Obstacles to Peace in Israel-Palestine

Ellen Miech, Dickson College, 2012


The following essay was written as part of the Issues and Conflicts in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: 'Examine the causes of the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Why have efforts to resolve the conflict failed thus far?' Ellen Miech has also contributed Roman Motives in the First Punic War to Clio.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an immensely complex situation and approaching it with any attempts at resolution is equally convoluted. The history of the area, poor administration by external parties and an antagonism between Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs have all contributed to the predicament as it exists today. The holy and historical value placed upon the region by various groups means that, despite being primarily a struggle for territory, underlying religious tensions also play a role in continuing the violence. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians adamantly maintain that they have a right to the land which can in part be attributed to the discrepant promises and policies of the British government during its influence over the area in the early 20th century. The Palestinian Arabs did not accepted the United Nation's partition of Palestine and this source of contention continues to prove an issue. The unbalanced nature of the conflict and Israel's disregard of international law concerning its treatment of the Palestinians, however, make for much greater obstacles to negotiation. All involved parties seem to have reached a point of inertia on the issue.

While the dispute is largely territorial, the territory itself is imbued with divine significance. The conflict is therefore partly the result of the discordant aims and traditions of three culturally diverse religions. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all hold the region to be central to the history of their beliefs. As each group is unwilling to relinquish its claim over the territory to any extent, negotiations are half-hearted and the conflict continues with both Zionist and Palestinian nationalist groups using their historical relationship with the area in order to claim sovereignty over it (Handelman 2011, p. 6) The city of Jerusalem serves as a microcosm of the struggle for control in Palestine. Throughout its unique and turbulent history, it has seen the persecution and massacre of each of the Jews, Christians and Muslims in turn. As Antiochus Strategos lamented in 614 A.D. after just one of many violent raids on the city, "Who can count the multitude of the corpses of those who were massacred in Jerusalem?" (translated by Conybeare 1910). While the three religions have at times coexisted peacefully in the region previously, their past is often used to reaffirm the adamant stance each takes today. The underlying tensions between groups and a sense of entitlement have rendered any periods of peace short-lived.

The entitlement to the area that each group feels stems more recently from the contradictory promises made by the British Government during its mandate over Palestine. Both Zionists and Arabs were led to believe that they would receive the territory, creating further animosity between them. The aims stated by Britain in Article 2 of the Mandate Commission seem impossible to reconcile;

... political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safe-guarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race or religion. (United States. Dept. of State. Division of Near Eastern Affairs, League of Nations. Council 1927, p. 108)

The Balfour Declaration promising a national home to the Jewish people also conflicted with the terms of the mandate, as well as those terms that were implied to the Arabs through the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Arab hopes for autonomy were further disillusioned by the Sykes-Picot agreement dividing the Middle East into zones of European influence (Tessler, p. 147). In addition, the British Government was attempting to please the League of Nations which was increasingly supportive of founding a refuge for the Jews while British High Commissioners in Palestine were looking to curtail Jewish immigration (Miller 2010, p. 41). With so many inconsistent promises being made, disappointment and resentment were inevitable. The actions of Britain during this time gave both the Zionists and the Arabs a sense of ownership over the land.

Then, as now, maintaining peace while establishing the state of Israel was presented with an obstacle in the form of Arab rejection of the proposed UN Resolution 181 partition. Even prior to the partition's approval by the UN, many Arabs opposed a Zionist state in Palestine. The hindrances to resolving conflict raised by the Report of the Palestine Commission in the early 20th century are, in essence, the same as those faced in the region today.

... namely, the demand of the Arabs for national independence and their antagonism to the National Home, remained unmodified and were indeed accentuated by the "external factors," namely, the pressure of the Jews of Europe on Palestine and the development of Arab nationalism in neighbouring countries. (Peel et al. 1937, Chapter III)

The partitioning of Palestine and the resulting displacement of Palestinians led to the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964. A profile of the organisation sympathetic to its objectives stated, "The Palestinian problem is one of Zionist-colonialist invasion..." (Yaniv 1974, p. 57) As ever, such a description of the situation is subjective; while this statement could be disregarded as irrationally anti-Semitic, it presents a very real fear amongst the Palestinian Arabs. Referring to Zionism as colonialism goes some way towards explaining the Arab resistance. The difficulty of the situation cannot, however, simply be attributed to intransigence on the part of the Palestinians- the P.L.O. showed itself to be willing to compromise when it accepted the original partition of Palestine in order to meet American stipulations for a U.S.-P.L.O. dialogue to take place (Freedman 1991, p. 156). The Israeli government of the time, however, refused to recognise the P.L.O. and the U.S. eventually ended the talks. Currently, divisions amongst the Palestinian population, particularly between the leadership of Hamas and Fatah, make successful negotiations difficult.

A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation is hindered by the asymmetrical nature of the conflict. The Israelis hold both the military and political power in the region, allowing them to maintain control over the Occupied Territories. Israel also enjoys the support and aid of the United States (Olmert 2006), despite having violated various human rights conventions. This includes conventions against torture and the use of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment outside of interrogation (Amnesty International 2008, p. 9). The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has blamed Palestinian acts for the continuing violence saying, "The confrontation has become even more violent, the enemy turned even more inhumane due to the scourge of suicide terrorism." (2006) However, the extreme actions of the Palestinians may be defended as the desperate acts of an oppressed people. As is often the case with terrorism, the Palestinians have resorted to such methods as their only means of fighting a stronger enemy. The settlements of Israel and the territory it gained after the Six Day War in 1967 also violate international law which does not condone the acquisition of territory by war (Salinas and Abu Rabia 2009, p. 133). The advantage that Israel has gained through these illicit means allows it to continue its discrimination against, and unfair treatment of, the far less powerful Palestinians. Israel's unwillingness to return to its pre-1967 borders and to allow an independent Palestinian state obstructs the progress of any meaningful negotiations.

Negotiations, both formal and informal, have stagnated in recent years. Various groups seem to have adopted their own preferred solution to the problem and are no longer open to innovate or compromise, "... there is a distinct sense that everything that ever was or will be on the Israeli-Palestine agenda has been talked to death..." (Alpher 2012). This attitude is the product of prolonged periods of dialogue without any effective action being seen as a result. The factions appear be trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, currently manifested as Israelis retaliating to Palestinian attacks with additional restrictions and bombardments thereby inciting further Palestinian attacks (Salinas et al. p. 11). The conflict's interminable nature has added to the difficulties that prevent conflict resolution. Even the seemingly safe approach of conflict-management is criticised as simply building a tolerance for violence. The current torpor of discussions must be overcome in order for talks to become profitable.

There are a range of factors that have contributed to the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The discord between the two factions is a continuation of a religious and territorial struggle that extends far back into the region's history. The various antithetical policies and misleading statements made by the British government during its mandate over Palestine gave each group a sense of ownership over the land. As a result, neither side is willing to relinquish its claim. The interests of the Palestinians seem to have received minimal consideration; their original opposition to the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine was ultimately discounted and their current wish for self-determination has yet to be realised. Their discriminatory treatment at the hands of Israeli forces simply increases their resentment of the situation. Despite this, Palestinian representatives have shown themselves to be willing to negotiate. Such a dialogue will not be possible until Israel accepts the need to compromise. All parties have to open themselves to possible resolutions in order to escape the stagnation that has set into Israeli-Palestinian relations.


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