Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Recent History

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

This whole thing happened after the famous handshake on the White House lawn. Wasn’t that supposed to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

The famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, under the benign urging of President Bill Clinton, accompanied the signing of the first part of what became known as the Oslo accords. That first agreement, the Declaration of Principles (DOP), outlined a new relationship between the two sides, following more than a year of secret negotiations held in and under the auspices of the Norwegian capital.

The agreement signed 13 September 1993 between the PLO and Israel did not bring an independent Palestinian state into being; it did not call for an end to Israeli occupation or even use the word occupation. But it did transform the terrain on which the diplomatic and political efforts to end the conflict would be waged.

For the Palestinians, the DOP brought about two important goals. First was recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people-important (despite its current weakness) because it meant Israeli recognition that resolving the Palestinian issue meant more than just the question of that part of the Palestinian population living under occupation. Recognition of the PLO reversed a longstanding Israeli policy which rejected the PLO because the organization represents the Palestinians as a separate people, inside and outside the occupied territories. Second, it called for redeployment of Israeli troops out of the Palestinian cities and population centers. It was not an end to military occupation, or even a withdrawal of troops (the troops would remain throughout the occupied territories, on the roads, surrounding towns and villages, etc.). But it represented a major improvement in the lives of ordinary Palestinians who could now go to work or send their children to school without worrying about Israeli soldiers camped on their roof or in the road in front of their house. Neither the letters nor the DOP, however, included Israeli recognition of the Palestinian right to an independent state.

For the Israelis, the DOP brought official recognition by the Palestinians of Israel’s right to exist, a renunciation of terrorism and armed struggle. It opened the door to an end to the Arab boycott and the beginning of normalization of Israel’s relations with Arab neighbors. That meant the opening of trade relations with surrounding countries, a potentially huge boon for Israel’s high-tech advanced economy. It also reflected Palestinian acceptance of responsibility for the economic and social needs of the Palestinian population and for security for Israelis-all without ending Israeli control over the occupied territories.

What was the Oslo process? How did the Oslo process start?

The Oslo process began while the official, public negotiations that followed the 1991 Madrid peace conference were still going on. But after ten sessions, those talks had stalled again in the spring of 1993, this time over the status of Jerusalem, and it was becoming clear they weren’t going anywhere. Madrid’s failure increased interest among the highest level officials on both sides in the still-secret talks underway in Oslo.

Those talks, initially involving Israeli academics and mid-level Palestinian officials brought together by Norway’s foreign minister, had gone much further than the Madrid talks. They culminated in September 1993 with announcement that letters of mutual recognition and a Declaration of Principles had been agreed to. The U.S. quickly moved in to take over sponsorship of the process, and the White House signing ceremony finalized the agreement.

Oslo’s DOP separated the various issues that divided Israelis and Palestinians into two types: easy and hard. The theory was that the “easy” issues-such things as release of prisoners, economic cooperation, construction of Palestinian sea and airports, security considerations, etc.-would be dealt with first, during a five-year interim period. Discussion of the hard “final status” issues-including borders of a Palestinian state, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees-would not even begin until the third year, and their resolution would be delayed till the end of the interim period (which was eventually extended from five to seven years).

Why didn’t the Oslo process work?

The problem was, the supposedly “easy” interim issues proved to be too difficult, and most of them never were resolved. As a result, no one ever even got around to discussing the final status questions. And no one-meaning the U.S., which remained the sponsor of the diplomatic process-was prepared to weigh in on the side of the Palestinians in the hope of balancing the extraordinary disparity of power that characterized relations between the two sides.

The Oslo process began under a Labor government. In May 1996, the right-wing Likud Bloc won the new Israeli elections, defeating the assassinated Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres, and bringing to power Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu had campaigned against the Oslo accords, and when elected he reneged on almost all of the Israeli troop redeployments his predecessor had agreed on. He continued the construction of settlements and bypass roads in the occupied territories that the Labor Party had encouraged, and consolidated the most nationalistic settlers as a core component of his constituency.

When the Labor Party returned to power in 1999, another hard-line general, Ehud Barak, became prime minister. He escalated the pace of settlement building even beyond that of Netanyahu, resisted troop redeployments, increased closures of Palestinian territory and house demolitions, and raised the government subsidies to settlements in the occupied territories.

For Palestinians, things went from bad to worse, and diplomatic exchanges between the two sides still trying to implement Oslo’s “interim” issues, deteriorated. So at the end of his presidency, having invested a huge amount of personal prestige in figuring out a solution to the conflict, Bill Clinton summoned the top Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Camp David for a summit to jump straight into the final status issues. It was a go-for-broke plan, in which negotiators would immediately face the central issues that had divided Israelis and Palestinians, and had brought about the failure of earlier diplomatic efforts, for years.

What were Oslo’s “final status” issues? Why were they so difficult?

The four key issues were: 1) the nature and borders of a Palestinian state; 2) the status of Jerusalem; 3) Palestinian refugees; and 4) Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. They were the most difficult, individually and collectively, because they represent the fundamental issues of Israeli control and Palestinian national aspirations. Further, although they are all subject to international law and specific UN resolutions, Israel (backed by the U.S.) rejects international jurisdiction and even relevance.

Whose capital is Jerusalem?

When the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947, it identified land that was supposed to become an Israeli Jewish state, and a Palestinian Arab state. It also imposed a special status-corpus separatum, or separate body-for Jerusalem, ordering that Jerusalem remain under international, that is UN, jurisdiction, separately from the two new states that were to be created. The UN recognized the international significance of Jerusalem, whose holy sites are central to the tenets of the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions( Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), and viewed international jurisdiction as the best way to insure both protection of the holy sites and free access to all.

When the 1947-48 conflict ended, Israel controlled 78 percent of the territory of Palestine, but only the western half of Jerusalem, comprising largely the “new” city, and excluding both the Old City and the overwhelmingly Arab East Jerusalem. Israel promptly announced that Jerusalem would be its capital. East Jerusalem, like the rest of the West Bank, came under Jordanian administration.

In 1967, when Israel occupied the last 22 percent of the territory, including East Jerusalem, it immediately annexed East Jerusalem, and declared the “unification” of the city. Israel immediately began construction of huge settlement blocs in Arab East Jerusalem, and today more than 200,000 Israeli Jews live in East Jerusalem. But almost no country in the world, with the exception of a couple of small Central American nations, recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. All other embassies, including that of the U.S., are located in Tel Aviv.

The U.S. Congress has routinely voted to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and U.S. presidents have routinely campaigned for office on commitments to move the embassy and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But no president has taken that step, recognizing such a move as a threat to regional stability. When Congress passed legislation requiring the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, both Clinton and Bush II made use of the six month waiver clause in order to keep the status-quo.

Palestinians have long claimed Jerusalem as the capital of their would-be state. Their proposal is based on the idea of “one city, two capitals,” in which the city would remain undivided, but there would be two national capitals within it-Israel’s capital in West Jerusalem, Palestine’s capital in East Jerusalem. The models of Italy and the Vatican, who both have capitals in Rome, as well as other historical examples, are often pointed to.

During the Oslo process, particularly in the Camp David summit of August 2000, the Israelis rejected the Palestinian proposal. Their offer was based on maintaining full Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. The Palestinians were offered a kind of municipal autonomy in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (excluding the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem), including the right to fly a Palestinian flag from the mosques of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel would also extend the municipal border of Jerusalem to encompass three small Palestinian villages east of the city. Israel would then allow the Palestinians to change the name of one of those cities, Abu Dis, to Al-Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem), and it would become the capital of Palestine. The problem, of course, was that changing the name of a tiny, dusty village to Al-Quds would not transform it into the city of Jerusalem-and calling it “the capital” wouldn’t make it so.

International law governing the illegality of holding territory obtained through war, and a host of UN resolutions specifically calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, require the creation of a Palestinian capital in Arab East Jerusalem. Israel’s insistence on maintaining full sovereignty over the occupied Arab sector of the city violates those international decisions, particularly after the municipal borders of “Greater Jerusalem” were expanded from 4 square miles in 1967 to about 47 square miles at the expense of more than 20 Palestinian villages in the West bank.

Who are the Palestinian refugees and why won’t Israel let the refugees return home?

There are two categories of Palestinian refugees. The first wave, about 750,000 at the time, were expelled by force or driven out by fear before, during and after the 1947-48 hostilities. Some were physically driven out, others heard stories of massacres, such as that at the village of Deir Yassin outside of Jerusalem, in April 1948, in which 254 Palestinian civilians were killed by soldiers from the pre-state Zionist militias. Following the massacre, soldiers drove trucks through other Palestinian villages using loudspeakers to threaten “Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin!” in a kind of psychological warfare warning to any Palestinians who remained. Many fled the campaign of ethnic cleansing, believing the onslaught by the Jewish militias would end within a few weeks and they would return home. Of those, many carried with them the keys to their houses, believing their return was imminent, and thus the key has become a symbol of Palestinian refugee rights. Many of that first generation of refugees are still alive, clinging to the keys and the hope that they will be allowed to go home.

For many years Israeli officials and many defenders of Israel claimed that the Palestinians who left did so only because they were ordered to by Arab leaders broadcasting on local radio, who allegedly promised them they would be able to return victorious. But throughout the 1990s, an increasingly large number of Israeli academics, the “new historians,” carefully researched and completely debunked that myth. There were no such radio broadcasts. Some of the civilians fled because they were attacked by the Haganah, Palmach and Irgun militias. Others were afraid and believed they would eventually come home because it is a longstanding tenet of international law that war-time refugees have the right to return home.

In the fall of 1948, the United Nations recognized the particular plight of the Palestinian refugees. In response, the world body did two things. It created UNRWA to provide basic food, medicine, housing and education to the desperate and impoverished refugees. And second, it passed resolution 194, which went beyond customary international law that protects all refugees, to provide special protection for the Palestinians. The resolution reaffirmed that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return.” The UN even made Israel’s own entry to the world body contingent on Israeli acceptance of resolution 194.

Many of the 1948 refugees fled from their homes in what had just become Israel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where large portions of the populations still live in the refugee camps established at that time. When the West Bank and Gaza were occupied in 1967, many of those refugees fled the fighting again, and were made refugees for a second time, finding homes in already overcrowded refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. There was discussion at the Camp David summit about allowing some of the 1967 refugees to return to their homes in a future Palestinian state, but there was no resolution. (Israel would remain in control of Palestine’s borders, determining who would or would not be allowed to enter the ostensibly “independent” country.)

The 1948 refugees and their descendants, now numbering about 5 million world-wide, have the right under international law to return to their homes inside what is now Israel. But despite international law and the specific requirements of Resolution 194, Israel has never allowed Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Israel maintains that allowing the Palestinian refugees to return would change its demographic balance, more than doubling Israel’s current 19 percent Palestinian population. Israelis sometimes use the expression “demographic bomb” to describe the effect of large-scale immigration of Palestinians to Israel. However, international law does not allow a country to violate UN resolutions and international principles in order to protect its ethnic or religious composition. The parallel would be if Rwanda’s new Tutsi-dominated government, after the 1994 genocide, announced that they would not allow the overwhelmingly Hutu refugees to return home, because it would disrupt the ethnic balance in their country. The United Nations and the world, appropriately, would have make very clear that such a prohibition was unacceptable. Palestinian refugees, despite the passage of time, have the same rights as their Rwandan counterparts.

Most Palestinians recognize that while rights themselves are absolute, implementation of rights is always negotiable. It is likely that once their right to return has been recognized, a certain segment of Palestinian refugees will choose options other than permanent return to their mostly-demolished villages. But the key factor will be the ability of Palestinians to choose for themselves what to do. Some may choose to go home, some may wish to go only for short visits, some may wish to accept compensation and build new lives in a new Palestinian state, many may choose to accept compensation and citizenship in their place of refuge or in third countries. Some, most likely among the most impoverished and disempowered Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, may indeed choose to return to their homes in Israel. But discussion of how to implement this right of return (in a way that creates the least, rather than the greatest, disruption to Israeli society) cannot begin until Israel acknowledges its responsibility for the refugee crisis, and recognizes the internationally recognized right of return as a right.

What happened to settlements and settlers during the years of the Oslo process?

Construction of new settlements and expansion of existing settlements were already increasing at the time the Oslo process began in 1993. The settler population was growing by about 10 percent a year, even during the Labor party government of the late Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, the years that Rabin’s government was in power saw the largest expansion of the settlements since they began in 1968.

In 1998 Israel began construction on a new settlement named Har Homa, on a West Bank hillside known as Jabal Abu-ghoneim lying between Jerusalem and Beit Sahour. It caused enormous opposition, because it was the final link in a ring of settlements surrounding East Jerusalem, that together served to cut off access from Arab Jerusalem to the West Bank. It led to new UN debates about the settlements as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. But the protests led nowhere, building continued, and by mid-2002 Israeli Jewish residents were filling the gleaming white stone, ultra-modern settlement apartments.

From the beginning of Oslo until 2002, the settler population almost doubled. While the U.S.-backed Mitchell Plan of 2001 called for a freeze in settlement construction as a “confidence-building measure” by Israel, the expansion continued. Currently the Israeli settler population in the occupied territories has topped 400,000-about 200,000 in the West Bank, 200,000 in Arab East Jerusalem, and about 6,000 in the Gaza Strip. In spring 2002, the Israeli Peace Now organization documented 34 new settlements that had been established during the Sharon government’s term.

The continued existence, and expansion, of the settlements, remains an enormous obstacle in reaching Israeli-Palestinian peace. They violate the Geneva Conventions, which specifically prohibit the transfer of anyone from the occupying country to the occupied territory. Further, the settlements, and the settlers-only or “bypass” roads that connect them and link them to cities inside Israel, divide the territories into separate cantons surrounded by Israeli troops, and prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. These roads, most built during the Oslo period, have been constructed on confiscated Palestinian land, and funded with United States tax money.

What would a Palestinian “state” as determined by Oslo/Camp David have looked like?

In October 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared Israel would not return to the 1967 borders as required under international law. He said Jerusalem would remain unified and under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, and that most of the settlements would remain. Further, he described the Palestinian “entity” to be created as something that would be “less than a state.”

What Israel proposed at Camp David in August 2000 (the first occasion when final status issues were directly negotiated), was a Palestinian “state” in something approaching 80 percent of the West Bank plus Gaza. The capital would not be in Jerusalem, although some limited municipal authority in Palestinian neighborhoods might be granted. The 20 percent of the West Bank that Israel would keep would be made up of the settlements, military bases, and, crucially, the bypass roads that effectively divide the West Bank into separate regions. It was as if someone’s house had been occupied against their will for many years, and they were suddenly told that they could have all the rooms back, but the occupier was going to keep control of the hallways between the rooms. How much of a home would that be?

Israel proposed maintaining control of two major east-west highways, which would cut the West Bank into three completely separate, non-contiguous areas. Key water sources, underground aquifers, would remain under Israeli control, as would external borders and air space. About 20 percent of the West Bank settlers, primarily from small isolated settlements, would be resettled inside Israel; the other 80 percent, including the large settlement blocs, would remain under Israeli jurisdiction and under the protection of the Israeli army; the Palestinian state would have no authority over the Jewish settlers.

What happened at Camp David? Why did it fail?

The Camp David summit reflected an almost desperate effort by President Clinton to salvage the failing Oslo peace process before the end of his second term. Although the origins of Oslo were not in U.S. diplomatic effort, Washington had taken on sponsorship of the peace process, and the September 1993 photo opportunity remained the high point of Clinton’s presidency. There is little question but that the president was eager for a new photo-op to burnish his scandal-tarnished place in history. Ehud Barak as well, the Israeli prime minister whose lackluster term was coming to an end persuaded Clinton to convene the ill-prepared summit.

Camp David reflected the failure of Oslo’s seven year-long “peace process.” Palestinian lives had deteriorated, unemployment was up, incomes were down, and the euphoria that had greeted the White House handshake seven years earlier had turned into bitter resentment and rising anger. Until Camp David, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had never even opened talks on the difficult final status issues. Clinton’s view was that by leapfrogging over the “interim” issues and going straight to the fundamentals-state and borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees-it might be possible to rescue the process and, in the process, his legacy.

But that would have been possible only if the U.S. was prepared to demand serious concessions from Israel, its longstanding ally and the holder of all the cards. But instead the Clinton administration acted as if the talks were between two equal partners, who bore equal power and responsibility to make compromises and concessions instead of an occupying power and an occupied population. In fact, the problem at Camp David was precisely the problem that the disparity of power that had long characterized Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remained unchallenged; President Clinton did nothing to try to balance the thoroughly lop-sided playing field. The talks persisted for two weeks, through sleepless nights and intensive days, through Bill Clinton’s hasty departure for the G-8 summit in Okinawa and his hurried return. The official post-summit statement issued jointly by the Palestinian, Israeli and American sides called the talks “unprecedented in both scope and detail.” But in the end they failed anyway.

Didn’t Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak make the most generous offer in history to the Palestinians? Why did they reject it?

President Clinton, understanding the difficulties and potential pitfalls that lay ahead, had promised both parties that he would not blame either side if the talks collapsed. But when the talks broke down he pointed his finger squarely at Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians. Perhaps the most widely repeated claim after Camp David was that of Barak’s “generous offer” to the Palestinians. It was, we were told over and over again, the most generous offer any Israeli official had ever made.

That statement, technically, is absolutely true. It is also, however, absolutely irrelevant. The standard against which any serious diplomatic offer made by a country illegally occupying another must be viewed, is not how well it compares to earlier offers made by that same illegal occupying power. It must be judged against the requirements of international law. And from that standard, Barak’s offer was far from generous. The “generous offer” was a myth.

What was more important than how generous it was compared to earlier Israeli offers, was the simple fact that, according to Clinton negotiator Robert Malley, it was simply not true that “Israel’s offer met most if not all of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations.” That was the reason Palestinians rejected the offer. One can certainly question the wisdom of a diplomatic strategy that did not provide an immediate counter-proposal to an unacceptable offer. But there should be little difficulty in understanding why Palestinian negotiators would reject an offer based on a set of disconnected pieces of territory amounting to only 80 percent of the remaining 22 percent of historic Palestine; a network of roads, bridges and tunnels accessible only to Israeli settlers and permanently guarded by Israeli soldiers; permanent loss of water resources; no shared sovereignty in Jerusalem; the right of return for refugees not even up for discussion; and with 80 percent of the illegal settlers to remain in place.

What would a comprehensive peace have looked like at Camp David?

A comprehensive peace would have called for an end to Israeli occupation-all the occupation, withdrawing Israeli troops from all of the West Bank and Gaza, returning Israel’s borders to those of June 4, 1967. It would have called for an independent Palestinian state in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the entire city of Jerusalem open between the two countries. It would have announced the closure of all settlements as Israeli military enclaves, with settlers given the option of moving back to Israel with compensation, or remaining in their settlement towns as ordinary citizens of the new Palestinian state. It would have acknowledged the Palestinian right of return and opened negotiations on how to implement that right. It would have created security guarantees for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, perhaps including international assistance in monitoring borders. As called for in the Saudi/Arab League peace proposal, normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab countries would follow the end of Israel’s occupation.

Then, the hard work of rebuilding a shattered economy and shattered society in Palestine, and rebuilding shattered lives in both Palestine and Israel, could begin.


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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