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Arab-Israeli Conflict

The origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be traced back more than a century, when Jews, disillusioned with prospects for integration into European societies, began to migrate to Palestine in 1882, not as individuals seeking to pray and die in Jerusalem but as a part of a political movement. In 1897, this political trend was further inspired by the First Zionist Congress, which called for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thus spawning the modern Jewish national movement, Zionism. The land, which the Jews considered theirs by virtue of God 's will and historic rights, was, however, inhabited by another people, the Palestinians, who had lived there for centuries, albeit not until recently as a political entity.

The Early Years.

Yet the first Jewish immigrants to Palestine did not encounter resistance from the local population. It was only a few decades later that the Zionist movement began to be perceived as a threat by the indigenous Palestinian population, as well as by other Arabs. The turning point in the relationship between the two national movements, the Arab and Palestinian on the one hand and Zionism on the other, was the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour promised a “national home for the Jewish People” in Palestine, adding that the British Government would pursue its “best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

This move by the British Government, which acquired mandatory power in Palestine in 1920, following World War I, angered the Palestinians and resulted in an eruption of violence that was to continue, intermittently, into the twenty-first century. The Palestinians were further alienated by the massive Zionist immigration to Palestine, which had brought the number of Jews from 24,000 in 1881 (less than five percent of the total population) to 85,000 by 1914 (twelve percent). Immigration intensified further following the Balfour Declaration and the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1933, swelling the number of Jewish immigrants to 368,845 by 1945. In Jerusalem (Arabic, al-Quds) alone, the most significant city in Palestine for both Jews and Arabs (Muslim and Christian alike), the number of Jews grew from 53,000 in 1931 to 70,000 in 1935.

Consequently, in 1936 the Palestinians began a revolt against British policy in Palestine that lasted until 1939. One of the leaders of this revolt was al-Ḥājj Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, muftī of Jerusalem and president of the Supreme Muslim Council in Mandatory Palestine (appointed to these posts by the British in 1920). When the revolt began, al-Ḥājj Amīn assumed the presidency of the Arab Higher Committee and became a pivotal figure in the Palestinian national movement.

Several years before the revolt began, al-Ḥājj Amīn had sought to bring the Palestinian national struggle against Zionism to the attention of the international Muslim community by (1) raising funds to refurbish the two revered mosques of al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf (“the Noble Sanctuary”) in Jerusalem, al-Aqṣā and the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Ṣakhrah); (2) holding an international congress of ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) in November 1928, attended by delegations from Damascus, Beirut, and Transjordan; and (3) holding an international Muslim conference in Jerusalem in December 1931. This conference, attended by 150 Muslim scholars from all over the Islamic world, passed a resolution on the importance of Palestine and the holiness of Jerusalem for Muslims.

The muftī 's drive to refurbish the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem elicited a strong reaction from the Jewish populace, which claimed that this reconstruction would adversely affect the Western Wall, the ancient site of the first and second Jewish temples, and Jewish access to it. Thus, the national conflict took a religious turn in the Holy Land, the struggle over competing national goals assuming at times the shape of a religious war over holy places and symbols. This trend was reinforced by unfortunate events in another city holy to both Jews and Muslims, Hebron (Arabic, al-Khalīl). Sixty-four unarmed Orthodox Jews were massacred by Arabs in Hebron on August 28, 1929, in riots which had erupted in several cities, reflecting growing tension surrounding the refurbishment of al-Haram al-Sharīf.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, there were intermittent calls for jihād, most notably by the imām of Haifa, Shaykh ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām (1882–1935), and his followers. Likewise, during the 1936–1939 revolt, Syrian, Iraqi, and even the remote but active Indian and other Muslim religious authorities issued fatwās (religious legal opinions) endorsing jihād for the sake of Palestine as an obligation of Muslims. Conspicuous by their silence, however, were the ʿulamāʿ of Egypt 's al-Azhar University.

Britain 's regional strategic considerations during the rise of German military power and its fear of losing credibility with the Arabs forced it in subsequent years to balance its policy in Palestine. This led to the White Paper of May 17, 1939, in which the British government seemed to accept the Palestinian demand for national independence with an Arab majority (within ten years), restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine and the sale of lands to the Jews. This angered the Jews, who were meanwhile building a formidable military force and a complex social infrastructure.

Clashes were inevitable between the Palestinians and the Jewish immigrants. With 1.2 million indigenous Palestinians and more than 650,000 Jews in the Yishuv—the Jewish settlement in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel—facing one another at close quarters and each group holding fast to its claims in Palestine, the stage was set for further conflict when, in September 1947, Britain announced its intention to depart from Palestine on April 15, 1948.

United Nations Resolution 181.

Resolution 181 of the United Nations, issued on November 29, 1947, recommended the partition of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state but failed to avert a conflict. David Ben-Gurion—one of the founders of the Jewish state and later the first prime minister of Israel—and the other Zionist leaders reluctantly accepted the UN resolution, because they understood that this was the best the Jewish community in Palestine could achieve under the given circumstances. The Arabs, however, elected to fight to reverse what they considered an injustice that would force them to relinquish parts of their homeland.

After approximately six months of fighting between Arab and Jewish forces (December 1947–May 1948), the Palestinian and Arab volunteer forces were defeated, and on May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in parts of historic Palestine. As a result of the war, approximately three-quarters of the 27,000 square kilometers (10,400 square miles) of Palestinian land came under the control of the state of Israel; the remaining portions—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—came under the control of Jordan and Egypt, respectively. More than one million Palestinians either fled or were forced to leave by the Israeli forces. Many Palestinian cities, such as Haifa (Ḥayfā in Arabic, Ḥefa in Hebrew), Acre (ʿAkkā in Arabic, ʿAkko in Hebrew), Jaffa (Yāfā in Arabic, Yafo in Hebrew), Lydda (al-Ludd in Arabic, Lod in Hebrew), and Ramallah, and, above all, the western part of Jerusalem, as well as about four hundred villages, were largely abandoned by the Arab Palestinian population as a result of this war. Those who left their homes became refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some Palestinians sought refuge in other Arab countries, including the Persian Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular). Most, however, continued to feel like foreigners and to be treated as such in the countries where they took up residence, a mirror image of the earlier situation of the Jews in Europe. In addition, the Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan and to a lesser extent Lebanon, refused to grant the Palestinians citizenship in order to prevent their assimilation into the host societies.

The defeat of the Arab armies, the massive immigration of the Palestinian population to neighboring Arab countries, and above all, the loss of much of Palestine to the Jewish forces (led by the Haganah [Defense] paramilitary group), sent a shock wave through the Arab world, then in the early throes of decolonization. Many questions arose about the Arab regimes and their inability to deal with vital questions like the foreign occupation of Arab/Muslim countries. Even the sincerity and commitment of the leaders of the Arab world were questioned, and a crisis of legitimacy soon developed. Consequently, several coups d’état and revolutions—most notably the 1952 revolution in Egypt—were staged in search of better leadership and a brighter future for the Arab nations.

During this time, Israel was growing stronger militarily, economically, and demographically. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a massive Jewish immigration from the Arab countries changed the social and demographic characteristics of Israeli society. The perceived Arab threat became a major factor in uniting and strengthening the fabric of this society, and the enormous support of world Jewry accelerated the growth of technology, agriculture, and medicine. Israel became an industrialized country complete with a military industry. It continued to rely on Western powers (France, Britain, and the United States) but sought to develop its own defense systems, including nuclear weaponry.

From Suez to the June 1967 War.

Nine years after winning its first battle against Palestinian and Arab forces, Israel collaborated with France and Britain in defeating the Egyptian army in the Suez War of 1956, during which Israeli forces occupied the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. One reason for this war was the nationalization of the Suez Canal (on July 26, 1956) by the four-year-old Free Officers Revolution, which had brought about the demise of the monarchy in Egypt. The main figure among these revolutionary leaders was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became president of Egypt in 1954 and eventually became the leader of modern Arab nationalism until his death in September 1970. Ironically, Nasser 's military defeat in the 1956 war strengthened him politically and morally, as the occupying forces were ordered by the United Nations to evacuate the Sinai, mainly because of the active role of the United States and the Soviet Union. Upset by the fact that Israel, France, and Great Britain had secretly planned the campaign to evict Egypt from the Suez Canal, thus ignoring American interest in the Middle East Region, the United States joined the Soviet Union in a political campaign, primarily through the United Nations, to force the invading forces to withdraw from the Sinai, the Suez Canal, and the Gaza Strip. The Arab world expressed strong solidarity with Egypt, and Nasser used the crisis to galvanize the Arabs and the rest of the Muslim world in his struggle against imperialism and Zionism.

Nasser's commitment to Arab unity was put to the test in May 1967. Soviet and Syrian intelligence reports indicated that Israel was massing troops on its border with Syria. Nasser, whose troops were engaged in bloody battles in Yemen in support of the revolutionary forces against the Imām, rushed to mobilize the remainder of his troops and station them along the southern borders of Israel. Nasser acted on the principle that aggression against any Arab country was to be considered aggression against Egypt.

Three weeks of high military and political tension erupted into war early on June 5, 1967, when Israel attacked and destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, thus disabling the Arabs less than two decades after they had attained statehood. This defeat in the Six-Day War was a major turning point in the history of the Middle East. In those six days the Israelis occupied the remaining 22 percent of the Palestinian lands, which were then in the hands of Jordan and Egypt (the West Bank, including the eastern side of Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, respectively). They also reoccupied the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights of Syria, which the Likud (Consolidation) government of Menachem Begin annexed in 1981, considering it a vital security zone. Nasser took full responsibility for the defeat and submitted his resignation as president of Egypt. Because of enormous public pressure, however, he remained in power until his death in 1970.

Ascendance of Local Nationalism.

The Arab defeat in 1967 gave the Palestinians an opportunity to become more active and to take their fate into their own hands. Thus, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been founded in 1964, gradually gained recognition among the Palestinians and the Arab nations and their leaders. Taking advantage of the Arab defeat, the PLO began to assert itself as an independent organization in the complex arena of Arab politics and became the champion of the Palestinian cause. Palestinian nationalism replaced Arab nationalism. The Palestinian issue, despite the efforts of Israel and its supporters, regained its status as the crux of the Arab-Israeli dispute and again took center stage in Middle East politics. The Arab countries continued as actors in the dispute, but realism, supported by a growing sense of local patriotism, supplanted Arab nationalism and began to prevail throughout the Arab world, including among the Palestinians.

Anwar el-Sadat's Egypt (1970–1981) led the way. Egypt continued to see itself and to be seen by others as the heart of the Arab world, but the notions of Arab unity and Pan-Arabism were now relegated to a back burner. Even the war of October 1973 against the Israeli forces in the Sinai and Golan Heights was intended above all to put Egypt and Syria in a better position to negotiate a political settlement. Sadat 's trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and the subsequent Camp David Accords (signed in September 1978), which brought about a “cold peace” between Israel and Egypt, demonstrated the point. Solving Egypt 's economic problems was Sadat 's main goal during his presidency, something for which he was willing to go the extra mile, including signing a peace treaty with Israel. Although not a high priority of his, the Palestinian problem was clearly one that Sadat wanted to solve; he even negotiated an autonomy plan with the Israelis for the Palestinians, although his formula was not accepted by the Palestinians or by the rest of the Arab world, and dissatisfaction with it brought about Egypt 's isolation by the rest of the Arab world for several years. The notion was also rejected by most Egyptians, and it eventually led to Sadat 's assassination by a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihād on October 6, 1981.

Widening of the Conflict.

Since the 1967 War, the Palestinians have been the main advocate of their own cause. Politically, they have established diplomatic relations with most countries of the world, and militarily, they have launched guerrilla attacks from any Arab country that has allowed them to do so (or could not prevent them from doing so), mainly Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan, however, the PLO lost its bases following the September 1970 civil war, which King Hussein (d. 1999) and forces loyal to him launched against the Palestinian organizations. Consequently, the focus of military activity moved to Lebanon, a militarily weaker northern neighbor of Israel. With 300,000 Palestinians living there in refugee camps, a weak central government, and sympathy for the Palestinian cause from several political and religious factions, the conditions in Lebanon were conducive to the establishment of a Palestinian military and even a social infrastructure.

Responding to repeated Palestinian raids on Israel, most of which had no military value, Israel occasionally launched massive counterattacks (such as the Litani River Operation in March 1978) and other full-scale military operations. With the cooperation of a Christian military faction led by Saʿd Ḥaddād and his successor, Anṭūn Laḥd, the Israelis created a “security zone” in southern Lebanon to protect their northern settlements from shelling and raids by Palestinian forces and their supporters in Lebanon. The Israeli counter-raids on Palestinian positions disrupted the life of the southern Lebanese, many of whom fled to the northern parts of Lebanon to seek shelter and food in a country already devastated by the civil war of 1975–1999. Consequently, support for the Palestinians in Lebanon eroded, and the last significant Palestinian military force was eradicated following the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon (in Operation Peace for Galilee) in June 1982 and the eventual takeover of Beirut, the first Arab capital to be occupied by Israeli forces. Although PLO forces held out for eighty-two days against the strongest army in the Middle East, they were ultimately forced to leave Lebanon and move their headquarters to Tunis.

Crystallization of Opposing Trends.

The move to Tunis marked the beginning of the end of Palestinian attempts to confront Israel militarily. The failure of the Palestinian guerrilla movement to liberate any part of Palestine through military operations necessitated a shift in political attitudes among many Palestinians, a shift that was on the minds of many long before the move to Tunis. Already in 1974, Palestinian intellectuals close to the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat wrote several articles hinting at a willingness of the Palestinian leadership to live side by side with a Jewish state. They first proposed a solution based on a secular democratic state in which all parties, Palestinians and Israelis, could live together. When Israel reacted very negatively to this proposal, the Palestinians eventually moved toward a compromise solution, acceptable to at least some Israelis, which became known as the two-state solution.

The harsh reality of more than 3.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war contributed to this trend toward compromise. Realpolitik replaced the maximalist demands of many Palestinians for an independent Palestinian state comprising all Palestinian lands. Almost simultaneously, however, an opposing process developed among the occupiers.

In the early days of Israel, the Arabs were blamed for their lack of willingness to reach a peace agreement with the Jewish state. After the 1967 war, however, Israel began to feel more secure and to see itself as the military superpower of the region. When the maximalists in Israel—the Likud government and the right-wing political parties—gained power in 1977, the desire to trade land occupied during the 1967 war for peace decreased. The formula “land for peace” was replaced under the various Likud governments (1977–1992) by “peace for peace.” According to this view, the land occupied in 1967 is the heart of the Holy Land. It is “liberated,” not “occupied,” land and should therefore remain under Israeli control. Israel essentially offered the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories the choice between a limited autonomy if they wished to stay in the “land of Israel”, and resettlement in Jordan where, it was argued, they could establish their Palestinian state, since the majority of the population living in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan were already Palestinians.

In order to assert the Israeli presence, Jewish settlements were built throughout the Occupied Territories with the support of Israeli governments, including the Labor government, which initiated the process before losing the 1977 elections. In addition to 184,500 Jews living in settlements around Jerusalem, about 268,000 Jews currently live on West Bank lands as settlers and control about sixty percent of the Palestinian land designated as Area C in the Oslo agreement—where Israel is granted both administrative and military control—thus complicating the attempt to reach a formula for coexistence between the two nations. During the fifteen years (1977–1992) in which the Israeli right wing had the upper hand in Israel, a spirit of defiance, indeed a Jewish fundamentalism, developed among many Israelis, many of them new immigrants from the United States and other Western countries. In view of Arab/Muslim impotence, and with strong political and generous financial and military support from the United States, the Israeli government felt no pressure to relinquish its claim to the entire Palestinian land. The Palestinians, although in many ways important actors in the Middle East conflict, had limited political and military options; they were the weakest link. Or so it seemed until December 9, 1987, when a unique combination of circumstances contributed to the eruption of an uprising against the occupying forces.

After more than twenty years of discrimination, the jailing of tens of thousands of Palestinian men and women by the Israeli forces, the confiscation of land, and the building of Jewish settlements in the heart of Arab lands, the Palestinians launched their uprising or intifāḍah. This sociopolitical endeavor is a major landmark of Palestinian history. The Palestinian people decided once again to take their fate into their own hands and not wait for salvation from the outside, not even from the PLO, their national symbol and, by Arab consensus since 1974, their sole political representative. They fought their powerful occupiers with all means available, including stones, knives, boycotts, and strikes. The Israelis, in an attempt to contain this phenomenon, adopted even harsher measures than those they had been practicing against the Palestinians since the occupation began in 1967.

In November 1988, in the midst of the intifāḍah, the Palestinians, through the PLO, expressed their desire for a historic compromise with the state of Israel, one based on a two-state solution. Once again Israel felt under no obligation to respond positively to the proposal. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence and the verbal declarations associated with it, which laid out the new attitude of the Palestinians and their desire to reach a compromise, were then overshadowed by other political events.

In August 1990, after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, many Palestinians, for psychological and political reasons, expressed sympathy with Iraq, and the PLO was perceived as having followed popular sentiment in this matter. Along with the Iraqi people, the Palestinians paid a heavy price, as the rich Arab Gulf states halted financial aid to the them and most Palestinians living in Kuwait were forced to leave that country. The consequences for the Palestinians, individually and institutionally, have been severe, contributing to further decline in the ability of the Palestinians to withstand the pressures of the occupation and the conditions of the intifāḍah, which has brought about daily clashes between the Palestinians and the Israeli army.

From the Madrid Conference to the 1993 Oslo Accords Between Israel and the PLO.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cooperation between the West and the majority of the Arab world to expel Iraq from Kuwait, the United States and Russia jointly sponsored a peace conference dealing with the Middle East problem. The parties (Israel, Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan) held their first meeting in Madrid on October 30, 1991. The process led nowhere, however, and once again the Palestinians lost hope for a peaceful, let alone just, solution, while the PLO lost further credibility among its supporters.

Meanwhile, however, some Israelis and Palestinians, working on the assumption that the open negotiations were not about to yield immediate results, met secretly in Oslo, Norway, and struck an agreement on certain principles for the first stage of Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution. This agreement was signed by Israelʾs prime minister and the PLO chairman in Washington, D.C., on September 13, 1993, leading to a major breakthrough in Middle East politics.

The signing of the Oslo agreements was a turning point in the history of Jewish-Arab relations and the history of the Middle East in general. Committed leaders emerged on both sides, leaders with vision, strategy, and positive thinking. The pragmatic Yitzhak Rabin and the visionary Shimon Peres led Israel toward a better future as an integral part of the Middle East, and many Arab leaders were equally moved by the new spirit in the Middle East. Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority (PA), concluded that there was no alternative to peace and to a historic compromise with the Jewish national movement. He repeatedly referred to this peace as the “peace of the courageous” and to Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres as “my partners.”

All these leaders were willing to compromise; they all realized that peace meant compromise, and that peace implies the end of old language and old negotiating terms premised on maximalist views. King Hussein of Jordan, whose secret relations with various Israeli leaders were known to almost everyone in the Middle East, was quick to embrace the new trend, leading him to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. King Ḥasan II of Morocco also embraced the new spirit of the Middle East, and his country came very close to signing an official peace treaty with Israel. Israeli leaders, after almost fifty years of boycott, were welcome in many Arab capitals. A new spirit prevailed in the Middle East.

Yet, there were many obstacles to the peace process. Many Palestinians and many Israelis thought that the Oslo agreement fell short of their vision for peace. Ḥamās led the opposition to the peace process on the Palestinian side, and Likud and other right-wing parties led opposition to it on the Israeli side. Ḥamās carried out several bombings in the heart of Israel with the clear intention of sabotaging the peace process. The determination of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, however, made it very difficult for the opponents of the peace process to achieve their goal. The late Yitzak Rabin and other regional leaders understood that the final victory over the old thinking of the zero-sum game would be achieved only if they continued with the peace process until the minimum requirements for peaceful coexistence could be achieved.

Unfortunately many Israelis and Palestinians were unhappy with this trend. Palestinians expressed their opposition through suicide bombings, and Israelis by launching an ugly campaign against Rabin, creating an atmosphere that led to his assassination by an Israeli religious youth in November 1995. After this, a new and less hopeful chapter opened, in which the aim was to stop the peace process that seemed to be leading to the transfer of territories to the Palestinian Authority. Rabin 's murder was more than the assassination of a visionary of peace: it was a tragedy for Palestinian-Israeli relations in general, as it had derailed the peace process.

Six months later, with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister of Israel, a new era of mistrust began in the Middle East. Netanyahu   's narrow win brought to power a right-wing coalition. Some aspects of the Oslo agreement were implemented during the three years that this government was in power, but it was clear to everyone that the momentum of the peace process had been broken and that Israeli society was not yet ready for major changes, especially with respect to its settlement policy and the question of an independent Palestinian state coexisting with the state of Israel. Israel was not ready for genuine relations with the Arabs and with the Palestinians, based on dignity and mutual recognition. Many Israelis continued to believe that Arabs could not be trusted and that Arabs understood only the language of force. This attitude, coupled with the deeply rooted religious belief in the right of the Jewish people to the entire Promised Land, returned power to hawkish politicians and generals.

But Netanyahu's failed policies, external and internal, brought back the labor party headed by General Ehud Barak, who was initially seen as someone who would continue in Rabin's path. Only six days after he was elected in May 1999 and eager to fulfill his campaign promise, Barak withdrew the Israeli army from the security zone in southern Lebanon. This withdrawal and its hasty execution had far-reaching psychological consequences for the future of Palestine, confirming the widespread belief that Ḥizbullāh's armed resistance against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon had achieved its goal of liberating occupied land through armed struggle. This withdrawal convinced many that armed struggle rather than political negotiation was the way to liberate the Palestinian and Syrian lands still occupied by Israel. Obsessed with security and the perceived need to hold the upper hand militarily in the Middle East in order to survive, the Israelis too learned a lesson from this withdrawal: they became more reluctant to give up occupied land precisely because of the dynamics this withdrawal created, giving Arabs the feeling that they can defeat Israel.

Camp David II.

The election of Ehud Barak as Israelʾs prime minister raised hopes of rekindling the spirit that prevailed after the signing of the Oslo Accords. President Clinton, in the final months of his presidency, invited the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a Camp David summit to try to resolve the conflict permanently and reach a final status agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. The leaders met for two weeks in July 2000 but achieved nothing. In fact, this summit created conflict among the leaders involved as the Israelis accused the Palestinians of turning down what they considered to be the very generous offer of the return of 92–95 percent of the occupied Palestinian land in exchange for peace. This attempt failed, primarily because of the leaders’ inability to reach a final-status agreement on essential issues such as Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.

Increasing the enormous tensions between the two parties that followed the failure to reach an agreement at Camp David II was the permit granted by Prime Minster Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon, Israel's opposition leader, to visit the Temple Mount (Ḥaram al-Sharīf) on September 28, 2000. This led to Palestinian mass demonstrations which evolved into open warfare with the Israelis in what has been called the Al-Aqṣā or Second Intifāḍah.

In 2000, George W. Bush was elected president of the United States, bringing to power a new administration with a foreign policy having far-reaching implications for the Middle East in general and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular. Surrounded by neoconservative advisors and cabinet members and with strong support from Evangelical Zionist Christians, the new presidentʾs position, despite early signs to the contrary, was unequivocally pro-Israeli.

The Tragedy of 9/11 and its Implications for the Middle East.

Terrorism became the main issue for the United States and the world with the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington. In the aftermath of this tragedy and as the new American administration has focused on what it calls the “war against global terrorism,” Israel has easily convinced the U.S. to consider Israelʾs actions in the occupied territories as part of the war on terrorism rather than focusing on the questions of settlements, water, refugees, and Jerusalem, which will be the essential elements of future negotiations.

After 9/11 President Bush, in an attempt to improve the image of the U.S. in the Arab world, moved to become more involved, leading him to the concept of the “roadmap” calling for the creation of a contiguous viable Palestinian state next to Israel. He was the first American president to speak of an independent Palestinian state which is both viable and contiguous.

Yet, given the reality on the ground, it is hard to see how this might be achieved. The settlements in the West Bank have made the achievement of a contiguous viable Palestinian state impossible. Additionally, the political and geographic realities on the Palestinian and Israeli sides have changed dramatically in the last few years.

The Palestinian economy is shattered, and unemployment stands at sixty percent; schools and universities are not functioning; thousands of homes have been demolished by Israeli forces; 224,415 dunam (about 55,000 acres) of land have been confiscated; a wall has been built to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis, though in fact it separates many Palestinians from their own land and from their families; proliferating roadblocks make the daily life of Palestinians extremely difficult. Yasser Arafat, the symbol of Palestinian struggle for liberation, was marginalized by Israel. He died in 2004, and Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen), of the Fatah faction, was elected president. However, in January 2006 Ḥamās, the Islamic Resistance Movement, won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, further complicating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since its election Ḥamās's government has been isolated. The so-called international community, led by Israel and the U.S., has imposed political and economic pressures on the new Palestinian government—despite the fact that this government was elected in an open and fair election—with the obvious goal of weakening it and eventually forcing it out of power. Even Arab governments implicitly joined this effort, leading to the almost complete isolation of Ḥamās. Furthermore, Fatah, which had been in power since the creation of the PLO in the mid-1960s, was unhappy with the January elections that forced them out. This dissatisfaction was expressed in resistance to the Ḥamās government, leading to tension and violence between Ḥamās and Fatah. Some Arab countries, primarily Egypt and Saudi Arabia, interfered and tried to avert a full-fledged Palestinian civil war. This led to the formation of a unity government led by Ḥamās, but the arrangement did not hold for long as Ḥamās took military control of the Gaza Strip, their stronghold, giving Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president, and his Fatah movement the opportunity and the excuse to form an emergency government to replace the Ḥamās-led government. There are now in fact two Palestinian governments, one in the West Bank led by Fatah and supported by the U.S., the other in Gaza, led by Ḥamās, which has been stripped of the legitimacy accorded it by the Palestinian people through fair and open elections.

In Israel, Sharon's government, elected with a large majority in February 2001, faced many challenges and became a minority government. When Sharon planned to separate Israel unilaterally from the Gaza Strip he faced major opposition from many members of his own party, the Likud, leading him to form the Kadima (Forward) Party.

In January 2006, however, Prime Minister Sharon suffered a massive stroke, leaving him in a coma and leading to a new election in March 2006 and a new government led by Sharonʾs former deputy, Ehud Olmert. A short time after the formation of this government, following the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Ḥizbullāh, war broke out between Israel and Lebanon. This second Lebanon war lasted thirty-three days and ended when the UN approved Resolution 1701 establishing a cease-fire.

The current Israeli government, led jointly by Kadima and the Labor party has not been popular in Israel, particularly because of its failure to achieve any of its goals in the war against Lebanon and Ḥizbullāh in July 2006, including the liberation of the two captive soldiers, ostensibly the primary reason for the war. Consequently, this war has been considered by many as a defeat for Israel and a victory for Ḥizbullāh.

Yet, this unpopular government is still in power, and there are signs that better understanding might arise from a new dialogue between the Israeli government and the Palestinian emergency government. The Israeli prime minister has met periodically with the Palestinian president, and President Bush called for an international conference to be held in September 2007 to attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, given the Israeli government commitment to the separation wall (known by the Israelis as the security wall) as the new Israeli–West Bank border—a notion the Palestinians find very difficult to accept—the prospects for a two-state solution are poor. Furthermore, because the United States, the only country capable of solving this conflict, cannot play the role of an honest broker because of its own internal politics, it is hard to see how a permanent two-state solution can be reached through U.S. mediation, whoever the U.S. president might be. In short, given the prevailing political and military realities of the Middle East, the two-state solution (with a viable contiguous Palestinian state next to Israel) is unachievable, leaving just two options, a permanent occupation, or the old notion of a single binational state.

Islamic Dimensions of the Conflict.

In Palestine, most people have perceived the struggle mainly as a nationalist, secular one. Many prominent Christian Palestinians have taken part in the struggle alongside Muslim Palestinians, imparting to the Palestinian and Arab national movements a secular, rather than a religious, fervor. Indeed, in the 1920s, Palestinians even formed the Muslim-Christian Associations in a combined effort to combat Zionism.

The doctrine of jihād was never invoked during the Arab-Israeli conflict by any official government until an arson attack on al-Aqṣā mosque took place in 1969. Following this event, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia called for jihād to liberate Jerusalem. He also organized the first summit of Muslim states in Rabat in September 1969, which was attended by representatives of twenty-six states. In subsequent years, several summit meetings were held at which the issues of Palestine and Jerusalem were inevitably addressed, given the broad sympathy and support these issues command in the Islamic world.

Subparagraph 5 of article 2 (A) of the charter of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) shows the centrality of Palestine to the Muslim countries: one of the organization 's goals is “to co-ordinate efforts for safeguard of the Holy Places and support of the struggle of the people of Palestine, and help them to regain their rights and liberate their land.” The suspension of Egypt from the OIC was justified by Egypt's material breach of this article of the charter when it concluded the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978. In January 1981, the third summit of the OIC was held in Saudi Arabia, entitled “The Session on Palestine and Holy Jerusalem.” At the conclusion of this conference, the participants agreed to adopt jihād to save Jerusalem and to liberate the Occupied Territories.

Although the struggle has more commonly been seen as a national one, Palestinians have been losing faith in their secular political leadership, the PLO. The inability of this organization to solve political, social, and economic problems has led many people in the Occupied Territories to opt for an Islamic solution.

Palestinians are becoming increasingly convinced that the secular national movement is doomed to fail in achieving the goals of the Palestinian people, just as the Arab national movements in the rest of the Arab world have failed to solve the sociopolitical and economic problems facing their respective peoples. The Islamists in the Occupied Territories, particularly Ḥamās and the Islamic Jihad have enhanced their position by working at the grassroots level to help people laboring under the increasing economic difficulties resulting from prolonged occupation and lack of outside assistance, and by capitalizing on the weaknesses of the secular Fatah and PLO, known among Palestinians for corruption and ineffectiveness. This strengthened position led to Ḥamās's victory in the parliamentary elections of January 2006.

The emergence of the Islamist Ḥizbullāh as a major Lebanese and regional force has to be reckoned with in any attempt at a comprehensive solution in the Middle East. Ḥizbullāh's victory in southern Lebanon in 1999 and its perceived victory over Israel in July 2007 have given this religious group credibility not only among Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, but throughout the world, even though it is considered by Western powers and Israel as a terrorist organization. Also complicating Middle Eastern affairs is the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a major regional actor, not only through its presumed support of Ḥizbullāh and Ḥamās, but also for its strong and confrontational stand against Israel and the United States. See also ARAB NATIONALISM; ḤAMāS; ḤIZBULLāH; ḤUSAYNī, AL-ḤāJJ AMīN AL-; INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND DIPLOMACY; ISRAEL; JERUSALEM; NASSER, GAMAL ABDEL; ORGANIZATION OF THE ISLAMIC CONFERENCE; ORGANIZATION OF THE ISLAMIC JIHAD; PALESTINE LIBERATION ORGANIZATION; and WEST BANK AND GAZA.


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