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Thematic Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Matthew Gray, Australian National University

The Arab-Israeli conflict in effect consists of two interrelated conflicts: a dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over the same piece of land, historic Palestine; and a wider dispute between Israel and most Arab states over the right of Israel to exist as and where it does. Palestine, and especially Jerusalem, has deep religious significance for all three of the great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is important, therefore, to understand both of these conflicts over the past 130 years or more, which can broadly be placed into the chronologically-overlapping categories of nationalism, conflict, (failed) peacemaking, and religification.

Nationalism: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict emerged in the wake of European nationalism which influenced the development of Israeli nationalism (Zionism), and both Palestinian nationalism and Arab Nationalism (pan-Arab unity). Jewish migration to Palestine began with waves of nationalist relocation (Aliya) after 1882. The Jewish movement was able to influence British policy during London's 1922-48 mandate over Palestine, and Jewish migration continued for much of that period. The majority Palestinian population opposed this migration through local religious-nationalist leaders and civil protests and riots, but it was weak and divided because of the impacts of Ottoman and British control. The British eventually handed the question of Palestine to the United Nations, which voted for partition in 1947.

Conflict: Israel was declared a state in May 1948. After the first 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war, Israel, Egypt and Transjordan gained control of the area. Between Israel taking approximately 78% of historic Palestine, Egypt taking Gaza, and Transjordan taking the West Bank and East Jerusalem no Palestinian state was created. In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed under the Arab League as a Palestinian movement of national liberation. The next turning point was the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War (or 'Six Day' War), fought between Israel and several Arab states (mainly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, but with other states' militaries involved as well). Israel won the war comprehensively – literally in six days – with Israel capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip (and the Golan Heights from Syria and Sinai from Egypt). Above all, Israel captured east Jerusalem, including the old city. This, along with the fate of Palestinian refugees from the 1948-49 and 1967 wars, remains the most contentious issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have since become the territory claimed by Palestinians for a future state, and moves toward peace have been on the basis of a 'land for peace' exchange between Israel and the Palestinians.

Attempts at peace: The late 1980s ushered in a period of attempted peacemaking. It began with the 1988 PLO declaration that renounced terrorism and in effect recognized Israel. The 1990-91 Gulf War was followed by a regional peace process, the Madrid talks, and then secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials brokered by Norway, which led to the Oslo peace process, including the 13 September 1993 signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) in Washington. The DoP included letters of mutual recognition and annexes covering a variety of measures commencing a peace process. The Oslo process seemed to go well initially, but became bogged down after the election of a right-wing government in Israel in 1996, and also by disagreements between the two sides over whether the other side was honoring its commitments. The July 2000 Camp David talks between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak, brokered by the Clinton administration, tried but failed to get the two sides to a final agreement. Although Camp David came close, and the early 2001 Taba talks even closer, in effect the peace process collapsed after Camp David, the outbreak of the 2000-05 al-Aqsa intifada, and changes of government in the US and Israel in early 2001.

At the regional level, Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel was the Arab world's first such agreement, leading to Egypt's ostracism in the region over the following decade. As the Oslo process unfolded, Jordan's then-monarch King Hussein signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, and some other Arab states began building links with Israel. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Asad, however, did not reach a peace agreement with Israel despite peace talks in the early 1990s and some final attempts in 1999 and 2000, mostly because of disagreements over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel's relations with Lebanon have been strained since the 2006 war, and continue to be strained due to the prominent role Ḥizbullāh has played in confronting and attacking Israel.

Religification and the future: Progress towards peace has been complicated by the emergence of Hamas (see also its Charter) which won the 2006 legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, and which now controls the Gaza Strip after in effect fighting a civil war to remove the Fatah leadership. Until 2006, Fatah had dominated and controlled the Palestinian Authority. The US, EU, Israel and many other states have refused to deal with Hamas, instead they recognize Fatah in the West Bank as the legitimate Palestinian authority. The rise of Hamas signals the increasing complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's dynamics: Palestinian and Israeli claims to territory have become more religious-based in the past couple of decades, and Palestinian politics after Arafat's death in 2004 have become more fragmented between older and younger leaders and between secular and religious forces and groups. Along with harder lines over post-1967 Jerusalem (see also this article on why Jerusalem plays such a large role in the Arab-Israeli conflict), changing demographics, and increased fear caused by violence and terrorism, the process of moving towards peace, or even restarting such a move, is as complex as it has ever been.

Further Reading

  • Gilbert, Martin. The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Kimmerling, Baruch and Migdal, Joel S. The Palestinian People: A History. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Lybarger, Loren D. Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
  • Ovendale, Ritchie. The Origins of the Arab Israeli Wars. London: Longman, 2004.
  • Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
  • Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
  • Tessler, Mark A. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994.

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