A brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

(To be read in conjunction with our “Overview Position Statement of Sept. 2016”)

 From the birth of an idea to the establishment of a “national home”

In Biblical times Palestine was home to an important Jewish population, but the events of the Roman occupation massively reduced the numbers, leaving behind an overwhelmingly Christian population, most of who converted to Islam in the centuries following the Arab invasion of 640.  In 1895-96, when Palestine was under the rule of Ottoman Turks, Muslims accounted for 86% of the 548,854 inhabitants, Christians 10% and Jews less than 4%[1], and all spoke Arabic.

Zionism[2], the movement to create a Jewish national homeland in Palestine became a growing force among European and American Jews in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  There were several factors behind this, including:

  • A deep-rooted affection for the land of the Bible, the ancient homeland of the Jews.
  • An uneasy feeling among the 10 million Jews of Europe, in the light of the official discrimination and persecution of previous centuries, and the pogroms that were then occurring in the Russian Empire.  In much of Western Europe, Jews had gained an emancipated legal status, but the Dreyfus affair in France suggested that they were vulnerable there, too.
  • A growing tide of nationalism in 19th century Europe whereby some Jews, alongside other peoples (like Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Irish etc.) wished to establish their own nation-state.  Moreover, at a time when European States were carving up and colonizing Africa, it was hardly surprising that European Jews would seek to establish their own territory outside Europe.

Zionism was very much a minority movement among Jews, most of whom sought acceptance and advancement within the countries where they lived, but it attracted some strong and influential leaders.

It was the First World War which provided it with its key opportunity. In the letter that became known as the “Balfour Declaration” of 1917, the British Government promised Jews that Britain would use its best endeavours to facilitate the establishment of a “national home” in Palestine “for the Jewish people”, subject to the protection of the civil and religious rights of the other inhabitants (i.e. the overwhelming Arab majority).

Chaim Weizmann, key figure behind the Balfour Declaration, and later President of the World Zionist Federation and President of Israel

Chaim Weizmann, key figure behind the Balfour Declaration, and later President of the World Zionist Federation and President of Israel

Unfortunately, Britain’s commitment to the Jews (as well as the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the French), was inconsistent with a promise it had made concerning Arab independence. Britain’s contradictory dealings during World War One, and its consequent broken promises, sowed the seeds of future conflict.

From 1923, Britain ruled Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations that was predicated on the promise in the Balfour Declaration and included a clear obligation to “secure” the establishment of that homeland. However, it was also predicated on an obligation towards the Arabic speaking Muslim and Christian majority in Palestine, since the “well-being and development” of the people inhabiting the area of the mandate ”form[ed] a sacred trust  of civilisation” which Britain was responsible to fulfil. The existence of Palestine as an independent nation could therefore be “provisionally recognised subject to the tendering of administrative advice and assistance” by Britain “until such time as [its people] are able to stand alone”[3].

Mounting tensions during the mandate

During the mandate, tensions between Jewish immigrants (overwhelmingly Ashkenazis from northern and eastern Europe) and the Palestinian Arab majority steadily mounted. Although all the other former Ottoman territories which were put under mandates (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) were granted their own elected parliaments in the 1920s, and eventually proceeded to full independence, Britain refused to allow a parliament in Palestine because it would have reflected the wishes of the Arab majority, and in all likelihood ended the immigration necessary to establish the Jewish national home.

Jews were by contrast given their own separate internal administration within the British mandate. Jewish immigration continued, gathering pace after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, such that by 1936, Jews constituted 30% of the population[4].

During the 1930’s, a Palestinian revolt aimed at forcing Britain to end the mandate and grant Palestine independence was crushed, as similar revolts in Iraq and Syria had been. However with the imminent onset of World War Two, Britain became more concerned about Arab opinion and, in 1939, it backtracked from the Balfour Declaration and agreed to limit Jewish immigration and make Palestine independent as a unitary state after ten years.  But history had moved on. Hitler was now in power in Germany and many other countries shut their doors or limited the number of Jewish refugees they were prepared to take, often preferring the refugees to go to Palestine.

During World War II, the official Zionist leadership cooperated with the British war effort, but some factions started terrorist campaigns against the British rulers of Palestine with the explicit aim of forcing a British withdrawal.  After the War, fresh hostilities broke out between Arabs and Jews, and Britain faced a full-blooded Jewish insurgency.

Britain increased its troop strength to 100,000, but weakened by war and finding the mandate increasingly unpopular back home, eventually decided to hand the problem over to the UN, announcing its intention to withdraw by August 1948.

The King David Hotel, British Mandatory Headquarters in Jerusalem, bombed by the Irgun in 1946, causing 91 deaths and 46 injuries

The King David Hotel, British Mandatory Headquarters in Jerusalem, bombed by the Irgun in 1946, causing 91 deaths and 46 injuries

For their part, Zionist leaders wanted Palestine partitioned, and lobbied in Washington to gain American support.  Not only did America give way to this pressure, but used its diplomatic muscle to twist the arms of weaker states to support it.  This led to the UN vote to split Palestine into Jewish

and Arab states, even though the Jewish state would have a very substantial Arab minority of at least 40% of its population.  Britain’s forces left Palestine in some haste, even though the law and order for which it was responsible were breaking down.

The establishment of Israel and its aftermath

The United Nations approved a partition plan for Palestine in 1947 that proposed intertwined Jewish and Arab states.   Neighbouring Arab countries and those who claimed to speak on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs rejected it, although they were prepared to give the Jewish community in Palestine specific minority rights. The partition resolution was not legally binding (save for the termination of the British mandate), and the procedures envisaged for the establishment of the Jewish and Arab states in the partition plan were not followed. At the moment the mandate terminated, the leader of the Zionist Jews in Palestine, David Ben Gurion, unilaterally proclaimed the State of Israel, and became its first Prime Minister.

The war between Jews and Arabs leading to the establishment of the state of Israel was, in the words of Benny Morris, “the almost inevitable result of more than half a century of Arab-Jewish friction and conflict that began with the arrival…of the first Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1880s.”[5] The problem for Ben Gurion’s nascent state was that at least forty per cent of the population of its proposed area in the partition plan consisted of Muslim and Christian Arabs. The state therefore could not be viable unless it used force to establish control over this area and also to seize significant other areas which were overwhelmingly Arab.

Many native Palestinians were forced out of their towns and villages or prevented from returning. They were forced to become refugees in the West Bank, Gaza or neighbouring Arab countries.  Of a total Arab population of 900,000 in what today is Israel, about 750,000 were forced out or fled out of fear for their safety.  Much of this ethnic cleansing was carried out in the final months of the mandate (e.g. Jaffa, the villages in the Jerusalem corridor, West Jerusalem), but the process continued after the proclamation of the state of Israel (e.g. Ramle, Lydda, the countryside around Majdal (Ashkelon)). This was despite last minute uncoordinated and ineffectual interventions by the armies of neighbouring Arab states in support of the Palestinian Arabs.

The war left a terrible legacy of mistrust on both sides.   The Arabs maintained that the establishment of the state of Israel was both unjust and wrong in principle.   When Israel declared its independence, it was not a member of the United Nations and the Arab states were under no obligation to recognise it.  The Egyptian government of the day did not view Israel as a sovereign state on which it could declare war, but as a set of armed gangs terrorising the local population. Neither did the British government recognise the state of Israel at the time, while the hasty US recognition has been described as “premature” by the highly respected international jurist, James Crawford [6].

Arab anger led to bellicose promises to crush the emerging state so as to restore the rights of the Palestinian Arabs. This is how the myth of the Israeli David against the Arab Goliath was born.  At the time, the Jewish population of Palestine were terrified they would be massacred, but most historians today do not believe this corresponded to the military reality on the ground. As the distinguished historian Avi Shlaim has written, “it is precisely because this version [of history] corresponds so closely to the personal experience and perceptions of the Israelis who lived through the 1948 war that it has proved so resistant to revision and change.” [7]

The creation of Israel and the treatment of the native Palestinians enraged many in the rest of the Arab world, and this led to the harassment and eventually the destruction of Jewish communities that had lived for thousands of years in other Arab countries.  At various times (e.g. in the late 1940s/early 1950s in the case of Iraq, Yemen and Libya; after the Suez Crisis in the case of Egypt; at the time of independence in 1962 in the case of Algeria), the overwhelming majority of native Jews were given little realistic choice but to leave. Many settled in Israel, which opened its doors to them.  However, in some cases, such as Morocco, it was Israel that induced local Jews to leave so as to achieve the Zionist objective of the “ingathering” of Jews from around the World. Some Israeli government actions (such as using an Arab Jew as a spy in Syria and Egyptian Jews as terrorist operatives in Egypt) were also a factor in making the position of Jews in Arab countries worse.

Diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement during the 1950s and 1960s were unsuccessful, and the problem festered. Israel was playing its own game, and did all that it could to deepen the gulf between the West and the Arab states, even recruiting Egyptian Jews to conduct terrorist actions against American targets in Cairo and hoping to blame these on Arab nationalists. In 1956, Israel invaded Egypt in alliance with Britain and France as part of the tripartite aggression known today as the Suez crisis. Although Israel was forced to withdraw, its behaviour increased Arab suspicion that Israel was a tool of western imperialism. Arab attitudes continued to harden, and rulers such as Nasser of Egypt started to use extreme rhetoric.

Israel and Palestine since 1967

The events of 1947-1949 left Israel with 78% of the territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean that the League of Nations had formerly mandated to Britain, while the Palestinians were left with 22%, consisting of the West Bank which included East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.  The Six-Day War of 1967 left Israel in occupation of these latter territories. In spite of numerous UN resolutions, it has declined to withdraw from the West Bank, although it has pulled its forces out of Gaza. The Geneva Convention of 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, explicitly forbids the colonisation of land invaded in warfare and is the key statement of international law on this matter. In blatant defiance of this international law, Israel has persisted in taking Palestinian land and moving its own citizens into the Occupied Territories and then giving them special privileges with regard to access and water.  These often start as small portacabin “outposts” that pioneers, usually religious settlers, build on hilltops but subsequently develop into substantial towns, many of which loom like massive cruise liners over the surrounding countryside.

Har Homa settlement, overlooking Bethlehem

Har Homa settlement, overlooking Bethlehem

A further war in 1973 left Israel in control of Sinai and the Golan Heights, but it handed the former back to Egypt under a bilateral peace accord of 1979.  Palestinians mounted guerrilla operations and terrorist attacks against Israel from Jordan and then Lebanon,

as well as at international targets like the attack on the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The occupied territories were relatively peaceful, but as Israeli colonisation intensified an explosion of anger occurred in 1987, known as the First Intifada. When America needed Arab support during the Kuwait crisis in 1990-91, it used its good offices for the first time in a serious effort to reach a comprehensive peace accord.  Although the negotiations convened were unsuccessful, Norwegian efforts at Oslo were more so.

The Oslo Agreement of 1993 was heralded as “a political breakthrough of immense importance”, providing for Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza.  In practice however, it has done nothing to halt the occupation and has had adverse consequences for the Palestinians.   The West Bank was divided into three areas (A, B and C), with the Israeli army (IDF) having full control over Area C which is more than 60% of the whole, and 99% of this is heavily restricted or off-limits Palestinian development.


Only 18% (Area A) is under the full civil control and security authority of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the balance (Area B) is theoretically under joint authority.

Settler numbers grew from 232,000 in 1991 to 500,000 in 2010, and as of January 2016, the total number of Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighbourhoods of “East Jerusalem” was, according to an Israeli source, nearly 800,000[8].  Among other features the Wall/Security Barrier has been built, ostensibly to contain suicide bombers, though its route which meanders through the interior of the West Bank shows that one of its main objectives has been to enforce Israel’s control over land it has illegally confiscated (i.e. stolen) from the Palestinians.  Movement controls within the West Bank have multiplied, and travel between Jerusalem and the adjacent areas rendered impossible for most Palestinians.    Meanwhile Israel has been using the Palestine Authority (the PA) as its surrogate in administering much of the rest, at the cost of the European Union which is saving Israel the expense of its occupation.  The PA has lacked any elected authority since 2009; however it is the dominant employer, reportedly with a 150,000 payroll, and wields massive power of patronage over people living in the West Bank.  Israel interferes extensively in criminal justice in the West Bank, with the anomaly that Palestinians face military courts while Israeli settlers face civilian courts, and subjects the Palestinian population to routine harassment. It has especially received international condemnation for its seizure, detention and maltreatment of child prisoners in defiance of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989.

All in all, the Oslo Accords are a major failure.  Nowhere are misgivings greater than in the host country, Norway, where according to Peter Bauck, most MPs were pro-Israeli prior to the Accords[9].  By 2013, over 70% are pro-Palestinian while only 10% belonged to “Friends of Israel” organisations.

Hamas, Gaza and the refugees

Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 led to the election of Hamas. The result was caused in part by PLO corruption, but most of all by the PLO’s failure to win Palestinian rights. Hamas was an Islamic movement with a reputation for being free of corruption and the Palestinians judged that only Hamas with its ethos of resistance could win for them a Palestinian state.

Hamas’ leaders have indicated to visiting parliamentarians (including our own Lord Wallace, Baroness Tonge and Baroness Northover) that they are willing to accept a Palestinian state based on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, implicitly recognising the existence of Israel behind the 1949 armistice lines.  However, Israeli lobbies persuaded the international community in western democracies to condone the collective punishment, blockade and semi-starvation of the people of Gaza, which Hamas now controls after a civil war with their secular Palestinian rivals.

Israel has had three major conflicts with Gaza, in 2009, 2012 and 2014, resulting in many thousands of (overwhelmingly) Palestinian deaths and untold suffering.  Israel has justified its actions as a response to Palestinian rocket fire but in reality it has done much to provoke conflict with the territory, and followed up with punitive and brutal violence, aimed at terrorising the population.

Because Israel still exerts total control, Gaza, according to international law, is still occupied, and therefore Israel has the duties of an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.  In practice, however, Gaza is subject to more or less permanent blockade which prevents Palestinians living there from travelling and deprives them of essential food, medicine and other supplies.  Families are often divided and forced to live separately in the West Bank and Gaza. Travel between the two territories is virtually impossible.  Likewise, Palestinian residents of the West Bank are unable to visit Jerusalem without special permits, and it has become almost impossible for people living either side of Israeli-created borders to get married.

Expressive Palestinian graffiti on the Wall/Security Barrier

Expressive Palestinian graffiti on the Wall/Security Barrier

Sixty-eight years after the establishment of Israel, there are still hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Those outside the West Bank and Gaza do not all enjoy full citizenship rights in their countries of residence and have not always been treated well by their hosts (at the moment, Palestinians are suffering the worst in Syria where they find themselves caught between the opposing sides in the Civil War).  Refugee camps are managed at great international expense by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).  They tend of course to house the poorer refugees – many others have succeeded in joining the Palestinian diaspora around the world and made new homes for themselves.

The growth in extremism and Israel’s lurch to the right

Recent developments in Israeli society and politics give great cause for concern.  Many previously apolitical ultra-religious Jews have become Jewish religious extremists and have been joining the army (IDF), thereby turning it into a more militantly Zionist institution.  As regards public attitudes, Blumenthal [10] quotes the findings of the Washington-based Palestine Centre, that 48% of the public supported West Bank settlers who carry out violence “in retaliation to Palestinian or Israeli Government actions”.   People advocate with impunity for further ethnic cleansing and violence against Palestinians.  Israel’s army (the IDF) condones, by act if not by word, assassinations that cannot conceivably be justified on grounds of self-defence, and government ministers then inflame the population against those who expose these wrongs.  Some of these have threatened “targeted civil eliminations” of Palestinian leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a form of non-violent opposition to the occupation that is coordinated by Palestinians, and supported by the Palestinian Council of Churches among others.  There is a growing clamp-down on the activities of Israeli dissidents who argue for better treatment of the Palestinian population.   Elements of the religious right promote segregation and punish miscegenation in “mixed cities”.

Israeli coalition Governments have been becoming progressively more right-wing, recently exemplified by the entry of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party into the Government coalition and the appointment as Defence Minister of Avigdor Lieberman, a hawkish former night-club bouncer from Moldova who has advocated for the “transfer” of Israeli Arabs into the Palestinian territories, among a series of highly provocative statements.  The former Defence incumbent Moshe Ya’alon (not exactly a moderate himself) resigned, saying that “extremist and dangerous elements had hijacked the nation”.   This followed a public disagreement with Netanyahu over comments made by a senior general, Ya’ir Golan, who said that he found traces in Israel of today of the process that happened in Nazi Germany [11].

Notwithstanding the alarming nature of these recent developments, it should be noted that “the Zionist enterprise was from the start an enterprise of ethnocentric and exclusive settlement”[12].  Indeed leading advocates were already mooting the idea of “transferring” the Arabs out of Palestine, what we would now call ethnic cleansing, at the turn of the 20th century.



[1] Based on McCarthy, J. The Population of Palestine, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1990), p.37, quoted in Going deeper with ‘Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948; a Companion Guide to the Balfour Project Film.  See http://www.balfourproject.org/the-companion-guide-to-britain-in-palestine-1917-1948/

[2] We refer to Zionism as an exclusive political project, sometimes supported by “Christian Zionists”, not simply to a religious or emotional attachment to the land of Israel/Palestine

[3] Covenant of the League of Nations, Article 22

[4] Companion Guide, op. cit.

[5] Benny Morris (2008)  1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War, Yale University Press, p.1.

[6] James R. Crawford (2006) The Creation of States in International Law, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, p. 433.

[7] Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall, (2000), p.222

[8] See http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/18210#.V078meToFgt

[9] Speaking at the“Oslo 20 Years On” conference, 7-8 September 2013

[10]Max Blumenthal (2015)  Goliath, Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Nation Books.

[11] See Uri Avnery in http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/uri-avnery-israeli-politics-bears-comparison-with-end-of-weimar-germany-and-rise-of-fascism-1.2659314.

[12] See Shlomo Sand in http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.736660?v=6099298C145CF87EA90844AD50678C75