Stuck between an intransigent Israel and wavering Arab powers, the Palestinians, divided within, are struggling to take their fight forward
In June 1967, after winning the Six-Day War, Israeli Defence Minister Gen. Moshe Dayan announced standing before the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, ‘We have returned to our holy places… and we shall never leave them.” Since the war, Israel has made several peace agreements with Arab countries as well as the Palestinians and held many more rounds of dialogues, but what Dayan said has been its de facto policy when it came to territories. The only territorial concession Israel made was with Egypt when it returned the Sinai Peninsula as part of the 1978 and 1979 agreements. In other deals, Israel has recognised Palestinian self-rule and committed itself to the two-state solution, but stopped short of making actual land concessions. The agreement Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this month, under the mediation of U.S. President Donald Trump, reinforces this Israeli approach of ‘peace without giving up land’.
The UAE has offered political and diplomatic recognition to Israel, in return for Israel’s decision to halt a plan to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, not for any actual territorial compromise. Fifty-three years after the June War, Israel still controls the West Bank, Gaza (through a blockade), East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Roots of the conflict
This leaves the Palestinians in a difficult spot. If more Arab countries are ready to make peace with Israel without addressing the question of occupation, the Palestinians, already weak and divided, will be left with themselves in their quest for freedom and sovereignty.
The roots of the conflict in modern times can be traced back to the Jewish immigrations (aliyah) into historical Palestine, the land between the Jordan River in the east and the Mediterranean Sea on the west, in the late 19th century. Faced with persecution in Europe and elsewhere, Jews started migrating to Jerusalem and its surrounding areas, which were part of the Ottoman Empire. By the onset of the First World War, Palestine had a sizeable Jewish population. To ensure the support of the global Jewry in the war efforts against the Ottomans, the British reached out to the Zionists. In November 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, in which he stated that the His Majesty’s Government backed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. The letter came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, which Arab historian Rashid Khalidi called “the first declaration of war on Palestinians”. Though the declaration, the British, for the first time officially recognised the Zionist claim for the establishment of Israel inside Palestine.
After the War, Palestine became a British-mandated territory. In 1929, the World Zionist Organisation had established the Jewish Agency as its operative branch. The Agency became the de facto administration of the settlers in Palestine, while the aliyah continued. After the Second World War, the UN proposed a plan to partition Palestine into an independent Arab state, an independent Jewish state and an international Jerusalem. The plan, which was welcomed by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, never got implemented. On May 14, 1948 — on the last day of the British mandate over Palestine — David Ben-Gurion, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, declared the establishment of the state of Israel. The declaration, in the midst of raging violence between Jewish militias and Palestinians, led to the first Arab-Israeli war. By the time the war was over, Israel had captured 23% more territories than what the UN partition plan had proposed, including West Jerusalem, while Transjordan took the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Egypt the Gaza Strip.
Till the 1967 war, Arab nations had put up a united face against Israel. But the war permanently changed the nature of the conflict. The weakening of the Arab collective vis-a-vis Israel allowed the Palestinians to come to the forefront of the conflict. As Ahmad Samih Khalidi, a former Palestinian negotiator, noted in an essay in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, “A central paradox of 1967 is that by defeating the Arabs, Israel resurrected the Palestinians.” The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), formed in 1964, emerged as the torch-bearer of Palestinian nationalism. The PLO, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, initially operated from Jordan. But when King Hussein cracked down on the Palestinian guerillas in September 1970 (Black September), the PLO moved to Lebanon. The Israelis went after them. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, finally forcing the PLO to leave Lebanon. Arafat shifted to Tunis, and called for an intifada (uprising). The residents of the West Bank and Gaza rose against the occupation in 1987, making it extremely difficult for Israel to continue the status quo. This set the stage for the Oslo peace process.
In the Oslo Accords, signed between Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in 1993, the PLO and the Israeli government offered mutual recognition. Israel agreed to the formation of a provisional government (the Palestinian Authority). The plan was to take the Oslo process to a final settlement based on the two-state solution. But in 1995, Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated.
After Oslo, there were multiple efforts to find a solution to the conflict. U.S. President Bill Clinton hosted a peace talk in Camp David between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, the failure of which led to the violent second intifada in the occupied territories. In 2002, Saudi Arabia made a proposal — peace with Israel in return for an independent Palestinian state. In the same year, the Quartet — the U.S., the UN, the EU and Russia — unveiled the three-phase Roadmap for Peace. None of these took off.
Primarily, there are three outstanding issues. One, boundary. The Palestinians and Arab countries say a Palestinian state should be formed based on the 1967 border (the Green Line). But Israel has already redrawn this border on the ground by building huge security walls that cut into Palestinian territories and expanding Jewish settlements deep inside the West Bank.
Two, capital. The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as their future capital, but the entire city has been under Israeli control. The Old City houses the Church of Holy Sepulchre (Christians believe the church stands on the hill where Jesus was crucified); Haram al-Sharif (or Temple Mount), which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and the Dome of the Rock, from where the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven on a winged horse called Buraq; and the Wailing Wall, which is believed to be the remains of the Second Temple of Jews, which, according to the Hebrew Bible, replaced Solomon’s Temple.
Three, refugees. The first Arab-Israeli war has led to the displacement and exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, which they call Nakba (catastrophe). Israel has never accepted their right to return, because if they return, it would alter the demographics of the Jewish nation. The Palestinians, on the other side, insist on the right to return.
While the peace processes failed to find a solution, Israel continued to deepen its occupation. The Palestinians are now a divided lot. The Fatah party, once led by Arafat, is heading the truncated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, while the Islamist Hamas is ruling the blockaded Gaza. Palestinian youth often launch lone-wolf attacks on Israeli troops, only to be shot dead or their houses to be demolished. The Islamists who fire rockets into Israel from Gaza invite Israeli bombings on the Gazans. Israel is practically controlling the movement of Palestinians through the walls, checkpoints and blockades. And in the absence of any peace process, the status quo is here to stay.