Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Crisis

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

Why is there so much violence in the Middle East? Isn’t there violence on both sides?

The violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories has come from both sides. Its human tragedies are equally devastating for all victims and all their families. Innocents, including children, have been killed on and by both sides, and both sides have violated international law. But the violence by Israelis and by Palestinians is not an equal opportunity killer, it does not have the same roots, nor are the two sides culpable in the same way.

Palestinians in the territories live under Israeli military occupation. They are not citizens of Israel or of any state, and have no rights of protest or redress. The occupation is a violent daily reality, in which Israeli soldiers, checkpoints, tanks, helicopter gunships, and F-16 fighter jets control every aspect of Palestinian lives, and have recently brought social, family and economic life to a virtual halt. In summer 2002 the U.S. Agency for International Development determined that Palestinian children living in the occupied territories faced malnutrition at one of the highest levels in the world–higher than in Somalia and Bangladesh. The occupation has been in place since 1967, although the current period has seen perhaps the most intense Israeli stranglehold on Palestinian life, and the highest levels of violence. What we often hear described simply as “the violence” in the Middle East cannot be understood without an understanding of what military occupation means.

Violence is central to maintaining Israel’s military occupation. It is carried out primarily by Israeli military forces and Israeli settlers in the occupied territories who are themselves armed by the Israeli military, and its victims include some Palestinian militants and a large majority of Palestinian civilians, including many children. Because military occupation is itself illegal, all Israeli violence in the occupied territories stands in violation of international law–specifically the Geneva Conventions that identify the obligations of an occupying power to protect the occupied population.

Palestinian violence is the violence of resistance, and has escalated as conditions of life and loss of hope breed greater desperation. It is carried out primarily by individual Palestinians and those linked to small armed factions, and is aimed mostly at military checkpoints, soldiers, and settlers in the occupied territories; recently more attacks, particularly suicide bombings, have been launched inside Israel, many of which have targeted civilian gathering places. Those attacks, targeting civilians, are themselves a violation of international law. But the overall right of an occupied population to resist a foreign military occupation, including through use of arms against military targets, is recognized as lawful under international law.

Why should Americans care about violence in the Middle East?

When they learn about it, which is not always the case, Americans tend to care about violence and its effects on people’s lives wherever it may be. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the violence is on the front pages of our newspapers and top story on radio and television on a daily basis. Many Americans are particularly concerned about violence there because of the religious significance of the area–including historical sites holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Beyond the general concern about human suffering, many Americans have a special interest in events in the region because the U.S. government is by far the most dominant outside power there, and decisions made in Washington are central to developments towards war or peace. And further, the U.S. sends billions of our tax dollars in aid to the region, including about $4 billion in annual aid to Israel alone.

U.S. policy in the Middle East also plays a major role in determining how people in that region view our government and American citizens. If we are concerned about the rise in international antagonism not only to Washington policies but towards American citizens, we need to take seriously what our government does in our name in far-flung parts of the world.

Why is the Middle East so important to the U.S. and internationally?

From earliest history, the Middle East, and the area long known as Palestine, were global crossroads of trade, science, scholarship and religion in ancient civilizations. In more recent times, the discovery of oil in the region and the need of outside empires for reliable local allies led to the creation of western protectorates throughout the Middle East.

From 1967 through the beginnings of the 21st century, U.S. policy in the region has been based on protecting the triad of oil, Israel, and stability. During the Cold War the U.S. relied on Israel as a cat’s paw–a military extension of its own strategic reach–both within the Middle East region and internationally in places as far as Angola and Guatemala. With the end of the Cold War, Israel remains a close and reliable ally, in the region and internationally as well, for the now unchallenged power of the U.S. And domestically, widespread support for Israel, most concentrated in the Jewish community and among the increasingly powerful right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S., took root in popular culture and politics, giving Israel’s supporters great influence over Washington policymakers.

Who are the “suicide bombers” and why are they killing themselves and others?

The intifada, or uprising, that began in September 2000 has seen a new phenomenon in Palestinian resistance–suicide bombings. These are attacks in which a young man or woman straps explosives around their body, and detonates the charge in a public place, killing themselves and often killing and injuring many people nearby.

Islamist organizations, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad which have generally (though not always) opposed Palestinian diplomatic efforts, have claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings. Beginning in early 2002, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade linked to the mainstream Fatah organization led by Yasir Arafat, began a suicide bombing campaign inside Israel following the assassination of one of their leaders.

Why are only Palestinians carrying out these suicide bombings?

The pattern of bombings reflects the anger and hopelessness that has become endemic among the 3.2 million Palestinians living under military occupation. While organizations certainly orchestrate the attacks, the willingness of young people to contemplate suicide as an acceptable option reflects the widespread personal desperation caused by conditions of occupation.

People become willing to use their own body as a weapon when other means are unavailable. Because Palestinians have neither an organized army nor the plethora of F-16s, helicopter gunships, tanks, armored bulldozers that fill Israel’s arsenal, the bodies of young men and women become weapons instead.

Some of the suicide bombings have been directed at military checkpoints or other military targets inside the occupied territories. Others, including some of those with the most serious civilian casualties, involved attacks on cafes, discos or other public places inside Israeli cities.

Arafat and the Palestinian Authority that he leads have repeatedly condemned suicide bombings inside Israel. Perhaps more influentially, leading Palestinian intellectuals and activists in the occupied territories and internationally have also rejected suicide attacks on civilians as a legitimate tactic of resistance, identifying them both as morally unacceptable and politically counter-productive.

Why are Palestinians in Israel at all?

When Israel was created as a state in 1948, 750,000 indigenous Palestinians, whose families had lived in Palestine for hundreds of years, were forcibly expelled by, or fled in terror of, the powerful militias that would soon become the army of the State of Israel. The one million or so Palestinians inside Israel today, who constitute just under 20 percent of the population, are those that remained and their descendants. Despite international law and specific UN resolutions, none of those forced into exile have been allowed to return. In fact, Israel’s admission to the United Nations in 1948 was conditioned on on its willingness to abide by General Assembly resolution 194 calling for repatriation and compensation.

From Israel’s creation in 1948 until 1966, the indigenous Palestinian population inside the country lived under military rule. Since that time, Palestinians have been considered citizens, can vote and run for office; several Palestinians serve in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. But not all rights inside Israel are granted on the basis of citizenship. Some rights and obligations, sometimes known as “nationality rights,” favor Jews over non-Jews (who are overwhelmingly Palestinian) in social services, the right to own land, access to bank loans and education, military service and more.

More than three times as many Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, than remain inside Israel proper.

What are the occupied territories?

After the 1947-48 war, the new state of Israel was created in 78 percent of what had been British Mandate Palestine under the League of Nations since 1922. The 22 percent that was left was made up of the Gaza Strip, a small piece of land along the Mediterranean coast abutting the Egyptian border, the West Bank, along the Jordan River, and Arab East Jerusalem. From the end of the British Mandate in 1948 until the June War of 1967, the Gaza Strip was controlled by Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem governed by Jordan.

In the 1967 War, Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the last 22 percent of historic Palestine. Those areas are now identified as the occupied territories.

What does “military occupation” mean?

Military occupation means complete Israeli control over every facet of Palestinian civil and economic life. Israel has regularly closed its borders to the more than 125,000 Palestinian workers–primarily from Gaza–who rely on hardscrabble jobs inside Israel for their still-insufficient income. Just from October 2000 through September 2001, the UN estimated that Palestinian workers lost between $2.4 and $3.2 billion in income due to closures. In April 2002, unemployment estimates from the World Bank and others were at 50 percent and rising across the Palestinian territories.

During the second intifada, the curfews and closures, or blockades, of Palestinian towns and cities, once an occasional disruption, became constant. The re-occupation of Palestinian cities was matched by a complete division of the West Bank into scores of tiny cantons–villages cut off from each other, small towns cut off from the main roads, cities surrounded like medieval sieges. Armed checkpoints, huge earth berms dug by armored tractors, destruction of roads, all served to prevent Palestinians from moving within the territories, let alone travelling into Israel. Inevitably the economic shortages were severe; truckloads of produce rotted in the sun at checkpoints, milk soured, workers could not get to their jobs. Humanitarian crises spiked, with women giving birth at checkpoints because soldiers would not allow them to pass, victims of settler or soldier violence dying because military officers would not authorize Palestinian ambulances to move. By August 2002 the U.S. Agency for International Development documented sharply escalated numbers of Palestinian children who were either acutely or chronically malnourished.

Israeli military control also means complete dependence on Israel for permits–to travel out of the country, to enter Israel from the West Bank to get to the airport to leave the country, for a doctor to move from her home village to her clinic in town, for a student to go to school. Most of the time, these permits remain out of reach.

What is the fence that Israel is building in the occupied territories?

Known to Palestinians as the “Apartheid Wall,” Israeli officials claim the huge wall being built on the western edge of the West Bank is designed to protect Israel, by keeping potential attackers out. Begun in 2002 and supported by both the Labor Party and the right-wing Likud, the wall includes electric fences, trenches and security patrols, and is planned to eventually extend to the full length of the West Bank.

But the Wall was not built to follow the Green Line, the border between Israel and the West Bank; instead it curved significantly eastward to encompass huge settlement blocs, large tracts of Palestinian farmland, and major water sources on the Israeli side. According to official Israel maps obtained by the Palestinian human rights organization LAW, 11,000 Palestinians live in the area between the Green Line and the wall, in what will become a closed military zone. Thousands of acres of land on both sides of the wall–amounting to almost 10% of West Bank land–are being seized by the Israeli military, cleared of houses or farmland. Palestinian farmers were supposed to be allowed to cross the wall to farm their land, but in many areas the wall extends for huge distances without access gates being built. Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations estimated that when completed, and matched by the planned parallel wall in the Jordan Valley, that 90,000 Palestinians would have lost their land.

The wall will completely surround the large Palestinian town of Qalqilya in the northern West Bank, separating the town from the West Bank. Besides isolating its population, the effect will also include bringing the valuable Western Aquifer System entirely under Israeli control, as its Palestinian portion lies beneath lands to be seized in Qalqiyla.

In 2003 Israel announced it would build another wall down the Jordan Valley, thus effectively sealing off a truncated West Bank with impenetrable steel. The result will be to ensure Sharon’s stated goal of allowing a Palestinian “entity” of no more than about 40% of the West Bank, in several non-contiguous chunks, plus about 70% of Gaza.

As LAW points out, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, the destruction or seizure of property in Occupied Territories is forbidden, as is collective punishment. Article 47 outlines that Occupying Powers must not make changes to property in occupied territories. Seizure of land in occupied territories is prohibited under Article 52 of the Hague Regulations of 1907, which is a part of customary international law. And according to international humanitarian law governing occupation, Occupiers cannot make any changes in the status of occupied territories. Israel’s apartheid wall seizes land, destroys and permanently changes the status of occupied territories.

Who are the Israeli settlers? Why are the Israeli settlements located outside Israel’s borders?

Immediately after the 1967 War, some extremist Israelis moved to establish Jewish colonies in the newly occupied territories. The first, created in Hebron in 1968, was led by an American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane and sanctioned by a Labor Party government. Israeli governments have justified construction of the settlements both for security and ideological reasons. The Labor Party, committed to Israeli military control of all land west of the Jordan River, justified settlements in the name of security. The right-wing Likud Bloc supported settlements to assert its claim of Jewish sovereignty over the entire Biblical-era “Greater Israel,” and when a Likud government won power in 1977 settlement construction expanded dramatically.

As settler expansion increased, religious and nationalist extremists became a minority among the settlers themselves. Most moved to settlements in the occupied territories because government stipends keep mortgages low, amenities accessible, and commuting to jobs inside Israel easy because of a network of settler-only roads known as “bypass roads” for Jews only, designed to connect settlements to each other and to Israel without traversing Palestinian towns.

Since 1993, when the Oslo “peace process” began, the settler population has nearly doubled. More than 400,000 Israeli Jewish settlers now live in the occupied territories, 200,000 of them in Arab East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem settlers are particularly problematic, since Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, and many Israelis deny that East Jerusalem is occupied territory at all.

All the settlements are in violation of international law. Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention specifically prohibits an occupying power from transferring any part of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. In fact international humanitarian law prohibits any permanent change to an occupied land, including imposed demographic changes, that are not intended to benefit the local [occupied] population.

U.S. administrations have identified the settlements variously as “illegal,” as “obstacles to peace,” and as “unhelpful.” President George W. Bush called for a settlement freeze in his speech on Middle East policy in April 2002, but has foresworn identifying the settlements as illegal or doing anything to encourage Israel to eliminate the settlements and return the settlers to homes inside Israel.

What do the Palestinians want?

Many Palestinians, those in their 60s or older, remember being expelled from their homes inside what is now Israel but what was then Palestine, in 1947 or ’48. Some of them still hold the keys to their homes that they kept as they fled, thinking they would be back in days or weeks. Many more remember the terror of being expelled from their homes in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, finding minimal shelter in refugee camps that became home for 35 years or more. Palestinians want dignity, human rights, and a state of their own.

In 1988, in an enormous compromise, the Palestinian National Council, or parliament-in-exile, voted to accept a two-state solution that would return to Palestinians only the 22 percent of their land that had been occupied in 1967. They accepted that the other 78 percent would remain Israel. While some individual Palestinians and some small organizations still reject that historic compromise, for the vast majority of Palestinians the goal is for an independent state–a fully realized and truly independent state–in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Palestinians also want the right for refugees to return to their homes, from wherever they were expelled. The right of return is part of international law, and Palestinians are specifically guaranteed that right by UN Resolution 194, which states that “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.”

Simply an end to “the violence” is insufficient, because it would leave in place the structures of military occupation that prevent Palestinians from realizing their full national rights and their human rights to dignity and independence.

What does Israel want?

Most Jewish Israelis want security to live their lives very much as they have been doing for the last decade or so, with an end to the attacks on civilians that has brought such fear to ordinary Israelis. Until its recent economic downturn, Israel had been the 17th wealthiest country in the world, with a high standard of living and close ties to Europe and the U.S.

There has been an active peace movement in Israel for many years. In 1982, after the Sabra-Shatila massacre in Lebanon, the largest protest demonstration in the world was held in Israel, when 400,000 Israelis, almost 10% of the population of the country, rallied against the invasion. Peace Now, one of the oldest and largest of Israel’s Jewish peace organizations, plays a key role in monitoring settlement activity. Other groups, including Women in Black, Gush Shalom, Rabbis for Human Rights and many others, carry out a wide range of anti-occupation activities, including demonstrations inside Israel, support for Palestinian mobilizations in the occupied territories, education work, direct civil disobedience challenging occupation soldiers and settlers, organizing boycotts of settler-produced goods, and many more.

Only a minority of Israelis, according to the polls, are committed to holding on to the occupied territories, but the majority, willing to return the territories to the Palestinians and end the occupation, has not been able to influence Israel’s successive governments to do just that. Since the intifada began in September 2000, many Israelis, including many once supportive of the peace camp, have taken up the view that Palestinian violence can somehow be quashed by ever-increasing use of force, while leaving the occupation intact. Despite its failure so far, a majority still seem to accept or support that position.

For most Israelis, an end to Palestinian violence would be sufficient, even if the occupation remained intact.

Who controls the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip?

Israel occupied those areas in the 1967 Six-Day War, and maintains military control of all of them through checkpoints, soldiers and weapons. The 1993 Oslo peace process brought about a division of the West Bank into “A, B and C” areas. The B area (over 400 villages) which amounted to 23 percent of the West Bank and C area, 70 percent (settlements, army camps and state land which used to be cultivated by Palestinian farmers) remained officially under Israeli control, while areas A( the cities) which amounted to only about 3 percent of the West Bank, were ostensibly placed under Palestinian security control. But the Palestinian-controlled areas were tiny islands surrounded by roads and lands that remained under direct Israeli military occupation. And by 2002, during the Palestinian uprising, Israel moved to re-occupy all but one of the major cities that were supposed to be under Palestinian control.

The re-occupation made clear that Oslo’s version of Palestinian “control” was incomplete and thoroughly reversible; Israeli military occupation remained in place.

Why does Israel still occupy those areas?

The first settlers after the 1967 War established settlements as part of asserting Jewish control over all of Palestine, which they called “Eretz Israel,” or the “Land of Israel.” Later settlers, and the governments who supported them, claimed the settlements, especially those in the Jordan Valley, played a vital role in protecting Israel from possible attack from Arab states to the east.

In the 1990s “yuppie settlers,” uninterested in nationalist or religious rationales and concerned only with the amenities of settler life, became the majority; most indicated they would be willing to give up their homes if they were properly compensated. But increasingly, the minority of ideologically driven settlers became far more powerful than their numbers, especially within the ranks of the right-wing Likud Bloc led by Binyamin Netanyahu and then by Ariel Sharon. Holding on to the settlements, even the most isolated, became an article of faith and a domestic political necessity for one Israeli government after another. Sharon himself said that Netzarim, a tiny isolated settlement in Gaza, was “the same as Tel Aviv” in importance.

Beyond the politics and the largely hyperbolic claims of military protection, the settlements do play one important role in Israeli national life. They allow the diversion of almost all of the West Bank water sources, its underground aquifers, to Israeli settlements and ultimately into Israel itself. Indigenous Palestinians, farmers on parched land and villagers with insufficient water pressure even for a household tap, pay the price for the diversion of water, as they watch the settlements’ sparkling swimming pools and verdant, sprinkler-watered lawns.

Who are the Palestinians? Where did they come from?

Palestinian Arabs are descendants of the vast Arab/Islamic empire that from the seventh century, had dominated Palestine with the rise of Arabic language and Arab/Islamic culture.–While the majority of Palestinians were peasants, Palestinian cities, especially Jerusalem, were hubs of Arab civilization, where scholars, poets and scientists congregated and where, enriched by a constant influx of traders, they forged the city’s identity as an important national center.–Islam’s religious and moral teachings remained the dominant social forces, but small indigenous Jewish communities remained. They were the remnants of Palestine’s ancient Jewish kingdom that was conquered by Rome in 70 AD, its people largely scattered.–Along with groups of Christians, those Palestinian Jews maintained their faith and separate communal identities within broader Palestinian society throughout the rise of Islam. Like most parts of the Arab world, national consciousness for Palestinians 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. The indigenous Palestinians-Muslims and Christians- fought the colonial ambitions of European Jewish settlers, British colonial rule during the inter-war period, and the Israeli occupation since 1948 and 1967.

Why are Palestinians still living in refugee camps? Where are they from and why don’t they go home?

When Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the 1947-48 War, many fled to neighboring Arab countries, others to the parts of Palestine not yet under the control of the new Israeli army, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In all those places, corrupt and/or impoverished Arab governments had neither the will nor the resources to care for the sudden influx of refugees. The United Nations, recognizing its responsibility for the crisis through its role in dividing Palestine in the first place, took on the work of caring for the new exiles. It created The United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA), designed to provide basic housing, food, medical care and education to the Palestinian refugees until they could return home; UNRWA was initially envisioned as a short-term project.

But Israel refused to allow the refugees to return home. Instead the months turned to years, and tent camps were transformed over time into squalid, crowded mini-towns, made up of concrete block houses with tin roofs held down by old tires and sometimes scraps of iron bars. Electricity is sporadic, indoor plumbing often non-existent; streams of raw sewage are a regular feature between tightly-packed houses. But UNRWA schools educated Palestinian children to the extent that Palestinians today have the highest percentage of college educated people in the entire Arab world.

Some have claimed that Arab governments used Palestinian refugees to score propaganda points, or to divert their own people’s anger from the regimes to Israel. Certainly the Arab regimes had little interest in serious political defense of Palestinian rights, let alone serious protection of Palestinian refugees. Only Jordan allowed Palestinians to become citizens. Everywhere else, Palestinians were kept segregated. In Lebanon, they were viewed as a potential disruption to the country’s delicate confessional system balancing Christians and Muslims. Egypt kept the Palestinians confined to the Gaza Strip.

But the refugee camps remained in place primarily because Israel blocked their right of return, and the Palestinians themselves were determined they wanted to go home–they did not want to be “integrated” into other countries, despite the common language. Palestinians were–and remained–afraid that leaving the camps to integrate into some other part of the Arab world would result in the loss of their homes and their rights.

The Arab world after 1948 was no longer an integrated “Arabia”–nation states had been created, by lines drawn in the sand by colonial powers as in so many places, and ties of nation combined with ties of village or town to create for Palestinians a national cry for returning home.

What is the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)?

In 1964 the PLO was created and largely controlled by leaders of the Arab states. At the same time, small groups of Palestinian activists were building nationalist organizations, some of which, the fedayeen, moved towards guerrilla tactics to challenge Israel. In 1968, Yasir Arafat became head of the PLO, uniting a number of factions who advocated a wide range of tactics and political principles. The organization was cobbled together in a complicated web of eight separate political factions represented in the leadership; a broadly representative parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council; and a host of sector-based institutions including the students and women’s unions, medical and relief agencies, and more. In many Palestinian-populated areas, particularly in Jordan and then in Lebanon, the PLO took on the responsibilities of, and often the trappings of, a full government.

In the early years the PLO demand was for a democratic secular state in all of Palestine–including what was now Israel as well as the occupied territories. There was no recognition of Israel having the right to exist as a separate Jewish state. But as the shock of the 1967 War and the resulting occupation began to wear off, Palestinians began to broaden their strategic approach. By the mid-70s, the majority view in the PLO accepted the idea of a two-state solution, an approach already accepted in the UN and elsewhere as reflecting an international consensus. In Israel, where refusal to even consider negotiations with the PLO was the norm, such a shift was viewed as potentially damaging, as it stripped away the key rationale for Israeli antagonism towards all Palestinian claims.

In 1974 the United Nations General Assembly recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” It established November 29th (the day the original partition resolution was signed) as an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and invited the PLO to participate as an Observer within the General Assembly and other UN agencies.

In January 1976, a PLO-drafted resolution backed by a number of Arab countries as well as the Soviet Union, was put before the UN Security Council, calling for a two-state solution, Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and other aspects of the international consensus. Israel refused to participate in the meeting, and the U.S. cast its veto, killing the resolution.

In 1982, the PLO led the joint Lebanese-Palestinian resistance to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and weeks-long bombardment of Beirut. Soon after, diplomatic efforts led to the organization’s expulsion from Lebanon, with thousands of PLO activists and fighters boarding ships to a new, long exile in Tunis.

Still, the two-state approach remained the majority view within the PLO for some years. In 1988, at the height of the first intifada, or uprising, it became official when the Palestine National Council convened in Algiers. In a unanimous vote, the PNC proclaimed the “establishment of the State of Palestine on our Palestinian territory with its capital Jerusalem.” Within the political program was official recognition of the two-state approach, despite the fact that the PLO was still an outlawed “terrorist” organization to Israel, and PLO officials were prohibited from even visiting Israel or the occupied territories.

The U.S. opened mid-level diplomatic ties with the PLO a month later, but the organization remained excluded from the U.S.-led international diplomatic efforts. With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the PLO’s decision to side with Iraq resulted in intense anger from the oil-rich Gulf countries that had long bankrolled the organization. Palestinians were summarily expelled from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states, and the PLO fell into severe poverty and political isolation in the region.

After the Gulf War, with the PLO at perhaps its weakest point, the U.S. government, flush with its victory over Iraq, approached the PLO to negotiate Palestinian participation in the post-War peace talks in Madrid. The terms were dire–no separate Palestinian delegation, participation only as a sub-set of the Jordanian team, no participation for PLO members, no participation for Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, no role for the United Nations–and the PNC vote was bitterly contested. But eventually, the PLO, through its well-known but officially unacknowledged representatives in the occupied territories, accepted. The talks, ostensibly based on UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace, ground on uneventfully for almost two years, when the surprise announcement hit the press that secret Israeli-PLO talks had been underway in Oslo, and that a Declaration of Principles was about to be signed.

The ceremony on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993 in which President Clinton presided over a handshake between a reluctant Yitzhak Rabin and an eager Yasir Arafat provided a photo-op of global proportions. A Nobel Prize for Peace, split between Arafat, Rabin and the Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, soon followed. The Oslo process was born.

Within two years and extensive negotiations, Oslo’s substantive agreements were signed; their crucial beginnings allowed the return of all the PLO exiles from Tunis to the West Bank and Gaza, where they would be allowed to create a new Palestinian Authority to administer small parts of the still-occupied territories under overall Israeli “security” control.

What is the Palestinian Authority (PA)?

The PA was created under the terms of the Oslo peace process. It is a quasi-governmental body, with derivative power limited to what is granted to it (or taken away from it) by Israel. It is not a fully independent government, even in the limited areas under its jurisdiction from which Israeli troops withdrew, but rather analogous to a municipal council, with carefully delimited authority. It has the authority, in most Palestinian towns and cities, to orchestrate day-to-day life for residents, but not to control the land. It has responsibility to run the schools and hospitals, clean the streets and keep economic and social life functioning, but it is denied the authority to control its own borders, it does not have any authority over Israeli soldiers or settlers within or surrounding its land, it does not control a single contiguous territory but rather scores of scattered and disconnected areas, and according to the language of the Oslo agreements, any law passed by the PA’s parliament is subject to approval or rejection by Israel.

Beginning in the spring of 2002, as the uprising escalated, Israel moved to re-occupy almost all of Palestine’s major cities from which its troops had been withdrawn under the terms of Oslo. While Palestinian resistance was fierce in one or two of the cities (Jenin and Nablus in particular), the speed of the Israeli military’s return gave the lie to any notion that Palestinian control, even partial, was designed to be permanent.

Who are the Israelis? Where did they come from?

Israel defines itself as a state of and for the Jewish people, and about 80 percent of the population are Jews. It is, however, a country of immigrants, and unlike the indigenous Palestinian Israelis, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis (or their ancestors) have come to Israel from all over the world in the last 120 years, but mostly since 1948. The tiny communities of indigenous and intensely orthodox Jewish communities in places like Safed and Jerusalem, have largely remained separate from mainstream or even the “regular” ultra-orthodox Israeli Jewish population.

Two-thirds or so of Israel’s Jews are Arabs–they or their ancestors emigrated to Israel from Morocco or Yemen, from Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world. A small percentage of Israeli Jews are Africans, mainly Ethiopians; and the rest are what is known as Ashkenazi, or European Jews, of which about one-fifth are Russians who arrived in the 1990s.

It was European and Russian Jews, back in the 1880s, who first began significant Jewish immigration to what was then Ottoman Turkish- and later British-ruled Palestine. They came fleeing persecution and violent pogroms, or communal attacks, in czarist Russia and eastern Europe, and they came in answer to mobilizations organized by a movement known as Zionism, which called for all Jews to leave their countries of origin to live in a Jewish state in Palestine. The use of Hebrew, created as a modern language in the early 1900s, an orientation towards Europe and the U.S. rather than to the neighboring Middle East, and nearly universal military service (excepting only Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews) became the central anchors around which national consciousness was built.

Israel defines itself as a state of the entire Jewish people, not simply a state for its own citizens. It encourages Jewish immigration through what is known as the Law of Return, under which any Jew born anywhere in the world, with or without pre-existing ties to Israel, has the right to claim immediate citizenship upon arrival in Israel, and the right to all the privileges of being Jewish in a Jewish state–including state-financed language classes, housing, job placement, medical and welfare benefits, etc. In most circumstances only Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel; the indigenous Palestinians and their ancestors are denied that right despite the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

What’s the difference between Jews and Israelis?

Technically Jews are a religious grouping; in the real world Jews are defined by a complex web of religious, cultural, ethnic and other communal ties. Israelis (excluding Palestinian citizens of Israel) are Jews who are Israeli citizens.

Language often gets confusing, and is often used in sloppy ways, both internationally and within Israel itself, where “Jews” is often used interchangeably with “Israelis” or “settlers.” As a result, Palestinians in the occupied territories often fall into the habit of conflating the terms.


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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