The Causes of Conflict in the Holy Land

Lenna Golson-Lai, Dickson College, 2012

The following essay was written as part of the Issues and Conflict in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2012. It was written in response to the following question: 'Examine the reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Explain why resolutions to resolve the conflict have failed thus far.'

Since the creation of Israel in 1947, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been defined by a battle for territory. At the time of Israel’s creation, a proposed two-state solution was rejected by the Arab states and consequently the Palestinian populace was displaced; successive wars between Israel and Middle Eastern states has further complicated the dispute over territory, as further lands have been seized from Syria, Egypt and Jordan. Historical ethnic tensions and colonial legacies, such as the Mandate System, contributed to the opposition to the creation of Israel in the first place (The Palestinian Mandate July 24, 1922). Ultimately, the reason for the conflict is the displacement of the Palestinian people and the inability of the countries of the region to agree on how to best re-settle the population and divide the territory peaceably. The holy city of Jerusalem has a religious significance to both parties; this plays a significant role in the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as attempts to negotiate either a two-state solution or a bi-national state have been unable to resolve how the city of Jerusalem is to be shared or divided (Symon, 2001). The complex environment in the Middle East and the ongoing involvement of the international community continues to exacerbate regional instability. Animosity between Israel and many of its Middle Eastern neighbours makes it difficult to negotiate the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. While efforts have been made to find a basis for peace, control of the Occupied Territories and the atmosphere of hostility and military threat remain unresolved.

The end of World War II was marked by the horrors of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews perished at the hands of Nazi Germany. This event signified the urgency of an independent Israeli state:

‘The Nazi holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish state, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations. (Declaration of Israel’s Independence 1948)

However, the creation of the state of Israel further contradicted promises made by the Allies to the Arab populace after World War I: that a united Arab kingdom would be created. Instead the Middle East was split up into areas or provinces under the Mandate System, controlled by the British and the French, with the stated objective that eventually the areas that had been colonized would become autonomous (The Palestinian Mandate July 24, 1922). However, the arbitrary borders split ethnic groups and created divisions which have fuelled instability in the region ever since. The Zionist movement (begun in late 1800s) continued through the Mandate period, but in 1920 and 1921, revolts by the Arab community led to an imposition of a migration quota system for Jewish immigrants to the region unless they met a financial test. Conflicts between Jews and Arabs escalated as a sense of Palestinian nationalism grew. At the same time, anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungary and gradually through Eastern Europe (Gelvin, 2007: 14) caused an escalation in migration as Jewish people attempted to escape persecution, which the British in the Middle East attempted to control. Countries such as the United States introduced legislation to prevent Jewish migration (Immigration Act of 1924) and in the Middle East, Arab-Jewish conflicts were exacerbated by the anti-Semitic propaganda of Eastern Europe. All of these events have contributed to a history of animosity between the Israeli and Palestinian people and made resolution of the conflict more difficult, as a history of hostility is entrenched through generations (Fragmented Lives Humanitarian overview 2011, 2012: 8). Also, the broken promises of the colonising European countries has left lasting legacies of feelings of betrayal and injustice.

In 1947, the United Nations passed a series of resolutions, firstly to undertake planning for partitioning of the British mandate in order to create two sovereign states, due to both the pressures of emerging Israeli nationalism and possibly in part due to collective guilt over the holocaust and the anti-migration actions which had been taken by the British and Allied countries in the lead up to the war (Bickerton & Klausner, 1995: 74). This resulted in Resolution 181 “Plan of Partition with Economic Unions” which proposed to create separate and independent Jewish and Arab states upon the expiry of the British mandate system, with administration of the City of Jerusalem to remain with the United Nations (Yale Law School, 1922). The Arab states of Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq refused to accept the UN partition plan and internal violence, including murders and armed conflicts followed within the British mandate. On 14 May 1948, the Jewish people celebrated the creation of the state of Israel. Within a month, the Arab states responded with military force, setting the scene for the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The immediate condemnation of the state of Israel and the repudiation of its right to exist by the Arab states left little scope for negotiation or a peaceable resolution to the division of territory.

From the day of its declaration of independence, Israel has faced armed opposition from the Arab states. This resistance has been characterized by rhetoric and a language of intense anger and hatred:

“If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea… Even if we are beaten now in Palestine, we will never submit. We will never accept the Jewish state... But for politics, the Egyptian army alone, or volunteers of the Muslim Brotherhood, could have destroyed the Jews.” Hassan al-Banna, Muslim Brotherhood founder (Bogdanor, P, Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict, New York Times, August 2, 1948)

Successive conflicts have included: The Arab-Israeli War (November 1947-July 1949); Suez Crisis (October 1956); The 6 Day War (June 1967); The War of Attrition (1967-1970); The Yom Kippur War (October 1973); 1982 Lebanon War (continued in South Lebanon for a further 20 years); and the 2006 Lebanon War. The conflict that became known as the ‘Six Day War’ in 1967 remains fundamental to the Israeli –Palestinian conflict of today. The impacts of this conflict remains one of the key obstacles in achieving a peace solution because during the Six Day War, Israel captured most of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and most importantly the Golan Heights, a sacred and holy place to the Palestinian people. These seized lands became known as the Occupied Territories and they are still occupied today. This war also demonstrated Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East and entrenched a belief in Israel as a militarized state which uses force in order to control disputed territories and to invade its sovereign neighbour’s lands in pursuit of insurgents.

During the Cold War period, the conflicts between Israel and the Arab states were complicated by the involvement of the two superpowers: The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US). These proxy-wars have impeded modern peace negotiations as they instilled distrust of foreign powers and the international community, particularly the U.S for its military support of Israel. In turn, Israel has continued to believe that military supremacy is its only recourse in an atmosphere of continued hostility. For example, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein openly rewarded Palestinian families whose members died in actions against Israeli forces with payments:

“Iraq has given Palestinian families more than $10 million, all according to a well-known scale. Families of suicide bombers get $25,000 each and families of those killed in confrontations with Israel get $10,000. Those who houses are destroyed by the Israeli military get $5,000 and those wounded by Israelis get $1,000” (Yang, 2000)

This kind of politicizing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within Middle Eastern countries for their own internal political benefit does little to increase a sense that any solution or stability is possible.

In this context of continued military campaigns by the Arab states, Israel has responded with military force, including its invasion of southern Lebanon. Israel has justified this as a measure required to secure itself against guerilla and terrorist groups based there, and proxy campaigns being conducted by the Syrian Muslim brotherhood. However, its invasion of another state has fuelled antagonism. More damaging to the peace process is Israel’s ongoing repressive measures against the Palestinians both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories:

‘Palestinians are utterly frustrated by the impact of Israeli policies on their lives. They can’t move freely around their territory. They can’t plan their communities. They are evicted from their homes. Their homes are regularly demolished. I don’t believe that most people in Israel have any idea of the way planning policies are used to divide and harass communities and families. They would not themselves like to be subjected to such behavior.’ (United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Baroness Valerie Amos, May 2011)

Repressive measures against Palestinian people have created conditions of poverty and insecurity. Palestinian nationalism has manifested in ideologies that embrace violence and extremism in order to secure rights for their own people. Groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Hamas and Hizbollah have all engendered popular support at various times for extremist and terrorist actions. Israel’s continued policy of building Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories has cemented hostility (Associated Press in Jerusalem).

The Palestinians themselves have openly revolted in the Palestinian insurgency in South Lebanon (1971-1982) and through the First (1987-1993) and Second Intifadas (2000-2005). The First Intifada was a primarily peaceful uprising in the Occupied Territories. It included non-violent civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, refusal to pay taxes, graffiti and the erection of barricades. Israeli forces responded first with repressive policing measures (including nightsticks, tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition). The response resulted only an escalation of violence. Famous footage of a Palestinian boy throwing rocks at a tank has created a lasting impression of the Intifada for many (Bickerton & Klausner, 1995: 233). The Second Intifada was more violent and has become known as the Oslo Wars (for the failed Oslo Peace Accords). It involved acts of terrorism, murders and a succession of counter-attacks and escalating violence. Israeli responses inevitably killed civilians and the cycle of violence continued. This pattern of violence and counter-violence is one of the greatest impediments to peace (Dershowitz, 2005: 66).

Current discussions of a two-state solution appear not to be progressing. The most obvious problem with the two-state solution is that there is no agreement as to which geographical territories would make up the independent state of Palestine. Also, Israel continues to control Gaza’s airspace, borders, trade and electricity grid as well as the flow of workers and travel between Gaza and the West Bank (Gelvin, 2007: 250). It is unlikely that Israel would relinquish its current controls, as they regard these activities as paramount to their own security. However, as sanctions by Israel and the closing of its borders to Palestinian territories in the past have shown, the Palestinian territories are dependent upon Israel for economic viability. A bi-national solution would be more economically feasible. However, violence between the Israeli and Palestinian ethnic groups, and the repressive measures undertaken by Israel in pursuit of greater security for its civilians, suggest that this is not a possibility (Dershowitz, 2005: 28). Democratic participation and meaningful representation of both Jews and Muslims in harmony seems implausible. In any case, the question of Jerusalem remains an emotive issue. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all regard Jerusalem as a sacred place and as having great religious and historical significance. When Jerusalem was under Jordanian control, Jewish sites and cemeteries were desecrated and Jerusalem is repeatedly mentioned in the Jewish Bible (Rabbi Ken Spiro). But Islam also has sacred sites within Jerusalem and the Qur’an tells of Muhammad’s “Journey at Night” from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa (Dr Mustafa Abu Sway, Al-Quds University). The devout connections of both faiths with sacred sites in Jerusalem means that issues of how to divide the city are emotionally charged. The current situation has shown that Jerusalem is a target for terrorist action. Shared responsibility for the city, even if each faith were given responsibility for its own sites, would still require a level of co-operation and trust that presently seems unlikely (Symon, 2001). There are some within the Jewish communities who believe that parts of the West Bank, and certainly Jerusalem, are theirs by the will of God, and those who hold most extremely to those beliefs will not consider relinquishing the territory to become part of a Palestinian state (Dershowitz, 2005: 158-159).

In terms of political will to achieve a solution, there are also a number of obstacles. Continuing acts of terrorism and the violence of the Second Intifada has convinced many Israelis that progress made in the Oslo Accords was not genuine:

… most Jewish Israelis remembered only the dozens of bloodied shirts of the bomb victims and linked them to the Oslo agreements that had facilitated the terrorists’ campaign. (Dershowitz, 2005: 67, citing Benny Morris, New York: Knopf, 1999: 636)

Israel’s continued settlements in the West Bank also seem to undermine credibility in claims that they are pursuing a two-state solution. Israel also continues to feel threatened by the military forces in the region and the Occupied Territories form part of their strategy for the defence of Israel by creating buffer zones. The Palestinians are politically divided in their support of the PLO, Hamas, Hizbollah and Fatah-al-Islam, all of which maintain their own militias (Gelvin, 2007: 226-227). While some of the leadership seek a pragmatic solution, others express such vehement anti-Semitic views in their pursuit of Palestinian nationalism that they only damage the possibility for a peaceful solution (Dershowitz, 2005: 123). It is difficult to determine, given the disparate nature of the political forces within the Palestinian people, and the separation of their territories, which political faction is able to negotiate on the Palestinian’s behalf.

Causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be traced to historical ethnic tensions between Arabs and Jews, exacerbated by the Zionist movement and then the British Mandate System. Both Islam and Judaism have a connection with the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem. The conflict over territory then focuses on the displacement of the Palestinian people with the creation of Israel, the Occupied Territories claimed over successive Arab-Israeli wars, and the control of Jerusalem itself. Attempts to resolve the territorial dispute have failed thus far because: Israel continues to feel threatened by Palestinian nationalists and the hostility in the region; the Palestinians are oppressed by the Israeli regime, and are not allowed free movement and suffer significant discrimination which is legalised by the government of Israel. Terrorist actions and military reprisals are ongoing. The ideology and political motivations of the PLO, Hizbollah, Hamas and Fatah-al-Islam are not coherent or united. Some advocate violence as a means for change, while others are struggling to maintain support for negotiation. The government of Israel is also subject to political expedience and its policies seem inconsistent with the objectives of withdrawal from the Occupied Territories or a successful creation of a two-state solution. While both parties continue to express a desire for peace, continued violence and current political policies are antithetical to a resolution to the conflict. The reason efforts to resolve the conflict have failed is that the underlying hostilities have never gone away.


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