In 2014, Rihanna, Zayn Malik, and Coldplay found themselves in the media limelight for posting pro-Palestinian tweets. As #freePalestine and #freedomforpalestine started trending, their popularity in Israel fell. We can attribute this to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s longest-running and most controversial conflicts. Today, over 7 million Palestinians identify themselves as refugees, with Israelis continuing to settle in the territory that Palestinians claim as their own.
Torn between the Jewish Zionist movement and the Palestinian nationalist movement lies a piece of land and millions of people. Whom does this land belong to? Is there more to this conflict than a piece of land? What has this conflict led to? Is there a way out of this labyrinth of suffering? Within Israeli and Palestinian societies, the conflict has generated a wide variety of opinions. A hallmark of the conflict has been the level of violence conducted by rebel armies, paramilitary groups, terror cells and individuals.
The conflict has its roots in history. In the 1900’s, the area which is now known as Israel and Palestine was under Ottoman rule. The Ottoman Empire was religiously diverse with Muslims, Christians, and Jews living together. This happily ever after was hindered when Muslims in the area started developing a sense of not just being Arabs but also having a distinct national identity: Palestinian. Concurrently, the Zionism movement started emerging in Europe. They believed Judaism was not just a religion but also a national identity and so, Jews deserved a home in their ancestral land. Their idea was similar to how the French live in France and the Indians live in India.
As both groups started working towards developing this area as their homeland, the peace they had been living in vanished forever. Between 1896 and 1948, millions of Jews migrated to British-controlled Palestine, with many fleeing the Holocaust in Germany. Palestinians regarded this as another form of European colonisation. As more Jews settled into farming communes, tension rose between Jews and Arabs, with both sides committing acts of violence.
The Jewish population in British Palestine and violence between the two groups continued to rise. And so, in 1947, the United Nations (UN) approved a plan to divide the land into two areas, with distinct borders, to form Israel and Palestine. The plan was meant to give the Jews a state and to establish Palestinian independence. It declared Jerusalem a ‘special international zone’ , owing to its religious importance, whose administration was to be controlled by the UN. Jerusalem has a place of importance in three vital religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Because of this, both countries consider Jerusalem as their capital. But the map largely looked like a jigsaw puzzle. An average Palestinian citizen who lived in West Bank had no idea about what would be happening in Gaza (and still doesn’t).
The formation of a Jewish majority state in the Middle East didn’t sit well with the rest of the Arab countries. They saw the UN’s plan as another way of the Europeans stealing their land. Many of the Arab states came together and declared war on Israel, in 1948, to establish a unified Arab Palestine. Despite being a new-born country, Israel defeated them and proved its military might. In doing so, Israel pushed past its borders and took control of a significant portion of Palestine. The war forced hundreds of Palestinians to flee their homes and become refugees in the surrounding Arab countries, making them stateless.
In 1967, a six-day war took place between Israel and the Arab nations. Again, Israel won. Not only did it annex the whole of Palestine but also territories from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel got the right to govern the Palestinians. In the decades that followed, the Arab countries made peace with Israel. This allowed them to get their Israeli annexed territories back. The broader Israeli-Arab conflict now morphed into a more specific Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
With the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, the founder, Yasser Arafat, used military tactics including attacks on Israeli civilians. The PLO oversaw guerrilla groups on the one hand and used non-violent approaches on the other. Meanwhile, the Israeli started moving into West Bank and East Jerusalem, establishing Israeli settlements. They undertook this for three main reasons: (i) religious reasons so that people could live close to Jerusalem, (ii) to claim the land as Israeli territory and (iii) cheap housing. As more civilians settled into Palestinian territories, the military followed. This led to increased checkpoints for Palestinians and forced Palestinians off their land. In effect, it blurred the boundaries of any future Palestinian state.
By the 1980’s, the frustration among Palestinians grew, and they launched the First Intifada (meaning uprising). This began by boycotting Israeli products and services, and refusing to pay taxes or working jobs in Israel. However, when the Israeli military cracked down on the protestors, violence ensued. The Intifada led to the rise of Hamas in Gaza, an extremist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction, which considered the PLO too compromise-minded. Till date, Hamas has garnered support not just because of its military strength but because of the social welfare projects undertaken by it in Gaza. They have built schools, mosques and clinics.
In 1993, the PLO accepted Israel’s right to exist and in exchange wanted Israel to recognize it as the legitimate representative of Palestinians. That was the beginning of real peace negotiations between the two sides. Leaders from both sides signed the American-brokered Oslo Accords. This allowed Palestinians more freedom to govern themselves. Hard-liners on both sides, however, were not happy with the terms of the peace process and ensued violence to sabotage this process. After signing the second round of the Oslo Accords, the far-right Israeli groups shot Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin.
The US has been pro-Israel since the Cold War. US politicians view the pro-Israel propaganda as a method to garner support from their citizens by appealing to their anti-Muslim sentiments. This, however, has larger implications. The domino effect of the US supporting Israel is that the US’ allies have started to support Israel too. A good example is India. India aligned itself with Palestine after the partition in 1948, but since it has aligned with the US now, they have forced India to support Israel. In 2018, the USA shifted its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in Israel, internationally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As a consequence, other countries such as Guatemala and Paraguay also shifted their embassies to Jerusalem.
The crux of this conflict remains the same till date. Both parties want a country to exert their distinct identity, and none will compromise with the other. Caught in the crossfire between the two governments and extremist groups, it’s the voices and lives of the citizens that are being compromised. Everyone who identifies as either a Palestinian or an Israeli knows at least one person who lost their life because of this conflict. Most Jews see the Palestinians’ demand for an independent state as just. Most Palestinians prefer a two-state solution. Both Israelis and Palestinians are afraid of the people in charge on the other side. The people can’t trust their information sources because they know it’s fueled with propaganda. The settlements resemble regular suburbs from any part of the world, with people trying to live peacefully in a place.
Palestinian governance is divided between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The Israeli government is skeptical of Hamas and its goal of Israel’s destruction. As violence continues, there seems to be little political will for peace. Any successful peace initiative would need resolving the issues: West Bank settlements, Israeli security, Palestinian refugees and their right to return, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and water rights. However, there are three major hurdles: (i) Israeli settlements continue expanding, (ii) the PLO, and Hamas cannot negotiate jointly and (iii) everyone is unsure regarding how to get the talks started. The truth of the matter is the governments aren’t solving the conflict anymore, they are just managing it. Israel constructed walls and checkpoints after the second Intifada, leaving Palestinians to believe they have no future as a people.
The recent Israeli elections have not given a clear mandate but Likud party’s chief, incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to head a coalition government. It remains to be seen whether there would be any change in attitude of leaders on both sides of the fence. For this to happen, it is necessary that both parties trust each other, and explore the possibility of coexistence and the legitimacy of each other’s historical narrative. The United Nations should come out of the shadow of the US and mediate a solution for the welfare of the people in this war torn area.
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