by all Palestinians against the Israeli State. The Arab nations promoted the aim of formalizing the Palestinian national movement in 1964, when Nasser invited 13 Arab nations to witness the birth of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This organization was originally only supposed to be a political forum for the Palestinian people that was controlled by the independent Arab nations. Fatah and other Palestinian parties joined the PLO, but remained as separate entities to provide a wide assortment of political party choices to the Palestinian people.

The organization was too young in 1967 to be a significant factor in the outcome of the Six-Day War. That June, Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria and within a matter of days it seized the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The devastation to the Palestinians was immeasurable and the economic and psychological damage to the three Arab nations only augmented the plight of the Palestinian national movement. For Israel, the War of 1967 was viewed as the ultimate success. The Jewish State now controlled all the land under the mandate and additional land that could act as a buffer zone to Arab aggression in the future. The disposition of Greater Israel was fulfilled with the annexation of East Jerusalem and the occupation of Judea and Sumaria (the West Bank). This victory over the Arab states once again pronounced Israel’s military superiority, its invincibility in the Levant and reasserted the foreordained claim on the land.

The war became a decisive turning point in the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis. Prior to the war, Palestinian Arabs taking refuge in the West Bank and Gaza were under the protectorate of other Arab states; now they were subject to laws of Israeli occupation. More Palestinians fled Israel during this war and, like their compatriots during the Nakhba, lost their homes and possessions to Israeli settlers. The humiliation suffered by the Palestinians and the Arab nations generated despair within the national movement. Subsequently, the hope of regaining the lands and establishing a Palestinian state became an unattainable dream. Government policy after the war economically encouraged Israeli citizens to live in settlements strategically placed throughout the occupied territories. The settlements allowed for the unofficial annexation of the territories, while maintaining that the land was not officially part of Israel proper and therefore gave the government justification for denying the Palestinians, who were living in the territories, Israeli citizenship. The settlements also compelled a military presence in the territories, thereby placing the Palestinian refugees under Israeli marshal law. These conditions fostered the necessity of a strong national movement, independent of the other Arab nations, that would negotiate a return of the territories to their respective Arab nations with Palestinian autonomy, or the establishment of a ‘mini-state’ in the West Bank and Gaza.

The 1970s proved to be characteristically different than the decades that had preceded it in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The October war of 1973 reasserted Arab strength and ability to stand up against Israel; an offensive attack in the attempt to retake the territories lost to Israel in the Six-Day War. Although unsuccessful, the Arab nations were embraced by the international community and reminded the world of the plight of the Palestinian people. The occupied territories began to be viewed as the means to obtain peace between the Arab nations and Israel, but the continuing policy of settling the areas with Israeli citizens undermined the feasibility of this solution. “Critics and supporters alike understand the function of the settlements as the main instrument for the de facto annexation of the territories, where over half the land is now directly controlled by Jewish settlers or by the Israeli state,” (Vitalis, p. 296). The settlements became a point of contention between Israel and the Arabs. Additionally, it provided a justification for the formation of groups of Palestinian freedom fighters. Before the devastation of the Six-Day War, the hope of the liberation of Palestine rested in the hands of the armies of the Arab nations. Afterwards, political parties, like Fatah, began to support the use of terrorist attacks against Israel from within the territories and from across borders. This tactic had two goals: to shock Israel into realizing that the annexation of the territories would not be easy or peaceful, and secondly, to remind the international community that while they were deliberating what to do with the Palestinians, there were people living under a tyrannical rule. Constant attacks from Jordan provoked Israel to respond with military strength. In order to prevent engaging Israel in a war, Jordan expelled the Palestinians and the PLO from the East Bank. During this time, the PLO declared its support of a single, democratic state in Palestine, but at the same time was accused by the international community of being a terrorist organization. Without the recognition of the right to self-determination from the international body politic, Palestinians were destined to remain a nation in name only.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to a number of Palestinian guerrilla attacks from across the border. The incursion was accepted as a quest for a demilitarized zone within Lebanon for the protection of the Israelis living on the border. When the attack pushed past the predetermined area, it was clear that the invasion was to force the PLO and the guerrillas out of Lebanon. The international community became involved when Syria invaded Lebanon on the side of the Palestinians, in the hope of preventing a full-scale war between Israel and Syria. The Israeli army assisted with the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps outside of Beirut when the international peacekeeping force had pulled out of Lebanon too early. This outrage, in addition to the squalor of the refugee camps in the occupied territories and the lack of civil rights, were the leading causes of the Intifada. In December of 1987 an uprising began in the West Bank, and Gaza, that took the world by storm. Unlike previous Palestinian revolts against Israeli rule, the Intifada was a popular uprising of unarmed children and adults in defiance of the occupation. Because the movement used only rocks and bottles to fight the armed soldiers, the international reporting of dead or wounded Palestinians shriveled Israeli morale and brought immediate worldwide attention to the area. The increasing momentum of international attention pressured the groups involved to find a resolution to the conflict. In 1988, Jordan relinquished its claim to the West Bank, terminating any solution based on Palestinian autonomy in the Jordanian State. The same year, Arafat and the PLO renounced the use of terrorism, declared independence and recognized the right of Israel to exist. Although this completed the requirements set forth by the U.S. to be the official spokesman for the Palestinian people, Israel still would not recognize the right of the PLO to speak for the Palestinian people. The government refused to talk or negotiate with the PLO because they doubted the sincerity of the Palestinian leadership in renouncing terrorism and in their recognition of the Jewish State.

In 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War ensued, the PLO supported of Sadaam Hussein against the majority of the Arab world. Although Arafat felt compelled to be loyal to Hussein for his support of the Palestinian people and his demand that Israel withdraw from the territories, this move allowed Israel a justification for refusing negotiations with the PLO. In 1991, the international community was able to get the PLO and Israel to sit down in Madrid and discuss the possibility of negotiations. Under a veil of extreme secrecy, representatives from the PLO and Israel met in Oslo, and in 1993 they signed the historic Oslo Accords in front of the international press corps on the White House lawn. In this treaty, Israel recognizes the PLO as the official spokesman for the Palestinian people and that the Palestinians are a nation with the right to self-determination. This historic agreement does not reveal how the transfer of power or land will take place, or even what the status of the Palestinian sovereignty will be.

Due to the unique history of the conflict, resolution can only be obtained through the recognition of the needs and desires of each side. There are four possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict given the evolution of the conflict, and the way it plays out in today’s world order. Of these four approaches, two can be categorized as exclusivist and the other two as accommodationist. Each participant offers one plan that would exclude the national aspirations of the other and a second plan that would accommodate to each other’s right to self-determination. The justification of an exclusivist position is grounded in the inherent nature of nationalist movements to be self-serving and indifferent to the claims or rights of competing national groups. “Palestinians and Israelis have historically rejected and tried to de-legitimize the other’s national-territorial claims, for instance, by challenging the ‘authenticity’ of, and refusing to recognize, the other’s national identity or existence,” (Vitalis, p. 291).

The premise for the Israeli exclusivist plan is the claim of the Greater Israel doctrine; the State of Israel would be composed of the lands in the original British mandate, which includes the lands now controlled by Israel and the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. The conservative factors of the government, Likud, reject any solutions that trade ‘land-for-peace’ rooted in the idea that the occupied territories are the lands promised to the Jewish people in Biblical times. Similarly they reject the claims of Palestinian nationhood and Palestinian rights of self-government in any part of the ‘Greater Israel’ lands. The desire to annex the territories into Israel is overwhelmed by the fear of incorporating almost 2 million Palestinian Arabs into Israel proper and undermining the internal security of the country. The security issue is played on both sides of the Israeli political spectrum, both the Labor (left) and Likud (right) parties claim that they are the only ones who can provide for the safety of Israel in the future. The use of the territories as a buffer zone between Israeli and Arab populations appeals to many Israelis; many of whom have suffered the loss of friends or family due to violent conflicts. However, the realization that annexation would incite the Palestinian population to respond with an even greater degree of uprising than the Intifada plays on the minds of Israelis concerned about the security within the state. Implementation of this plan has called for either allowing the Palestinians autonomy under Israeli rule or the transference of the Arab population out of the country. The concept of an autonomous government under Israeli rule is unacceptable to Palestinians, who interpret it as just another method of keeping the Palestinians as subordinate and second-class citizens. The forceful relocation of a population based on their ethnicity would be unacceptable to the world society and to many Israelis who are reminded of their own forced migrations during the Holocaust. Furthermore, the annexation of the territories would be condemned by the international community and might be economically harmful if the UN instituted sanctions against Israel. Lastly, the dilemma of securing the territories to the State of Israel is the probability of inducing many Arab nations to attack on behalf of the Palestinians. All these problems with the philosophy and the implementation of the plan indicates that the one state solution based on the Greater Israel concept, is not feasible or acceptable to Palestinians, many Israelis and the world at large.

The exclusivist proposal advocated by the Palestinians does not seem to be exlusive on the surface. The concept of one state, democratic and secular, with equal rights for all its citizens appear, to be an appropriate solution for all the parties involved. Adopted in 1971 by the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the bi-national state concept is a testament to the PLO’s acceptance of the existence of Jewish nationalism and validated Palestinian sovereignty in Palestine. On the other hand, it denied the right of Israeli self-determination by making the state secular and destroying the defining characteristic of the ‘Jewish State’. “I argue that the democratic state scenario is exclusivist in that it rejects the Jewish people’s preference for the exercise of national self-determination, although it envisions power-sharing among the citizens that in effect accords equal rights to the two communities,” (Vitalis, p. 292). Although this strategy was accepted in the Palestinian community through the ’70s and the early ’80s, it has now been replaced with a more accommodating plan since the implementation of a bi-national state was only believed to be attainable through armed conflict. This plan is no longer supported by the PLO as a viable option, but it is important to mention as an illustration of the evolution of the negotiations occurring today.

The first accommodationist scenario, which has the backing of the majority of Israeli citizens, is Land for Peace. This alternative to the Greater Israel plan proposes the transfer of the territories to other Arab nations that would guarantee Palestinian autonomy. In exchange, the Arab nations would negotiate peace treaties with Israel, thus ending a half a century of non-recognition and war status. While this proposition is gaining more support in Israel, definitive lines are drawn along Likud/Labor divides as to how to implement land for peace. The issue of security is the first and foremost platform from which any agreement would be accepted. Labor’s argument that annexation does not enhance the county’s internal security but aggravates an already tense situation is coupled by the reality that annexation means granting full citizenship rights to the Palestinians. If the Palestinians were able to participate in governance, the Jewish character of the state would be diluted and possibly nullified. To annex the territories and keep the integrity of the Jewish state, the government would have to permanently deny the Palestinians citizenship and even civil rights, hence evoking a type of apartheid in Israel. In order to prevent this injustice, the territories should be offered to the surrounding Arab nations for joint sovereignty and Palestinian autonomy. “Land for peace serves as an umbrella for those from the left wing, who have pressed for reaching an accommodation with Palestinian nationalism, and the dominant core, including those who view territorial expansion as essential to the country’s security,” (Vitalis, p. 297). The Likud argument is that Palestinians can receive the same level of autonomy without Israel relinquishing or sharing power over the areas with neighboring Arab nations (thereby reiterating the Greater Israel position). Although both parties implicate the acceptance of Palestinian nationalism, this solution was proposed through the negotiations of Israel and Jordan. The lack of participation of the PLO in formulating the plan undermines their right to self-determination. “For most Israelis, the land for peace formula remains firmly coupled with rejection of an independent Palestinian state,” (Vitalis, p. 295). In 1988, Jordan put a spin on things by renouncing its claim to the West Bank and endorsed the PLO as the spokesmen for the Palestinian people; thus invalidating Israel’s perceived right of negotiating the shared sovereignty of the territories with other nations.

The last possible pathway to peace in the present conflict is the two-state solution. In this scenario, Israel would relinquish control of the occupied territories and consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The state would be independent of Israel and the neighboring nations that had previously made claim to the territories. The Palestinian plan gained increasing support from the intellectual and political elite in the territories throughout the ’70s and ’80s, as a more realistic solution than the previously supported bi-national, democratic state did. The reasoning centered on the fact that it would be more likely that Israel would give up the territories than disintegrate the Jewish aspect of the state. Different factions in the PLO fractured along the same lines that the Zionists had during the debate over the 1947 partition; was it a workable solution, could it be successfully implemented, and would this undermine the claim for the whole of Palestine. In 1988, the same year that the PLO recognized Israel, renounced terrorism as a legitimate method of achieving their goals, and declared independence, the PLO also announced the two-state plan that was immediately rejected by the Israeli government. “In effect, the PLO’s post-intifada diplomatic initiatives furthered the polarization taking place in Israeli political life around the question of the territories, leading supporters of an accommodation to contemplate more far-reaching forms of compromise, while redoubling the efforts of Israeli exclusivists to resist them,” (Vitalis, p. 300). The Likud government, in power since the ’70s, has been a powerful voice discouraging the establishment of a Palestinian state. Once again, the security issue becomes the battleground over which negotiations are fought. The fear that giving up the West Bank and Gaza threatens the security of Israel by eliminating the ‘buffer zone’ that has been in place for over thirty years. Secondly, the idea of a Palestinian ‘rump state’ on the back of Israel, no matter how small, provides too much latitude for possible Arab aggression towards Israel. Labor on the other hand, with its Land for Peace strategy, is increasingly moving towards supporting a two-state solution; of course, with specific conditions in order to preserve the security of Israel. The two-state solution is evolving to become the only rational and logical solution to the question of the territories. By endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel can dictate the prerequisites for their security, the Palestinian State would be demilitarized and either Israel or Jordan would provide their border security. Also, Israel can keep strategic areas within the territories, for security reasons, so that all the land taken in the war would not be relinquished.


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