Why has the Palestine-Israel conflict been so difficult to resolve?
The ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews over Palestine-Israel has been one of the most complex and difficult disputes of modern times. Developing due to the competing nationalisms born in the late nineteenth century – but rooted in a history which stretches back millennia – the core of the problem is found in conflicting claims to the same small area of land. Diverse complications have since arisen – particularly the refugee crisis, terrorist acts, and the ongoing dispute over the fate of the holy city of Jerusalem – which embroil the conflict even deeper within the collective national psyches of those involved. Reluctance to compromise, and opposition from extremists within each group, have further complicated the peace process. Unless some way can be found for the two peoples to share the ‘twice-promised land’, in a manner acceptable to both, the future prospects for peace look grim.
Jews in the late nineteenth century were plagued by discrimination and distrust. Tens of thousands were slaughtered in the Russian pogroms, where the only way for Jews to gain equality was through Christian baptism. Zionism was the political answer to this intensifying persecution, and was developed by Theodore Herzl at a time when nationalism was on the rise in Europe. The movement has been described as “a product of Western political thought…embracing the nationalist vision.” Zionists sought the creation of a Jewish national home, for they thought that they would not be free of anti-Semitism until they had a state of their own. Palestine was eventually chosen, as Jewish claims to that land could be traced back through Biblical history to the Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judea, and the added religious justification that the land was “promised” to Abraham by God. Engaging the aid of Britain to help the Zionists achieve their goal, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 announced the intention of the British to help the Jews set up a “national home” in Palestine. Balfour viewed Zionism as being “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. Naturally, the Arabs disagreed.
It has been said that “the roots of Palestinian nationalism lay in the same rights-based principles as Zionism”. Certainly, the competing nationalisms had Europe as their single origin. Arab nationalism began with the study of Arab history and language (stimulated by French and US missionary and educational activities in the Levant), and only later developed into a political movement. The first Arab nationalist secret society was founded by Christian Arabs (who looked to Europe for assistance) in 1875. Arab nationalistic feeling was running strong when the threat of Zionism became apparent. The British enticed the Arabs into supporting them in WWI by promising to “recognise and uphold the independence of the Arabs” after the war. That they so blatantly betrayed this (by implementing the Balfour Declaration) in the case of Palestine, has been a sore point to Arabs ever since.
Under the British mandate of the interwar years, the Zionists at last had the opportunity to implement their plans of large-scale colonisation. The Jewish population in Palestine increased more than tenfold (from 56 000 in 1918 to 608 000 in 1946). This lead to fear amongst the Arab population that the Jews were going to seize all their land and take over their country (indeed, a 1930 government survey showed that already 28% of Palestinian families were without land). An Arab revolt from 1936-9 finally forced the British to re-examine their policy in Palestine, and the 1939 White Paper ensured limits to Jewish immigration, and promised eventual independence for Palestine.
The Jews viewed the British turnaround as a betrayal of the Balfour Declaration, at a time when they desperately needed a home secure from anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is estimated to have cost the lives of least six million Jews. The horrific abuse they suffered at Hitler’s hands won the Jews much worldwide sympathy, especially when coupled with images showing the terrible disappointment of Jewish refugees being turned away from Palestine by the British, and being sent back to their European camps. The Zionists stepped up their efforts to gain Palestine by any means necessary – fair or foul. In 1946, Irgun (a Zionist terrorist organization) blew up the King David Hotel (British government headquarters) in Jerusalem, killing 90 and injuring over 200 innocent people. Despairing of the whole sorry affair, the British handed the Palestine problem over to the UN to try to solve.
It would be worth pausing a moment here to consider the rift between Jewish and Arab populations in early twentieth century Palestine. The Jews tended to be (in general) ‘modern’, secular, industrial, outward looking, and their women were semi-liberated. In contrast, Palestinian society was ‘traditional’, highly religious, agricultural, inward looking, and their women were not at all liberated. Furthermore, in the mid 1930s, over 90% of Jews in Palestine were educated. Sadly, this was the case for only 15% of Arabs. Despite a lessening of such demographic disparities over time, Milton-Edwards observes that “In more than half a century there has been no sign of integration between the Jews and Arabs of Israel”. Their totally different cultures, outlooks and aims in life, can help to explain why the two groups have found it so difficult to coexist peacefully. The differences have also fuelled their competing nationalisms, as identities are forged in counterpoint by contrasting themselves with the other group. If they had not seemed so very foreign to each other, perhaps history would have turned out quite differently.
In the face of this insurmountable cultural split, the United Nations Special Committee On Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947 recommended partition of the country into separate Jewish and Arab states. This horrified the Arabs, but the Jews didn’t hesitate to proclaim the birth of the State of Israel once the British had finally withdrawn (14 May 1948). However, they first had to rid themselves of the many disgruntled Palestinians living within the borders of (soon to be declared) Israel. The Jews used deliberate terror tactics, such as the massacre of Deir Yassan (9 April 1948), where some three hundred innocent villagers – men, women and children – were tortured and slaughtered mercilessly. Begin, Irgun’s leader, later described the success of his terror tactics: “The Arabs began to flee in terror…of the about 800,000 Arabs…only some 165,000 are still there”. During the war which followed, the victorious Israelis claimed even more land – their territory growing from 56% under the UNSCOP partition, to 77% of all of Palestine after the war.
The refugee problem which originated in 1948 has been one of the most contentious issues facing Palestine-Israel. Over 914 000 Palestinians (out of 1.4 million total) became refugees. Erskine notes that 80% of pre-1967 Israel was land abandoned by Arab refugees, and that by 1954, over one third of the Jewish population in Israel lived on ‘absentee property’. After the war, Israel would not allow the Palestinians who had fled their homes to return, citing lack of space and the “serious social, political and security consequences which would arise”. Instead, their homes were given to new Jewish immigrants, flooding in under the ‘Law of Return’. Israel refused to accept responsibility for the plight of the refugees, blaming instead the neighbouring Arab governments’ “selfish motives and propaganda efforts” for the refugees’ refusal to resettle elsewhere. But resettlement could be problematic, as Khouri points out, the Palestinians would have found “the economic, social and political situation in many Arab states…considerably different from their own”. Yet the alternatives were limited. Even back in 1951, the UN Conciliation Commission concluded that changes since 1948 meant that it was “now unrealistic to try to repatriate all Arab refugees”. The best hope for future settlement of the refugees may be in a separate Palestinian state.
The refugee problem itself led to another serious obstacle to peace: that of terrorism. The hopelessness of young refugees made their camps an ideal recruiting ground for the Fedayeen terrorist group, determined to strike back at the Israeli ‘usurpers’, using terror tactics similar to those previously used by Zionist groups. While such methods strike us as deplorable, one must bear in mind that when a group is so outclassed (the Israeli army was well trained and armed, due to much US military aid), ‘honest’ warfare is no longer a serious option. In 1973, Jobert, the French Foreign Minister, commented on Palestinian terrorism: “Do you think that trying to get back into your own home really constitutes an unforeseen act of aggression?” Understandable though it is, such aggression is but another obstacle to peace, as it merely reinforces the fear and animosity each group feels towards the other – not to mention the terrible loss of life. Such actions make trust almost impossible, and so preclude the possibility of peaceful negotiation and compromise. To make matters even worse, extreme terrorist organizations on both sides have killed their own national leaders for seeking peace – in 1981, Egyptian Prime Minister Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists, and Israeli Prime Minister Rabin befell a similar fate in 1995, at the hands of Jewish extremists.
Another contentious issue for Palestine-Israel has been control of Jerusalem, and how to ensure rights of access for people of all religions to the city’s holy places. The overlap of Jewish and Muslim shrines in the Old City could create future problems, as part of the Islamic Haram al-Sharif compound (which contains the revered Dome of the Rock) is believed to lie on the site of the Jewish Second Temple (demolished in AD 70), and adjacent to the Wailing Wall. The original 1947 UNSCOP report recommended internationalisation of the city. But during the Palestine war (1948) West Jerusalem was seized by Israel, and East Jerusalem (containing most of the holy places) by Jordan. Neither power was prepared to give up the city. The problem deepened after Israel’s success in the Six Day War of 1967, where it captured all of Jerusalem – and then proceeded to bulldoze Arab homes in order to clear room for Jews to pray near the Wailing Wall. Despite unanimous UN condemnation of East Jerusalem’s annexation, Israeli officials made it clear that they “would not give up the Old City regardless of what resolutions the General Assembly passed”. The stubbornness of both Jews and Arabs with regard to their ownership-rights to Jerusalem will continue to be an obstacle to any future peace negotiations.
Yet there have been moments of hope throughout the conflict. The ‘October War’ of 1973 forced Israel into serious security negotiations on the basis of UN Resolution 242 (land for peace). It also led Egypt and the mediating US to resume diplomatic relations after a six year break. The Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 initiated a ‘framework’ for peace (though it did not adequately address the roots of the Palestine problem). In 1982, the massacre of Palestinian refugees (during the Lebanon crisis) shocked 400 000 Israelis into attending an anti-war protest in Tel Aviv. The success of the Intifada (Palestinian uprising, from 1988-93), where the Palestinians intentionally refrained from using firearms, has hopefully taught Palestinian leadership that non-violent civil disobedience can gain far greater international sympathy than arbitrary terrorism. A crucial first step was taken through the Oslo Accords of 1993, where Israel and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) finally recognised each other and “agreed to direct peace talks”. This also led to the historic first handshake between Arafat and Rabin. More recently, the ‘Roadmap for Peace’ has renewed peace talks, and aims to set up a phased Palestinian state by 2005.
I consider the overarching problem which combines and inflames many of the above issues, to be an imbalance of idealism and pragmatism. Israel needs to be willing to gamble a little, for the sake of resolving this conflict. It has consistently (if understandably) emphasised the need for security throughout its short history, but it now must risk relaxing this somewhat, and give the Palestinians more liberty. In the recent past, an overzealous Israel would imprison Arabs without trial, just for belonging to the PLO or possessing a Palestinian flag. Such authoritarian measures create a disharmonious atmosphere inconsistent with peaceful reform. Continued government-subsidised colonisation of Palestinian territories aims to undermine the nationalist movement in areas containing an Arab majority, so is a further attempt to cement Israeli security. Macintyre observes that up to 85% of the Jewish settlers were attracted by pragmatic (the housing offered was two thirds cheaper than in Israel) rather than ideological considerations.
The Palestinians, for their part, suffer imbalance in the opposite direction. They need to somehow accept the injustices which have befallen them, and try to move on to secure the best possible future, in a realistic fashion. Those who cannot accept Israel at all, such as Cattan, provocatively insist that “it is erroneously assumed… that (Israel’s) withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza to the 1949 armistice lines would settle the problem”. But such a stubborn refusal to compromise will not help the Palestinians. Gandhi once said that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs, in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French”. But if any progress is to be made, then they must accept the reality of Israel; the reality that now only a part of Palestine belongs to the Arabs, despite the injustice of this. Fortunately, a great deal of progress has been made in this respect, as the PLO now recognises Israel, and hopefully some of the Palestinian fringe groups will soon follow suit.
The conflict over Palestine-Israel is not easy to resolve, as is evident from the many failed attempts and partial-successes of the past. At its root, it is a nationalistic issue, with two distinct groups claiming the one piece of land for their nation-state. It is remarkable and unfortunate that two peoples who have suffered so much, can nevertheless be so unsympathetic to the other’s plight. For any future progress to be made, both sides must be willing to compromise, and learn to stop viewing the other as a mortal threat to their own existence. Whether such a degree of trust is possible, given the many contentious issues and destabilising events explored above, is by no means certain.
 R. Macintyre, Palestine-Israel: Conflict in the Modern Holy Land, p.11.
 F. Khouri, The Arab-Israeli Dilemma (3rd ed), p.3.
 B. Milton-Edwards & P. Hinchcliffe, Conflicts in the Middle East since 1945, p.23.
 M. Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, p.10. Note that H. Cattan, The Palestine Question, p.3, points out that Palestinian heritage can be traced back to the Philistine tribes (contemporary with the Israelite tribes which modern Jews use for justification), and also the Canaanites – who are the earliest known inhabitants of Palestine, then known as the “Land of Canaan”.
 Macintyre, p.8.
 Ibid., p.27.
 Milton-Edwards & Hinchcliffe, p.23.
 Khouri, p.6.
 D. Peretz, The Middle East Today (2nd ed), p.133. Note that Ciment, Palestine/Israel: The Long Conflict, p.28, thought that Palestinian nationalism could be traced back even further, to an 1830s revolt against the foreign rule of Ibrahim Pasha.
 in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915-16, see Khouri, p.7.
 Cattan, p.28.
 Macintyre, p.34.
 Ibid., p.45.
 Peretz, p.272.
 Macintyre, p.48.
 The following generalisations are outlined in Macintyre, p.39.
 Ibid., p.38.
 Milton-Edwards & Hinchcliffe, p.25.
 Cattan, p.44.
 Cattan, p.45.
 Macintyre, p.55. Note also that Cattan, p.69. points out that Jewish land ownership before partition only amounted to 6% of Palestine.
 Macintyre, p.59.
 W. Khaladi, From Haven to Conquest, pp.801-3.
 Khouri, p.161.
 of which there were 2.5 million from 1950-1995, see Macintyre, p.62.
 Khouri, p.162.
 Ibid., p.164.
 Ibid., p.132.
 Macintyre, p.67.
 Cattan, p.118.
 Macintyre, p.109, points out that suicide bombers from extreme Islamic groups (such as Hamas) killed 59 people in just the first quarter of 1996.
 Ibid., pp.84, 106.
 Khouri, p.119
 Ibid., pp.102-3, 109.
 Macintyre, p.92.
 Khouri, p.114
 Ovendale, p.221.
 Ibid., pp.233-4.
 Macintyre, p.89.
 Milton-Edwards and Hinchcliffe, p.30.
 Macintyre, p.103.
 Ciment, p.59.
 Macintyre, pp.94-5.
 Tessler, pp.520-1.
 Macintyre, p.94.
 Cattan, p.57.
 Khaladi, p.367.
Cattan, H., The Palestine Question, New York: Croom Helm, 1988.
Ciment, J., Palestine/Israel: The Long Conflict, New York: Facts On File, 1997.
Khaladi, W., From Haven To Conquest, Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971.
Khouri, F., The Arab-Israeli Dilemma (3rd ed.), New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985.
Macintyre, R., Palestine-Israel: Conflict in the Modern Holy Land, Auckland: Macmillan, 1997.
Milton-Edwards, B. & Hinchcliffe, P., Conflicts in the Middle East since 1945, London: Routledge, 2001.
Ovendale, R., The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars (2nd ed.), New York: Longman, 1992.
Peretz, D., The Middle East Today (2nd ed.), New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Tessler, M., A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.