Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Looking Backwards

Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Crisis
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Other Players
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Recent History
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Looking Backwards
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Future

What was the Madrid peace conference in 1991?

When the Gulf War ended in 1991 with the defeat of Iraq and the U.S. triumphant and unchallenged across the Middle East, Washington turned towards redrawing the political map of the region. The goal reflected a continuation of the U.S. rationale for the war itself—Iraq’s illegal invasion of Kuwait had provided a convenient pretext for the U.S. to lead the world to war to prove it remained a superpower even as the Cold War ended. Now it would prove it could orchestrate a regional peace the same way. And it would do so at a moment of terrible division in the Arab world, division rooted in Iraq’s invasion of a fellow Arab country. Palestinian leaders had opposed the U.S. war build-up, as did most of the Arab street, and supported earlier attempts to bring about a joint Arab solution, but together with jordan, they refrained from supporting the US war effort; one result was the erosion of long-standing Arab support for Palestinian national rights, the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, the significant weakening of the Palestinian diplomatic position.

The Madrid peace conference was ostensibly under joint U.S.-Soviet invitation, but with the Soviet Union about to collapse, there was no question that Washington was in sole charge. Madrid was designed to look like the long-sought international peace conference—invitations were sent to the European Union, Japan, many Arab countries and more—but the glittering international gala provided only the ceremonial opening to the actual negotiations. And those were—as Israel had long demanded—separate bilateral talks between Israel and each of its Arab interlocutors, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

It was only within the confines of the Israel-Jordan talks that the Palestinians were even included; they were denied the right to participate as a separate delegation, but only as a sub-set of the Jordanian team. Israel also had won U.S. agreement accepting Israel’s severe restrictions on who could negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians.

Madrid was very much an American initiative. President George Bush Senior, opening the conference, said its aim was to achieve a “just, lasting, and comprehensive peace” in the Middle East, not simply to end the state of war and replace it with a state of non-belligerency. Bush identified his goals as peace treaties, security, trade, economic relations, investment, “even tourism.” Significantly, he did not speak of justice, ending occupation, or Palestinian independence at goals to be fought for or protected in the context of the Madrid talks.

Bush’s plan called for five years of Palestinian “self-government,” in the third year of which negotiations would begin for a final resolution of the status of the occupied territories, very close to the Oslo formula that would later replace the Madrid process. He claimed that this “self-government” would “give the Palestinian people meaningful control of their own lives,” while taking into account Israeli security.” Bush appropriated Israel’s own formula, describing how Palestinians under “self-rule” would be allowed to control their own lives, but there was no change in maintaining Israel’s control of the land. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev focused primarily on the international context for the peace conference, and described Middle East peace in words that evoked Dr. Martin Luther King—defining peace as “not merely the cessation of war, but of moving towards justice.” His country, however, would disappear from the map less than two months later, and his words had little relevance.

After the ceremonies in Madrid, the diplomats got down to work in bilateral talks based in Washington. A parallel set of multi-lateral talks on issues such as refugees, water, and economic development brought together much broader governmental participation, including Canada, Japan, the European Union, first in an opening conference in Moscow in January 1992, followed by separate meetings in scattered capitals.

The various sets of talks plodded along in fits and starts for the next 18 months or so. Little progress was made, and frustrations grew higher.The impasse involved two principal issues: Israel’s refusal to come to terms with its role as occupier, and to make any commitment to stop building the illegal settlements. As months passed, and Palestinian and Israeli diplomats returned to State Department conference rooms for round after round of fruitless diplomacy, a growing realization emerged that Madrid was failing. The PLO, faced with the simultaneous task of orchestrating the officially non-PLO diplomatic team in the Madrid process while trying to provide international grounding to the continuing intifada going on at home. Developments were getting dire, and it was in that period of Madrid’s stalemate that the secret back-channel Oslo talks began.

The urgency of the PLO may also have been rooted in the organization’s growing understanding of the U.S. role. Round 10 of the Madrid talks collapsed over the issue of Jerusalem. Prior to that round, some hope had lingered among at least some of the Palestinian diplomats that the Clinton administration would stake out a position rooted in its claimed commitment to human rights—rather than in its well-known close ties to Israel. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher not only accepted the legitimacy of Israel’s position (that occupied Arab Jerusalem be excluded from the interim Palestinian authority) but demanded that the Palestinians sign a “joint statement of principles” based on that position, the Palestinians realized they could not hope for an even-handed sponsor in Washington, and the talks collapsed. The loss of that hoped—for U.S. role, and the resulting recognition that Madrid was a failure, may have set the stage for a new level of Palestinian urgency in the Oslo talks.

What happened to Israel and Palestine during the 1991 Gulf War?

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait opened a huge rift in an Arab world once unified, at least rhetorically, in support of Palestinian rights. Siding with Iraq, the Palestinians were quickly ostracized by many, particularly Gulf, leaders. The rift grew as more Arab states agreed or succumbed to pressure to join the U.S.-led coalition. Palestinian abandonment grew more severe.

In Israel, the threat of attack by Iraq grew. Rumors of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons fed the fears among Israelis, as gas masks were distributed and citizens were instructed to create sealed rooms in their homes to protect from chemicals. Palestinians living under Israeli occupation were largely denied gas masks, engendering fury across the occupied territories, to the degree that some Palestinians actually cheered the prospect of incoming scud missiles. The government agreed to a U.S. demand that Israel not retaliate, even to a direct Iraqi strike, in order to maintain Arab participation in the coalition, and in return agreed to protect Israel.

When fighting began, Iraq did indeed fire several dozen missiles against Israeli cities. None were armed with chemical or biological weapons, and none did major damage. Casualties included two Israelis killed in the attacks, along with some who died from stress-related heart attacks and from misuse of gas masks. Israel did not respond militarily to the Iraqi strikes.

The end of the war, with Iraq qualitatively defeated and weakened, left Israel in a very strong position. It used its elevated influence in Washington to shape the terms of the post-war Madrid conference—including exclusion of the United Nations, and severe restrictions on the nature of Palestinian participation. Those restrictions included rejection of a separate Palestinian delegation; Israel maintained the right to veto all Palestinian participants to insure that only Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza could negotiate for the Palestinians. Any Palestinians from East Jerusalem, anyone with official ties to the PLO, and anyone from the far-flung Palestinian diaspora were all excluded.

The major compromise the Palestinians made in 1988, when they declared an independent state and accepted a two-state solution, thus accepting a state on only 22 percent of their historic territory, was largely ignored after the Gulf War. The intifada had brought new credibility and political power to the Palestinians and the PLO; by the end of the Gulf crisis, most of that momentary power was lost.

What was the first “intifada” all about?

In the twenty years after Israel first took over the West Bank and Gaza, a new generation, half the population, grew up knowing nothing but military occupation. Unlike their parents, many of whom still dreamed of returning to their homes inside Israel (a dream that would be reclaimed by the third generation of refugees and exiles), these teenagers and young adults built their future hopes around creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Repression, despair, and for some, passivity all grew. Then an incident occurred. On December 8, 1987, near the densely crowded checkpoint at the entrance to the Gaza Strip. It involved an Israeli truck that swerved, and struck and killed four Palestinians: a doctor, an engineer, and two laborers. Some said it was deliberate, though no one knew for sure. What was different was the outcome. Palestinian outrage sparked an uprising that swept across the Gaza Strip, spread to the West Bank, and set into motion a blaze of nationalist resistance to occupation.

The uprising soon came to be called the “intifada,” a word whose Arabic roots refer to rising up, or shaking off. It began as spontaneous actions, stone-throwing children and young people challenging the troops and tanks of Israel’s occupying army. But soon it became more organized, as existing grassroots organizations, most of them linked to various factions of the PLO, mobilized to respond to new conditions, and to answer needs of the population in the context of Israel’s increasingly repressive response.

Women’s, workers, medical, students, agricultural, and community organizations took on new tasks—growing food in home and community gardens to replace the Israeli goods now being boycotted; guarding village streets at night with whistles to warn of soldiers on their way; mobile clinics to provide emergency medical help to villages or towns under curfew; tax protests; enforcement of a soon-declared daily commercial strike that shut down Palestinian businesses at noon. Leadership emerged clandestinely, with leaflets distributed overnight providing information about coming strike days, special commemorations of the intifada, or particular constituencies to be mobilized at particular times.

But throughout, there was a unified view that only the PLO, with its leadership in exile in Tunis, could speak for the Palestinians. Every international envoy who showed up in East Jerusalem or Ramallah or Gaza City was told the same thing: our address is in Tunis. If you want to engage us diplomatically, talk to the PLO.

And while there were some diplomatic gains, by far the major advance of the intifada was visible internally, within Palestinian society itself. The opening up of new ideas, new empowerment of women and young people, new levels of community support and participation, all would last beyond the intifada itself.

It was only with the exaggerated enthusiasm that greeted the signing of Oslo’s Declaration of Principles, in September 1993, that the first intifada began to wind down. For the next seven years, Oslo, rather than intifada, would be the code word on everyone’s tongue.

What were conditions like in the occupied territories before the first intifada?

In some ways it was surprising that the uprising did not erupt earlier. Conditions were dire, jobs few, money scarce. Education was central to Palestinian families, and many young university graduates headed abroad for professional training or to find work as doctors, engineers and more. For most families, particularly the half the population who lived in the refugee camps, it was a daily struggle to meet the most basic needs.

Israel’s military presence was everywhere, although the curfews and sieges, described euphemistically as “closures,” that later became commonplace were rare. The PLO was outlawed, and expressions of support for it could land one in prison. Arrests, indefinite detention and even expulsions were common. Israel tried to create a compliant leadership to compete with the PLO; nationalist political figures, such as the popularly-elected local mayors, were targeted by Israelis. In one incident three mayors were attacked, killing one and leaving two badly maimed. There was an international consensus on ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state, but there seemed to be no way to implement that view. The UN was unable to enforce its resolutions because the U.S. protected Israel’s occupation. Arab governments talked of liberating Jerusalem and supporting Palestinian rights, but it remained all talk. International law seemed far away.

How did Israel come to be in control of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem?

The 1967 Six-Day War began with Israel’s attack on the Egyptian air force, which was wiped out within a few hours. Some argue that Israel’s first strike was justified because Egypt, Syria and Jordan were massing armies near Israel’s borders. Certainly the tensions on all sides was on the rise. Egypt’s nationalist president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, demanded that the UN withdraw its emergency forces stationed on Egyptian territory since the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. Although Israel refused to grant the UN the right to station forces on its side of the border in 1956, it considered the withdrawal as a justification to go to war against Egypt.

But war still might have been prevented; just before Israel struck, Nasser had agreed to send his vice-president to Washington for negotiations. Israel’s attack was at least partly to prevent a face-saving stand-down for Nasser. Israeli and U.S. military officials agreed that the war had been Israel’s decision. Israel’s right-wing Likud Bloc leader and later prime minister Menachem Begin told the Pentagon’s Army War College in 1982 that “in June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

Whatever one thinks about the legitimacy of Israel’s war, it was clearly aimed at the Arab states surrounding Israel—but it was the Palestinians who paid the highest price. Even after the ceasefire, Israeli troops moved into Syria and captured the Golan Heights; 90,000 Golani Arabs were expelled. By the end of the war, Israel occupied Syria’s Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai, and the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Two hundred fifty thousand more Palestinians were forced into exile, and over a million more were now under Israeli military occupation.

What was the international community’s response to the 1967 War?

The 1967 War provided the United Nations with its first opportunity to articulate a clear position on the once-accepted practice of victorious nations simply keeping, as a colony or to expand existing territorial control, the nations it conquered and occupied. This practice was finally deemed unacceptable, and Security Council resolution 242, on which most future Israel-Palestine negotiations would be based, asserted “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” It was an unequivocal position.

Other parts of the resolution were less precise. While almost every nation agreed that Israel should return all of the captured territories it was occupying, there was some diplomatic wrangling with the U.S. The final result was a dodge: the French version called for the return of “the territories,” implying all that Israel held; the English version spoke of returning “territories,” leaving open the possibility that partial return might be acceptable. From that moment, Israel adopted the position that it was not obligated to return all the territories. With the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt after the [first] Camp David Accords of 1979 between Israel and Egypt, Israel claimed that since the virtually unpopulated Sinai desert represented the largest percentage of land it had occupied in ’67, its return to Egypt should be sufficient to meet the UN’s demand. Any further return of occupied land, to Palestinians or Syria, would be at Israel’s choice and on Israel’s terms.

From 1967 until today, the UN has passed numerous resolutions calling for an end to Israel’s occupation, but those resolutions remain unfulfilled.

What was the U.S. relationship to the occupation?

At the time of the Six-Day War U.S. relations with Israel were friendly and supportive, but not anything close to the “special relationship” that defines U.S.-Israeli ties today. In 1967 the Pentagon predicted that the balance of forces was so one-sided that no matter who struck first, no combination of Arab forces would overcome Israel’s superior strength. But nonetheless, on May 25th the Pentagon sent battalions of Marines to the Sixth Fleet, then cruising the Mediterranean, in case they were needed to bolster Israel. By June 2, the date was set for Israel to teach Syria and Egypt the long-awaited “lesson.” But first Israel needed permission from the U.S. On June 4, even as Nasser was negotiating with the U.S. representative in Cairo, President Lyndon Johnson telegraphed Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and gave Israel the final green light. The next day, Dayan ordered the attack.

After the War, relations between Washington and Tel Aviv became much closer. In the U.S., the war was presented as evidence of a heroic Israel triumphing over the aggressive Arab Goliath. Support skyrocketed for closer U.S. ties to Israel. Fundraising by Zionist organizations, blood drives, volunteer campaigns all soared. During the six days of the war, the United Jewish Appeal sold $220 million worth of Israeli bonds; American contributions for Israel in 1967 totalled $600 million.

But the biggest gain was not those individual contributions. Even more important was the new recognition in Washington of the role Israel could play. It was the Cold War, after all, and Israel’s military prowess showed U.S. policymakers how valuable an ally it could be as the regional policeman for U.S. Middle East interests. Soon Israel’s junior partner role would be expanded to include Cold War battlefields much farther afield-places like Angola, Mozambique, El Salvador, Chile, Guatemala—where Israeli military assistance, training, and arms bolstered unsavory U.S. allies.

Just ten days after the Six-Day War ended, a State Department memo noted “Israel has probably done more for the U.S. in the Middle East in relation to money and effort invested than any of our so-called allies and friends elsewhere around the world since the end of the Second World War. In the Far East, we can get almost nobody to help us in Viet Nam. Here, the Israelis won the war single-handedly, have taken us off the hook, and have served our interests as well as theirs.”

The reward, for Israel, was a flood of sophisticated weapons, including advanced Phantom jets. In the four years after the 1967 war, Israel would receive $1.5 billion in U.S. arms—ten times as much as the total for the last twenty years.

Given all of that, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land was hardly a concern for Washington. Over the years different U.S. presidents criticized the settlements in the occupied territories, variously describing them as “unhelpful,” “obstacles to peace,” “a complicating factor in the peace process,” or, briefly, “illegal.” But little action matched the words. America’s presumed strategic interests seemed to outweigh humanitarian and legal concerns in the Middle East.

What was the 1982 Lebanon war all about? What was Ariel Sharon’s role?

In 1970, after a bitter battle with the Jordanian military, the PLO moved its headquarters from Jordan to Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians followed, and the existing camps in Lebanon were soon crowded with refugees. Lebanon played a regional role, and was soon a key focal point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Beirut and southern Lebanon, much of the governing, from schools and hospitals to licensing and legal systems, was taken over by the PLO. From 1975 Lebanon was stuck in a bloody civil war, pitting sectarian and religious factions against each other. Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli troops also continued to trade rocket fire across the Israeli-Lebanese border. In 1978, Israel took over a strip of southern Lebanon, and continued to occupy it in defiance of UN Resolution 425 which called for Israel to immediately and unconditionally withdraw. Instead of withdrawing, Israel sponsored an anti-Palestinian Christian-led militia, called the South Lebanon Army, by arming, paying, training and supporting them in the occupied zone.

Israel’s real goal was to destroy the PLO infrastructure—social as well as military—in Lebanon, and to put in place a compliant, pro-Israeli regime in Beirut. In 1982, when it appeared that Lebanon’s civil war could drag on forever without those goals being achieved, Israel decided to move on its own. But first Tel Aviv needed to be sure its allies in Washington would approve.

It was a little bit tricky. After all, the U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Israel and the PLO in south Lebanon and across Israel’s northern border had held for almost a year. There wasn’t an obvious provocation on which to claim that a direct Israeli invasion was “necessary for self-defense.” In May 1982, Israel’s Defense Minister Ariel Sharon went to Washington, to meet with President Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Former President Jimmy Carter said after a national security briefing that “the word I got from very knowledgeable people in Israel is that ‘we have a green light from Washington’.”

Then a new provocation was created. On June 3, a renegade, anti-PLO Palestinian faction attempted to assassinate Israel’s ambassador in London. The British police immediately identified Abu Nidal’s forces as responsible, and revealed that PLO leaders themselves were among the names on the would-be assassins’ hit list. The PLO had nothing to do with the London attack. But Israel claimed the attack (the ambassador remained unhurt) was a justification for war. Three days later, on June 6, 1982 the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in operation “Peace for Galilee,” crossing the Litani River and moving as far north as Beirut, destroying the feeble resistance from local villagers and from United Nations peacekeeping troops swept aside in the assault. Israel remained in virtually uncontested control of the air, and had overwhelming military superiority on land and sea. Beirut was besieged and subjected to merciless bombing for two months. Casualties were enormous, totalling more than 17,000 Lebanese and palestinians, mostly civilians. Hospitals were hit, the Palestinian refugee camps were levelled in massive bombardment.

Israel relied overwhelmingly on U.S.-supplied planes, bombs and other military equipment. But despite existing laws mandating that U.S. military supplies be used only for defensive purposes, no one in Washington complained. The New York Times said “American weapons were justly used to break the PLO.” The Reagan administration and Congress both tried to outdo the other in calls to raise U.S. aid to Israel. Throughout June and July the siege of Beirut continued, with everyone in the city deprived of most food, water, electricity and safety. The bombing increased in early August, leading to a day of eleven solid hours of bombing on August 12. Condemnation poured in from around the world, and even the U.S. issued a mild criticism of the bombing. A ceasefire was soon achieved.

The U.S. brokered its terms, which centered on the PLO leaving Beirut—its guerrillas, its doctors, its civilian infrastructure, its officials—everyone and everything would board ship heading for Tunis, almost as far from Palestine as you could get and still be in the Arab world. The U.S. agreed to serve as guarantor of Israel’s promises, as protector of the Palestinian civilians, primarily women, children and old man, left behind. U.S. Marines were deployed as the centerpiece of an international force with a 30-day mandate to guard Beirut during the withdrawal of the PLO fighters.

What caused the Sabra-Shatila massacre in Lebanon?

On September 1st, President Reagan announced a new peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians, that included a freeze on new settlements, limited autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and some version of a “Jordanian solution,” plus lots of new economic and military aid for Israel. But Israel rejected the Reagan plan, and the initiative remained stalled; in the West Bank, Israel immediately launched several new settlements. At the same time, Israel was having even more difficulties with the new president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel. Tel Aviv had expected Gemayel to be “their man” in Beirut, but unexpectedly Gemayel was emerging as a Lebanese nationalist instead.

On September 11th, two weeks before the end of their official mandate, the last U.S. Marines were withdrawn from Beirut. Three days later, Gemayel was assassinated. Within hours, Israel responded by invading the Muslim- (and formerly Palestinian-) dominated West Beirut. It was in complete violation of the guarantees of protection that were the basis for the agreement the U.S. had negotiated with the PLO. After a few hours, Defense Minister Sharon announced that the Christian Phalangists, the most anti-Palestinian of all the Christian militias, would actually enter the Palestinian camps, rather than the Israelis themselves. The senior Israeli commander met with the top Phalangist leaders and told them, he said, “to act humanely, and not to harm women, children and old people.”

On Thursday, September 16, Israeli troops lit flares to light the way for their Phalangist allies to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, on the outskirts of West Beirut. The massacre of unarmed children, women and old men went on for three days. It resulted in the deaths of between 2,000 and 3,000 Palestinians, most of them left piled up or hastily buried in mass graves. The Red Cross later said it would be impossible to know the exact number who died.

There was no question that the Israeli soldiers knew what was going on inside—it was visible even without their high-powered binoculars, and the sound of machine-gun fire continued throughout the days and nights. Finally the U.S. pushed Israel to withdraw the Phalangists. The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. Special Envoy Morris Draper told the Israeli officers that “you must stop the massacres. They are obscene. I have an officer in the camp counting the bodies. …They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area and therefore responsible for that area.”

Israel would remain occupying a strip of south Lebanon until 2000, when the mounting deaths and injuries of young Israeli soldiers at the hands of Hizbullah resistance forces brought about a political outcry inside Israel. The occupation was finally ended unilaterally, implementing most of the requirements of resolution 425 twenty-two years after it was passed.

Were the Palestinians demanding national rights and an independent state before the 1967 war?

Like most parts of the Arab world, national consciousness in Palestine grew in the context of demographic changes and shifts in colonial control. During the 400 years of Ottoman Turkish control, Palestine was an identifiable region within the larger empire, but linked closely with what was then known as Greater Syria. With World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine became part of the British Empire. But even before that, beginning in the 1880s, the increasing influx of European Jewish settlers brought about a new national identity—a distinctly Palestinian consciousness—among the Muslims and Christians who were the overwhelming majority of Palestinian society. There was widespread unease, and sporadic organizing campaigns, against the influx of Zionist European settlers, who were viewed as a threat to indigenous land ownership. But nation-states did not yet exist in the Arab world.

When the French and British divided up the Arab world as they took over from the defeated Ottoman empire, Palestine was demarcated with specific borders, and turned over to Great Britain to rule as a Mandate territory under the approval of the League of Nations. It was in that period that national rights and the demand for independence emerged among Palestinians. As more European settlers arrived, and the British made contradictory promises to the Arabs on one side and the Zionist leaders on the other, conflict escalated. Palestinian Arabs challenged the right of the new occupants to their land, and the legitimacy of the British overlords in protecting the immigrants; the Zionist settlers, similarly, saw the indigenous Arabs (they denied for decades that there was an identifiable Palestinian people) as an impediment to full settlement of the land, and resisted the British for placing any restrictions on the numbers of immigrants allowed in to Palestine.

That conflict, and the armed clashes that accompanied it, eventually led to the British decision that Palestine was ungovernable, and to turn Mandate authority over to the new United Nations. When the UN voted to partition Palestine in 1947, opposition came from the Arab states, but the only survey taken of Palestinian opinion to determine what they themselves wanted was ignored in the international debate. The Palestinians were given no voice. For many years popular sentiment among Palestinians reflected the call to reverse partition—to create a democratic and secular state for all its citizens in all of Israel and Palestine together.

The period after the 1967 War, when Israel occupied the last remnants of Palestine, corresponded with the rise of the PLO as a popular guerrilla organization. (It had originally been created by Arab governments in 1964.) The initial strategic approach of the PLO was the call for national rights in the context of a democratic secular state. By the mid-1970s, debate was underway within the organization about recognizing Israel and shifting to a two-state approach. In January 1976 the PLO, with support from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Soviet Union, introduced a resolution calling for a two-state solution. The U.S. vetoed the resolution.

In 1988 at the height of the first intifada the PLO’s parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council voted to accept a two-state strategy while declaring Palestine an independent state.

How was the PLO viewed in the Arab Middle East, the UN and in the rest of the world?

When the PLO was created, it was viewed by the Arab governments largely as an instrument of their own interests. Only after the guerrilla organizations became the major components of the PLO, and Yasir Arafat became its leader in 1968, did it take on greater credibility among Palestinians themselves. During the early 1970s political campaigns among Palestinian communities in the occupied territories, in refugee camps and throughout the world, led to virtual unanimous support for the PLO as the voice of the still-stateless Palestinians.

In 1974 the United Nations invited the PLO leader to address the General Assembly. Yasir Arafat appeared bearing both a gun and an olive branch, and pleaded with delegates “do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” That same year, the Assembly identified November 29th, anniversary of the day of the partition resolution years before, as an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It also recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and invited the PLO to become an official non-state “observer” at the UN, allowing it participation in all debates, and welcoming a Palestinian ambassador.

While the PLO soon won diplomatic recognition in capitals across the world, Arab leaders were less than pleased at its independent stance. In Jordan, in particular, King Hussein saw the rise of the PLO as a threat to Jordan’s traditional influence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 1982 when Ariel Sharon launched his “Jordan is Palestine” campaign, the king’s opposition was seen as less than enthusiastic. Only with the first intifada, when virtually unanimous Palestinian rejection of Jordan’s role became undeniable, did the king finally sever his kingdom’s links to Palestinian institutions.

When the PLO declared Palestine independent in 1988, the new state, which still controlled no land of its own, quickly attained diplomatic relations with more governments than recognized Israel.

To the U.S., the PLO was a terrorist organization and Yasir Arafat an arch-terrorist. It was the same epithet used to condemn Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, and a host of other national liberation movements. It was the same, in fact, as the accusation the British hurled at Menachem Begin and other Zionist military leaders in the pre-state period of Israeli history. In 1975 Henry Kissinger had promised Israel that the U.S. would never recognize or negotiate with the PLO.

When the UN invited Arafat to address the General Assembly in November 1988, just after the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, Washington refused to issue a visa, despite its obligations as Host Country of the United Nations. The entire UN—diplomats, security guards, translators, secretariat staff—packed up and flew to Geneva for one day, to hear the PLO chairman. In that speech, Arafat again rejected terrorism and recognized Israel; the goal was to open a dialogue with the U.S. In an internationally broadcast press conference Arafat read his speech; word came from Washington that it wasn’t good enough. The press corps was recalled to the auditorium in Geneva’s Palais des Nations, and the revised speech read out. In return, the U.S. allowed a mid-level diplomat, then ambassador to Tunisia, to open talks with the PLO. But the talks languished, and were soon cancelled.

Only with the Oslo process, when the Palestinians had accepted Washington’s centrality in the peace talks, did the U.S. accept the PLO as a full-fledged negotiating partner. During Bill Clinton’s presidency Yasir Arafat was one of the most frequent international visitors to the White House.

In the first two years of the Bush administration, however, Arafat remained untouchable. President Bush refused even to speak with the Palestinian leader when their paths crossed at the United Nations, and by the spring of 2002 called explicitly for the replacement of the PLO chairman and President of the Palestinian Authority.

What is Zionism? Do all Jews support Zionism?

Zionism is a political movement, one that calls for creation of a specifically Jewish state. When the movement began in the late 1880s, anti-Semitism was a powerful and growing force in Russia and Europe. Most Jews at that time believed that the best way to stop anti-Semitism was either through some kind of assimilation, or through alliances with other political movements. But a small number of Jews believed that anti-Semitism could never be overcome, and that the only way for Jews to be safe would be for them to leave their home countries and establish a Jewish state somewhere.

Early Zionist leaders believed that a Jewish state could be established anywhere (Uganda, Argentine, and Turkey were both considered at different times); it was a thoroughly secular movement. But the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, recognized that linking Zionism to Palestine would gain wider support among more Jews. Herzl also believed that a Jewish state could only be created with the support of a colonial sponsor, and he travelled the imperial capitals of the world seeking a patron.

Many Jews opposed Zionism. The ultra-orthodox Jews in Palestine believed that only God could deliver a state to the Jewish people, and that a human-based effort was against God’s will. Many Jews facing anti-Semitic attacks rejected Zionism’s call for them to leave their homelands, seeing that position as mimicking the demand of the anti-Semites themselves.

The Zionist movement won strong support from the British when London took control of Palestine with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. In 1917 the Balfour Declaration stated that “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In the stroke of a pen the vast majority of the population of Palestine was reduced to the “non-Jewish community.”

Zionism gradually gained more adherents, though slowly. It was only in the 1930s and ’40s, as German and Polish and other European Jews desperately sought to escape Hitler and their first choice countries of refuge, the U.S. and Britain, denied them entry, that Zionism and the call to create a Jewish state in Palestine, became a more popular view among Jews. After World War II, with Holocaust survivors filling Displaced Person camps across Europe, Zionism became the majority position.

The Zionist slogan was that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Certainly the second part was true—the European Jews who had survived the Holocaust had lost everything—their homes, their families, their countries, their land. Turned away from the U.S. because of anti-Semitism, and encouraged to go to Palestine instead, it was not surprising that thousands flocked to join Jewish communities there. But the first part of the slogan hid the reality—for Palestine was not a land without a people. It’s indigenous people had been there all along.

With the creation of Israel, the organizations of the Zionist movement such as the Jewish Agency became adjuncts of the state apparatus, focusing on recruiting and settling Jews from all over the world in Israel.


Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer
Phyllis Bennis

If you have ever wondered “Why is there so much violence in the Middle East?”, “Who are the Palestinians?”, “What are the occupied territories?” or “What does Israel want?”, then this is the book for you.

With straightforward language, Phyllis Bennis, longtime analyst of the region, answers basic questions about Israel and Israelis, Palestine and Palestinians, the US and the Middle East, Zionism and anti-Semitism; about complex issues ranging from the Oslo peace process to the election of Hamas. Together her answers provide a comprehensive understanding of the longstanding Palestinian–Israeli conflict.


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