Israel/Palestine: the basics.

To my mind, the following represents the basic facts of the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some reading here are bound to disagree, in whole or in part, with something I’ve written here, and that’s your right — and indeed, you may BE right. 

But this, this post, is where the rubber meets the road as far as I’m concerned, in the blogging/commenting department, and I want to make one thing very clear: If you disagree, with me or any other commenter, anywhere on this blog (commenting is no longer allowed on this page) you need to be polite about it. If you are not, your comment will not appear on/will be removed from this site.

Plain and simple: My house, my rules, and my rules mean that we have to treat each other like people.


3/12/12 UPDATE: This post was first written fairly early on in the Obama Administration. A lot has happened in the meantime, but I believe this post reflects the reality as it played out until that time.

In my view, here’s the story of Israel/Palestine:

The notion of nationalism was born in the late 19th century. The Jewish people, long without a home — having been thrown out of the one they had 2,000 years previous — developed a national liberation movement, Zionism. At roughly the same time, other ethnic groups were coming to similar understandings of themselves, including the Palestinians.

In 1948, decades of violent conflict between two utterly irreconcilable nationalist visions peaked in war. The Jewish nationalists won that war, and some 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. It was a war, and when at war, people do awful things. Awful, terrible things were done, and continue to be done (because we’re still at war), on all sides.

June, 1967 – with the understanding that the Arab nations surrounding them were planning a war of annihilation, Israel launched a preemptive strike, winning that war in six days. In the course of the hostilities, Israel gained control of Gaza and the West Bank (and the Golan Heights). The West Bank was particularly important to the Jewish population, because so many of Judaism’s holiest sites are on the West Bank, including the part of Jerusalem that was (at the time) under Jordanian control.

In the intervening more than 40 years, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has gotten more and more draconian and deadly. Palestinians have often responded with terrorism, but it has been clear for at least twenty years that the threat such violence offers is not existential, but rather individual. As someone who lived in Tel Aviv and worked in Jerusalem during a couple of the biggest suicide bombing waves, I can attest to how truly terrifying they are, but they do not threaten the state.

Various attempts at peace have been made, most notably the Oslo Accords, but Israel — the party with the most power — continually stonewalled and failed to follow through on commitments. The Palestinian side did too, but I reiterate: They were not the side with the power.

It’s important to note that during these same years, Israel did negotiate peace with Egypt and Jordan, and both peace treaties stand. It’s also worth noting that at no point of the negotiating process was either country required to “recognize Israel,” “recognize Israel’s right to exist,” or “recognize Israel as the Jewish State” — and that furthermore, neither was the PLO so required in the course of negotiating Oslo. Israel and the PLO officially recognized each other in the final week prior to signing the Oslo Agreement at the White House.

In September 2000, the second intifada broke out. In 2002, Israel re-occupied the West Bank. Many, many Israelis and Palestinians died in the course of the second intifada; the Palestinians got the worst of it, dying at a rate of roughly 3:1.

In 2002, the Arab League offered peace and the full normalization of relations in exchange for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel ignored the offer.

In 2003, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Road Map to Peace, which required (among other things) that Israel freeze all settlement construction and that the Palestinians improve security. Neither of these requirements — in the document as signed — was contingent upon the other. Between 2003 and 2008, the settler population grew by about 60,000.

In 2005, Israel decided to retreat from Gaza, but refused repeated appeals from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate, insisting on unilateral action and removing its settlers and military without giving Abbas/the PLO/Fatah anything to show for a decade of peace talks — or, significantly, even arriving at any security arrangements to meet its own needs. Hamas instead was able to claim credit, saying that their terrorist campaigns had driven Israel out. (In spite of the withdrawal, however, Israel has remained Gaza’s legal and functional occupier, because it has maintained its complete control of Gaza’s borders and airspace. Nothing and no one may go in or out of the Strip without Israeli approval).

In 2006, in what was recognized by international observers as a free and fair election, the Palestinian people narrowly elected a Hamas-led government, out of frustration with Abbas and his party’s corruption. Israel, the US and the international community blockaded the Palestinian National Authority, insisting that they would have nothing to do with Hamas until it recognized Israel, foreswore violence, and promised to uphold past Palestinian agreements.

Before the election, the Israelis and Fatah (Abbas’s party) consistently told the Bush Administration that the elections shouldn’t be held, because Hamas would win — but Bush wanted a show-case election, so the Administration insisted. And then, the day after the elections, Secretary of State Rice said that they “certainly” hadn’t expected that Hamas would win [I can’t find that quote to save my life, so I’m replacing it with this one:] “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t caught off guard by Hamas’s strong showing.”

In 2007, the Arab League again made its offer. Again Israel (and the US) ignored itI was wrong about this. Please click here for my correction.

A couple of months later, a civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah (Abbas’s party); the latter was run out of Gaza despite having been granted significant military support by the Bush Administration, and the Palestinian National Authority was split in two. Gaza has since been run by Hamas and the West Bank by Fatah.

During this same period, Hamas frequently launched rockets and mortar rounds at Israel. Israel frequently retaliated, such as in 2006, when they responded to the capture of one of their soldiers (Gilad Shalit) with a six-week bombing campaign that killed hundreds and left bridges, roads, and the Strip’s one power plant destroyed. It’s important to note that the capture of Shalit, who was serving in an army post on the border, was in retaliation for the previous day’s kidnapping, by Israel, of two suspected members of Hamas from their Gaza home.

In the lead-up to this past winter’s war in Gaza, Hamas largely maintained a six-month ceasefire during which it stopped firing rockets, and in exchange, Israel was supposed to significantly ease the blockade. It didn’t. Ultimately, the ceasefire was broken by both sides, and then Israel launched its attacks, to deadly effect.

Today we’re in a place where the people of Gaza have to ask for American intervention in order to get such items as pasta and concrete allowed into the strip. Their unemployment rate stands at about 40%, some 22,000 buildings were destroyed 21,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged in the war, and hundreds of thousands of people must depend on international aid agencies to meet their basic daily food requirements — a fact recently complicated when Israel refused to allow the import of plastic bags, and aid agencies had to halt distribution until bags could be obtained.

And in the meantime, the West Bank is being sliced and diced into ever smaller pieces as settlements, access roads, hundreds of checkpoints, and the Security Barrier cut Palestinians off from their fields, from their towns, from neighboring towns, from each other — simultaneously making the likelihood of establishing a contiguous, durable Palestinian state an ever more remote possibility.


Here are a few further thoughts on all of the foregoing:

To take the discussion away from the emotions of vying nationalisms for a minute, we can look at the 2006 War in Lebanon as a horrifying example of what happens when Israel does everything wrong. Israel occupied southern Lebanon off and on for 18 years 22 years from 1978 on (leading directly to the 1982 establishment of Hezbollah, which was created to fight that occupation), then pulled out in 2000, pell mell, without security arrangements — but only after temporarily deporting, in 1996, some 400 members of Hamas to an area controlled by Hezbollah, who gladly took them in, fed them, and taught them methods of suicide bombing. In 2006, Israel responded to an entirely actionable attack by Hezbollah on its sovereignty — not by going in hot pursuit of the soldiers who had been captured and focusing on their lives, but by strafing most of Lebanon, destroying roads and bridges and homes and so on, and killing about 1,000 people, ultimately strengthening Hezbollah, while gaining nothing for itself. Least of all the soldiers.

Are the Palestinians angels? Hardly. Not Fatah, not Abbas, not Hamas, not whoever else. But again, they’re not the ones with the power. The Palestinians are the ones trying to negotiate an historic capitulation whereby an occupying power and the world’s one remaining superpower allow them to make a home in about 20% of their homeland. I have no doubt that the land in question is the Jews’ (my!) homeland as well, however, and that’s why I think that a two-state solution is the best resolution either side could hope for — but, be that as it may, a two-state agreement is, in fact, a capitulation on the part of Palestinians. Israel refuses to see it that way.

Having said ALL that, I really don’t know what it means for Obama and US-Israel relations. The POTUS gives every impression of favoring negotiation over violent conflict, and he has said quite clearly that for Israel to have peace and security, there will have to be a Palestinian state. He has made some pretty firm statements about settlements, terrorism, and everyone’s need to take responsibility, and it is my impression that he and Secretary of State Clinton have been working hard to turn the situation around as fast as they can. But will Obama make a stand — say, at the opening session of the UN General Assembly later this month, when he will be announcing some revival of the peace process — a stand that no President before him has ever been willing to make? One that would serve not only the Palestinians, but also Israel — and (let’s not forget) America, in that it would remove the excuse of Palestine from the hands of extremists across the globe?

Who can say? Not I.

I can just go on and on about what’s happened up until now.



Israel/Palestine peace advocacy – places to start.

Israel/Palestine – a reading list.

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  1. I’m not sure if this is an appropriate request so feel free to ignore me (read: banish me to use a search engine). But I’d really be interested in your take about the different factions of thought among the general Israeli populace on what they see as their desired path versus what path they’re willing to concede to in order to resolve the conflict.

    I’ve been reading a number of different Jewish blogs here and there as well as reading various op-eds in the papers like the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. But I’d still like your take just because of the nuance that your posts, related and unrelated to this particular topic, demonstrate. The “Words” and “Normal Eating” posts come to mind.

  2. I’ve come to favor a single-state solution—which, given that so few Israelis and Palestinians support a single-state idea, means that it’s not really any kind of solution.

    In my more fantastical moods, I imagine a Levantine Confederacy of Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, in which citizens could hold a passport of their favored identity, but travel (i.e., live, work, settle) freely throughout the Confederacy. Something akin to the EU.

    Equally fantastical, perhaps, is the notion that a two-state solution involving overlapping sovereignty could lead to a new model for nationalism and state-ism: Both Israel and Palestine could legitimately lay claim to their own territories as well as mutually administering shared spaces—an Israeli/Palestinian Confederation, in which, again, citizens would choose their own passports, but retain certain freedoms on where they travel and live.

    Have I mentioned I’m not much of a nationalist, even as I sympathize with aspirations for sovereignty? Part of my endless argument with Hannah Arendt, I guess. . . .

  3. Well said Emily.

  4. Bill Burgess

     /  September 11, 2009

    With regard to the 6 Day War, information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shows that President Johnson was in the process of negotiating with Egypt to open up peace talks with Israel. A pro-Israeli member of Johnson’s administration leaked that information to the Israeli government and they then pre-emptively struck Egypt obviate any talks of peace. Nassar and his Egyptions were caught flat footed because Israel’s attack completely destroyed Egypt’s air force which never got off the ground. So it appears that Israel was looking forward to the war with Egypt in order to lay claim to all the land in question. Memos relesaed through the Freedom of Information Act show that President Johnson was highly disturbed with Israel and person who leaked the information.

  5. Just catching up on some recent blog posts, and I wanted to say thanks for writing this. I regrettably didn’t start paying attention to the Israel/Palestine situation until just a few years ago, and we never learned much about it in school, so…I often feel like I’m lacking the necessary historical context to really understand the situation. I appreciate the primer. 🙂

  6. JD

     /  January 12, 2012

    Didn’t Jordan Occupy the “Trans Jordan” area known as the West Bank?

    • It was given to them in the British Mandate — hence the country’s original name “Transjordan.”

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