Arab-Israeli Conflict, conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East over the land of historic Israel and Palestine. The conflict has led to several wars, beginning in 1948, among Arab nations, Palestinian refugees, and the state of Israel. Since 1979 several peace accords have been signed, addressing parts of the conflict.
|II||ORIGINS OF ZIONISM AND THE ARAB-JEWISH CONFLICT|
Throughout recorded history the land of historic Israel and Palestine, located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, was conquered many times by invaders. The area is the homeland of the Jewish people, who immigrated to the area beginning in the 13th century bc as Hebrew tribes. The tribes confederated as the Israelites who ruled much of the area from the 11th century to the 6th century bc. The Jews formed an identity as the people of the covenant but subsequently came under the rule of others until they succeeded in establishing an independent Jewish state called Judea in 168 bc. The Romans expelled the Jews from Judea in ad 135. In subsequent centuries many Jews maintained the idea of regaining control of the area, which they considered home. In the 1890s Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist living in Austria, advocated reestablishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Herzl believed Zionism (the reuniting of Jewish people in Palestine) would match 'a people without a land with a land without a people.'
Palestine was already inhabited, however. The countryside was home to Arabs, most of them Muslims, while the larger towns contained both Arabs and Jews. Some of the Jews were long established there, while others were religious pilgrims from Europe who had come to live near the holy sites in Jerusalem and other cities. (Because the vast majority of Palestinians were Muslim Arabs, the term Palestinians now usually refers only to them, not to the Jews of Israel. Most Palestinians are Muslims.) The land was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but the Ottomans saw little of value in Palestine and neglected the area. Consequently, poverty, disease, and malnutrition were widespread. Nonetheless, the area served as a land corridor between Europe, Asia, and Africa and thus had strategic importance. It was also near the Suez Canal, which, when opened in Egypt in 1869, connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. Palestine was therefore important to the British, who occupied Egypt in 1882 and depended on control of the canal for its fortunes.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Zionist movement gained strength in Europe, and large numbers of Jews immigrated to Palestine. The movement focused on self-reliance through agriculture, and many immigrants settled in the countryside. To do so, Jews had to buy land from local Arab holders of small tracts and from absentee Arab landlords of large areas. As a result, Jews and Arabs came into increasing contact; at times, Jewish purchases led to the displacement of Arab peasants from the land. Although the Ottoman government sought to slow the Zionist movement, Jews established a significant and expanded presence. Their success furthered the world debate about whether and how to establish a Jewish homeland, and it also created apprehension among Arabs.
|III||THE BRITISH MANDATE|
With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I (1914-1918), control of Palestine shifted from Muslim to Western powers. In return for their help in the war Britain had promised autonomy to both Zionists and Arabs. In a series of letters known as the Husein-McMahon Correspondence (between Husein ibn Ali of Mecca, who ruled Arabs in the Al Ḩijāz on the Arabian Peninsula, and Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt), the Arabs were promised the right to a new Arab nation in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. The promise to the Jews came in the form of the Balfour Declaration (named for the British foreign secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, who communicated the declaration). Issued by the British in 1917, it read:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The British were not troubled by potential contradictions between the Husein-McMahon Correspondence and the Balfour Declaration. They explained that they had not promised all the land of the Ottomans to either the Arabs or the Jews; they had merely promised parts of it to each group. The British did not elaborate on what would happen if both groups wanted the same land. Following the war, Britain sought and received a mandate from the League of Nations to rule Palestine and develop it according to the premise of the Balfour Declaration.
In 1922 the British separated Palestine into two territories: land east of the Jordan River became the Emirate of Transjordan (now Jordan); land to the west, from Lebanon and Syria in the north to Egypt in the south, remained Palestine. It was in this limited territory that Zionists clashed with Palestinian Arab nationalists. Both Jews and Arabs conducted terrorist attacks and intermittent, low-level warfare. Both groups resisted the British, particularly when a British policy was believed to benefit one side over the other. The struggle was reflected in political efforts to control land, institutions, and the economy.
Initially, Britain took several steps to aid the Arab side. For example, before World War II (1939-1945) the British did not allow large numbers of Jews to come to Palestine from Europe, where they were often persecuted. Nonetheless, Zionists gradually gained the upper hand through steady land purchases, slow but continual immigration, and community organization. After World War II the world became aware of the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, and opinion began to favor creating an independent Jewish state. Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere continued to resist the idea, but on November 29, 1947, the United Nations (UN) passed Resolution 181, which called for a partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Jews accepted the resolution, but the Arabs opposed it. On May 14, 1948, the British mandate was terminated and at midnight the Jewish state of Israel declared its independence. The new state came under immediate attack from the Palestinian population and Arabs of the surrounding countries, including Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.
|IV||THE ARAB-ISRAELI WAR OF 1948-1949|
In the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949 Arab forces (including the armies of Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq as well as Palestinian guerrillas) had expected an easy victory over the small and isolated Jewish state, but despite heavy casualties Israel won. Israel also increased the land under its control far beyond what it had been given by the partition plan. The region just west of the Jordan River known as the West Bank came under the control of Transjordan (which was renamed Jordan in 1949). Egypt gained control of the Gaza Strip, a small region bordering the southern end of Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The demoralized Arab world was unwilling to accept the Israeli victory, and shortly after the war the Arabs began to regroup for more fighting. The war had also created a large population of Palestinian Arab refugees who fled Israel for camps maintained by the UN in neighboring Arab states. With the exception of Jordan, Arab countries generally refused to allow Palestinians to settle outside the camps or to be granted citizenship. As a result, the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs continued to fester.
In the mid-1950s the Egyptian government began to support Palestinian guerrilla raids into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Egypt also refused to allow Israeli ships to use the Suez Canal and in 1951 blockaded the Strait of Tiran (Israel’s access to the Red Sea), which Israel regarded as an act of war. In June 1956 Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, which had been jointly owned by Britain and France. In late October, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, defeating Egyptian forces there. Britain and France attacked Egypt a few days later. Although the fighting was brief and Israel eventually withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza, the conflict further exacerbated regional tensions.
|V||THE SIX-DAY WAR AND THE 1973 WAR|
In 1967 Egypt, Syria, and Jordan massed their armies on Israel’s borders, and several Arab states called for war. Egypt demanded the withdrawal of UN observers from the Sinai Peninsula. Assuming the Arabs would attack, Israel struck first, in June 1967, and caught the Arabs by surprise. In the Six-Day War that followed, Israel demolished the armies and air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. It also gained control of the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights region of southwestern Syria, and all of Jerusalem. A second wave of Palestinian refugees fled the fighting, worsening the problem created by the first exodus in 1948. With the armies of its enemies crushed, Israel felt it could wait for the Arab states to offer peace on terms it found comfortable. Many UN members were less confident that peace would follow and generally did not approve of Israel’s territorial gains. In late November the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which called for an exchange of territory for peace and for a resettling of the Palestinian refugees.
The Arab states continued to call for the destruction of Israel, while Israel for its part, refused to consider withdrawing from the territories it had occupied except in the context of a comprehensive peace plan. The Arabs increasingly threw their support behind the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a political body that had been formed in 1964 to create a Palestinian state. Using terrorism, the PLO attacked Israel from their bases in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; attacks by Palestinian Arabs came from within the Gaza Strip and West Bank as well. Israel’s position hardened, and little progress toward achieving peace was made in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat reconstructed the Egyptian army in the early 1970s. Syria also prepared for war and received weapons from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Israel, in turn, fortified its forward positions and was supplied with weapons by the United States. The Arabs attacked in October 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, and caught Israel by surprise. Egypt and Syria pushed across the armistice lines established after the Six-Day War, which had kept Egyptian troops west of the Suez Canal and Syrian troops northeast of the Golan Heights. The Arab advances greatly restored Arab confidence. Israel, however, quickly recovered from the surprise and again pushed into Arab territory, surrounding or destroying the bulk of the Egyptian and Syrian forces. Nevertheless, Israel suffered greatly in the three-week war, especially from the injuries, deaths, and massive physical destruction of the war’s first two days. Moreover, Israel’s confidence was shaken, and the euphoria that followed the country’s victory in the Six-Day War was lost. In Israel and among most Western countries, the conflict came to be known as the Yom Kippur War; Arabs call it the October War or Ramadan War. See Arab-Israeli War of 1973.
Following the war, U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger negotiated a series of disengagement agreements with the warring parties. Kissinger’s work (labeled shuttle diplomacy because he flew back and forth between the capitals of the warring countries, which refused to meet with one another) did little to change the prewar status quo, and the countries were technically still at war. Even so, the agreements did reverse the military buildup and achieved a relatively peaceful, if tense, stalemate.
|VI||CAMP DAVID ACCORDS|
In the late 1970s Egypt’s military expenses caused it increasing economic hardship and social unrest, prompting Sadat to initiate negotiations with Israel in 1977. Sadat hoped to end the military buildup and regain the Sinai Peninsula. Israelis greeted Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem enthusiastically. United States president Jimmy Carter facilitated the negotiations between Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. The agreements came to be known as the Camp David Accords after the Maryland retreat where Carter hosted some of the negotiations. Under the peace treaty signed in March 1979, Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula, which was partially demilitarized; foreign observers were placed in the peninsula to maintain the treaty’s provisions; and Israel and Egypt entered into normal diplomatic relations. For its part, Israel achieved peace with what had been its largest enemy at the cost of evacuating Israeli settlers from the Sinai and losing some investment in the area’s infrastructure, such as roads and housing. The Camp David Accords, however, did nothing for Syria and only advanced the Palestinian cause in the vaguest of terms. For these reasons, the Arab League expelled Egypt and the rest of the Arab world widely condemned the accords. In 1981 Sadat was assassinated by a group of Islamic fundamentalists within the Egyptian army. Egypt continued to maintain relations with Israel after Sadat’s death.
Following Camp David, Syria maintained its warlike posture and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Golan Heights, and the PLO continued its terrorist assaults on Israel. In 1982 Israel tried to wipe out the PLO by attacking its bases in Lebanon, which had been plunged into its own civil war in 1975. The assault on the PLO, which Israel called Operation Peace for Galilee, quickly escalated into ground battles in Lebanon and full-scale engagements between the Israeli and Syrian air forces. After a siege on Beirut the PLO leadership evacuated from Lebanon and relocated to Tunisia. Arabs were frustrated that Israel had occupied an Arab capital with little intervention from the rest of the world, and the Palestinians of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip felt more isolated and abandoned than ever. Israel withdrew from most of Lebanon by 1985, though it continued to maintain a self-declared security zone inside Lebanon along the Israeli border until 2000.
|VII||THE INTIFADA AND THE PEACE PROCESS|
In the late 1980s Palestinians began the intifada (uprising), a widespread campaign against the continuing Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The campaign combined elements of mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, riots, and terrorism. The intifada put the Israeli army on the defensive and forced them to devote significant resources to patrolling the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a police force. Along with Israeli civilian casualties, many soldiers, including civilian reservists, were injured or killed, and the army in turn often used brutal tactics against Palestinians.
As a result of the intifada, pressure grew within Israel to broaden the peace process. The opportunity to do so was provided in 1991 by the Persian Gulf War. In this war, a multinational coalition of Western and Arab armies expelled Iraq from Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in 1990. One of the coalition’s chief partners was the United States, a strong ally of Israel. Following the Western-Arab victory, the United States, along with its one-time enemy the USSR, pressed Arabs and Israelis to pursue peace in the Madrid Conference of 1991. For the first time, all sides sat together to discuss bilateral and region-wide peace talks. Although little progress was made, the conference paved the way for future agreements.
In 1993, while the official negotiating teams of the Palestinians and Israel were engaged in deadlocked negotiations in the United States, the two sides achieved a major breakthrough with the Oslo Accords, which were secretly negotiated in Oslo, Norway. The Oslo Accords and the resulting Declaration of Principles set the stage for a gradual transfer of power to the Palestinians. Further agreements in 1994 and 1995 gave the Palestinians autonomy over most aspects of life in the Gaza Strip and in urban areas of the West Bank through a new administrative body, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). In the first elections for the PNA in 1996, PLO chairman Yasir Arafat was chosen as its president. Finally, the agreements stated that soon after these elections Israel would conduct further withdrawals from rural areas of the West Bank, after which talks addressing the final status of the Palestinian areas would begin.
Meanwhile, with the initial progress on the Palestinian issue, many Arab states felt freer to engage Israel openly and formally, though still with caution. On the heels of the 1993 agreements, Israel and Jordan took steps to negotiate a cooperative relationship. Despite opposition from other Arabs that Jordan’s King Hussein, like Egypt’s Sadat before him, was abandoning Palestinian interests in pursuit of a treaty with Israel, Hussein was undeterred. Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1994. By the mid-1990s Israel had also achieved diplomatic relations with Arab countries in North Africa and the Persian Gulf.
Despite these accomplishments towards peace, some terrorism and bloodshed continued. Palestinians conducted terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens, and on a number of occasions Israeli extremists responded in kind. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli student opposed to the peace process. Under Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the peace process stalled in 1997. While Netanyahu completed some elements of the peace agreements, such as removing Israeli troops from the West Bank town of Hebron, some of his policies, including building Israeli settlements in Arab East Jerusalem, angered Palestinians and earned rebukes from many nations.
In October 1998 Netanyahu and Arafat signed an accord by which Israel would withdraw from additional West Bank territory in return for Palestinian security measures against terrorist attacks on Israel. The Palestinians also agreed to remove articles that called for Israel's destruction in their national charter. In November Israel completed the first of three scheduled withdrawals, but froze the implementation of the accord the following month. Israel claimed that the Palestinians had not carried out their part of the accord and placed new conditions on further withdrawals. These developments again stalled the peace process and delayed negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1999 elections Netanyahu was defeated by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who vowed to move the peace process forward.
Negotiations between Barak and Arafat were encouraging at first, but foundered over expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the issue of how Israelis and Palestinians could share the city of Jerusalem. Despite the active participation of U.S. president Bill Clinton, the two sides were unable to come to agreement after marathon negotiating sessions held at Camp David, Maryland, in the summer of 2000. The failure generated bitter frustration among both Israelis and Palestinians.
The volatile situation erupted in September with the outbreak of a second intifada (known as the Al Aqsa intifada, after the holy Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem). Palestinian militants resumed widespread resistance to Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with a string of devastating terrorist attacks in Israel proper. At the same time, the Israeli army increased its restrictions on the Palestinian population and stepped up its military tactics. During the second intifada, loss of life was heavy on both sides and peace negotiations broke down. In the absence of meaningful diplomacy, the situation was marked by increased use of force by the Israeli side and frequent suicide and ambush attacks by the Palestinian side.
In a February 2001 election Likud party leader Ariel Sharon defeated Barak and became prime minister of Israel. In late 2001 Sharon asserted that Arafat was either unwilling or unable to represent the Palestinian people adequately and was therefore irrelevant to the peace process. Sharon disengaged from the peace process and announced that Israel would withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. With mounting pressure from both Palestinian and Israeli extremist groups, the subsequent period was marked by pessimism and bitterness on both sides of the conflict.
In December 2001, in response to a surge in Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, Israeli forces surrounded and severely damaged Arafat’s compound in the West Bank town of Râm Allâh, also known as Ramallah. Israeli forces kept Arafat confined to the compound until he traveled to France for medical care shortly before his death there in November 2004. Arafat was succeeded as leader of the Palestinian National Authority by Mahmoud Abbas.
In September 2005 Israel evacuated Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip after the Israeli parliament had approved Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the territory. Although Palestinians welcomed the departure, the PNA still sought a negotiated settlement with Israel over the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In November, Sharon called an election for the following March. He resigned from Likud and formed a new party called Kadima. In January 2006 Sharon suffered a stroke from which he failed to recover. He was succeeded in Kadima and as prime minister by Ehud Olmert. The peace process was thrown into turmoil by the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Assembly elections. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. As a result of the Hamas victory, international aid, upon which the PNA depended for its economic welfare, was restricted.
Kadima’s victory in the Israeli election failed to ease the crisis. Low-level skirmishes between Gaza-based militias and the Israeli forces erupted into a full-scale Israeli offensive in June when Hamas killed two Israeli soldiers and abducted a third in an incursion from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. From June to August 2006 more than 200 Palestinians were killed in the offensive that also saw the destruction of much of Gaza’s infrastructure, with the Olmert government refusing to bargain for the release of the soldier.
Then in July, on the northern border of Israel, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers, killed several others, and shelled a number of communities. Israel responded by launching an attack on southern Lebanon, including air raids on Hezbollah strongholds as far north as southern Beirut, leading to the deaths of about 1,200 Lebanese civilians. The escalation of the crisis saw thousands of rockets launched daily into northern Israel by Hezbollah, causing the deaths of about 160 Israeli civilians, the disruption of Israel’s economy, and the temporary flight or confinement in bomb shelters of roughly a million Israelis. The fighting caused tremendous damage to the infrastructure of southern Lebanon and some parts of Beirut, and left 1 million Lebanese homeless or displaced. By the time a ceasefire was agreed at the United Nations (UN) in August, more than 100 Israeli troops and some 500 Hezbollah insurgents had been killed in fierce fighting. The UN ceasefire resolution called for the withdrawal of both antagonists and for southern Lebanon to be occupied by the Lebanese army augmented by a UN force.