Palestine and Israel: A Primer





Before Israel

After World War I, the League of Nations (dominated by Britain and France) carved up the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The territory now made up of Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan was granted to Great Britain as a quasi-colonial Mandate. In 1922, Britain established the emirate of Transjordan (east of the Jordan River), still part of its mandate but administratively distinct from Palestine.

When Britain assumed control of Palestine, over 90 percent of its population were Palestinians. A small indigenous Jewish population had lived there for generations, and a newer, politicized community linked to the Zionist movement had begun to immigrate to Palestine in the 1880s.

During World War I, Britain made promises to Arab leaders for an independent Arab state that would include Palestine (the Hussain-McMahon correspondence) and to the Zionists for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration). These commitments conflicted with each other as well as with Britain's intent to retain control over Palestine.

European Jewish immigration increased dramatically after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, leading to accelerated land purchases and new Jewish settlements. Palestinian resistance to British control and Zionist settlement climaxed with the Arab revolt of 1936-39, which Britain suppressed with the help of Zionist militias.

Following World War II, escalating hostilities between Palestinian Arabs and Jews prompted Britain to relinquish its mandate over Palestine. The United Nations decided that the only means of resolving the conflict was to partition the land into two states. Britain evacuated, and Zionist leaders declared the state of Israel on May 15, 1948. Neighboring Arab states then intervened militarily, precipitating the first Arab-Israeli war.

The war left historic Palestine divided into three parts. The 1949 armistice gave Israel control over 77 percent of the territory. Jordan occupied and annexed East Jerusalem and the hill country of central Palestine (the "West Bank"). Egypt took control of the coastal plain around the city of Gaza (the Gaza Strip). The Palestinian Arab State envisioned by the partition plan was never established.




Zionism is a modern political movement based on the proposition that Jews constitute one nationality and religion, and that the only solution to anti-Semitism is the concentration of as many Jews as possible in Palestine. Zionism gained adherents among Jews and support from the West as a consequence of the murderous anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Nazi holocaust. Not all Jews are Zionist, although today Zionism in some form is embraced by a large majority of Jews. Zionism drew on Jewish religious attachment to Jerusalem and parts of Palestine (traditionally known as Eretz Israel, or the Land of Israel) but it is in essence a modern political ideology, influenced by the nationalist movements of Eastern Europe and by 19th-century colonial conquest.

While all Zionists agree about the need for a Jewish state, significant arguments about what the territorial extent of that state should be divide Zionists from one another. Some Zionists (in Israel and abroad) support the notion of “Greater Israel,” which would include not only 1948 Israel but the permanent annexation of territories occupied since 1967 as well. To maintain the Jewish character of Greater Israel, these Zionists, who are found in the leaderships and memberships of both the Labor and Likud parties, implicitly or explicitly support expulsion of the Palestinians from some or even all of the occupied territories. Many Zionists, however, especially Israelis who understand the costs of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, are willing to withdraw from the occupied territories in order to have a smaller but still Jewish Israel. Israeli journalist Tanya Reinhart cites recent Israeli opinion polls indicating that over half of Israelis support withdrawal from most of the occupied lands. Such a withdrawal would be the basis for a “two-state solution”—that is, a revised version of the partition plan of 1947, in which an Israeli/Jewish and a Palestinian state would exist side by side.

Non-Zionist Jews, a distinct minority, support the right of Jews to live in historic Palestine, but unlike Zionists they believe that nationalisms like Zionism, based on ethnicity or religion, are a recipe for discrimination and endless political conflict. At least some of these Jews support a democratic secular state consisting of present-day Israel together with the occupied territories, in which Jews and Palestinians would live as equal citizens.




The Land

The ongoing dispute in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs--or more accurately, between Israelis and Palestinians--is not a religious conflict; it is essentially a struggle over land. For the Palestinians, this is their homeland, where they have lived for centuries and generation after generation. The Zionists base their claim to Palestine on the Biblical promise to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17:8), on the historic connection between the Land of Israel and the Jewish people and/or on the desperate need for a haven from European anti-Semitism.

Palestine is a small territory: approximately 10,000 square miles or about the size of Maryland. In 1947 in Resolution 181 (II), the United Nations General Assembly announced the partition plan of Palestine into two states; one Arab Palestinian and one Jewish. Fifty-six percent of the land was designated for the emerging Jewish State, while only 43 percent was designated for the Arab State. The Arab countries rejected this plan and viewed it as unjust to the Arab Palestinian majority who constituted two thirds of the population and owned more than 80 percent of the land at the time of the partition. According to the UN partition plan, the area of Jerusalem and Bethlehem was to become an international zone.

In recent years, the majority of Palestinian people have come to accept the existence of Israel on 78 percent of historical Palestine. This recognition was made official in the PLO declaration of independence at its 19th session in Algeria on November 18, 1988 and affirmed in 1996. Likewise, the majority of the Palestinian people supported participation in the Oslo peace talks with Israel. Palestinians hoped these talks would allow the Palestinians to establish their own viable state on 22 percent of remaining Palestine and live in peace alongside of Israel. Some Palestinian minority factions, however, primarily those with radical religious ideologies (Hamas & Islamic Jihad), still do not recognize Israel's right to exist on the land of Palestine.

At the same time, Israeli Jews are also divided on the issue of establishing a Palestinian state. The Israeli right, including the ruling Likud party as well as right wing religious parties and the militant settler's movement, rejects any land concessions as basis for peace. In fact, they believe that Palestinians have no place in Palestine and that the land of Palestine was promised only to the Jewish people. Other Israelis accept the idea that the establishment of a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel is the only way to bring a just and lasting peace.




The June 1967 War

In June 1967 Israel decisively defeated the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies and captured the remainder of mandate Palestine as well as the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria. The newly-captured parts of former mandate Palestine, known since 1948 as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have since 1967 often been referred to as the "occupied territories."

Politically, the war established Israel as the regional military power. The war discredited the Arab regimes, especially radical Arab nationalism represented by Egypt's Nasser and the Ba'th parties of Syria and Iraq. By contrast, the Palestinian national movement emerged as a major actor after 1967 in the form of the political and guerrilla groups that made up the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).




The Occupied Territories

Prior to 1948, neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip had constituted separate geographical units. Their distinctiveness developed as a result of the partition that created a Jewish state in Palestine. Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the 1967 war. Israel withdrew from the Sinai during 1979-82, as required by its peace treaty with Egypt, but annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. In violation of international law, Israel has confiscated over 52 percent of the West Bank territory and 40 percent of the Gaza Strip for military use and for settlements exclusively inhabited by Israeli-Jews.





The 1947 UN partition plan proposed that Jerusalem and its environs would become an international zone, independent of both the proposed Jewish and Palestinian Arab states. In the 1948-49 War, Israel took control of the western part of Jerusalem, while Jordan took the eastern part, including the old walled city containing important Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites. The 1949 armistice line cut the city in two. In the June 1967 war Israel captured East Jerusalem, immediately annexed it, and reaffirmed its annexation in 1981. This is a most difficult point of contention.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital and rejects any negotiations over its political future. Palestinians see Jerusalem as central to the conflict. As a result, Palestinian negotiators have, to date, been unwilling to agree to a settlement with Israel that does not permit East Jerusalem to become the capital of a new Palestinian state.




The October 1973 War

After coming to power in late 1970, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt indicated to the US that he was willing to resolve the conflict with Israel in exchange for Egyptian territory lost in 1967. When these overtures were ignored by Washington and Tel Aviv, Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli forces occupying the Sinai and the Golan Heights in October 1973. The crisis prompted American political intervention, along with sharply increased military aid to Israel. US Secretary of state Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy brought about limited disengagement agreements in the Sinai and Golan. But by late 1975 these efforts had exhausted their potential, and no comprehensive settlement was in sight.

As efforts to convene a Geneva conference involving all parties to the dispute remained stalled, Sadat decided in late 1977 to break the status quo by dealing separately with Israel under US auspices. His visit to Jerusalem on November 19, 1977 began what came to be known as the "Camp David process."




Camp David I

In September 1978 President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the Camp David presidential retreat. They worked out two agreements: a framework for peace between Egypt and Israel; and a general framework for resolution of the Middle East crisis--i.e. the Palestinian question.

This latter agreement proposed to grant autonomy to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, to install a local administration for a five-year interim period, and to decide the ultimate status of the territories after that period.

Only the Egyptian-Israeli part of the Camp David agreement was ever implemented. The Palestinians and other Arab states rejected the autonomy concept as contrary to self-determination and Israel immediately sabotaged negotiations by continuing to confiscate Palestinian lands and build new settlements.




The First Intifada

In December 1987, the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza started a mass uprising against the Israeli occupation. This uprising, or intifada (which means "shaking off" in Arabic), was not started or orchestrated by the PLO leadership in Tunisia. Rather, it was a popular mobilization that drew on the organizations and institutions that had developed under occupation. The intifada involved hundreds of thousands of people, many with no previous resistance experience, including children, teenagers and women. For the first few years, it involved many forms of non-violent civil disobedience, including massive demonstrations, general strikes, refusal to pay taxes, boycotts of Israeli products, political graffiti and the establishment of underground schools (since regular schools were closed by the military as reprisals for the uprising). It also included stone throwing, Molotov cocktails and the erection of barricades to impede the movement of Israeli military forces.

Intifada activism was organized through popular committees under the umbrella of the United National Leadership of the Uprising. The UNLU was a coalition of the four PLO parties active in the occupied territories: Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Palestine Peoples Party (PPP, formerly the Communist Party) in the Occupied Territories. This broad-based resistance drew unprecedented international attention to the situation facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and challenged the occupation as never before.

Under the leadership of Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, Israel tried to smash the intifada with "force, power and blows." Army commanders instructed troops to break the bones of demonstrators. From 1987 to 1991 Israeli forces killed over 1,000 Palestinians, including over 200 under the age of sixteen. By 1990, most of the UNLU leaders had been arrested and the intifada lost its cohesive force, although it continued for several more years. Political divisions and violence within the Palestinian community escalated, especially the growing rivalry between the various PLO factions and Islamist organizations (HAMAS and Islamic Jihad). Palestinian militants killed over 250 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with the occupation authorities and about 100 Israelis during this period.

Although the intifada did not bring an end to the occupation, it made clear that the status quo was untenable. The intifada shifted the center of gravity of Palestinian political initiative away from the PLO leadership in Tunisia to the occupied territories. Palestinian activists in the occupied territories demanded that the PLO adopt a clear political program to guide the struggle for independence. In response, the Palestine National Council (a Palestinian government-in-exile), convened in Algeria in November 1988, recognized the state of Israel, proclaimed an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and renounced terrorism. The Israeli government did not respond to these gestures, claiming that nothing had changed and that the PLO was a terrorist organization with which it would never negotiate. The US did acknowledge that the PLO's policies had changed, but did little to encourage Israel to abandon its intransigent stand.




Failure of the Oslo Accords

After a series of secret negotiations in Norway in the fall of 1993, Israeli and Palestinian officials signed a peace agreement called The Oslo Accords. On September 19, 1993, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Declaration of Principles, i.e. the Oslo Accords, on the White House lawn under the endorsement of former President Bill Clinton. The Oslo agenda divided the peace process into an interim phase to establish limited Palestinian autonomy and a final status phase to discuss the most difficult issues, including Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee problem. When the Oslo Accords expired in 1999, the interim phase remained incomplete. Discussion of final status issues has been suspended and any resumption of negotiations seems highly improbable until a new framework is established.

The 1993 Oslo Memorandum is considered by the international community to mark the beginning of the "peace process" between Palestinians and Israelis. Unfortunately, the dark side of the Oslo process is that even while talks were ongoing, the construction of illegal Israeli settlements accelerated. There are now twice as many Israeli settlers in the Occupied territories than there was when the Oslo accords were signed. The settlement construction has been accompanied by the development of a "bypass road" network to link Israel and the settlements by high-speed roads that exclude Palestinians. Another concomitant of the settlement process has been the ongoing seizures and arbitrary demolition of Palestinian homes.

The unabated Israeli push to settle in the occupied Palestinian Territories has violated the spirit and letter of the Oslo agreements and has served to undermine the hopes Palestinians had held out for the peace process.

The provisions of the Oslo Memorandum include the following:

1. The creation of the Palestinian National Authority and future PNA democratic elections.

2. A gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Occupied Territories.

3. The transfer of authority of the Occupied Territories from Israel to the PNA over a five-year period.

4. A final status agreement between both camps based on UN Resolutions 338 and 242.

On September 28, 1995, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip was ratified. In addition to other provisions including those outlined in Oslo I, this document, commonly known as Oslo II, detailed the implementation of the second phase of Palestinian self-rule in the Occupied Territories.

Its provisions included the following:

1. Elections for the Council of the Palestinian National Authority

2. A gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces from the centers of Palestinian populated areas.

3. The establishment of Palestinian self-rule in the Occupied Territories.

4. The prohibition of any change in the status of the West Bank and Gaza pending the outcome of final status negotiations.

5. The transfer of planning and zoning authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the Israeli Military Authorities to the PNA.

6. The division of the West Bank into areas A, B, and C. Area C, under complete Israeli military control, includes 70 percent of the West Bank whereas Area A, under complete PA control, makes up 3 percent. The remaining Area B is under joint Palestinian-Israeli control.

In both the Oslo I and II treaties, many important issues were either left vague or ignored. The status of Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees, as well as the borders of a future Palestinian state were not addressed in the Memorandum and were set aside for future negotiations. The language on other critical issues such as control of water resources, security protocols, and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories was ambiguous. In practice, the Israeli government has been able to impose its interpretation of the accords without considering of Palestinian objections.

In the post-Oslo period, the Palestinians in residing the West Bank and Gaza Strip remained under Israeli military occupation. Under occupation they have been subject to the arbitrary practices of occupation authorities. For example, even in the practice of administrative detention, in which the Israeli government legally prosecutes and imprisons individuals without due process or a public trial, continues to be practiced. In 1998, 98 Palestinians were placed in Israeli prisons under administrative detention. Jewish settlements continue to emerge and expand alongside Israeli bypass roads and industrial sites causing the displacement of Palestinian families, the expropriation of their land, and the demolition of their homes. Over 800 Palestinian homes have been demolished since Oslo I, and the number continues to increase. Today, 2,000 Palestinian homes have outstanding demolition orders.

Curfews, military checkpoints, and closure policies continue to regulate and restrict the movement of the Palestinian population within the West Bank and Gaza strip. In 1999, only 600 Palestinians were given permits by Israel to enter and exit the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the approximately 3 million Palestinians without the right to travel outside their permitted place of residence. The Palestinian economy continues to deteriorate under Israel's closure policy, which effectively prevents normal trade relations between the Occupied Territories, themselves and their neighboring states. In 1993 alone, the GDP of the Palestinian economy shrunk 22 percent, and the trend has yet to significantly change.




Al-Aqsa Intifada 2000

The deeply flawed "peace process" initiated at Oslo, combined with the daily frustrations and humiliations inflicted upon Palestinians in the occupied territories, converged to ignite a second intifada beginning in late September 2000. On September 28, Likud leader, and now Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon visited the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) in the company of 1,000 armed guards. In the context of July's tense negotiations over Jerusalem's holy places, and Sharon's well-known call for Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, this move provoked large Palestinian protests in Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers killed six civilian protesters. These killings inaugurated over a month of demonstrations and clashes across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For a brief period, these demonstrations spread into Palestinian towns inside Israel.

The militant wing of Fatah, which has coordinated many street actions, now has a substantial cache of small arms and has fired often on Israeli troops. The Israeli military response escalated dramatically after two soldiers, allegedly "lost" in the PA-controlled West Bank town of Ramallah, were killed October 12 by a Palestinian mob returning from the funeral of an unarmed young man whom soldiers had shot dead the day before. The IDF attacked PA installations in Ramallah, Gaza and elsewhere with helicopter gunships and missiles. Subsequently, the IDF has not always waited for Israelis to die before answering Palestinian small arms fire with tank shells and artillery, including the shelling of civilian neighborhoods in the West Bank and Gaza.

For these actions and the use of live ammunition to control demonstrations of unarmed Palestinians, several international human rights organizations have condemned Israel for use of excessive force. The UN Security Council passed a similar condemnation, from which the US abstained, and on October 20, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution condemning Israel. Israel, the US and four Polynesian Island nations voted no, and a third of the assembly abstained. Despite a truce agreement at Sharm al-Sheikh, a later agreement to quell violence between Arafat and Shimon Peres, and Bill Clinton's attempts to restart negotiations in January 2001, the second intifada did not look like it would end soon. In December 2000, Barak called early elections for Prime Minister to forestall a likely vote of no confidence in the Knesset, and he eventually lost to Sharon in the February 6 election.





On April 3, 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a major military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, home to some fourteen thousand Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. The Israelis' expressed aim was to capture or kill Palestinian militants responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed more than seventy Israelis and other civilians since March 2002. At least 140 buildings most of them multi-family dwellings were completely destroyed in the camp, and severe damage caused to more than 200 others has rendered them uninhabitable or unsafe. An estimated 4,000 people, more than a quarter of the population of the camp, became homeless because of this destruction. The Israeli army intentionally also damaged the water, sewage and electrical infrastructure of the camp.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least fifty-two Palestinians were killed as a result of IDF operations in Jenin. At least twenty-two of those confirmed dead were civilians, including children, physically disabled, and elderly people. Throughout the incursion, IDF soldiers used Palestinian civilians to protect themselves from danger, deploying them as "human shields" and forcing them to perform dangerous work. During "Operation Defensive Shield," the IDF blocked the passage of emergency medical vehicles and personnel to Jenin refugee camp for eleven days, from April 4 to April 15. During this period, injured combatants and civilians in the camp as well as the sick had no access to emergency medical treatment.

After the incursion of Jenin, the UN organized a fact-finding mission to develop accurate information regarding the events in the Jenin refugee camp in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1405. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari to head the team that included Cornelio Sommaruga, former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. After originally agreeing to the fact-finding mission, Israel pressured Annan to abandon the mission by insisting that its soldiers be protected from prosecution. It wanted more counter-terrorism experts to be added to the group and demanded that activities by Palestinian militants in the camp also be scrutinized.

(For more information on atrocities committed on Jenin, go to the Human Rights Watch report.)


Courtesy of the Middle East Research and Information Project